Few films capture the trials and tribulations of twenty-something waywardness rooted in economic realities of today so eloquently and humorously as Ryan Martin Brown’s feature debut Free Time, as I noted in my March preview. Led by Colin Burgess in a beautifully articulated performance of neurotic self-sabotage, this portrait of “the Great Resignation” more than makes up for its small scale with keen observations on what it means to have a creatively satisfying life. Accompanied by the strong supporting cast of Rajat Suresh, Holmes, James Webb, Eric Yates, Jessie Pinnick, and Rebecca Bulnes, Free Time feels like the promising beginnings of a new era in NYC indie filmmaking.

Ahead of the film’s theatrical release beginning at New York’s Quad Cinema this Friday, I spoke with Ryan Martin Brown about developing his first feature, his approach to comedy, being inspired by The Heartbreak Kid and The Jerk, the fun in constraints of a micro-budget production, and the economic realities of today.

The Film Stage: With this being your first feature, can you talk about how you developed the script and when you knew it would be your debut?

Ryan Martin Brown: I was actually trying to write a different movie. I was trying to write a movie for my friend Jesse Pinnick, who is in the film. And I was writing this script for two years and there were some thematic similarities to that movie in this movie, but it was a slightly bigger thing and it just was kind of hard to figure out that movie and I was getting stuck endlessly. Around the exact same time that the pandemic started I said, “I don’t know if I can keep trying to figure out that movie.” And so my friend and one of the producers on the movie, Justin Zuckerman, said, “Why don’t you just write the simplest version of kind of the same story,” and the easiest version that came out was, “Okay, there’s a guy and he has a job and then he doesn’t have it anymore and then he wants it back.” And that was, at the heart of it, kind of the same film I was writing with the Jesse film.

And it was really only supposed to be a writing exercise or a distraction script to get the gears going on the other movie, which I still never figured out how to write. So then we had this sit down with the team that I had all talked about saying, “Hey, when I get the script done, be ready.” I said,” Well, what about this one instead?” Everyone seemed excited to do it. And that’s kind of how we hopped in. But it all did happen very quickly, honestly, out of the idea that in writing it––and even kind of showing it to people––we were never actually thinking about making it. Initially, at least.

I love your approach to comedy, where it’s a simple setup but you keep pushing each scene and it’s always character-focused. I’m curious what comedic influences you have.

A lot of it was honestly just knowing Colin for a few years now. Colin has such a honed and defined comedic sensibility that a lot of the writing just came from essentially imagining a situation––imagining Colin’s character that he’s done on stage or elsewhere over the years and just putting the two together in my head and seeing what happens. There are films that we as a team all talked about and looked at a lot. Elaine May’s The Heartbreak Kid was probably the one that we went back to the most, at least in what we were angling towards or stealing from even. That honestly was the big one.

I mean, there’s a million… we looked at The Jerk too a lot, I will say, and a lot of Robert Altman movies, too, even though they’re not as strictly speaking comedies. [We were] looking backwards a lot towards a type of ‘70s comedy that, while being very funny, was also still presenting a movie and a serious kind of artistic piece. We were all feeling like we were missing that a little bit, where I think there’s great comedies, but increasingly they seem kind of relegated to being like: tell jokes, be funny, don’t have a visual sense. We were trying to bring that all back and a little bit more.

Ryan Martin Brown

That’s great. The Heartbreak Kid is in my top ten films of all time. I also love the way the other actors play off Colin. It’s a great ensemble. Are you shooting a lot of material or is the approach pretty tight?

Yeah, we were so lucky to have [this cast]. That was kind of the fun during the movie. You get to a scene and we were just like, “Well, who else do we know who’s so funny that lives up the block that we could just ask to come in for a day?” The shoot itself was challenging because it was ten days. So it was a really, really, really fast shoot. I wish I could say I could take credit for more of it. But honestly we would get the actors there, we would get it on its feet. We would do one run-through and then, schedule-wise, it was kind of like, “That’s pretty much it. We’ve got to move on.” So it was definitely like directing a little bit of a rodeo. A lot of the credit goes to Colin, and he was such a great collaborator in this way that we would get there. We’d look at the scene. He has an incredible talent; he can look at something and he knows what’s funny and what’s entertaining about it to him. He really has a strong take in that way.

And so we would get to do, maybe, one rehearsal before we would try to find whatever the spirit of that was. And then you’re getting three or four takes to––tweaking here or there––but we really had about 15 minutes every time right before we could see enough to decide what we think is funny about it. And then you’re just chasing it and hopefully getting it before we have to pack up and move on. 

As a micro-budget production, is there any freedom in having fewer resources, in the sense you know how exactly what you have the ability to get? On the flipside, if you had a little more budget, is there a certain element of the film you’d like to expand on?

The constraints were kind of the fun of it in a way that I don’t know that the movie would have even existed without them––in the sense that, in the writing process, it is helpful to have a prism where you’re like, “Okay, I only can write for the people we know already, the places we know already.” It actually ends up being really helpful because then you’re like, “Well, it’s got to be Justin’s apartment and it’s got to be Colin. And who’s Colin’s actual roommate right now? Who’s an incredibly funny person, Rajat [Suresh].” So it came really quickly because you’re constantly being boxed-in. 

I mean, a little bit more time, as we just said, I think would have been helpful. There’s some areas of the movie that I don’t know personally that I feel are totally successful technically, so I think a little bit more time would have given us a little bit more breathing room and thinking room. But at the same time, that compression was so the spirit of what the project was from beginning to end. So I think we are thankful for it. And if the movie has some sort of character, it probably, in some ways, came from the existence of those constraints. 

