Ryan Uytdewilligen is a Vancouver-based screenwriter and prose author whose books include 101 Most Influential Coming of Age Movies (2016, Algora Publishing) and a novel, Tractor (2016, Sartoris Literary Group). Ryan grew up an only child on a 20,000-acre farm (pinto beans, grain, sugar beets, and pigs) in the Canadian prairie town of Lethbridge, Alberta, and later studied writing for film and television at Vancouver Film School. His decision to pursue film rather than farming was partially influenced by the deaths of his parents by the time he was 19—and the theme of events and relationships shaping young people's lives and choices continues to resonate deeply within his books and scripts.
Ryan wrote several posts for my film blog, Camera In The Sun, including his favorite movies of 2012 and 2013, Oscar-winning Canadians, the Lethbridge-shot film Common Chord, Vienna's relationship with The Third Man, the film legacy of Harold Ramis, his thoughts on Season 1 of True Detective, and the films of Wes Anderson and Alfred Hitchcock.
In March 2015, he gave a moving interview on an episode of The Lapse storytelling podcast (titled "Hollywood Sugar Beets"), where he discussed growing up in Lethbridge, the loss of his parents, his highly-personal documentary film about them, and his journey to film school in Vancouver.
Ryan wraps up that interview with the following thought on growing beyond his Lethbridge roots: "It's just me now. And everyone else is relying on their parents, and is relying on these relationships. And I don't have that, but I have me. Everyone gets married when they're 17, 18 to their high school sweetheart, and everyone's hardcore conservative. And it's very sweet and innocent, but very naive. I'm gonna live life just for me."
I recently interviewed Ryan about screenwriting, some of cinema's earliest coming-of-age movies, informative books that he's read, and those he has written.
On pursuing screenwriting
"I'm not so much a guy who likes working with his hands, driving tractors and things like that. So it took me a while to finally realize that writing was the actual key thing."
Ever since I could remember, I always wanted to be in film. Specifically, I always wanted to be an actor. That was kind of the first thing I wanted to do. So through summer camps, and being on my own as an only child, I did a lot of creating, writing, and performing just to entertain myself. Then I just really fell in love with the Hollywood world and film history. But it just never seemed like anything that I could obtainably do. So I just stayed home because I grew up on a farm. So that was the world that I knew, and it was expected that I would take it over and work. But I didn't like that world so much. I'm not so much a guy who likes working with his hands, driving tractors and things like that. So it took me a while to finally realize that writing was the actual key thing. I wrote a lot of stories as a kid because I thought that's what all kids did, basically. Then when it came time to decide what to do for a career, in high school I went to a couple shadowing jobs for journalism and radio. Just as I graduated, that's when my mom passed away. I was 17, and it was easy to just stay home and be able to live with my dad. College was close, and the program was easy to get in to, so I did a two-year program. Then I landed a job in the city that I grew up in, writing and voicing commercials. That kind of woke me up. I applied for the job because it said, "creative writer." So that was something that stuck out for me, and I worked for that company for about a year and enjoyed doing that. But I realized that all along it wasn't acting that I wanted to do, it was writing. Being in journalism wasn't as creative as I wanted it to be. So it just all collided at that time, and I thought screenwriting is what I want to do. Unfortunately, it was the same exact time as my father passed away. I was 19 and didn't know what to do with my life. So I thought, "Well, I have this new discovery with screenwriting. I want to pursue that." So I moved out to New York for a time and explored there and did some creative writing. Then I enrolled in film-writing classes out in Vancouver, got out of the small town, and have been in Vancouver for two-and-a-half years.
On film school
"One of my all-time favorite movies is The Graduate, and that was the first script that we actually read in class, so I was really excited. I thought, 'OK, this is meant to be now. I'm reading my favorite movie.'"
