JOURNALIST TURNED FILMMAKER RELEASES IMPACTFUL MOTION PICTURE ON AMAZON PRIME
Tim Ritter on set for Moment of Truth in 2011 | Featured Image Courtesy of Ashley LaRue
Tim Ritter received his MFA in Entrepreneurial Digital Cinema from the University of Central Florida and his BA in Journalism from Auburn University. He has written and directed two feature films, Testament and Moment of Truth, which have played in festivals around the world and which followed a string of award-winning short films. His films, which frequently examine how ancient concepts of morality emerge in and clash with a cynical modern world, are built on a hyper-efficient yet ambitious micro-budget methodology that stresses smart maximization of available resources. Ritter has also worked in video production as a producer of instructional videos for rising tech company Treehouse, served as the Programming Director for the Fort Myers Film Festival, taught and designed courses as part of the online faculty for The Los Angeles Film School, and spent 10 years as an award-winning journalist at newspapers across the Southeast and as a regular contributor for The Associated Press.
We had a quick moment between his busy schedule of his film and family life to sit down with Tim and get more personal and find out his secret tips about both the industry and his personal world.
MULTIFACETED VISIONARY EXPLORES BOUNDARIES OF HUMANITY IN BRILLIANT PIECES OF ART
NIE: Thank you for taking your time and having this interview with us. Congratulations on your film ‘Testament’ recently released on Amazon Prime. What can you tell us about these projects?
Tim Ritter: Testament follows a regular man who is swept up in a people’s movement in a dying world. When the leader of the movement is violently killed, everyone looks to our man to lead the movement. The big problem? He’s not even sure he believes in the movement anymore. Yet he and an ambitious young follower must set out to rally whatever is left of the movement and make a statement that cannot be ignored. The film takes a very familiar historical figure and puts him and his story in a modern, dystopian setting that creates new meaning and new questions for today’s audiences.
The film stars Demi Castro (Bloodline, Graceland), Rachel Comeau, Jose Miguel Vasquez (The Walking Dead, Brian Burns), Robb Maus, Chris Greene (Birth of a Nation, Loving) and many others. The film was produced by myself and the young Lacie Collins, who has gone on to help run the productions for Venom, I, Tonya, the upcoming Bad Boys sequel, and many other films. Our crew included the very talented director of photography Tu Do and composer Andrew Scott Foust, among many others.
We set out to make an epic film on a shoestring budget, and I feel like we succeeded. It was shot in Jacksonville, Orlando, and Sanford, Fla.; and Notasulga, Ala. The film was just released on Amazon Prime after playing in festivals around the world, from multiple events in Europe to the Caribbean to Chicago to right here in Orlando.
My first feature, Moment of Truth, has been viewed by hundreds of thousands of people in the first half of 2019 alone on Amazon, so I’m hopeful we can reach even more people with this one.
NIE: What originally attracted you to write and ultimately direct this project? And what made you begin writing such a heavy topic?
Tim Ritter: I was starting a Master’s program and needed to generate an idea quickly to drive my thesis, which would be this film. I looked to my interests, which include theology — particularly an interest in the New Testament and its Book of Acts — and to my own life, of course. My 20s had been kind of rough, which was the driving force behind my first feature, Moment of Truth, and I was starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel — or thought I was.
Testament was a way to bring to life the struggle that any journey of faith is, one in which you have no guarantees that your struggles will be rewarded with anything. It could be any journey of faith — trying to make films with no education or links to the industry in this case, or religious faith, or faith in our leaders, or faith in ourselves or each other. The film kind of pries into all of that (except for the quest to make movies; thank goodness. We have enough of those kinds of movies already). It’s also about the struggle to know what’s right and whether we’re doing the right thing with the one life we’re giving, when we don’t have the benefit of a burning bush to chime in and say “yay” or “nay” to your choices.
NIE: How does your film symbolize or directly correlate to the issues in the world we face today?
Tim Ritter: Originally, I wanted to take the Book of Acts and simply plop it down into modern-day America, all the better to see how those ancient ideas of morality and faith might really look in our modern world. But an instructor pointed out that I couldn’t just pretend Christianity didn’t exist, so I decided to make it an alternate version of America and of our world.
