Ryan Piers Williams Interview: Director Explores Post-Combat Trauma in 'The Dry Land'
First time feature director Ryan Piers Williams brings the independent film The Dry Land to the big screen. The movie depicts a compelling story of an Iraq War veteran who returns home to Texas and deals with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in the aftermath of his combat experience.
The movie stars Ryan O’Nan as James, the soldier who must come to terms with life after war and America Ferrera (also executive producer) as Sarah, the wife who tries to help him readjust to a normal life.
"Five years ago was a time when nobody was talking about PTSD and quite frankly, no one was ever talking about what soldiers were going through when they returned home."
The Dry Land explores the pain and suffering a soldier may experience when reuniting with family after the bloodshed of combat and deals specifically with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, the emotional illness that can occur after witnessing disturbing events.
In addition to directing duties, Williams also wrote this moving tale about a veteran reintegrating into his small town life. Other cast members include Jason Ritter, Wilmer Valderrama, Melissa Leo, and June Diane Raphael.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Ryan, best wishes to you and America Ferrera on the engagement!
Ryan Piers-Williams: Thank you.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You’re a Texan, aren’t you?
Ryan Piers Williams: Yes I am, I grew up in El Paso.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Have you always been interested in writing?
Ryan Piers Williams: Writing no, directing yes. I always loved reading and the act of writing, but I never considered myself a writer until I wrote this script, to be honest with you.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The Dry Land is your directorial debut?
Ryan Piers Williams: Yes it is. I started writing the script about 3 years ago and wrote it on spec … you write something and then you hope someone will buy it. You know, I wasn’t hired to write it. I wrote it because I was interested in the subject matter. A production company bought the script and I got a contract where I was the only one allowed to direct the film.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How did the idea for the film come about?
Ryan Piers Williams: It started about 5 years ago. I read a news article about a soldier who had returned home from the Iraq War. The article talked about him dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In the article it said that he had a very difficult time getting help and didn’t really understand what was happening to him.
It was the first time that I’d ever been exposed to PTSD. I never read about it and didn’t know anything about it. It struck me as a huge tragedy that this man had gone to war, had returned home, and his whole life was falling apart as the result of this experience. He basically fell through the cracks.
Five years ago was a time when nobody was talking about PTSD and quite frankly, no one was ever talking about what soldiers were going through when they returned home. There was kind of … I’d say a shield in the media that would not expose any kind of negative aspects of the war. So I was immediately struck by this one experience.
I spent 2 years seeking out other articles and speaking with anyone who had served in the war, just trying to understand what the experiences were like for them. Primarily what I found was that people were having a difficult time adjusting at home after the war. So after about 2 years of researching, I realized I had a story.
The movie came about through a really deep interest in trying to understand what soldiers were going through on the return home, and how they felt powerless in not knowing what was happening to them. The writing process was really an incredible experience.
I also spoke to soldiers who had gone through a traumatic experience similar to the one explored in the script. I wanted to really seek out their advice so I could try to make the movie as authentic a portrayal as possible. I learned so much from the men and women who had come home from over there.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I think it’s a great concept and, you’re right, it has not been publicized to a large extent.
Ryan Piers Williams: Definitely.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You shot the film in New Mexico?
Ryan Piers Williams: Yes, in New Mexico and in Texas. We were able to shoot one day at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. After I had written the script we sent it to the US Army and they decided to come on board to support the project. They basically opened their doors to us and offered to do anything to help the movie. They were an incredible asset to me and for the movie as well.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Why did you choose Ryan O’Nan for the lead? He was in the short-lived TV series The Unusuals, but he is relatively new to acting.
Ryan Piers Williams: It’s a long story but I’ll try to make it brief here. I always wanted to cast an unknown actor in the role. I think it helps the audience when they don’t associate the main character with any other film or any other role they’ve been in before, especially when you have movies dealing with social issues.
So, all that being said, there’s also another problem when you’re a first time director and that is, getting financing. When we started casting we went out to a couple of “A” list actors to play the role of James. What we found was that nobody would read the script because they didn’t know who I was. So after about 9 months of seeking out someone who could help us get financing, I ended up meeting Ryan O’Nan randomly at a poker night at a friend’s house.
