Serena Ryen, Ethan Itzkow & Hayley Hogan: “Aggressive problem solvers”

…Cultivate your sense of self-worth and extend that to other people. Work with others to achieve the mutual goal of humanization rather than competing against them. Many people see an opportunity to cut someone down as an opportunity to lift themselves up, but that’s just a race to the bottom. If I look out for […]

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…Cultivate your sense of self-worth and extend that to other people. Work with others to achieve the mutual goal of humanization rather than competing against them. Many people see an opportunity to cut someone down as an opportunity to lift themselves up, but that’s just a race to the bottom. If I look out for you, and you look out for me, we all win.

As a part of our series about “Filmmakers Making A Social Impact” I had the pleasure of interviewing filmmakers Serena Ryen, Ethan Itzkow, and Hayley Hogan of Schmeh Films.

Their stories aim to ignite empathy and galvanize action towards social justice, while they do their part behind the scenes to change the often unsustainable working culture of the independent film scene. Their award-winning film “CASHED” is now streaming on Amazon Prime after screening at over a dozen film festivals nationwide and winning awards for Audience Choice, Best Dramatic Short, Best Actress, Best Cinematography, and a Best Short Comedy nomination. Their newest film “High Score” (premiering at the Chelsea Film Festival, called one of the Top 10 Film Festivals in North America by USA Today) sheds light on the threat of white supremacy in America and was staffed almost entirely by femxles and artists from communities targeted by white supremacy.

Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you share your “backstory” that brought you to this career?

Serena Ryen: Thanks for having us! We’re a bit of a family act. Hayley and I are sisters and Ethan and I were set up through a mutual friend we’d met on an acting job (we both started out as actors in New York). He came to stay with me while I was out of town with a show and that’s when we started writing our first film together. We had never produced a movie before but we felt this inescapable urge to take our artistry into our own hands. I think somehow we knew from the start that we’d figure it out. We’d both spent plenty of time on film sets as actors and thankfully Ethan has this unbelievable ability to learn pretty much anything.

Ethan Itzkow: I gave myself a crash course at first. I read an 800-page filmmaking textbook cover to cover, watched hundreds of YouTube videos, and asked to get coffee with some smart filmmakers who knew a lot more than I did at the time (thanks Hannah Roze and Carlotta Summers!). The more I learned, the easier it was to communicate what was circling inside my head. Hayley joined us not long after that.

Hayley Hogan: My creative background is a little different from Serena’s and Ethan’s. I moved to New York when I was 17 to attend The School of Visual Arts, where I earned my BFA in Photography. I spent the first few years out of college shooting for small fashion brands and quickly realized that I needed more business experience to make this visual artist thing work. I interviewed with a branding agency that wasn’t really looking to hire, but the timing was perfect — I needed an internship and they needed a fashion photographer…tomorrow…for a 0 budget shoot on their roof. It was pretty nerve-wracking, but the shoot turned out great, and after a few weeks they offered me a full-time job as an Account Executive. That was a pivotal moment, and has since led me to some fantastic design agencies, exciting brands, and invaluable lessons. It isn’t all that different from producing for film, so with my visual arts and management experience and Serena and Ethan’s everything else, we’ve formed this perfect little triangle.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?

SR: Oh man, here’s a story I’ll never forget. As we know, I started as a performer. I remember going to an audition for this fitness model gig a few years ago. They had specifically requested that females come dressed in sports bras, which I wasn’t thrilled about but I did what I was told. When I got there, the room was packed with dozens of other actors and models waiting for their appointments. Usually, an actor gets to audition in a private room with just the casting team watching. Not this time. When my name was called, I was instructed to do a series of burpees-into-jumping jacks, in front of the entire room, while the casting team taped the audition. Well wouldn’t you know, I got two or three burpees in when my left boob fully popped out the top of my sports bra for the entire room and the camera to see. I could tell casting was mortified, but I just popped that boob right back in, said “Thanks,” and resolved never to ask a woman to jump around like a nut in a sports bra at an audition for any of my projects.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

EI: One of the most interesting people I’ve gotten to know in this business is Jason Liles. Some readers will recognize him as the actor who brought George the gorilla to life in “Rampage” and he did the bodywork for Ryuk in the “Death Note” movie. We met almost a decade ago doing a thesis film. I was playing a fun loser-type with mommy issues opposite this super cool clock-monster played by Jason.

