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SXSW '06 Interview: 'State vs. Reed' Co-Director Ryan Polomski

by Scott Weinberg

The 'State vs. Reed' Pitch: Did Rodney Reed kill Stacey Stites? This documentary explores the case that landed a 28 year old Bastrop man on Texas' Death Row.

Describe your movie using the smallest number of words possible.
The film explores a very strange case that landed a local man on Texas' Death Row. For some, the conviction and sentence is a done deal. For others, troubling questions remain that, if answered, could lead to a complete exoneration and re-evaluation of the death penalty institution here in Texas. There is everything here: racial and financial discrimination, inept lawyers and investigators, biased courts, bullying prosecution and, possibly, a small town conspiracy to cover up the truth.

Is this your first trip to SXSW? Got any other film festival experience? If you’re a festival veteran, let us know your favorite and least-favorite parts of the ride.
This is my first trip to SXSW. We've made a medium length documentary called "Hecho A Mano" which followed an independent indigenous journalist through the highlands of Guatemala that did a circuit in 2002. I loved the discussions and meetings with other filmmakers. It made the work worthwhile in the end. We showed at some smaller, marginal type of festivals -- like the Heard Museum's Indigenous Film Festival in Scottsdale, and the Archeology Channel International Film Festival in Eugene. They were awesome -- much more intimate than the bigger ones, and, in ways, more satisfying.

Back when you were a little kid, and you were asked that inevitable question, your answer would always be “When I grow up I want to be a …” what?
A basketball player, then a sports journalist, then a farmer and, after watching Hoop Dreams a documentary filmmaker. I still want to be a farmer or rancher some day in some capacity.

Not including your backyard and your Dad’s Handycam, how did you get your real “start” in filmmaking?
I got accepted into UT's MFA Film program with after applying on a lark without any "real" experience. They took a chance with me and now I am trying to make it worth their while. As I am with the University of Montana, who provided me with a full undergrad scholarship. I'd like to represent both schools well.

Do you feel any differently about your film now that you know it’s on “the festival circuit?”
It's just starting right now, so I can't really tell what, if anything will happen, or if anyone outside Texas will care about this story. The SXSW screening validates a hell of a lot of work we've put into this doc for the past three years.

Of all the Muppets, which one do you most relate to?
Not really too sure. Probably the frog because he's got a spicy lady by his side.

During production did you ever find yourself thinking ahead to film festivals, paying customers, good & bad reviews, etc?
I did think ahead to screenings, not necessarily the festival stuff. I make
films becuase I want people to see them and so they can help bring about change. So every decision I make is based on "OK, how will this film help change the world and influence people and society to live more peaceful and true". Films should be vehicles of change.

How did this film get rolling at the beginning? Give us a brief history from writing to production to post to just last night.
I started this film as part of my thesis graduate program three years ago after reading a local newspaper article on the case. I remember reading the article in my attic apartment in the middle of summer with no air conditioning and sweat pouring off my face from the heat and just being dumbstruck. I thought, everybody has to know about his case. It could change the way we do things here in Texas.

If you could share one massive lesson that you learned while making this movie, what would it be?
Be strong, speak your mind. Don't let anybody push you around or keep you from accomplishing your goals. Mind is stronger than body. Don't be afraid of success or finishing. Overcome.

Name an actor in your film that’s absolutely destined for the big-time. And why, of course.
This is a doc, so no big time actors. I think Rodney Reed could become the national poster boy as to why the death penalty system is so messed up right now. I could see him on Oprah some day.

Finish this sentence: If I weren’t a filmmaker, I’d almost definitely be...
A teacher, or a coach -- a rancher or a country music superstar -- or a
traveller of sorts.

Who’s an actor you’d kill a small dog to work with? (Don’t worry; nobody would know.)
Like I said, I don't really work with actors. I don't understand them. If I were to make a narrative, which I'd like to do in the next three years, I would probably work with some local youth that are untrained. They seem the most real to me.

Have you “made it” yet? If not, what would have to happen for you to be able to say “Yes, wow. I have totally made it!”
I think that is a dangerous question to ask yourself. I seem to raise my expectations of myself everyday. Always striving, you know?

Honestly, how important are film critics nowadays?
As always, they are totally important to getting the message out. It's good that there are so many out there, with so many different perspectives. You can't please everybody. Just do your best.

You’re told that your next movie must have one “product placement” on board, but you can pick the product. What would it be?

You’re contractually obligated to deliver an R-rated film to your producers. The MPAA says you have to delete a sex scene that’s absolutely integral to the film or you’re getting an NC-17. How do you handle it?
I fulfill my contract. Sex is just sex. Especially in the movies.

What’s your take on the whole “a film by DIRECTOR” issue? Do you feel it’s tacky, because hundreds (or at least dozens) of people collaborate to make a film – or do you think it’s cool, because ultimately the director is the final word on pretty much everything?
The director is the person with the most weight on his/her shoulders. Whether he or she is officially recogized as such (in the credits, in the media, in the financial statement) really doesn't matter. At the end of the day, when you close your eyes -- if you hold the responsibilty for getting the film out there . . . you are the director of that vision -- and everyone knows it, including yourself. Credits are tricky -- everyone wants theirs and often they are misleading. At the end of it all, only you know what you did in your heart, and that is enought.

In closing, we ask you to convince the average movie-watcher to choose your film instead of the trillion other options they have. How do you do it?
This film isn't for everybody -- but if you care about the issue of state sponsered executions, if you care about how we define "justice" in the U.S., and you want to see one of the wildest, unpredictable real-life stories unfold in front of your eyes, then come check out my documentary. It only take 60 minutes of your time.


State vs. Reed, directed by Ryan Polomski & Frank Bustoz, will premiere at the 2006 South By Southwest Film Festival. Click here for film & festival information.

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originally posted: 03/10/06 22:01:51
last updated: 03/10/06 22:02:48
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