When you’re building a new, fictitious world, that always presents myriad opportunities to hold up a mirror to our own world, as much of the best science fiction does. So I started to look at ways I could draw out certain aspects of our world that are troubling to me, as well as identifying interesting parallels between modern America and ancient Rome when Christianity first began to spread.
“Just keep going. The journey is the victory in itself.”
- Tim Ritter
Some of the things that emerged became a little too prescient, and basically in the seven or eight years since I wrote the script, the nightmare scenarios have become our reality much faster than I could have anticipated, dealing with issues ranging from environmental crises to mass shootings.
NIE: What was your favorite part of a project? What have you learned specifically from each production that will help you in your continued profession?
Tim Ritter: I have a lot of favorite parts of the process. I love working out the story, building the characters and layering in my themes and bigger ideas, and seeing where the story takes me. I love building my team, finding the best collaborators, both in the crew but especially in the casting process, and we found some incredible actors for this one. I love being on set and the charge you get from watching so many disparate pieces come together to forge something that didn’t — couldn’t — exist without your unique idea and the collective willpower to make it happen.
And then starting to make it real in the post process, seeing all of the footage turn into a cohesive piece of cinema. I think each project brings a lot of lessons. One of the big ones I’ve learned over the years is to not give in until I get what I need. Working as my own editor and having storyboarded extensively, I know I can’t let myself get talked out of critical coverage, even if the hours are disappearing and that clock is ticking. I’ve also learned so much about how significantly the film can be redefined — for the better — with each passing stage. A movie isn’t simply a filmed screenplay; every step and stage of the process is a chance to mold it into something new and better, as long as you don’t lose the central thread that needs to tie it all together. And if you choose great cast and crew, you should bring their own unique perspectives and ideas to make something good even better and more unique.
NIE: Where did the desire to be a filmmaker stem from?
Tim Ritter: When I was working in newspapers, I realized pretty quickly that I needed something more creative and vital to sustain me. It also never gelled well with me to simply be writing about incredible things other people were doing rather than doing some of them myself.
I tried a lot of other creative endeavors, mostly fueled from my lifelong love of writing and telling stories. It was only a matter of time before I discovered screenwriting, which led me to directing. My plan early on was to head to LA and plug in at the bottom as a PA, as so many do, and work my way up. But that got put on hold by the
Great Recession, and I decided I’d have to teach myself how to make films and start from scratch in doing it myself. Then it was just working constantly, trying to get better each time, keeping the pieces that worked and throwing out the ones that didn’t. Coming in as an outsider to the filmmaking world allows you the chance to see things with a sometimes-fresh perspective, especially in terms of efficiencies when you don’t have much in the way of resources. So we were able to create some pretty remarkable results without those resources, partially from the ignorance of just not knowing any better. “Oh, you’re not supposed to be able to pull that off without X and Y? Good to know ...”
Now I’m not just invested in that script, but I’m so invested in every creative decision that leads to the finished film and from the entire process. Making a film is a truly unique and all-encompassing act, that calls on parts of all of the other art forms and requires so much work from both you and a whole team, however big that team might be. And when it’s really firing and everyone is invested, the art form is really alive when you make it, and hopefully that spontaneity and vitality comes across fully in the finished film. There’s nothing like it, and if you’re a lifer, nothing else will ever be able to replace the charge you get from finishing one of these behemoths.
NIE: What message are you trying to get across to the world through your work?
Tim Ritter: You have to be careful with directly trying to convey specific messages, as no one likes to be preached at, though I’m sure some people would probably say I’ve been guilty of this. But really, art is supposed to be the beginning of the conversation, or even of the thought, not the end of it. I’m hoping what comes across are some key questions that can lead to deeper insights, but that I’m not necessarily handing off those insights directly.
