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SxSW ’10 Interview – “Pelada” director Ryan White

Pelada - At SxSW Film
by Jason Whyte

“Pelada is the story of a trip around the world to twenty-five countries, delving deeply into the lives of the people who play pick-up soccer - the purest form of the game. From prisoners in Bolivia to moonshine brewers in Kenya, from females on the streets of Tehran to Chinese freestylers, the film is a window into the lives of people all over the world, all through the lens of a simple game.” Co-director Ryan White on the film “Pelada” which screens at this year’s South By Southwest Film. Ryan is one of the four directors on the film and he is representing “Pelada” for this interview.

Is this your first film in SxSW? Do you have any other festival experience? Do you plan to be in Austin for the screenings?

It’s our first film at SXSW and festival experience in general. We’re excited about it because from what we’ve heard SXSW is a great fit for our type of documentary. We’ll all be present for the screenings in Austin.

Could you give me a little look into your background (your own personal biography, if you will), and what led you to the desire to want to make film?

I went to Duke which has this amazing department entirely dedicated to documentary studies. You study and practice all mediums: photography, writing, audio, film, but by the end of school my focus was in filmmaking. I jumped straight into the industry after graduation and worked for years for Sherry Jones, a documentary producer based in Washington DC. It was one of those really lucky first jobs, where I was thrown into the trenches and exposed to the whole documentary process from beginning to end.

Growing up, you were no doubt asked the eternal question “When I grow up I want to be a …” Finish this sentence, please!

A photographer. But I was always a movie nerd too, so at some point those interests met in the middle and naturally landed me in docs.

How did this whole project come together?

We had studied documentary film at Duke University together, and Rebekah and Gwendolyn had played for the Duke women’s soccer team together. We’d all kind of gone our separate ways and hadn’t spoken for years, when out of the blue they got in touch and said, “We’re thinking about making this movie traveling the world…” I knew it was a great idea right away; luckily we were all still young and ambitious enough to not realize how massive the project we were trying to take on really was. If someone approached me now and said, “Hey so I’m thinking about making this movie… it’ll involve self-travel to 25 countries around the world” – I think now I know how stupidly large in scope that was. We were all at a point in our lives where we could take off, so it was kind of the perfect storm of four people coming to embark on a crazy idea.

What was the biggest challenge in the production of the movie, be it the script, principal photography or post-production stage?

Production was by far the biggest challenge. We had a small crew on purpose – two soccer players, two behind the camera. It allowed the intimacy that we wanted to create with the people we met on the journey. We tried to look like backpackers as much as possible (we kept our equipment in backpacks) because we were often crossing borders or traveling through dangerous neighborhoods where we didn’t want people to know we had expensive equipment. And we found ourselves in plenty of sticky situations at times; we were detained in Israel, reported to the Iranian government, and countless other situations we had to talk our way out of. But I think it speaks to the magic of the game and our movie’s subject: almost every time, without exception, once we explained what we were doing we were met excitement and comments like, “you guys have to check out my neighborhood!” I think in many ways the focus of our film protected us. It allowed us to go to places we never would have been able to go if we weren’t traveling with people who could kick a ball around.

Please tell me about the technical side of the film; your relation to the film’s cinematographer, what the film was shot on and why it was decided to be photographed this way.

The film was a two-camera shoot, Rebekah Fergusson and myself being the cinematographers. We had to shoot on tape and needed something small and inconspicuous so we shot on the Sony V1; hard drives weren’t an option for the type of rugged traveling and long periods of time we were away from electricity or civilization in general. We would finally get to a big city w/ a fedex, put our tapes in a box, and say our prayers that they reached home without disappearing. And the fact that both of our cameras made it to 25 countries over the course of two years without ever being stolen or severely breaking….we really should be the poster-children for Sony, or come to think of it, Sony AND FedEx since they also didn’t lose one shipment!

Talk a bit about the experiences (festival or non-festival) that you have had with this particular film. Have you had any interesting audience stories or questions that have arisen at screenings? If this is your first screening premiere, what do you hope to expect at the screenings of the film?

This is our first screening so we are pumped to show it to an audience. We’ve had works-in-progress screenings where we have gotten great reception, but this is the first time we’ll be showing our finished film to a live audience. I know this sounds simple, but we just want people to like it. We want people at the festival to walk out and think, “Now that was entertaining and moved me and was worth the money.”

Who would you say is “the audience” for this film? Do you want to reach everyone possible or any particular type of filmgoer?

Obviously soccer players are going to love this movie. Every soccer player can relate to the stories in this movie, of once having dreamed of being a star, and for whatever reason, that just never happened. But people all over the world still find a way for the game to fit into their lives.

But as the only non-soccer player in our group of four, my goal all along was to make this a movie that will also appeal to the audiences who could care less about the game. And I think it does that. They’re universal human stories, everyone can relate to having a passion, and the movie gives a glimpse into the way people are living around the world. Soccer is the vehicle, the lens of this movie, but the focus really lands on the lives of every day people. The vast majority of the film takes place off the field, in little pockets of the world that is rarely shown in films.