I felt guilty a lot of the days because we were just reading scripts and watching movies. I couldn't believe that's actually what I'm doing. To just watch movies and discuss them—it seemed like heaven to me, but something that couldn't really be a career. In school, I kept doubting myself and doubting if I should be there. But I made a lot of good friends and had conversations with people that I had never had before about film. Growing up where I did, a lot of people just didn't care. So I think what I took away the most was meeting people who actually knew and liked older film and would see more to it—how it was shot, how story and elements came together. It was neat to actually talk to people and realize there's a lot of people with general interest. Then we had a lot of different classes on different genres. So you got to kind of explore what genre you liked the best. We had ones on sci-fi, fantasy, comedy, and drama. It was a six-term course, and every term there were two different genre classes. Then through that you could pick what type of feature film you wanted to write, or you had to write a TV pilot, or you had to write a spec script for an episode of an existing show. So the idea was to come out with some presentable thing that you can show to a network or a producer. Our teachers had all worked in the industry—a lot of old sitcom writers who had worked for Three's Company, Matlock, MacGyver, and things like that. They actually had the experience and knowledge, so that was fun.
On the first day they gave us The Writer's Journey, and it really helped break down what story elements there are in movies that a lot of people don't see or don't think about. Things that you need to have in a script or a story to make it engaging enough or make it interesting or different or familiar to people who are watching. It's laid out basically as what you'd find in every story for character elements, settings, and why we root for the characters that we do. So it was a good basis to begin with. Then we would read two or three scripts every week for the whole year. That gave us a basis on the format laid out. After reading so many scripts, you kind of got the idea of what every story needs.
The book that I found the most interesting was Stephen King's On Writing. It was more so on his life and process. But it was just so interesting because he's a legend, and I just find interesting every person who's got a job in film or writing—how they got their start. That was basically a manual on how he wrote his first book, Carrie, and how he got it to publishers, and how it became a success, and how when they were making the movie he was involved in that process. So it was really interesting to see how ordinary people—like he was when he began his writing journey—sent out query letters, and that's how it begins. It gave me hope. Then there was a book that Sidney Lumet wrote, Making Movies. It was basically his day to day life in movies and how he'd run his film sets, and interesting stories that happened. It just paints the picture, both good and bad, of what to expect on a film set.
"I like smaller, emotional, engaging, dramatic stories, and I think that served me well in finding what I want to write. So I've been scaling back and trying to write as low-budget as I can. That causes you to think more so of a character than of the setting and what the scenes are about. I enjoy thinking about the characters, thinking about who they are and how they act. If you put more energy in that, it's more rewarding for you. "
One of my all-time favorite movies is The Graduate, and that was the first script that we actually read in class, so I was really excited. I thought, "OK, this is meant to be now. I'm reading my favorite movie." I think one of my favorite scenes in film history is in that movie. The whole montage sequence of Dustin Hoffman's summer, when he's going from the pool to the hotel, and there's not a word spoken. It's just a glimpse of him doing what he does, having this affair and listing through life, basically. But I was always curious how that looked on the page. A lot of things that I want to write are in that same style because it shows a lot. There's no dialogue whatsoever. So I remember reading those pages, and I assumed there was going to be just a very long list of shots. But it flowed very nicely. It was very concise. Just, "Ben goes to his bed. Ben goes to the pool." But it was more artfully entertaining than that. It was a big paragraph, essentially, of just all these different shots in different locations. So I thought that broke the rules of what we learned. It was inspiring that you can break the rules that we were learning right out of the gate of school. I can sum up these long, legendary shots and sequences in cinema, and it doesn't have to be overcomplicated and overbearing.
We were urged to keep ourselves grounded in low-budget film. Keep things to a minimum of a few locations. Something that I still think of whenever I write a script is trying to keep it a little bit restrained. Sometimes you do want to let your imagination run wild. But it just gets so much harder and harder to get people interested because as soon as they read that, they just think, "Well, this is going to cost millions of dollars. We don't have that." The stage that I'm in, I can't really afford to do that. You're trying to attract lower-level independent producers. Everyone generally has these crazy wild ideas. But I think if you keep things restrained, it opens more windows of what can be produced. It also fits with the stories I want to tell. I like smaller, emotional, engaging, dramatic stories, and I think that served me well in finding what I want to write. So I've been scaling back and trying to write as low-budget as I can. That causes you to think more so of a character than of the setting and what the scenes are about. I enjoy thinking about the characters, thinking about who they are and how they act. If you put more energy in that, it's more rewarding for you.