That being said, there are certainly key themes and ideas that surface consistently in my work, as each filmmaker speaking from the soul has his or her own obsessions that do so. Testament revolves around faith, but like my first film, it is very much driven toward responsibility and our impact on our own environment. In this one, it’s about someone who’s realizing through a very difficult path of the positive effect he can have, but only through great and inordinate sacrifice. In Moment of Truth, it’s about someone realizing too late how much negative impact someone can have on his surroundings and loved ones. At the core of that idea of responsibility is choice — we may be bound in large part by the circumstances we’re born and raised into, but in the end, our choices can make a huge impact on that situation and on others. I’m hoping there’s enough compelling elements in the films that they work without necessarily drowning in those bigger ideas, but that, again, those layers do start to emerge with deeper reflection or repeated viewings.
NIE: What process do you use for both writing your characters and directing your actors, and how much do they change depending on the casting process? And does your techniques change depending on the project and or genre and if so, how and why?
Tim Ritter: I am obsessed with character, as it is at the root of all action, theme and drama. I spend a ton of time developing my characters. It may start with a key trait or two, usually tied to theme. In Testament, each primary character represented a different version of faith — the skeptic, the zealot, the novice, and more. But then as the script develops, I keep adding layers of experience and perspective to each character — each person — making them more and more full. People are complex and full of surprises, so characters have to be just as rich.
Then casting is a wonderful process, as mentioned above. I am very much against the idea of casting to type, and rarely imbue any of my characters with much of any physical characteristics in the writing stage, just psychological. That allows me to cast the widest net, finding unconventional choices — just whoever the best actor is. In Testament, my leads were phenomenal, and I don’t believe there is a single subpar performance. It also allows for more organic diversity, as I didn’t set out to cast diversity, but the leads of both films were Latino, simply because they were the best actors for the parts.
“Don’t get ahead of yourself. Things take time.”
- Tim Ritter
Part of the cast’s effectiveness in the finished film is their ability, which is impressive, and shows you can find great talent anywhere if you know what you’re looking for. The other big part of their success comes through the process, allowing them to truly bring themselves to the character, and then working through rehearsals and on set to find the time to communicate properly and give them the space to explore and find something real in a very artificial situation. That process doesn’t really change based on the project; it just grows and develops and improves with each outing. As it should.
NIE: What do you personally take out of a production when you are a part of it and what impact does it have on you?
Tim Ritter: I invest pretty much all of my heart and soul and subtly disguised life experiences in every project I take on. I know a lot of filmmakers get caught up in genre and are more outward-facing in their motives for creating work, but for me, it’s very much a vehicle of expression and hoping that others can find these ideas and feelings that are poured into the work as useful or relatable to themselves in some way. So whenever my work is criticized, which is inevitable in this field, it always stings a little more deeply, because it does feel like an assault on who I am rather than just on the film, since who I am is so inextricably tied into what the film is.
“If you don’t love it with all of your being, it won’t be you that breaks through.”
- Tim Ritter
That also means that every film is, to a large extent, a form of therapy for me to work out all the stuff that’s bubbling in my subconscious and soul. Even if I don’t always feel 100 percent satisfied with the end result of the film, I feel better for having made it — like I exorcised something (because I did). I made a short years ago that was, like most of my films, spawned from an idea that manifested in my mind and wouldn’t leave. The short was pretty successful, and a lot of people liked it, and I just hated it and thought it was so treacly and sentimental. But... I did feel a lot better after having gotten it out of my system. My mental well-being is almost disturbingly tied to my creative practices. I’m guessing I’m not alone there, though it is an exhausting and expensive form of self-care.
NIE: What obstacles do you face as a writer verse a director, and what do you do to overcome them?
Tim Ritter: Hmm, that’s an interesting one. My history and my way into filmmaking have always been very deep into the writing side. I wrote books and created stacks of comic books when I was a kid, and most of my life I have been writing in some form or another. And when I started getting into the idea of being involved in filmmaking, it was first as an aspiring screenwriter. But when I discovered that writers have no real standing in the industry and have no ability to ensure their work is in any way respected in the production and postproduction phases, I immediately started looking into directing.
So my work has borne the stamp of my being a writer first at times, especially since I was dabbling in playwriting directly before I found screenwriting — aka long, dialogue-centric scenes and a penchant for speechifying and monologues. I feel like I’ve also had a natural time with visual storytelling, too, though, in large part because of my youth spent creating comic books, which are another form of very visual-based storytelling.
