A week ago, The Daily spoke with alum Ryan McDonough, whose debut film “Groove” tells the story of Melanie, a street performer in New York as she prepares for a music competition. The film has an aura of reverence for New York City and features music written exclusively for the film and recorded live in the New York subway. McDonough graduated from the University in 2016 and went to work immediately on the film with fellow classmates. “Groove” is currently available on Amazon, Itunes, Xbox, Hulu, Google Play and Vimeo. In a phone interview with the Daily, McDonough spoke about the process of making the film and shares his personal experience as a young filmmaker.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
The Michigan Daily: What was the process of creating “Groove”?
Ryan McDonough: Me and my friends, from the beginning, were inspired by independent filmmakers like Joe Swanberg, Mark Duplass or Lena Dunham who thought that the only way to make a movie is by doing it. So, my junior year of college, toward the end of the year, me and Joe Biglan, who was the editor on the movie, got together and planned on making something within our means. That summer, I wrote the first draft of the script and my senior year, in the fall I took an independent study class with Jim Burnstein and rewrote the draft under his mentorship.
TMD: What were those plans? Were you working with anyone else?
RM: We had a team of me, Joe Biglin, Nikki Horowitz and a few other people where we would meet once a week and figure out logistics. We changed things once we brought on Billy Offer and Zach Bruch, who are the two producers of the movie and Michigan kids too. They were very good about steering the direction of the movie and making it a reality. Our first big win was a grant from Panavision, who sent us a tractor trailer worth of equipment for free. It was insane.
TMD: What came next?
RM: Over winter break, Joe and I went back to New York, and to help prepare with the film, we interviewed a couple dozen subway musicians throughout the city to make the story more realistic. We then launched a kickstarter campaign and raised about $20,000. We now had a decent sized budget, and recruited other kids in the Screen Arts and Cultures program at Michigan and some recent graduates and so most of the crew was Michigan students or recent alum. And then, instead of going somewhere for spring break, we posted the casting call back in New York everywhere online, we first filtered all the casting in Michigan, and then did in-person auditions in New York as follow ups.
TMD: What was the process of auditioning roles? Who did you end up selecting?
RM: All the main characters, most people and some of the core crew and cast members are actual musicians that have performed on the subway. Our lead actress, she was a full-time musician before she got on Broadway. I was deciding between her and someone else and then saw a tape of her submission from NPR’s Tiny Desk and found that she was the voice. When I told her that she got the main role, we went to one of her concerts at Rough Trade records in New York to surprise her. She was playing the cello, but it was indie rock music, and I thought it was the most badass thing. We changed the story to fit around her. The character had to play cello.
TMD: After the film was completed, what was the process of distribution?
RM: After Joe and I edited it back at Michigan, there was a long period where nothing happened. We had an industry screening in LA for a couple agencies in December. I naively assumed that I would shoot the movie right after college, that it would get into Sundance the following year and launch our careers. The idea for “Groove” first came about in April 2015 and now it’s three years later, finally coming out.
TMD: Did you play any festivals?
RM: We starting playing festivals last year. We played the Long Island International Film Expo where we won Best Director, we played the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival where we won Best American Independent Feature Film and then we played the St. Augustine Film Festival. Someone saw the movie at one of those festivals who was able to connect it to Gunpowder and Sky, the distribution company, who are releasing it.
TMD: That sounds like a long process. How has the experience of creating a film in the real world been?
RM: There was a point where I thought the movie was dead. We got rejected from some of the bigger festivals, and realized that we should focus on festivals that were smaller, or independent or had a music bent. It was an emotional journey, where you put a lot of work into something. We did it to prove that we could make a movie, and the goal is to hopefully go make more.
TMD: What has the shift from an academic to real world setting been like?
RM: The SAC program does a great job lending you the confidence to do something big. The program builds up to SAC423, where you shoot a half-hour movie. A lot of the kids that did “Groove” were from 423. We felt that we had basic knowledge on how to make a movie, but when you shoot on location, dealing with permits, deciding if we’re going to be a union or non-union moving, renting large trucks in New York City, like, how do you organize that logistically?
TMD: Is there anyone at the University that really influenced you?
RM: There’s a bunch of teachers, like Terri Sarris. She teaches Sketch Comedy. There’s no syllabus, in the beginning of the class you decide what projects you want to do, and you just have to make them happen. There’s no official roles or anything, which is cool, but there’s the idea that you have to do it by yourself with your friends. The University, and that class, put this idea my head that that the only way to do what you want is by doing it.
TMD: Do you have any advice for current students on breaking into the film industry?
RM: It seems like if you put the work and the trust in, its pays off, but you have to move to LA or New York. There’s this debate, I think toward the end of college, whether you should move to LA and pursue an industry job or go to New York and be a creative. I’d say it’s not an either or, it’s truly a both. No one can write a script for you. I started in the mailroom at a talent agency and worked my way up out of the mailroom and became an assistant. I’d recommend going to a talent agency. It’s a way to network and make projects and have the resources to build it. The people that are going to help you in the future are your classmates now or your fellow PAs.
TMD: How has the work at the talent agency shaped you?
RM: It’s tough. I work 12 hour days everyday at Paradigm. However, I’ve made an instant group of friends. You start with a group of people, and you move up together. It’s almost like being in a fraternity or a sports team. A lot of people move onto different companies, maybe they don’t want to be an agent or whatever. It’s almost like throwing a grenade into Hollywood, and now you have friends at different companies, studios, television shows on top of your Michigan connections, so I can’t recommend it more. Also make sure that you’re taking classes at UCB or in a writers’s group or whatever you really want to do.
TMD: Do you have any advice for filmmakers who aren’t in college, or, perhaps, realized their interest past their time in university?
RM: There’s no rush. Read and watch as much as you can. When in college, take as many courses that make you a smarter, more well-rounded person. Because looking back, I wish I took more classes that were in other subjects. For the technical stuff, you can find someone who knows how to use a camera and that sort of thing, but you can’t teach how to tell a story or how to tell your story. For “Groove,” what makes it work is that it’s a love letter to the two things I know most: music and New York. You don’t need a nice camera. At the end of the day, it starts and ends with the script and the story. It doesn’t matter how pretty it looks if there’s no heart behind it.