The funny story is that my casting director had told me about Ryan 8 or 9 months prior to my meeting him. I said, “I’m sure he’s a great guy, but we really need to find a way to get financing for this movie. I don’t think Ryan and me as a package and as an unknown team would make anyone want to finance it. Cut to 9 months later and meeting Ryan at poker night. We met a few days after that and I just knew he was perfect for the role. No one else had been cast.
At that time America was already an executive producer, and then she decided to play Sarah, we approached Melissa Leo, and everything just sort of snowballed after that. But, finding Ryan was such a treasure because I knew immediately he was the character of James. We had been preparing to make the movie up to that point. I had already created a schedule, a budget, and had even set the start day even though we had no money and no cast. I thought, “I’m going to make this movie, no matter what!” So when Ryan came in it was just that kind of spark that allowed everything else to fly.
To be quite honest, we were very prepared up until that moment, but I just knew we couldn’t move forward until we found our James. So, that’s a very long-winded story for a very short question (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Sounds like it all fell into place once you found Ryan. You’ve already had several screenings of the film.
Ryan Piers Williams: Yeah, we just came back from Scotland. We were at the Edinburgh Film Festival and that was incredible! Before that, we were actually in Iraq. America, Jason Ritter, Ryan, and I went on a USO tour. Although we didn’t screen the film there, we did go around meeting troops and showing our support. That was a life changing experience.
We were also in Seattle and Washington, D.C. The next screening will be at Fort Carson on July 1.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How was your experience in Iraq?
Ryan Piers Williams: You know, I’m still trying to gain prospective on the experience. I came away from it thinking, “It’s just so much more complex than I could ever imagine.” I think the one thing that was truly incredible was meeting the soldiers and hearing their stories; why they joined and the different views on why they are in Iraq. It really deepened my prospective on the situation.
You realize that these men and women are there, despite their political views, to do a job and to serve our country. They are working hard every day despite whatever they may feel.
I think many people forget we’re still in Iraq. For me, it was just an amazing reminder of the complexity of the situation and how complex it is for each and every individual over there as well.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Were the soldiers familiar with The Dry Land?
Ryan Piers Williams: If someone asked us, we’d talk about the film.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What were some of the comments?
Ryan Piers Williams: It’s interesting because they were varied. Some people had heard about it and some people had not. Some were immediately excited about the idea and some were very wary at first. But, the more you talked about it to them, the more they would warm up to the idea of the film.
I think some of the soldiers were worried there would be some sort of political agenda attached to the film, but there is none. It’s funny because everywhere I go I hear that from soldiers. They also say, “I hope you don’t take advantage of the soldier’s perspective.” Once they see the film, they realize they had no cause for worry.
It’s harder to talk about it than it is to actually show the film, but I did feel a huge amount of support from the soldiers. I think more than anything they want their stories told. Each one of them knows someone who will return home with troubles or who will face a difficult readjustment period, so they feel like it’s a movie that needs to be shown.
I also think the general feeling is that they respected us for going to Iraq and just saying, “Hi,” to them. Not many people go over just to shake hands. I think it meant a lot to them to know we were there … that people still cared about them.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What would you say has been your greatest experience making the film?
Ryan Piers Williams: Wow, that’s a big question. I would say meeting all of the people I was able to work with, all of the cast and crew. We formed a special bond, not only me with them, but among themselves also.
This movie was made with very little money. Everyone involved really gained nothing from it in terms of monetary wealth. Everyone who came aboard was passionate about the film and the subject matter. We therefore became a close-knit group and now we travel together. We were overseas for 2 weeks and we feel like a family. That’s very rare and I feel very lucky to have been a part of it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): When will the film be released?
Ryan Piers Williams: It will be out in LA, New York, and Dallas July 30. In August it will be released in 20 more cities one weekend, then 20 more the next weekend. It will just kind of expand over August and into September.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Have you thought of what your next project will be?
Ryan Piers Williams: I have 2 scripts I’m working on very different from this one. One is a sci-fi thriller and the other is a family comedy.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): They are also very different from each other (laughs).
Ryan Piers Williams: Yeah, definitely, it keeps me on my toes.
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