In my new project, which is written and which I’m now approaching the halfway point of storyboarding, I for the first time have been almost entirely visually driven in my storytelling, with very little dialogue. It’s been satisfying, and a direction I was feeling like I needed to take after Testament. I can’t promise that I will always abandon dialogue to this extent, as there are a lot of interesting ways you can use dialogue to play with subtext and really take viewers on a ride from the beginning of a scene to the end, but I have noticed some of the work I’ve been proudest of in my previous projects are scenes that involve little to no dialogue but still convey so much feeling and emotion so subtly to the audience.
NIE: What would you say is the biggest asset for any filmmaker in the industry to achieve?
Tim Ritter: I think the biggest asset for a filmmaker to have coming in is versatility. I learned to save and then protect my job in my previous life as a newspaper man by being able to do lots of things, including the things no one else really wants to do. I think that applies as well to film as any number of fields. If you can do a lot, you can find a niche, and you can prove your value constantly in a way that will make people want to hire you for other projects.
The biggest thing I’ve decided that is important for a filmmaker to achieve, at least as a writer or director, is the power to create something distinct and personal without significantly compromising it to appease financial considerations. I don’t feel embarrassed to work at a micro budget level, because I am able to create the work I set out to make without giving away the store. If the films fail, it is definitely on me, and the lack of resources has at times been a big hindrance, but I take immense satisfaction from creating more or less what I set out to create.
NIE: What are some of your secret tips that help you in this industry to keep grounded and focused?
Tim Ritter: Staying grounded has never been hard for me or most filmmakers, as rejection is constant, and life — and the industry — are always eager to slap you in the face with a fresh dose of humility. Accomplishing anything for most of us is really more about perseverance than the big breakthroughs that are so popular in fiction and the movies.
Staying focused is hard. I have to make a living, as many indie filmmakers do, not by making movies. And then I have a family. So creating work is all about filling those tiny cracks in the schedule with my creative practice. If you want to continue to make work, you basically need to give away a lot of your goofing-off time, which can be pretty exhausting over the years. But if the alternative is not making creative work, that’s a trade I’ll make. Not many others are willing to do that, and that’s how you find the true “lifers” for filmmaking while most others move on to less taxing lifestyles. Most of us won’t get Scorsese’s combination of budget and freedom, so we have to find ways to sustain our practice without the extra help or support he gets.
NIE: Who inspires you to be a better filmmaker?
Tim Ritter: I don’t know about inspiring me to be a better filmmaker, because I treat it more as a competition with myself (especially since I don’t really know anyone who’s making the same sorts of movies I am). But I do take a lot of inspiration from seeing filmmakers who have been successful and reached a lot of viewers while still maintaining a fiercely independent vision and idiosyncratic style without watering it down or excessively compromising. Aranofsky, Bergman, and Fellini all would be examples. I’d say Gilliam and Peckinpah, but the former eventually had to start working outside the system more and more while producing significantly less work, and the latter eventually gave out and started taking on projects he hated. Nolan and Tarantino make the work they want to make, but it’s also the type of work that’s well-situated with regards to popular tastes. So they can do their thing and not have to fight so hard to preserve their visions, unlike the guys previously mentioned, who are a little more outside of the interests of the masses. It’s rare when particularly idiosyncratic visions and popular tastes merge like they do in those two cases.
NIE: What advice would you give to someone who wanted to pursue a career in the field?
Tim Ritter: Decide what’s most important about being involved in the movies for you. If it’s to be famous, as many others have said, give up now. It’s a huge amount of work, and most people don’t make it. If you don’t love it with all of your being, it won’t be you that breaks through.
If you just want to work in the industry in a crew position, there are a lot of ways to get there, but you have to be willing to work relentlessly — and make a good impression on those around you. If it’s partially about who you know, that only works if those people like you and think you’re a good person they want to work with. And know that it’s not an easy lifestyle, filled with very long days, demanding schedules, and always hustling for the next job with very little real stability other professions offer. You really have to enjoy what you’re doing to make it worthwhile.
