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New filmmaker Scott Ryan likes his films real; so real in fact that with his debut feature about a Melbourne hitman, The Magician, the audience can’t tell if it’s a doco or a black comedy. Next up, he tells Andrew L. Urban, he is making a really realistic zombie movie.

Looking exactly like his on screen character, the Melbourne hitman Ray Shoesmith (except the beanie is gone and he’s wearing a black peaked cap) Scott Ryan chooses to sit in the sun, facing a wall fountain that’s been switched off for our interview (too noisy). He’s about to get stuck into a dish of penne arrabiata for lunch as we talk about his debut as a filmmaker, with the low budget, in your face black comedy, The Magician.

He freely admits that there is a fair bit of Scott Ryan in Ray Shoesmith (the reversed initials being the least of it) – the laid back, laconic nature, but without the violence. Shoesmith is a name from his schooldays, a fellow student, but that particular Shoesmith need have no fears; it stops at the name. No dark suggestions are implied.

"fascinated by the real life stories of hitmen"

In the film, Melbourne hit man Ray (Ryan) is letting a neighbouring young Italian film student, Max (Massimiliano Andrighetto), follow him around making a documentary about him and his work – making people disappear - to be released only on his death. Over the course of a couple of jobs, Ray and Max discuss several banal subjects, their domestic situations as well as his work, sometimes drawing in his targets, such as Tony (Ben Walker), a small time drug dealer who has been sniffing into the takings. Max even brokers a deal that sees Tony reveal the whereabouts of some loot in an attempt to save his skin.

Ryan doesn’t really know why he’s so fascinated by the real life stories of hitmen that inspired the film; it began when he read Contract Killer, the biography of a New York hitman. “It was one of the best books I’d ever read. Period. He was a freelance hitman for the mob, and I read it when I was about 18, having seen it in a bookstore. I read it about four or five times… it was fantastic.” He has since read several others and formed a compound picture when creating his character for The Magician.

Unlike the many romanticised films about hitmen, The Magician seems so real that many people seeing the film without prior knowledge believe that it really is a documentary. That’s what makes Scott Ryan tick cinematically: he’s fascinated by the reality that can be captured on the screen. His next film, already scripted; Who Cares Who Knows is “a realistic zombie movie… it’s ridiculous but I want to make it seem real. To see how it would be if it was really happening.” And it won’t be funny, like Shaun of the Dead, which, says Ryan, lost its drama by being funny.

A multi media student at Melbourne’s Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Ryan had written various screenplays and sent them to the U.S. with little success – and to make matters worse a university lecturer had assured him that his ambition to make a feature-length film about a local hitman probably wasn’t worth pursuing. Aware that neither private investors nor a government film body would ever fund a feature film project made by a skeleton crew with “no track record and half a script,” Ryan decided to strike out on his own. The prospect of tackling the project head-on, he says, held more appeal than the having to follow the traditional route which Ryan describes as “the fully funded short, commercials and then maybe the chance to make a feature somewhere down the line...”

"A fictional documentary was the obvious avenue to pursue"

Given the meagre budget Ryan was able to pull together, the style of the project was never subject to choice. “I knew I couldn’t remake Gone With The Wind, so I thought what can I do really cheaply?” A fictional documentary was the obvious avenue to pursue, says Ryan, because “even if it looked dodgy and gritty and raw, it wasn’t going to detract from it [the story]. It might even help.”

Ryan got to work with his brother Adam and a mini DV-cam in his garage one afternoon, and the opening scene of The Magician was suddenly conjured up.

Some time after the film’s rough completion, and with no luck attracting a distributor (“I’m the world’s worst producer,” he confesses) Ryan made the decision to enter The Magician in competition at the St Kilda Film Festival. A whittled-down, 30 minute version of the feature (necessarily shortened in order to comply with competition regulations) was submitted.

As luck would have it The Magician caught the eye of writer/director and one-time professional stuntman Nash Edgerton. Interested in showing a copy to his brother (the actor and writer Joel), Edgerton contacted Ryan, whereupon the filmmaker suggested he watch the feature version – primarily, he says, because he didn’t have another copy of the short.

“He took a copy of the feature home, rightly thinking it was going to suck,” says Ryan. Edgerton candidly agrees. “I really just wanted a copy of the short to show my brother, because he was thinking about putting together a mockumentary at the time.” Edgerton nonetheless decided to take the feature copy; “I didn’t want to offend him,” and some days later he played the tape to Joel and a couple of friends.

Edgerton and his friends were pretty impressed. He rang Ryan to say he’d be happy to help find a distributor, but only after a re-cut. Appreciative of the help, Ryan offered Edgerton a producer credit, reasoning that he “might as well get something out of it.” Edgerton, who had never considered producing another director’s work, eventually agreed with the proviso that the film be scrutinised and reconstructed. Before long the pair started talking about rebuilding the film ‘from scratch.’

Not long after Edgerton contacted his producer at Cherub Pictures, Michele Bennett, and asked her to work with him on The Magician in order that the best possible post-production and release process be ensured. Following the highly successful and critically acclaimed hitman biopic, Chopper, starring Eric Bana, Bennett had been inundated with offers to produce similar projects, but had chosen not to pursue them. The spirit of Ryan’s performance, however, and the promise of the drama – “even in the early edit you could see it was going to work,” she says – quickly won her over and Bennett assumed the role of producer.

"We may do a mothers’ cut for the DVD"

Reactions to The Magician have been mostly positive, ranging from major festival invitations to critical praise - except his mother “doesn’t like the swearing. We may do a mothers’ cut for the DVD,” he jokes, “which will be about five minutes long, without the swearing and the violence.”

Ryan’s unique film reflects a unique person; nor does he feel a part of the Australian film community. Not yet, anyway. As for making films, he has no pretensions or grand ambitions about changing the world. “The best way to change the world is to change yourself,” he says. When asked, he reveals he has a well practiced spiritual side, notably Buddhism and Daoism. He meditates and finds that brings balance and calm. “It also makes you more perceptive and gets you closer to what’s real.”

Other than films, his main interests, he confesses, are women. Cagily, he admits that this may be singular at present; “yeah, you could say there was someone…” But she’s not in the industry. “I dated an actress once,” he says quietly. “Never again…”

Published September 29, 2005

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