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Aaron Ryder ’94: The filmmaker next door

Aaron Ryder ’94 wore a leather jacket and fashionably tight-fitting, whitewashed jeans at his Q&A at the Max Mutchnick Campus Center on September 21. He gave off the indisputable air of a “cool film guy from L.A.” and his commentary did nothing to dispute that, except to add the adjective “extremely successful” to the description.

A producer of Memento by Chris Nolan (writer and director of the recent Batman trilogy, Inception, and many others), Ryder worked hard to get meetings for his “friend’s crazy, script-writing boyfriend.” They faced a lot of rejection for this “dumb, backwards script” until Ryder struck gold with American Pie—it was being sold by Universal and he managed to convince a foreign sales company, despite serious doubts that it was “too American,” to buy it. Well, the rest is history. After the enormous success of American Pie, the same company bought Memento.

Ryder described Nolan as “a smart fella…the way he thinks about films, you could just tell he was going somewhere.” He described how, despite his wild success, Nolan is still budget conscious, hardworking, and down to earth. He told an anecdote about Nolan choosing to film Prestige in L.A. instead of abroad so that those who had children would not have to uproot them and relocate.

Ryder tells his own story with humor and self-deprecation, insisting that he’s “not that smart…working hard is the thing I do.” He started out interning at Working Title Films in L.A., and worked his way up. He is now president of FilmNation. Ryder covered quite a few facets of the film business, from producing to financing to casting. He emphasized the importance of getting a well-known actor onboard in response to a student’s question about the key ingredients to getting a film produced. He discussed how Brad Pitt showed interest in Memento, and although he did not take the role, his interest alone made the film “feel viable and tangible.”

Ryder clearly strove to give the audience of aspiring filmmakers advice that was sincere and concrete. Asked about funding, he said, “Raising money is not difficult…the key is making the package appealing enough to attract the money.” He added how important it is to “find a champion for your movie—you can’t be the only one who likes it” but to never settle for something that doesn’t “touch you…you gotta love it.” You also need to know when to let go. He still struggles, sometimes, knowing if the work “is too strong to die or I’m too weak to kill it.” Indeed, Ryder’s talk was characterized by a level of humility—he has had his failures and will have more, he was very clear about this—but the important thing is to learn from them and never lose hope. “I still believe this is an art form,” he said at the end.

Ryder impressed the audience with his candor and knowledge about this highly competitive business, inspiring the hope that “the next big guy” could be sitting next to you at that very moment, or could even be you. 

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