On the first day of production on his second feature “X/Y,” Ryan Piers Williams decided that he was wasn’t going to delay the inevitable for his provocative quadriptych of a relationship drama. As an actor in the film as well as its writer/director, he would spend the whole day in front of his crew in the buff.
“It came down to creating an environment on set that was built on trust, so all the crew members that were there were really tuned into what we were trying to do,” says Williams, who took the necessity of filming an uncomfortable sex scene as an opportunity to demonstrate the kind of intimacy that would be the trademark of the film he was going to make, which as it happened would become the audience’s introduction to “X/Y” as well as the film’s very first scene.
Although Williams’ modesty may have been compromised, such nakedness — primarily emotional in nature — and vulnerability are at the core of “X/Y,” which follows the romantic entanglements of four New Yorkers – Williams’ Mark, a screenwriter whose mind seems to be elsewhere much of the time when he’s with his girlfriend Silvia (America Ferrera), who admits to him that her eye has wandered to a co-worker, a revelation that sends Mark to sleep on the couch of his friend Jake (Jon Paul Phillips), who himself is nursing a breakup by engaging in empty sexual encounters. Sylvia, meanwhile, confides in Jen (Melonie Diaz), who prefers to keep things casual in her personal life until her dalliances begin to come back to haunt her.
Williams, who is also a painter, gives himself a broad canvas to work with between the quartet of characters, but his focus is direct, taking aim at this very specific cultural moment of easy distraction and difficult connection, with the film’s title alluding to the pre-millennial, post-boomer generation. Young enough to still believe they have options, but old enough to be set in their ways, the quartet of characters Williams follows no longer know what they want after having believing they already had it in one form or another. After traveling the world with the film, Williams reflected on the making of it on the eve of its VOD release in the States, talking about the complications posed by exploring relationships on screen with some of those he’s closest to in real life, the inspiration he takes from different mediums and why he wants the audience to have the last laugh.
How did this one come about?
When I was writing it in 2012, I was going through a really intense period of self-reflection and trying to observe the different relationships in my life and also that my friends were in, and really trying to understand how people connect with one another in our current society. What I was noticing is that so many of our relationships play out in social media and a lot of the time, the most difficult thing to do is to really make deeper, meaningful, lasting friendships. So I wanted to write a movie that would investigate how we are communicating with one another, building relationships with one another and the difficulties that are associated with making those lasting relationships.
When you were developing these four characters, did you want each of them to reflect something or were they reactions to one another?
I wanted to look at this group of people that fit between Generation X and Y, probably [in their] late twenties to early thirties, and within that group, I wanted to create characters that people could see themselves in. Whereas I wanted all the characters to be friends or interact with one another, I still wanted them to represent different people in our culture right now, so I used the different chapters [in the film focused on each one of the characters] as an opportunity to really get in-depth to see how they think, how they live, and how they connect with one another, in hopes that an audience could not only relate to someone in a movie, but also maybe get a deeper understanding of someone in their own life.
There’s a scene your character has with his agent in which the agent tells him his sci-fi script is too esoteric with its cross-cutting, to which your character replies, “yeah, it’d be a lot easier to follow [if it didn’t have that], but it wouldn’t be very interesting.” Did you ever have that conversation with this film?
[laughs] I didn’t have that conversation with this movie, but I do have a sci-fi that I’m working on that I’ve had … It’s been more a conversation with many people about. But I was using that conversation in the movie to just comment on how we make movies. On one hand, there’s a lot of people that expect that audiences can’t handle complicated stories or complicated narrative structures, but I think they can and they actually yearn for that in the storytelling. Audiences are smarter than we think.
Did you know you were going to act in the film? And if so, did you write this and then think afterwards, “wow, what the heck did I do here,” given how emotionally demanding and complex a role it is?
I didn’t know that I was going to act in it when I first wrote it. I wrote all these characters as honestly as I possibly could without really thinking about who’s going to play them. After I was done, it was a process to come around to the idea of actually acting in it. I had shown the script to America [Ferrera] and she really enjoyed it, but was a little put off on Sylvia. Over a few months, she gave me feedback and through that process, I was able to change Sylvia a little bit and make her a more three-dimensional character. Then at a certain point, America said, “Hey, I’d really like to play this role,” and then together we thought, how interesting would it be if we both acted in this together? It would be challenging, but also interesting for us to engage in that kind of creative collaboration, so it came out of organic conversation.