On writing voiceover
One of the movies we looked at was Adaptation, the Charlie Kaufman film with Nicolas Cage. He goes to a writing seminar and Robert McKee says, "God help you if you use narration," and that was kind of what we were instilled with by our teachers as well. They frowned upon it, except in the instances of some of my favorite movies like Goodfellas. That would be a completely different movie, and probably not as good, if it was done without use of voiceover narration. I haven't really used a lot of that. I think in one script for a Western I did a small little voiceover at the beginning and the end. But it's something that's challenging because you do have to hit it right. I think that's why our teachers wanted us to steer clear of it because you can overcomplicate things, and it's kind of the chicken way out by having someone else explain what people are feeling, and setting up the scene for you. I would like to use it. Now that I have gotten some practice and written a few different scripts, I think it would come naturally if I were to do a story like that. It hasn't come up yet, but it's something I would like to do. Especially when you watch things like Goodfellas, there's so much entertainment value and you feel more connected to the story on a personal level. I like it.
On 101 Most Influential Coming of Age Movies
It started as me just wanting to read a book on the subject matter. I love lists, making lists, and reading books that contain lists of movies. There were none that covered this subject matter about the best movies on growing up in each decade, how things changed, who the famous teen idols were at the time, and how that all got shaped. So I put together a list. I talked to one of my instructors, Paul Jensen, who is a dictionary on film and a pleasure to talk to. He recommended a few movies, and I think I had probably 250-300. Then I just scaled it back and brought it down to 100. Then I didn't know what to do with it. I just thought, "OK, that was fun." Then it dawned on me: "Well, maybe I can actually write the book." I was doing research, and then it just grew and grew and I started re-watching all the movies and watching different movies that I had never seen before. It became a bit of an odyssey of, "I don't know what this is, but this is fun." So I did a lot of movie watching of all my favorites, my guilty pleasures of The Breakfast Cub and Clueless—movies that a lot of critics and film people in school didn't really approve of. But they were so relaxing and fun to me, and I'm still very young and going through those things. Some of them just hit the nail on the head. They're relatable.
The films are listed chronologically. It would be too hard to rank them. As fun as that is, to rank them and create the conversation, and people getting angry about "Why wasn't that one there? Why is that one lower? Why is that one not there at all?", it just became more of a history book, starting in the 1910s, about how it was to grow up. Each chapter has an introduction on what it was like to grow up in each decade, and what was happening. If it was World War I, or World War II, and how that was affecting the youth, and where cinema was at at that point. So there's a lot more than just exploring each movie. It's how cinema was and the world was in general, for youths. There's a lot there, and a lot of research went into it.
I originally started in the '20s with The Kid, with Charlie Chaplin. I figured that was a good way to go, because that was Charlie Chaplin's first really big hit and one of the first movies to have a child co-star with him. It's an important movie in that context. I was going to start with that one, and then I did a little bit more research, and expanded the book right before it got published. So now the very first one is The Poor Little Rich Girl, with Mary Pickford. It was one of the very first movies to have a teen star and focus on a girl coming of age, fighting against her parents, and rebelling. There's a very strange dream sequence in the film that kind of represents the sexual awakening and coming into one's own. That was something that was very rare. It was 1917 when it came out, so it was something different and a good place to start.
On silent film title cards
It depends on how they're used, because there is one in the '20s that I really liked called The Freshman—the Harold Lloyd one where he goes off to college. They are used very well when he gives a speech. They can be used comically as long as they are used sparsely, I think. Same with The Kid. There were very few title cards. Most of it was actually just a lot of action scenes and actors using their expressions. That's what I found most interesting. If they're going to use a title card, it's going to be one little line that kind of sums up how they're feeling, if it's an emotion that they can't convey. So it was very enjoyable, watching older movies, especially without the sound because it's all on their face and it's all in their actions. Especially watching kid actors having to portray that at such a young age and understanding that its very fun and very different, but it allows them to get creative with what they're doing. There's another one on the list, Steamboat Bill Jr., and it just conveyed the whole theme of a father and son relationship with how the father and son were dressed. There's hardly any conversation or title cards in that movie. It's just having the son character dressed like a beatnik, basically, and his hard-working dad all beaten down wearing rags. Just how they look at each other, that's what told the story. So comparing it to when sound took off, you could explore a lot more what the person inside was thinking, but it's less creative visually.
