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12 Questions with Ryan C. Khan

—Published on 24th Feb, 2021.

Trinidadian director/producer/editor Ryan C. Khan is a true advocate for the telling of our Caribbean stories. A young industry veteran, having now been a practitioner in our creative sector for more than 20 years, Khan firmly believes our region must collaborate more to see the progress in our industry that we so desire; “…the only way forward is together.” FILMCO interviewed this passionate filmmaker for the February edition of our “12 Questions” interview series.

FILMCO: What first attracted you to filmmaking?
Ryan C. Khan: At a very young age, I was really into drawing comics, not collecting them or the fanboy culture (although I’m into that now), just more into the artistic aspect and the endless, imaginative possibilities that filled them. I was also a constant daydreamer. The school experience was not as rewarding for me, not because it was a bad experience or that I was struggling; I felt like there were other worlds and scenarios my mind would make up that were more interesting than school. However, as I grew up and faced the realities of socio-economic norms and demands, I felt those worlds fade away. Fast forward many jobs later, I came across a small production house called Big Fish in a Blue Bottle and found out they did video production. Suddenly, my imagination re-ignited, and those worlds I dreamt of came back to life. I knew that was where I was supposed to be! Also, I had generous support from my family to allow me to continue the search for myself. My brother was the one who encouraged me to investigate the field of video production. My mother, father, and sister always knew I was supposed to be doing something creative and always helped and encouraged me in various forms. It wasn’t a choice in many ways; it was about continuing to search for my vocation. Filmmaking was the answer to that calling.

FILMCO: Can you describe your journey as a director for us?
RCK: The main take away about my journey as a director is that it’s still happening. I never struggled with if I should be directing; I knew that’s what I wanted to do even though when I first started, I didn’t understand what it meant. I would say filmmaking challenges have made me wonder if it is worth it, but that’s a separate and quite common question all artists face, one that only the artist themselves can answer. (Don’t let anybody ever tell you that you shouldn’t be an artist; only you get to make that choice.) As I said before about knowing I wanted to direct, there are so many nuances to the different roles and departments of filmmaking that made it exciting to discover. New departments or functions pop all the time. For example, there’s now a department called the ‘Brain Bar’ that’s part of the newly emerging field of Virtual Studio Production. It’s a group of 3D and video game artists dealing with the director, cinematographer, editor and colourist. I think that’s an important concept to understand about filmmaking and, by extension directing; things are constantly evolving, and that’s what I love about the craft. I’ve directed works that were entirely my own and pieces that are for commercial clients. I can’t say one is better than the other. I think I did well when it came to fixed parameters such as timelines, budgets and the subject matter. Limitation breeds creativity, as they say. I feel that life as a filmmaker is about exploration and change; that’s the only constant I subscribe to. Even though I have a rhythm directing commercials, I know a creative stagnation or plateau can occur if I don’t push myself to try something different.

FILMCO: What resources have you used as a filmmaker over the years to deepen your knowledge and further your career?
RCK: The internet has been the most significant resource for my craft. Besides learning, there have also been growing and establishing opportunities like when I got into the Berlinale Talent Lab. That was based on me just Googling ‘Film Talent Labs’ and applying online. However, something to remember is I started video production back in 2000, before the internet was what it is now. At that time, the on-set experience was the primary resource. Unfortunately, I think that experience was quite limiting for me, even though I did learn quite a few things through great artists that choose to mentor me. It’s gotten better for the younger folks, and other resources such as the trinidad+tobago film festival and entities like FILMCO and FilmTT are doing great work. There are still aspects of market size, lack of funds and general film industries best practices that keep us back as a filmmaking society. Hence, I made a conscious decision from a very early stage to not limit myself to being a filmmaker in Trinidad and Tobago. I see myself as a global artist that uses my ‘Trini’-ness to inform my work.

FILMCO: You work not only in Trinidad but within the Caribbean producing work for various clients. Can you describe your experience filming in other islands?
RCK: Yes, but I haven’t worked as much up the islands as I believe I should be doing, and by extension, all Caribbean filmmakers should be as well. For me, it hasn’t been that different working in other Caribbean countries because we are relatively similar in a lot of ways, especially all being tropical islands. Some countries like Grenada and St. Lucia are more tourist inclined, so they tend to be more accommodating but limited in infrastructure. In other places like Jamaica, they have more infrastructure and filmmaking awareness, but they also have more on-the-ground competition. Those would be some examples of the differences. Still, to me, they’re relatively minor compared to, say, trying to film in a major city like London or network in a major film festival like Cannes.