Something to know about Jason is that he’s almost seven feet tall. I, on the other hand, standing at a towering 5’7 3/4th feet, am the tallest dude in my family’s history. I stood nearly tip-toe on an apple box while Jason and I shot our coverage together. The reason I bring up his height is that Jason was told over and over again that it would be a roadblock to his career, and instead, it’s been a factor in his success. His artistry, upbeat attitude, and self-assurance that he would find success despite all the dumb comments about his height were so inspirational to me, especially because, less than two years before that, I had been cut from the acting program at Ithaca College and was told similar things about how I wasn’t cut out to be a part of the entertainment industry. So meeting a kindred spirit at just the right time made the difference for me. He’s been a friend and a reminder that what some people tell you are your flaws, in reality, are great sources of strength.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

SR: Our short film “CASHED” just started streaming on Amazon Prime and follows its main character, Jess, after a rare night of drinking on her 25th birthday. When she wakes up to a wicked hangover and surprise unemployment, she struggles with whether or not to spend her last few bucks on weed while trying to pick up the pieces of her life and find some peace of mind in the process.

It was important to us to show a female character being a real, multifaceted person in all her flawed, gross, vulnerable human glory. Stoner-antihero roles are almost exclusively reserved for male characters and we wanted to shake up that norm. We also wanted to explore the reality of living as a Millennial strapped with a mountain of student loan debt in the gig economy today and the peaks and valleys of addiction, while making the audience laugh at the absurdity and relatability of it all.

We’re also crazy passionate about our newest film “High Score,” which sheds light on how white supremacy and the American incarnation of the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory (the dangerous and untrue idea that Jewish people bring people of color and immigrants into a country to replace its white male population) are propagating via the darkest echo chambers of the internet. After the Poway Synagogue shooting in 2019 (just one example of the onslaught of hate-fueled shootings in recent years), we felt so heartbroken and horrified that we knew we had to do something to address the rising tide of deadly white supremacy in this country. We made it a goal of ours to staff the film with as many artists from communities targeted by white supremacy as possible and we ended up with such a kickass team. The film is premiering this year with the Chelsea Film Festival, which is moving online in the wake of the pandemic, so folks will be able to watch “High Score” at home.

EI: We’re also developing a series, but we can’t share too many details about that yet.

Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?

HH: I’m so impressed by athletes — probably because I’m not particularly athletic myself — and long-distance marathon runners are at the top of my list of exceptional people. To think that the human body is still shattering records year after year, pushing unthinkable limits, is inspiring to me. It’s a tangible example of the impact of motivation and the force of will. In the 1930s, Louis Zamperini set a national record for the collegiate mile. Now, almost 100 years later, his record is practically the norm for competitive college athletes. It shows that so many of the limits we place on ourselves are mental, based on predefined ceilings.

EI: For me, a big source of inspiration comes from a rather esoteric character from history: Moses Mendelssohn. He was a Jewish philosopher in Germany from the time before Jewish people were allowed citizenship. He started as the son of an impoverished scribe and became one of the most respected philosophers of his age, which was no small feat considering the laws of the time that restricted what Jewish people could and couldn’t do in society. He taught himself both Latin and German with nothing more than dictionaries and a few choice friends. He managed to make a name for himself as not only a towering intellect but also as a Jew, which wasn’t possible before emancipation and the Haskalah (the Jewish enlightenment in Europe). Instead of eschewing his core identity as a Jewish person so he could be accepted into the broader German culture, he strove to show that he and his people could contribute to the intellectual landscape of Germany and Europe, without sacrificing who he was and what he believed. I think about him every time I’m going to teach myself a daunting new skill: “If he could, I can.”

Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, how are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting social impact causes you are working on right now?

SR: I feel grateful to be a part of a team that tries to infuse kindness and compassion into everything we do. It’s a goal of ours to create a healthier, more just, and more equitable world and film industry. For us, that starts with the stories we choose to tell and the people we collaborate with to tell them. Our narratives tend to examine harsh and ugly truths about life in the USA today but our goal with them is always to tap into the audience’s empathy and humanity. I think anytime a person can empathize with a fictional character, it deepens their capacity to empathize with other flesh-and-blood humans, which then translates into their behavior and relationships. The first step towards action is a shifting of perspective, and stories can shift people’s perspectives, their hearts, and their minds in seemingly invisible but monumental ways. Fun fact: Teddy Roosevelt’s reading of Sinclair’s The Jungle led to the establishment of the FDA. It started with a story that changed someone’s mind.

It’s also imperative that we diversify our teams in a representative way and amplify BIPOC voices. Often, you walk on a film set and the first thing you see is a sea of white male faces. The people doing the green-lighting have to open the doors of opportunity to those who have traditionally been denied access. It’s not about excluding the group that’s been privileged up to this point, but rather it’s about including as many opinions and talents as possible — it’s the ethical thing to do and it’s how you get the most dynamic, authentic results.

