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Sundance ’10 | “The Dry Land” Director Ryan Williams Focuses on Authenticity

Sundance '10 | "The Dry Land" Director Ryan Williams Focuses on Authenticity

“The Dry Land” is the feature debut of 28 year-old Ryan Piers Williams, screening in Sundance’s U.S. Dramatic Competition. The film focuses on a young veteran’s return to Texas from Iraq who faces challenges to feeling at home…

James (Ryan O’Nan) returns from Iraq to face a new battle–reintegrating into his small-town life in Texas. His wife (America Ferrera), his mother (Melissa Leo), and his friend (Jason Ritter) provide support, but they can’t fully understand the pain and suffering he feels since his tour of duty ended. Lonely, James reconnects with an army buddy (Wilmer Valderrama), who provides him with compassion and camaraderie during his battle to process his experiences in Iraq. But their reunion also exposes the different ways that war affects people–at least on the surface.

This moving, taut story of redemption and reconstruction extends beyond a post-traumatic-stress-disorder narrative. O’Nan is heartbreaking as he explores the depths of his internal struggle; Ferrera fearlessly tackles her role of a young wife in turmoil. The Dry Land is about one man’s fight within his own terrain–his country, home, and mind–and his journey to rebuild what he’s lost. [Description provided by Sundance Film Festival].

“The Dry Land”
Director: Ryan Piers Williams
Screenwriter: Ryan Piers Williams
Cast: Ryan O’Nan, America Ferrera, Jason Ritter, Wilmer Valderrama, Melissa Leo, June Diane Raphael
Executive Producer: Sergio Aguero, America Ferrera
Producer: Heather Rae
Composer: Dean Parks
Cinematographer: Gavin Kelly
Editor: Sabine Hoffman
Casting Director: Jeanne McCarthy, Nicole Abellera
Spanish/English with English subtitles
92 minutes

Williams makes introductions…

My name is Ryan Piers Williams. I started out as a journalist in high school creating video news segments for our daily news program. I became more interested in the story telling aspect but I never lost my love for journalism. I find that the stories I tend to tell always tie into issues that are important to me. I went to UT Austin and USC for film school and I’ve made 10 short films. “The Dry Land” is my first feature film.”

“The Dry Land” director Ryan Piers Williams. Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Williams on the movtivating factor for the film, and creating Texas in New Mexico…

When the war in Iraq began, I felt a need to be connected to the soldiers fighting for our country. Being the same age as many of the servicemen and women, I wanted to understand their experience and be a part of it in some way. In 2005 I became very focused on researching the soldier’s experience of coming home and understanding the challenges that he/she faced, such as PTSD. I spent several years researching before I realized I had a story I wanted to tell.

I wanted to tell one man’s story that felt authentic and true. After I wrote my script, I asked many soldiers to read it and comment on the authenticity of it. They helped me tremendously in making even the small details feel true to a soldier’s life. Many of them asked me to make sure that if I showed a man in uniform to please get the placement of the patches right or it would take them out of the story. I also sought the support of the U.S. Army, which gained me access to many resources from shooting at Walter Reed, training with National Guard, to direct contact with soldiers and military spouses. My approach was to make the world feel real.

The biggest challenge was making the film I wanted to make with the budget that I had without compromising the integrity of the story. For instance, I had to shoot in New Mexico even though the story is set in Texas. Anyone who grew up in West Texas knows the difference. My producers worked very hard to help me create Texas in New Mexico, and also made it possible for me to shoot one week in Texas.

And how it will go down at Sundance…

I believe that audiences at Sundance enjoy seeing movies that address timely issues. This film offers one perspective on an experience that many people in our country are, or will soon be, experiencing. It is specific to the way our world is changing now, yet there is no political agenda. It is a human story that seeks compassion and understanding.

Vietnam film inspirations…

There are a lot of films from the Vietnam War era that inspired me, such as “The Deer Hunter,” “Apocalypse Now,” and “Coming Home.” I loved how these films were focused on character and, in some cases, the journey of a single man.

[indieWIRE invited directors with films in the Sundance U.S. Dramatic & Documentary Competitions as well as the NEXT section to submit responses in their own words about their films. These profiles are being published through the beginning of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. To prompt the discussion, iW asked the filmmakers about what inspired their films, the challenges they faced and other general questions. They were also free to add additional comments related to their projects.]

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