I have to big-up a client and friend from Grenada, Orlando Romain, the owner and Creative Director of Hexive Creative Agency. He is a true Caribbean visionary who’s networked with many other creatives across the region, including myself, to make some projects happen. He’s been a substantial part of why I’ve done more work up the islands, and I’d recommend him to any person who’s looking for a talented agency in the lesser Antilles area.

The film poster for Khan’s 2009 short film, “MINUTES TO MIDNITE”

FILMCO: Your films such as “MINUTES TO MIDNITE” and “The MidNite Affair” involve elements of Trinbagonian folklore. Do you find yourself drawn to our folklore in your work and do you seek to share it with audiences?
RCK: Yes, I’ve always had a fascination with our folklore, although it wasn’t as noticeable until I became a filmmaker. When I wrote my first short film, “MINUTES TO MIDNITE”, I remember wanting to write something that wasn’t your standard tropical paradise tourist brochure. I tried to focus on something darker but not scary or hopeless. That’s when folklore stepped in. I loved the moral and ethical cautionary tales that our folklore offers. This is because its roots lie in African storytelling, and even though their stories may have been stifled throughout the centuries, they still managed to persevere. I think that’s meaningful and a motivator to take Trini folklore to a global audience. Now, I don’t think I am an expert/authority on folklore; in fact, the contrary. I still have so much more to learn, and I think that’s what I lacked in my initial short films. I don’t think I failed though, I did what I set out to do as a filmmaker, and part of that is experimenting with ideas. I’m quite happy I chose to do short films instead of doing a full feature film or TV series. My last short film, which got me into the Cannes Short Film corner, was “How Many Times?”. It had nothing to do with folklore, BUT it did have an intense mysticism and supernaturalism if you think of religion as a supernatural force. To me, that felt like an evolution of the folklore short films I was doing. The idea is not to be too ‘on the nose’ with folklore because, even though it’s deep and dark, there is a masterful simplicity and subtlety to it.

FILMCO: In 2013, you were accepted to the Berlinale Campus in Germany, and you were the first applicant from Trinidad & Tobago in the history of that programme. Can you describe what that experience was like and tell us how it has informed and shaped your career since then?
RCK: The experience was like nothing I’ve ever done before in my life. I don’t feel the singular experience changed me, but it surely added to my confidence as a filmmaker and I was proud to attend and represent my country. It opened my eyes to how big the film industry is and how much goes on at a top tier film festival. They packed a lot of content into a small space of time. Workshops, looking at films, meeting and networking with new filmmakers, partying; it’s a very well-designed experience meant to leave you wanting more. That’s something, too: once you’ve gotten into the Talent Lab, you’re a member for life, and they expect you to come back with your projects. I plan to take up that offer, however, being so far removed from them has its challenges. It isn’t cheap to get to Germany, and if you’re a working stiff like me, finding time to go is also a constant battle. I haven’t given up yet, though, and I encourage any filmmaker to apply and go for it. Maybe we can go together! Another thing I picked up on is how involved Germany is in filmmaking within Europe and the world. They fund a lot of films that have little or nothing to do with Germany. I’m sure they have a stake in its success, but I think that’s the brilliance of the country, they recognise it’s not necessary to be too demanding when it comes to investing in films. I think that’s something our government should be doing for the rest of the region. When we support content makers from other markets, we enable a mutually beneficial relationship that will result in more earnings for ourselves.

“How Many Times?”, Khan’s 2014 short film offering

FILMCO: Between directing, producing and editing, is there one role you are drawn to the most?
RCK: If I could help it, I would strictly be a director. However, due to the nature of the film industry, you end up doubling and tripling up on roles, so this is why I am a director/producer/editor. I also like collaborating and helping other fellow filmmakers. I see that as a form of giving back and a way of building an industry. We really can’t move forward if we only see about ourselves. That’s why I end up being an editor or a producer when someone asks me to do it for their project. Even though I see myself as a director, I think I am a powerful editor; I wouldn’t say stronger than directing but equal. Editing informs my directing and vice versa. I tend to see the edit in my head before I begin to shoot. I also don’t lock myself into that edit because creating a film, music video, commercial or whatever is an ever-evolving process. Sure there’s a script, and there’s a final deadline, but in between that space, I tend to explore many options simultaneously and make micro adjustments to make the project better. I can’t say it’s easy, but it’s the way I’ve learnt to make a film, and I’m happy with that.