If you want to author work, whether as a director or writer, be prepared to do something else to make your living while you create on the side. It could be in the industry, like Gareth Edwards working as a visual effects artist while he took time on the side to make Monsters, or a lot of people I know who edit promotional materials or do commercial work to support their indie projects. It could also be outside of the industry, whether it’s teaching film like me or doing a nice, menial and brainless job that gives you flexibility and mental bandwidth to do your thing on the side. But studios and investors aren’t looking to hand big budgets to 99 percent of the directors out there, so find some other way to get by — and then find a way to get your project made. That’s what Nolan and Edwards and Aranofsky and many others did before they broke through, and what many others still do who may never “make it” in the conventional sense.
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NIE: What are the most impactful words of wisdom someone told you and who was it?
Tim Ritter: I honestly can’t remember who told me, but the last time I was thinking about moving out to LA (it happened a few times), a more accomplished filmmaking friend told me that if I could find good collaborators and get work made, it didn’t matter where I lived. You can’t necessarily make a good living “working in the movies” outside of a few zip codes, but if you’re not held to that, you can make work in a lot of places. And there are actually some advantages to working in less-traveled territories, as the community and location owners actually get excited about helping a movie get made. And it becomes a little more special and unique than yet another LA or NY movie, while also documenting a particular time in a particular place, which is a unique thing cinema can do.
NIE: What are three things you would say to your younger self that you know now?
Tim Ritter: 1. Don’t get ahead of yourself. Things take time, and just because you make something, doesn’t mean people are going to go head over heels when they see it. I think that’s a hard thing for a lot of filmmakers to accept. If you need validation at the highest levels, the odds are against it. You’ll need to find another way to measure success.
2. Don’t take anything for granted. If someone wants to help you make your thing, if someone wants to exhibit your work, if viewers become passionate about something you make — all of those things are special and should be cherished, even if it doesn’t accompany the popular narrative about what “success” in film looks like. In truth, that expectation is very, very unrealistic, and probably less than 1 percent of filmmakers ever achieve it. The goal is to get the chance for eyeballs to see my work, and if any do, that’s a victory.
3. Just keep going. The journey is the victory in itself. I think a lot of people get so caught up in the result that they end up abandoning the pursuit, whether they succeed and it doesn’t quite prove as fulfilling as expected, or whether they don’t reach the mountaintop and feel like a failure. You have to get joy from the process and the storytelling itself, or it won’t sustain. And fortunately, I do get a lot of joy from the process. Even if it is almost insurmountably hard and a pain in the rear a lot of the time.
NIE: We heard you have your third film hitting postproduction. What can you tell us about that, and what we are in store for?
Tim Ritter: It’s currently called Echoes, and it’s a doozy. Mankind is completely wiped off the planet, and our God character retires to a small house in the wilderness to start the Adam and Eve experiment over again. Over four seasons, we watch the latest Adam and Eve grow through phases of their lives, and we see a lot of the same patterns — and mistakes — start to emerge. But this time, one of them will get the chance to gain control in a way that has never happened for our species before.
It’s an interesting challenge to tackle, especially on a tiny budget — the passage of time, a topic I’ve become obsessed with artistically, both as a viewer and now as a filmmaker. It will bring a lot of my favorite subjects to bear, such as choice, responsibility, and classical vs. modern morality. It will be my most unique film, and that’s saying something. It will definitely offer audiences something they haven’t seen, and aren’t likely to see, anywhere else.
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NIE: Thank you for having this interview with us. Is there anyone you would like to thank at this time?
Tim Ritter: I’d like to thank Fred Zara, a very talented and accomplished filmmaker I’m glad to know, for pointing you in my direction. We indie filmmakers really need to look out for and support each other, as we all have the opportunity to raise ourselves up better as a group than as individuals.
I’d also like to thank all of my collaborators on my films, who are so responsible for all of my films’ successes (while I’m usually to blame for the films’ shortcomings). People give a lot of themselves for not much in return but the satisfaction of the work, and it means a lot. And that goes double for some of my late colleagues who have passed away, such as Jeremy Lucchesi, Robert Feigenblatt, and especially Jayson Martinez.
And finally, University of Central Florida for allowing me to teach the next generation while also giving me space to pursue my creative work. And make a stable living!