I just caught up with Dad & Step-Dad this morning. With these films, and Yelling Fire in an Empty Theater, it feels like there’s an exciting NYC indie-filmmaking movement I haven’t seen since the Safdies or mumblecore. As someone on the ground floor, I’m curious if you sense that at all or if I’m crazy.

I don’t think you’re crazy. I mean, I don’t have another time to compare it to in terms of my experience and being on the ground here. I look at it and it feels very fruitful, and the center of that to me has always been, at least here in Brooklyn, Kentucker Audley’s NoBudge. I just saw so many amazing, talented people making stuff and it was this hub that work was being centered around. If it wasn’t for NoBudge this movie might not exist. We might not have ever met Colin. We wouldn’t have met Kelly Cooper, who is in Yelling Fire. So I think that has been a huge thing for whatever the current scene is in Brooklyn, if such a thing exists. It’s easier to make a movie for such a small amount of money that, to maybe an average person, just looks like any other movie. It is technologically an interesting time in that way.

Yelling Fire played at Slamdance, so it was amazing to meet Kit Zauhar, who is making great, small movies. Jordan Tetewsky, whose film we saw. There’s a ton of exciting stuff going on. So again: to me it does feel like something’s happening. But in 2016, when I first got here, I didn’t know anyone. It might have been just as amazing. I didn’t know where to look. So I don’t want to sound overconfident about saying, “This is happening right now!”

Related to that, I did see [Jordan Tetewsky’s] Hannah Ha Ha at Slamdance, and with that film and your film there’s certain shared themes about “the Great Resignation,” in some sense. As it relates to the economic realities of today, where did you pull most from? Was it personal experience? I love the opening scene where he’s talking to his boss and flip-flopping on what he wants to do. There’s such great comedy that I feel hasn’t fully been mined before in other films. I’m curious how it’s resonated with people who are in the same shoes as the main character but don’t feel like they can express themselves the same way as the main character.

It is personal in the sense that it’s probably been five or six years now since I’ve had, like, a stable, everyday Monday-to-Friday job. And so the initial idea for this movie was that idea: “Great, now I can do whatever, I’ll figure it out.” And that freedom is great, but you really realize how you have to know what to do with it. And you have to be honest with yourself, which is maybe even harder. It’s certainly what gets Colin’s character in trouble in the movie to some extent. It is an interesting time right now because I think everybody knows something is wrong. There’s an overwhelming sense of, like, “Well, this isn’t right, but I don’t know if it’s just we’ve built so many layers of society for so much time, or whatever it is.”

It just seems very easy to kind of feel like you’re in a hall of mirrors. It’s kind of confusing to try to find the root of these things or even understand maybe why you’re feeling something, what you’re looking for. So I think the character of Drew is an exaggeration of a certain sense of being lost, a certain type of person who maybe can’t find the thread that leads back to themselves. My hope with the movie, always, was that it’s at least slightly sympathetic enough while being exaggerated that you don’t go, “Well, thank God that’s so far away from me. I’m not that guy.” Maybe there’s a little bit of that in a lot of us. That was the hope at least.

I really love the last part of the film where you take a narrative leap and go beyond strict reality. It was funny watching Dune: Part Two right after this and to see a similar cult mentality––having this leader rise above. It was very strange to see back-to-back. Can you talk about the path to finding that ending? Was it always in the cards to do something more adventurous? It could have very much just been a slice-of-life movie, which would have been fine, but I think the last section elevates it to something special.

Well, thanks. I’m glad you feel that way because every day I’m like, “Well, maybe it should have stayed a slice-of-life movie. I don’t know.” You know, you’re writing it and then you’ve kind of been doing this thing the whole time and the meat of story structure and where those kind of things go. Obviously it’s that classic third-act thing where the movie wants to pen up a little bit. So I think it just kind of led there accidentally. Again, I was going back to The Jerk, on some level––that whole sequence in that movie where, for about just 12 minutes of runtime, he’s, like, insanely rich. I think the spirit of that was in it, probably.

In a weird way, it’s a weird screenplay. It’s a weird way to structure a story where it’s kind of the same joke over and over. The core joke of what each scene is kind of repeats. This was the ultimate repeated exaggeration and stretching of it, is how we got there. But it was the hardest part to shoot and fit in because, again, we didn’t have a lot of time, we didn’t have a lot of budget. So we knew going into it, it was going to have to be this much of a piece of the movie and so it did feel like a risk in terms of feeling like it would fit with the rest of the movie without having to be more than what it is.

With this being your first feature, what did you learn most? And for anyone watching it thinking they could pull their friends together to pull it off, what advice would you give them?

It was a great thing to know that we could do it, honestly. I mean, it sounds kind of basic, but I think a lot of going into the process of doing it is like, “How small of a team can we have? How kind of just us can it be and still can we turn out something on the other side that feels relevant to people, that reaches at least close to our standard of a movie that we would enjoy?” And the process of doing the movie––the main goal––was really just to see: is that possible? And honestly we went into it feeling like the answer might be no, and that would have also been good to know. But I think the answer was at least it was close enough that we were like, “Okay, so maybe this much more time, this much more money that would kind of get us here.” For us it’s always about trying to keep things as small as possible and not reach that mentality of endless expansion. And I suppose that would be related to what I would tell anyone, which is: the smaller you can keep things, the better. 

Again, maybe sounds obvious, but I noticed a lot of people don’t get started on kind of any creative practice––it doesn’t even have to be a movie––because it feels like, “I have this idea of this thing and if I can’t do that thing, I don’t really know if I should begin.” It’s a really beautiful thing to just try to scrape something together with what you have, take the stakes off, and hopefully really prioritize doing so in a way that benefits the community and group of people that you have in your life and like to do that kind of stuff with.

Free Time opens in theaters on Friday, March 22.

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