For a first time feature director, El Paso bred 28-year-old Ryan Piers Williams has generated a surge of promising industry buzz straight out of the gate. At the start of the New Year audiences got their first glimpse of Williams’ “The Dry Land” at Sundance. Competing in the U.S. Dramatic Competition, the film caught fire and went on to win a nomination for the festival’s Grand Jury Prize. Hot off the heels of its positive critical reception at Sundance, Williams returned to his home state of Texas to screen his film at the Dallas International Film Festival, where the film made good on its buzz and collected the top narrative prize.
A frank depiction of one returning soldier’s return to El Paso following a stint in Iraq, Williams’ film is notable for his documentary-lite approach to his protagonist and surmounting turmoil. It should come as no surprise then that Williams got his first taste of filmmaking through journalism. “I was in 7th grade in public school in El Paso, and my school offered these video courses, where we could create news stories,” Williams said over breakfast in Dallas following the Texas premiere of his film. “We would go off into town and report on things concerning students. What I loved was the truth behind the stories I was telling. I really just fell in love with storytelling.”
Williams credits his foray into journalism and especially his formative surroundings for instilling in him a passion to tell meaningful stories. “I had a really great upbringing,” he said. “I was around such econimically and socially diverse groups of people, that it really just taught me to appreciate all different kinds of people, all kinds of different situations.”
His passion for storytelling and being behind the camera lead Williams to enroll in the University of Texas at Austin, where he studied filmmaking for two years. While in Austin a resourceful young Williams worked as the assistant to Richard Linklater’s editor on the film “Tape,” and immersed himself in the Austin film scene by working for the Austin Film Festival. Though Williams was tackling industry jobs and full-time studies, he grew restless and transferred to the University of Southern California. “My whole mentality while I was in school and the two years I was out of school, I wanted to be in every single different part of filmmaking,” he said. “I wanted to either intern or work in a development, casting, post-production department, all with the intent to educate myself how to be a director.” To do so, Williams says he held down a whopping ten internships. Williams remains most proud of his time spent working and interning for Section Eight Productions, the brainchild of director Steven Soderbergh and actor George Clooney. For them Williams worked in various aspects of production on such films as “Good Night, and Good Luck” and the latest two installments of the “Ocean’s” franchise.
It was during his time working for Section Eight that Williams first caught wind of the subject matter he wanted to explore in his first feature, by coming across various articles on soldiers suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. Following two years of research he came to realize this was a story he needed to tell, and took six months off to write the script. “I knew I had this story to tell, but I knew that no one would tell it, so I just started writing it,” he said. “I never thought as myself as being a writer. I just never thought I could do it I guess.”
With the film’s limited theatrical release date set for July 30th, Williams says he’s focused on getting the movie out and seen by the widest audience possible. However it seems the writing bug got the best of him, as he’s got two scripts in the works – one a family comedy, and the other a science-fiction thriller. Though the sci-fi realm seems a bit removed from the toned down aesthetic he’s brought to “The Dry Land,” Williams promises it will tackle important issues that promise to gradually become more relevant over time.
ABOUT THE WRITER: Nigel M. Smith is currently working with indieWIRE in New York while pursuing a Master’s degree in Arts Journalism at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications. In June, he will be covering the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, SC for the The Post and Courier.