Who would you say your biggest inspirations are in the film world (directors, actors, cinematographers, etc)? Did you have any direct inspirations from filmmakers for this project in particular?

I think we took a lot of inspiration for Pelada particularly from The Endless Summer. It is part of the documentary canon, especially for sports docs, and we knew right away that we were sort of making a soccer player’s take on that classic. So we definitely took inspiration from the young, care-free attitude of that film; to just pick up and go on an adventure, see the world through a passion. But we also knew we wanted to use the sport to go a little deeper, to really delve into the lives of people we met along the way. The way “The Endless Summer” really couldn’t do because of technical limitations at the time it was made; we really wanted to allow the characters we met along the way to tell their own story, in their own words.

How far do you think you would want to go in this industry? Do you see yourself working on larger stories for a larger budget under the studio system, or do you feel that you would like to continue down the independent film path?

I want to continue directing documentaries. I think I have the coolest job in the world. That being said, it hasn’t been easy, especially since the recession. Before the recession we didn’t realize how lucky we were. We had tons of interest in our movie from a financial standpoint, people saw the footage and believed in it and were willing to put some money into a pet artistic project. But since the recession that seems to have understandably dried up; investors don’t have the disposable income to put money into a cool side project. So having spent the last couple years crashing on couches, eating ramen noodles, and working horrible side gigs to keep us afloat, I think we’re all acutely aware of how difficult it can be to get a feature doc to the finish line, especially one with our geographical scope. But, that being said, I will do it again in a heartbeat. I love story-telling in general, and I’m currently working on some screenplays that I hope at one point might allow me to make living and continue making documentaries.

If you weren’t in this profession, what other line of work do think you would be involved with?

Photography or writing, or both. I love the way images can tell a story, and I like to be the one attempting to piece the stories together.

Please tell me some filmmakers, actors or other talent that you would love to work with, even if money was no object.

Errol Morris, Doug Pray, Agnes Varda, Werner Herzog, Jeff Blitz.

How important do you think the critical/media response is to film these days, be it a large production, independent film or festival title?

Since it’s my first foray into making a feature, I don’t really know. I do know I base a lot of what I want to see on critical response, especially of independent films and festival films, so I would say it’s very important. There are so many great films, especially documentaries I think, that go unseen because they didn’t get the exposure. That’s why we feel so lucky to have been accepted into SXSW, it’s a way to show people our movie exists and hopefully allow them access to see it, if not in Austin than through other outlets down the road.

If your film could play in any movie theatre in the world, which one would you choose?

Tough question! I thought long and hard but couldn’t come up with a good answer, sorry.

What would you say to someone on the street to see your film instead of the latest blockbuster playing at the local megaplex?

Try it out! Our movie is entertaining and (hopefully) has a little more brain than a lot of blockbusters. The word “documentary” doesn’t have to mean boring. And there’s no bad acting in our movie!

What would you say or do to someone who is talking during or conversing/texting on their cell phone while you’re watching a movie (if at your own screening or another movie you attend)?

Ha, I like to think I am a pretty non-confrontational person, so I’d probably let it go. But inside I know it would be frustrating, to have spent years working on something, cutting something down from 400 hours to 90 minutes, the movie becomes your baby. And because so much great stuff ended up on the cutting room floor, everything that DID make it in is seen as the best of the best. We edited this movie ourselves, so everything is seen as connected in an almost neurotic you-can’t-miss-a-moment way. And who knows if that’s a real sentiment, but it makes you feel like if someone misses a moment, than he or she isn’t getting the entire story that you intended them to get.

What do you love the most about this business of making movies?

I love watching it get better, watching it really take shape and become a “movie.” There are those days of work where you’re looking at what you’re doing and go, “is this a piece of crap? Are we making something horrible that our own mothers wouldn’t want to watch?” But you stick to it, and slowly you watch it evolve into something you’re proud of. So I love watching the evolution of the narrative and it all starting to click.

No doubt there are a lot of aspiring filmmakers at film festivals who are out there curious about making a film of their own. Do you have any advice that you could provide for those looking to get a start?

I feel like I’m just making my own start, so I’d feel a little precocious shelling out advice. But one thing I do know, that I wasn’t really prepared for when we started making our own movie, is to steel yourself for rejection. It is impossible, no matter how hard you work or how great your product is, in this industry to get all ‘yeses.’ And most times you disagree with the rejecter but they are in the power position so you can’t argue back. But I think we’ve learned to use rejections to our advantage, and also realize that “no” isn’t always a reflection of your art. There are many no’s we’ve gotten that have turned around the second or third time we’ve gone after them, so I think we’ve really learned to be persistent.

And finally…what is your all time favourite motion picture, and why?

“Spellbound”. It’s the only movie that I can watch over and over, and for some reason it feels like I’m watching it for the first time.

This is one of the many films screening at this year’s South By Southwest Film in Austin, Texas between March 12-20. For more information on the film’s screening, point your browser to

Jason Whyte,

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originally posted: 03/10/10 17:37:03
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