Aside from trying to tell socially impactful stories in front of the camera, it’s also a mission of ours to soften and humanize the way things work behind the scenes. We want our collaborators to feel heard and seen, and like they can come back to work the next day feeling refreshed and excited, not invisible and undervalued. We’re not perfect by any means, but we always try to step into our work with integrity and respect first.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and take action for this cause? What was that final trigger?

HH: You’re so right! A lot of my career had been spent facilitating other people’s visions and I reached a point where my pragmatic brain would constantly squash any impulse to take action. I fell into a rut of discounting my own ideas, thinking “What’s the point?” or “Someone else has already done that.”

My ‘Aha’ moment came while I was reading The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron. It’s a self-guided workbook for all manner of imaginative types, with the goal being to find your way back to creativity. If an idea pops into your head, Julia urges you to listen to it. Synchronicity is a central theme, meaning that if we act on inspiration as it arises, we open doors mentally and physically. I had been involved in the development of “High Score” from the beginning — consulting on the script, creating graphics, and just generally supporting Serena and Ethan. But when the three of us sat down to watch the rough cut of the film, everything in The Artist’s Way clicked. I remember as the credits rolled, we sat in total silence, breathless, hearts racing. The purpose of “High Score” is to galvanize viewers into action against white supremacy, and lo and behold, I was being galvanized by my own film! It was like “Wow, this is synchronicity!” I knew in that moment that I couldn’t walk away from our message.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

EI: There was a situation a few years ago when we had to replace an actress on an earlier project because she found out her grandfather was coming to town from out of the country. The actress didn’t want to miss what could be her only chance to visit with him for years to come. We had written the part for her and we knew how passionate she was about the project, so we found ourselves in a tricky spot.

In the entertainment industry, it’s a general rule of thumb that you check your personal life at the door. If you signed the contract, you do the job, and that’s the way it is. I was indescribably close to my Grandpa before he passed, so I just wouldn’t have been able to live with myself if we had pressured her into staying on, denying her the chance to see her grandfather just to make our own lives easier. I have never regretted putting in the extra work to solve that problem together. We only go around once, you know? We can’t be so focused on our goals that we’re willing to tromp all over someone else’s life. When we prioritize our wants over other people’s needs, we’re not treating them as people, but as objects. In the end, she got to spend precious time with her grandfather and she stayed on to assist us remotely with casting and script consulting. We held a few rounds of auditions and, together, we found an actress we all loved. Everybody won!

Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?

EI: 1) For individuals: Cultivate your sense of self-worth and extend that to other people. Work with others to achieve the mutual goal of humanization rather than competing against them. Many people see an opportunity to cut someone down as an opportunity to lift themselves up, but that’s just a race to the bottom. If I look out for you, and you look out for me, we all win.

2) For the government: Enforce the labor protections that are on the books and pass some new ones. Film sets can be magical places you never want to leave, or they can be notoriously abusive. Oftentimes there’s little recourse for the targets of that abuse under the current criminal and civil justice systems. Essentially, whoever has more money wins the legal battle. If you’re lucky enough to be part of a union, you’ll have a good lawyer and a fighting chance, but (as we’ve seen with the #MeToo movement) even good lawyers can’t prevail if the laws favor the abusers and, even if you do win, there’s the risk of professional retaliation. It would be just peachy if the government would stop gutting the legal ability to stand up for oneself.

3) For society: Slow. Down. We’re all so obsessed with being as successful as possible as soon as possible that sometimes we make destructive choices. It’s evident in the wake of the pandemic. Non-union productions are floating around COVID-19 liability waivers so they can start producing content before anyone else. I’m always left wondering…why? It’s dangerous to public health and few things of real quality can be made at lightning speed. We can all challenge ourselves to slow down.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

HH: 1. Being nice does not mean being a doormat. This is a lesson I learned while bartending in a wildly overcrowded nightclub in New York City. Sometimes people forget about normal professional boundaries. I can’t tell you how many guests have reached over the bar and cupped my face in their hands. It wasn’t until my manager at the time pulled me aside to ask why I let people handle me that way that it occurred to me I had a choice! I started practicing how to tell people to please not touch me. Learning how to communicate my boundaries was a crucial step toward creating mutual respect.

SR: 2. Burnout isn’t sexy or admirable. It’s what’s been drilled into us since childhood. “Work as hard as you can and you’ll achieve anything,” and for sure, some people do need to hear that. I heard that “work hard” mantra, though, and I internalized it to the point that, at sixteen, I was already overextended and bordering on worn-out. I think the people who constructed that narrative meant well but, rather than “work hard,” I think we should be saying “work effectively, work cooperatively, work sustainably.”

