Ryan Eslinger, filmmaker


Ryan Eslinger drew good notices with his first film, the stark black-and-white drama "Madness and Genius," which screened in the Toronto Film Festival Discovery section in 2003. Good enough for him to attract Sharon Stone to board his second picture, "When a Man Falls in the Forest," which unspools in competition in Berlin. Billed as a surreal existential drama, "Forest" is about three dysfunctional characters who have nothing to look forward to and only dream of regaining control over their lives. Timothy Hutton, Dylan Baker and Pruitt Taylor Vince co-star. Eslinger talked to The Hollywood Reporter's European features editor Charles Masters about moviemaking, lucid dreaming, and screening alongside his favorite director.

The Hollywood Reporter: Where did you get the inspiration for your film?
Ryan Eslinger: Whenever I write anything, it comes from kind of a vague place. I'll just have a character in mind, somebody that interests me, and then, over a period of years, I'll let the story live out in my head. I think most writers write the opposite way. They write plot first and then they inject the characters into the story. I write the other way around -- character (first) and then the story just comes out of that. I don't think the characters came from any particular place in reality. It's all fictitious.

THR: Your previous film took years to gestate. How long did this one take?
Eslinger: The last one was from beginning to end about 10 years. This one was a little bit shorter. I started writing it the day after I finished that movie, it'll be about 5-6 years.

THR: What are the main themes in your film?
Eslinger: It's hard to say what the theme of the movie is because I don't really have an objective perspective of it yet. The character Bill (Dylan Baker) -- this is at the lowest level of the plot -- is a janitor and he has no friends and lives an isolated life. He gets obsessed with the idea of lucid dreaming, the idea of becoming aware of dreaming while you're doing it so you can control your dreams and live out fantasies or whatever you would want to do if you could just do anything without consequences. I was interested in the idea of why someone would shun reality, why someone would become obsessed with dreams, what would lead them to that. I was more interested in the psychology behind why a person would become so interested in that instead of reality, or what the drawback is to living in a dream world that starts messing with your real life. I wanted to create a sort of ambiguity to the whole feeling of the movie. All the characters feel like they may or may not be walking through this kind of dream state. They're all in a daze.

THR: Is lucid dreaming a genuine phenomenon?
Eslinger: They have institutes researching it. There are ways that you can do it. Most people don't remember their dreams, so you're supposed to first keep a journal so you remember your dreams. Then you're supposed to be able to identify recurring signals in your dreams and think about that before you go to sleep, so that when you're asleep and you see one of these signals, then hopefully that'll spark your memory to remind you that you're dreaming. Then there are certain other things that you can do, like people can look at the ground to keep themselves grounded while they're in a dream, because usually once people realize they're dreaming they immediately wake up.

THR: You pulled together a strong cast, notably Sharon Stone. How did that come about?
Eslinger: Sharon was the first one who came on. She came onto the project before there was money or anything. She had seen my first film and had wanted me to write a script for her based on an idea that she had -- this was a totally separate project. So I started writing that project and then meanwhile I just handed her this script. I was thinking of her for one of the roles. A couple of weeks later she said she would do it, and it was a really simple, straightforward process. If she says yes, she follows through. That was the first step to getting the money and to getting other interest.

THR: Stone's character Karen has some strange behavior herself ...
Eslinger: Basically both she and her husband are a bit distant, and they've both sort of lost their way in their relationship. What she ends up doing is, she's at a store and she sees this pair of leather gloves and she shoplifts the gloves. But I don't see it as a huge plot point -- it's just something that she does. It's more something she does in the moment.

THR: How did the financing come together?
Eslinger: The first financier to come on board was Kirk Shaw from Insight Film. He's one of the few producers and financiers that actually talk about different books and things that he was reminded of when he read the script. Aside from it being, I think, for him an investment based on the actors involved -- at that time it was Sharon -- he just seemed to get the story and understand it. Like Sharon, he was committed, and if he says he's going to do something he absolutely does it. I met him at the AFM. Kirk came on board in November (2005), and by February we were shooting the movie. It was a quick process.

THR: Prior to that you took the project to the Cannes Atelier in the hope of finding potential partners. Did that yield anything?
Eslinger: The experience was helpful, just meeting a lot of producers and financiers, and I did meet people there who will hopefully invest in future films. But for this particular film, the financiers I met there didn't actually end up being the ones that financed the movie.

THR: Your first movie screened at Slamdance and Toronto. Now you find yourself in competition at Berlin. How does that feel?
Eslinger: It's an honor for the film. Film is a collective medium, so whatever gets the best exposure for the film is great. Personally, it's sort of surreal to be screening next to Park Chan-wook, Soderbergh, De Niro and all these famous directors. Park Chan-wook is one of my favorite directors of the films I've seen in the last few years, so to be screening alongside him is, like you know ... What I'm aiming for (in Berlin) is a solid U.S. distribution deal, people that really get behind the movie and understand.

THR: What are you looking at doing next?
Eslinger: I've got two or three scripts I'm working on that are at various stages of completion. I'm just trying to not push it. That's the thing I'm afraid of, making this film and then having to get something else really quick. Because that's what people tell you -- if you screen at a festival, you have to have your next project ready to go. And it is close, but I just want to give it a little extra time.