Lancashire filmmaker Ryan J Smith talks ‘creative plate-spinning’, feature films, and trusting his actors

Ryan J. Smith’s first ever film was a stop-start Lego animation which he created for a primary school project. After the short was completed, it was shown at the Blackpool Odeon. Ryan can remember being sat in the theatre that day, revelling in seeing his work - his own creation - on the big screen. The credits rolled and he saw his name. He wanted more.

A passion for film having taken root and blossomed, Ryan knew that the film industry was the only one for him, and so he pursued the goal relentlessly. By 17, he’d been accepted into the prestigious MetFilm School in London, graduating at 20. Last year at the age of just 23, he shot his first feature picture, a piece titled Lottery, and he’s now embarking on a second.

“Honestly, I’m not sure what about films really grasped me - I’ve been trying to figure that one out for years!” says Ryan, 24. “But I feel very lucky that I’ve had something like movies to keep me going because not having any idea what I wanted to do with my life would be terrifying. I mean, this is terrifying too in that it’s all-or-nothing, but at least it’s a passion.

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“The older I get, the more I’m grateful that I put all my energy into this,” adds the Blackpool-born Ryan, who also won a slate of awards for his 2019 documentary 'Red Light Solo' on the Amsterdam jazz scene. “I didn’t go out partying very much growing up, I didn’t have that many friends, and I was a bit of a loner, but the flipside of that is that now I’m in my mid-20s and I’ve got a good thing going.”

Ryan J Smith

Filmed across eight days in November 2021 in Lytham St Annes, Blackpool, and Garstang, Lottery has been a project Ryan has been mulling over for a while. The idea behind the film first came to him whilst he was at the MetFilm School, prompting him to spend a year working as a photographer in a botox clinic to fund it. Passion project doesn’t come close.

“The thing I love most about filmmaking is the fact that it’s a confluence of music, photography, emotion - it’s where everything under the ‘creative problem-solving’ banner meets,” says Ryan. “Plus, you get to work with your friends and, while it can get stressful at times, there are certainly worse jobs.

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“Filmmaking is confronting one problem after another, all of which need solving pretty quickly but, at the same time, making a film is when I feel the most awake and alert,” he adds. “When you’re writing a movie, that’s one process, shooting is another whole process, editing is another, as is music and marketing. It’s where all avenues meet: creative plate-spinning.

“You also have to roll with whatever comes your way and trust your actors - the alternative is I throw a strop and everyone goes home. I used to be a hyper-specific director, but the big thing I’ve been getting my head around is that life gets in the way and you’ve just got to trust the universe.

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Ryan J Smith filming

“Be as detailed as you want and plan to hell-and-back, but also trust that you’ll be able to run with it when life throws curveballs at you,” explains Ryan. “The challenge, and the fun, comes in tackling the problems of each production creatively. Embrace the fact that everything will go wrong, and you’ll love every minute.

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“If, as a filmmaker, you’re not into rapid-fire problem solving, you’re going to have a bad time because the whole process can drive you insane,” he continues. “It’s not a small peak you’re climbing, [so] climb it with friends: a lot of film sets are run like the army and people get thrown into the meat grinder, but I like having a personal relationship with the people I work with - On Lottery, I had seasoned, professional actors saying it was one of the best productions they’ve ever been a part of.”

Creating that kind of working environment is exactly what Ryan set out to do when he founded Skint Film Company, his own production firm. Born of a desire to embrace creativity whilst also enabling him to have the kind of control external studios simply won’t permit, Skint is Ryan’s ultimate tool.

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“It took me a couple of years to land on a solid script worth shooting for Lottery, then I spent two years after film school shopping the idea around every studio and production company in the country all of which, predictably, said ‘no’,” he says. “So I listened to my gut, which was screaming for me to become my own studio and own what I do, both creatively and financially.

Ryan J Smith with Lottery star Mitchell Fischer
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“Establishing Skint Film Company as a self-sufficient studio [was] revealing,” he adds. “I spent years trying to get my foot in the door alongside well-known companies and producers and all it did was reveal how scared they all are of change. I wanted to create a studio that pulls the trigger and makes movies whilst creating jobs and healthy working environments.

“It’s never about credit,” continues Ryan, whose second feature film, the thriller Talking to Ghosts, began shooting in late October ahead of its release next summer. “I’ve no interest in becoming a celebrity or anything like that - it’s simply a case of creating a professionally fat-free environment for the cast and crew.

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“A lot of it comes down to your attitude towards time and money, that’s also why I finance my own movies, so that I know what’s being spent and where,” he adds. “It’s all about ‘bang for your buck’ and not being taken advantage of by other people’s laziness. I can’t imagine a situation where other people are doing most of your job for you, that’d kill me mentally.”

With Lottery having premiered at the Regent Cinema in Blackpool in November and set to be available on Amazon Prime and other streaming services over winter, Ryan is not only immensely proud of the film but of how different a project it ended up being compared to his original vision, too.

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Mitchell Fischer and Niamh Branigan on set

“I’m glad I waited and didn’t shoot it back when I was 19 and doe-eyed - it would’ve been much more straight-razored, whereas now I feel it’s shifted into something more mature,” he explains. “Because we went into Lottery quite blind with a new studio and a new way of doing things, we had to trust in our innate ability to make something of quality.

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“It ended up being nothing like what I thought it was going to be, but it’s 10 times better and, although my fingerprints from the past are still all over it, it ended up being a much stranger film, emotionally, than I thought it’d be,” Ryan adds. “All of the responses so far have been overwhelmingly positive and supportive.

“On day one of this new shoot, everything felt loads better because of that experience on Lottery and how much we learned. Now, there’s no anxiety about what we can produce at all because we’ve already done something which people seem to like. That gives you so much confidence and bandwidth to make Talking to Ghosts even better.”

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Ryan J Smith's Lottery
Ryan J Smith
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Ryan J Smith's Lottery film poster