On films about becoming a writer
"[Stand By Me] goes into the journey and the inspiration—how your friends inspire you, the world around you, people who actually give you the push and say, 'Yeah, go ahead, follow this crazy dream.'"
One that really identified with me, which I think a lot of people would say the same about, is Stand By Me. People say that's kind of the quintessential coming of age movie. That's Stephen King as well. One of the characters wants to become a writer, and it's a lot of him having self-doubt. But he's creative, and his friends are kind of urging him on, "Come on, tell us another story," and reassuring him, "Yeah, you're going to be a famous writer." He doesn't know because his parents are unsupportive, and he's in a world where that's not really an option for him. So every time I watch that one, I think, "I understand you, kid." Of course, it doesn't really go much into the creative process. But it goes into the journey and the inspiration—how your friends inspire you, the world around you, people who actually give you the push and say, "Yeah, go ahead, follow this crazy dream." In the end, it's Richard Dreyfuss he grows into, who's the writer telling the story. It's a really good movie that deals with pushing you to follow your dreams.
It is loosely based on me and thoughts I had growing up on leaving the farm and getting out into the city, and "Am I ever going to get married? Am I ever going to get success?" All the thoughts and worries that you have as a young man. So it was just an idea that I had in school that I thought I could write as a script. The difference between writing a script and a novel is a lot more creative freedom. When you're writing a script, you're kind of just laying down the work for the actors, the director, and all the different team members to bring something together. Whereas with a novel, it's just you and your words, and you set all the different scenes and paint the picture of who the characters are, and put a lot more of yourself into it. So that's why I chose to do it as a novel and wrote it last fall. I set it in the early '60s and follow a young boy who grows up in Oklahoma and gets a job during the late summer going to pick up a tractor from a farmer a couple of states over in Tennessee. He's got to drive it back to this crotchety old farmer who thinks it's going to be a lot cheaper and faster if he drives it back. So he does so, and it's his adventure and who he meets on his way. He's raised in the Bible Belt, and he doesn't have a girlfriend, doesn't have a lot of friends, and it's his inner journeys and struggles trying to figure out who he is. Then, by the people he meets, he kind of discovers who he wants to be.
On being a farmer today versus 50 years ago
I think technology has definitely changed. Talking to the uncles out in the field now, they have a thing called autosteer, which is exactly what it sounds like. It's a GPS that programs the tractor to drive straight down the rows, so they don't even have to steer or push pedals or anything. They can sit in their tractor, eat their sandwich, and just make sure everything's running right. Very soon, if it's not happening already, I'm sure tractors will be able to drive themselves. So things are changing that way. But I think the lifestyle is still very much the same. I was raised in a very religious area, so that was part of my upbringing. Everyone was a farmer. Everyone only knew farming, and talking farming. Everyone married their high school sweetheart and they farmed, so everyone's involved on each individual farm. Everyone's always helping each other out, and neighborly love, which goes back to the whole religious thing. I always see a lot of comparisons between the southern U.S., and southern Alberta, Canada. A lot of the same beliefs, interests, and geography, almost. I think the only things that have really changed are technology and maybe music. Other than that, they're oddly similar. I don't know if that's a good or a bad thing, but it seems to be set in its ways, which is refreshing to me. I like going back, being able to know what I can expect and know that things haven't changed. But at the same time, that's a lot of the themes that are addressed in the book—these people lagging behind with worldly views and changes and acceptance. In the book I explore a lot of that and leave it a bit up for debate for readers as to where they lie.