FILMCO: Do you have any plans in the works for a feature-length film and if yes can you share a little bit of those with us?
RCK: I do. It’s called “The Jaguar”, and it’s based on the short story written by Keith Jardim from his book of short stories called “Near Open Water”, so if you want more details than that, I recommend picking up a copy of his book! He’s a brilliant writer that I hope to direct more of his work. I have some producers attached, and I have some plans already laid out. However, if there’s anyone out there who’s familiar with the story and is interested in being a part of it, I’d be interested in hearing from you so you can reach out to me at my listed contact details.

FILMCO: What do you think the Caribbean as a region has to offer global film audiences?
RCK: The obvious answer is a lot! Anywhere human beings exist, there is a chance to make a fantastic story about that existence, then translate it into a film that connects with a global audience. I know that answer is obscure, but I would like to reframe the question to expand on my answer. HOW DO WE DELIVER OUR STORIES TO A GLOBAL AUDIENCE? As long as I have been alive, the way I’ve seen the Caribbean portrayed in global cinema is limited. Usually, as a backdrop for a white-based foreigner story, we serve as comic relief or inconsequential to the plot. If the story involves a Caribbean person, it paints them as an idyllic, laid-back character that resolves their problems through simplistic mantras. As a Caribbean audience, we know this is an oversimplification of who we are and what we can offer. Sure, simple is better and more comfortable to market, but the search for the true Caribbean offering is still happening in many ways. As a filmmaker, I believe folklore holds some merit that can be turned into a sub-genre much like zombies and then packaged and shipped across the world. However, that’s my perspective, and I don’t believe that should be the only type of story we export as a region. The real issue is that the current gatekeepers to global audiences aren’t from our area, nor do they have a stake in it. That’s not to say they’re actively trying to keep us down. It’s our fault we haven’t presented something unique that’s in bulk. I’m still trying to find the answer to both questions raised here, and my way of doing that is by making a film that I hope connects with a global audience. If I’m successful, I would want to share that success with my Caribbean brethren.

FILMCO: How has work changed for you since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and how have you adapted?
RCK: Honestly, I thought it was going to be way worse than it ended up being. I mean, not to say it hasn’t been bad at all; I can’t ignore the impact of a pandemic on our society and the rest of the world. There’s a mental fallout from this that I feel we will be dealing with for years to come, but I managed to pivot work-wise. Because I’ve been spending a lot of time in the commercial realm and having such great relationships with my clients, they could come to me and try something different. I was able to retool my process so that we could be COVID-19 sensitive and prepared. We did smaller projects and worked with smaller crews. I wasn’t shooting with my regular twenty-person team to make a large commercial. Instead, I was shooting cooking videos with four people max. I also took up the camera more. I didn’t stop there either. Thanks to the FILMCO COVID-19 Guide, I was able to send these to my crew and clients. Sure- some of the science behind it has changed. Apparently, COVID-19 doesn’t last as long on surfaces as said, so the thorough wiping of surfaces isn’t as necessary, but at the end of the day, I’m not going to risk people’s lives for a commercial! So we do the extra required for a safe work environment.

FILMCO: What do you think is needed to develop and bolster our local film and television industry?
RCK: As I mentioned in my answer about attending Berlinale, I believe one of the things we could be doing is funding/supporting more films regionally, which would help us grow larger as a film nation. I feel a lot of the work is already being done; filmmakers are making films, good content is being generated, but I believe we are still not where we need to be as a region and the only way forward is together. My next point would be a 50% content quota. I’ve attended many local stakeholder meetings where this was a contentious topic. I’ve heard good cases both for and against, and I don’t believe quotas will solve our problems but ultimately, in my mind, it’s a start. Yes, we as a nation should create good enough content to draw the masses without restricting other content. Still, the reality is no industry has ever been built without some intervention and regulation from a policy standpoint. If you research the beginnings of Hollywood and filmmaking in the US, you will find instances of quotas and government funding apparatuses. Certainly, it will not cure all issues, but it’s a start towards creating a more enabling environment and will not cost any extra.

FILMCO: You’ve been in the film industry for over 20 years now. What would you say are the key three lessons you’ve learned?
RCK: As I said in the first question, one key lesson is that the film industry is about evolution. Adapting, being inventive, figuring out a new way to tell an already told story. Two: always have two hard drives for backing up footage on location. And three: we should still be learning new lessons, no matter how much experience we have.