Field Notes Interview #31: Filmmaker, Dan Riordan
When it comes to storytelling, it can all come down to pacing. Strong visuals and story can sometimes fall flat if told in an unfitting manner. Pacing makes the difference between amazing and awkward.
The work of Gnarly Bay Productions is compelling and a lot of this has to do with how they tell a story. When behind the camera, their work is beautiful and their portraits of people are stunning. Their choice of soundtracks let's the story move and breathe as it needs to, presenting films that really stick with you.
We chatted with co-founder Dan Riordan about his relationship with filmmaking, how it's evolved and how he chooses music to elevate his stories.
M: When did you know you wanted to be a filmmaker?
DR: I always tell the story of going to medical school because my initials are DR…then, I attribute the “Maybe I should be a filmmaker” eureka-moment to the 1,2 punch of American Beauty and Fight Club. These movies came out my freshman year in college…and my mind was still very moldable (and not yet collecting mold) and these expressions of the absolute chaos that floats beneath the American psyche reeled me in (#firstworldproblems)...and dared me to take the leap into telling stories for a living. Dana and I were already making silly skits with our friends and starting to transition into getting paid to do random video projects…so, it was refreshing to switch gears from pursuing a medical profession to stepping into the wide-eyed wonder of being able to capture stories for a living. We’ve never considered narrative filmmaking at Gnarly Bay. The process seems slightly daunting, and our big excuse is that there are crazy enough stories to capture in real life. So, even though major motion pictures saved me from the banalities of organic chem and 3rd shift residencies…we’ve always gravitated towards telling smaller stories….and luckily, the internet arrived just in time to give us a platform to make a career out of it.
M: What's your favorite moment of the filmmaking process?
DR: My favorite moment is when an edit gives you chills. The skeleton that you’ve created from footage, music, and sound design has been inhabited by a friendly ghost…and there is a Dr Frankenstein moment. It’s alive.
M: What do you think defines a filmmakers' "voice”?
DR: A filmmakers' voice is defined by their tastes and sensibilities Some filmmakers are more comfortable letting a moment breathe without controlling it too much with music or elaborate b-roll. I watched Citizenfour last night…and was totally engaged by the story --and at the same time-- compelled by it’s simplicity. We would love to have this voice firmly rooted in reality…but it’s not ours. We’ve evolved to present our subjects in a very saturated and stylized world where there aren’t too many unplanned moments. The music always seems like a driving force in anything we do…so, our tendency to tug on heart strings and play with emotions is always so intertwined with the music that we choose. In this sense, the musician’s share in the responsibility of our voice getting heard loud and clear.
M: Do you always have a clear vision in mind when filming?
DR: Sometimes we do. Other times the vision consists of shooting the shit out of something with the hopes that something unexpected will emerge. It’s obviously a lot less stressful to have a storyboarded gameplan. You can leave the shoot confident that you’ve gotten the goods…but we’ve found that always maintaining your curiosity and going for ‘one more shot’ can make a huge difference in capturing something special. Anybody who’s been on set with us would probably joke about how many times we say ‘one more shot,’ and it might seem like we don’t know what we’re looking for…but sometimes that is the point. Search for the unexpected…and you just might find it.
M: Are there ever any happy accidents when filming?
DR: Whoa. I might have just answered that…what a happy accident. :) Yes, our career has been built on happy accidents…but like Vince Lombardi (and my dad) used to say. "Luck is when preparation meets opportunity." Cool thought, Vince and Lenny…but we say…"Find the hocus pocus and get it in focus.” Basically, in order to find the magic…you need to be present in the moment and not thinking about gigabytes and gadgetry. Some people say “F8 and be there.” We say “F that, f1.8, and beware.” Wait…what were we talking about. Oh yeah, happy accidents…serendipity-do-dah...all the live long day. Be curious, be furious…and keep searching for the unexpected…because you might just find it. Shit, I already said that.
M: What role do you feel music has in film?
DR: Music makes dem bones dance. It gives life to the skeleton. It’s Gwyneth Paltrow getting off the bus…it’s absent-minded Edward Norton watching the city being reduced to rubble…its having the time of our lives — getting raised to the ceiling by Swayze, it’s Stallone getting chased by a Benz in the snow. Haha…I could go all day...but the point is that music elevates the story with a curated emotion…and should never be underestimated.
M: When do you know that you have something ready to show the world?
DR: With client work, we know it’s time to show the world when our deadline arrives...or the budget is met. Whichever comes first. With personal projects, we might never feel like it’s time to share something with the world. It often comes down to chiseling away at something until all of the edges feel smooth.
M: How do you feel music is misused in projects?
DR: Maybe 'pacing' is the biggest misuse of music. Sometimes you will see a huge gap between the mood of the song, and the pacing of the edit. Fast, upbeat music overwhelming the slow, methodical story that is being told. Maybe it’s the attempt to add a false sense of excitement to an edit…but if it doesn’t match the subject matter…it doesn’t serve the story.
M: What's coming up?
DR: Besides our client work, we have a really cool collaborative project with our friend Forest Woodward that is waiting to be released. Forest is an amazing photographer…and back in the day, his dad, Doug Woodward, was a pioneer of kayaking and rafting. In 1970, Doug drove a bus full of explorer scouts cross-country from Delaware to complete a rafting/kayaking journey snaking through the Grand Canyon down the Colorado river. Our story looks back on that trip…and flashes forward 44 years…to Forest challenging his aging Dad to re-do the same trip with him in the Grand Canyon. The film uses a mix of old 16mm footage and new footage…and we document the special bond of father and son, while exploring the necessity of returning to the important places to rejuvenate our lives. It’s a pretty cool story.