3. It’s all right — and sometimes wholly necessary — to deviate from the plan. I’ve had the unexpected and joyous pleasure of falling into filmmaking and traveling the world writing and performing — all adventures I had never planned or expected. It’s true on a film set also. We like to call ourselves “aggressive problem solvers.” It’s sort of an inside joke that started among us and our incredible Director of Photography Jorge Arzac during filming for “High Score.” Sometimes the best part is creatively problem-solving together when your plan goes out the window.

EI: 4. “No” is not a bad word. Not everyone will have your best interest at heart in this industry. Oftentimes, they won’t. It doesn’t make you “difficult” to state your boundaries, and if someone is refusing to respect your boundaries, that’s a pretty big clue that saying “No” right now will lead to a much better “Yes” later. On the flip side, make sure your use of the word “No” is about safety and boundaries, not about your ego.

HH: 5. Celebrate all the wins, even the “little” ones. Have you ever told yourself “don’t get too excited”? I catch myself doing that all the time — but screw that, get excited! If you’re not celebrating your successes big and small, you can easily get swept up in life’s challenges. We’ll be toasting this interview tonight!

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

SR: Your participation matters. It really does. It’s easy to feel like, if you can’t make the most impact, you may as well not spend the energy getting involved with an issue at all. But not all social activism has to look like marching in the streets. Sometimes it looks like having a quiet but challenging conversation with your casually racist grandma. Often it looks like examining our own biases and resolving to change our own behavior.

HH: I agree. You don’t have to overhaul your life to do something meaningful for your community or the environment. You can start small and still make a positive impact. That might just mean carrying a reusable grocery bag (I keep one in my fanny pack at all times), setting up a monthly donation to one organization you believe in, or voting in the election.

We are very blessed that many other Social Impact Heroes read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would like to collaborate with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂

SR: I’d love to collaborate with Abbie Jacobson and Ilana Glazer. Ethan and I had never seen “Broad City” when we were writing and developing “CASHED,” but it’s since become one of my all-time favorite series. Their commitment to staying true to who they are as women and as people is enormously inspiring. They don’t care what the buttoned-up patriarchy thinks of them. They’re also loud as hell about the social activism issues that are important to them. We need as many loud-mouth activist women in 2020 as we can get.

Also, ever since I discovered “Six Feet Under,” I’ve wanted to work with HBO. I found that show probably ten years after it had already ended, but it came to me at exactly the moment I needed it and changed my life. HBO was also the first, I believe, to hire an intimacy coordinator for their sets. They’ve done important work with Alicia Rodis to make intimate scenes safe and respectful for artists. I admire the work they do on so many levels.

EI: I wish I could be in the writer’s room for whatever project Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino have coming up next. They’re masters of poignancy and subversive entertainment. Both “Avatar: The Last Airbender” and “The Legend of Korra” are beacons of humanizing hope in an entertainment landscape filled with dystopian-obsessed storylines. They strike at some of our deepest societal problems in a digestible, fun way. You don’t even know you’re getting a primer on the early warning signs of a dictatorship until one character finally says the scary part out loud. That’s a rare quality to have in a piece of art, especially art that’s been commercialized. Plus, I’ve probably felt more and cried more during those two series than anything else I’ve watched this year.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

HH: I feel like I’m eating and breathing Life Lesson Quotes right now (my lifeline to hope and optimism). But there’s one quote in particular, from David Graeber’s “Bullshit Jobs,” that, for me, applies to everything in life: “..a rising tide of bullshit soils all boats.”

It’s an arguably cynical twist on the aphorism “a rising tide lifts all boats” — which is also valid — but Graeber’s rephrase feels especially apt this year. Whether we’re talking about social activism or environmental change, it’s undeniable that we’re all in this together. We can either continue on this ‘every man for himself’ course, focusing only on what directly impacts us as individuals, closing our eyes to the folks drowning over there. Or we can reject the tide of bullshit and come together to keep everyone afloat. It seems like an obvious choice to me.

SR: I love that. My friend and wonderful film-director-renaissance-man Jason Chaet and I were talking recently about filmmaking, and he said “The process is the point.” That idea has been guiding me ever since he said that. Sometimes it’s so easy to fixate on outcomes in this result-focused, social media-driven world we’re living in, but trusting in the process is where the joy is. When you can remember to tune into why you’re doing what you’re doing rather than working solely for a specific result or expectation, that’s when you discover the most about yourself. Our humanity is in the quiet flow of process — whether that’s a creative process or just the process of living.

How can our readers follow you online?

SR: You can watch “CASHED” on Amazon Prime and you can follow the films on Instagram @cashedfilm and @highscorefilm.

This was great, thank you so much for sharing your story and doing this with us. We wish you continued success!

EI: Thanks again for having us! It’s been our pleasure.

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