Once I did decide that I was going to act in it, I did say, “Oh, shit. How am I going to actually do this?” This is a complicated guy. That passed quickly because when you’re making a movie, you don’t have very much time to get too stressed out. For me, I just had to put one foot in front of the other and tackle the challenges head-on. But I just dove in. Still, it was tough.
Even though it’s not necessary information to enjoy the film, it does make things a little more interesting to know that you have close relationships personally with many people in your cast such as your wife America and your close friend John. Did that make it easier or harder to explore these kinds of relationship issues on screen?
It’s great to be able to be able to collaborate with people you know well because when you’re working in this way, you have to really dive in deeply and you’re very vulnerable in so many different ways — emotionally, mentally, physically. With so many close friends [in the film], I knew that they had my best interests at heart and vice versa. They know your strengths, your weaknesses and they can support you in the ways that you need and I was able to do the same thing for them. It does sometimes make it more challenging because you have all these personal relationships, but as long as you keep it professional and have clear boundaries, it can be a really rewarding experience.
The sex scenes in the film reveal as much about the characters in them as any of the dialogue scenes. Was it an interesting challenge to construct and choreograph that kind of expressive physicality?
It was. The first scene in the movie is a sex scene between America and I and that was incredibly challenging to do, making yourself very vulnerable in front of a crew and know that it’s eventually going to be seen by a big audience. But in creating those scenes, it came down to trust. Physically, it was challenging but we were able to create a very nice environment on set to provide us an opportunity to do these things.
For me, the sex scenes are some of the most powerful ones because they show people trying to connect in a physical way, which is often what we associate with deeper connections. But in the movie, strangely, most of the sex scenes are the least connected scenes in the film. In fact, the connections that are in the movie that are the deepest don’t necessarily come out in a physical form. But again, it goes back to this idea of how are we relating in our society? How are we connecting with one another? These are all the questions that went into each of the sex scenes.
It’s also to interesting to know that in addition to being a filmmaker, you’re also a painter, which seems to be evident in the way you use color in the film. Was there any particular scheme in mind?
I worked really closely with my cinematographer, Pedro [Gómez Millán]. He and I spent a lot of time discussing the color palettes for each of the characters and [they all] had their own visual style that we wanted to explore that played into a larger visual style for the whole movie. When we were shooting, we were able to be loose enough with our shooting style that we could capture happy accidents when they occurred. We had a very [small] crew and if an actor did something that was interesting, or if we saw something beautiful in the environment we were working in, we could easily embrace it. But we did come into the process having a very clear idea of the color palette.
One thing I do before I direct is I create a visual lookbook [where] I compile other pieces of artwork, photographs, just anything that I feel like will represent the film in some way. Then I meticulously organize those photos and it basically tells the story of the movie. Pedro and I would go back to this lookbook I created for inspiration. You might have an abstract painting next to a photograph in this lookbook, but it will track the emotional journey of the film. Any time you can embrace other art forms and be inspired by other peoples’ work, it’s wonderful.
Both in color and content, it’s a very bold film. Having already done a feature, did you actually feel more confident your second time around?
Each film is a whole different beast. When I made the “The Dry Land,” it was my first film and I was very, very nervous about making that film. It was the biggest challenge I had taken on at that time. When I went into “X/Y,” I added another challenge, which was acting in the film and in a sense, it was really as if I had never done it before. The challenge was so great that I felt that yes, I had certain tools that I had learned from making “The Dry Land,” but there were all new challenges that I was faced with that made it a really difficult experience. So each time I dive into a creative process, I try to prepare as though I’ve never done it before.
You’ve said when the film premiered at Tribeca, you were surprised to hear the audience laugh in places since you had made a serious film, but that it was actually gratifying. What’s it been like to travel and see the reaction to it?
It’s been so interesting to witness the reaction because it’s been so very different everywhere you go. When we premiered the movie at the Tribeca, people were laughing from the very first moment all through the movie. I thought that was the most wonderful thing because it was that nervous laughter that people do when they recognize themselves or someone else, which is the best laughter when you can get an audience to engage in that kind of way. Then there were other audiences that took the film very seriously and didn’t laugh as much, but everyone will respond to the movie differently. I definitely encourage the laughter. It’s wonderful when you can find a release like that.
“X/Y” premieres on iTunes and other VOD outlets on March 6th.