Ryan Prows, writer/director of “Narcocorrido”
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Ryan Prows, writer and director of the dramatic short film “Narcocorrido,” made the movie as his thesis film for the prestigious American Film Institute. It’s a harrowing tale of border politics, the corrupting power of drug trafficking and human frailty in the face of temptation. He took a few minutes to talk about his film.
Congratulations on the film. It’s a short film and yet it feels like a mini-epic. Tell us about how you came up with the concept and story.
Thanks. I stumbled onto narcocorridos, and the music just spoke to me. I grew up listening to punk and hip-hop and outlaw country, and this felt very close to all that in subject matter. And the fashion and polka style of the music was a great and so different and felt epic on its own, true ballads, so we just tried to do them justice and tell one of these songs in the film medium.
And it was important to me to try and tell two sides of the story. Try and see it from both sides of the border, from all the people effected in these border issues. Telling these stories through a song felt right.
Do I have it right that this was your thesis film for the American Film Institute Conservatory? What was that experience like?
Yes, this was our thesis film for AFI. It was a great experience for me. Got to meet this great team of people that I’m going to continue working with, and we worked really really hard together to push the film to where we wanted it. We had to fight hard to get it done, so it’s really satisfying to us that it’s doing well now. The best part of this whole ride with the film so far is that we were able to get to that place with a film we’re all really proud of that talks about something important to us.
It’s a very technically accomplished movie in addition to the great acting and storytelling. Are people surprised when they see “Narcocorrido” and realize how polished short indie films can look?
Yeah, I’ve heard the whole “It’s not fair this is in competition with these other films” at festivals, which is a pretty amazing compliment when you get down to it. We made it at school; we’re student filmmakers who had to raise the budget ourselves and use it correctly to make it feel bigger than it is.
But beyond that, it was important to look past the big action stuff and really focus in on the characters and what they were going through scene to scene and make sure the tension is mounting and all of that. That was my main focus, and that’s free and it engages the audience in your film 100 percent more than just effects or a shootout or whatever. The team was really behind the idea of marrying all these elements together that you normally don’t get in a student short film to make something that feels fresh, and I think we succeeded.
It’s fun to watch with a crowd because they’re not expecting what comes, and you can just feel the room getting hot by the end of it. The actors killed it, the technicians pulled it all together, and it feels like a real filmgoing spectacle at the end of a short 23 minutes. I’m proud of that.
The choice of the framing device, with the Mexican folk ballad, was bold and interesting. The opening may strike the audience as cheesy, but the closing coda, with the translations of what he’s singing, is chilling. Tell us about the development of that concept.
That came out of my initial discovery of the music. That first time I stumbled onto a narcocorrido music video, I laughed. It was really foreign to me that you’d have this raucous polka played by guys in Nudie Suits with pistols tucked in their belts and ski masks on. It blew my mind. And then somebody translated one of the songs for me and I thought: “Oh, these guys are talking about some real shit.”
They’re telling folk stories in the truest sense, but they’re just talking about the modern-day drug trade and the corruption of the U.S. government instead of hillside bandits and the Mexican Revolution that the corrido tradition comes from. So I gained a perspective on their art and didn’t laugh at it anymore, and that’s what I thought the short should try and do. It lays out a song so that by the end of it the audience has hopefully gained a new perspective and can relate to the culture and music a bit more.
I’ve discussed your film with a number of people, and the general feeling is that watching it is like seeing a small portion of a larger narrative tapestry. Some have even suggested you made this movie with ambitions toward a feature-film version. Any truth to that?
We are currently working on a feature script of “Narcocorrido,” with plans of that being the next project. Writing away, and hope to have that together soon. The narcocorrido world is so interesting, and I want to open the story up a bit more and dive into this music scene and more of the border strife going on currently. So it’s exciting to keep pushing forward on. I feel like I know these characters off the short and I’m discovering more as we delve deeper into the story.
I love the opening of your (apparently self-authored) bio on the film’s website: “Ryan is a Director, a Southerner, and a Gentleman of the highest caliber, as well as a published author, a wilderness survival expert, a conspiracy theorist, an advocate for civilian space travel, and a cautious philanthropist, in addition to being a run-on sentence enthusiast.” Tell us more about the Director part and your development as a filmmaker.
I grew up in Atlanta and started making short films in high school. I went to Georgia State University for my undergrad and got a job with a touring student film fest after that doing video work for them — intros, bumps, promos, etc. I’ve always been drawn to genre work, particularly the crime genre, and want to continue down that path for a bit. The main thing for me in my filmmaking is trying to get human stories told in hugely dramatic ways, so I love the crime genre for that reason. You can put the highest stakes to the smallest story very quickly and then make it worse and worse for your hero!
What’s next on the horizon for you in terms of film projects?
The “Narcocorrido” feature is what I’m writing at the moment. Also putting together a couple of treatments for other features, working with some buddies out of AFI on a comedy collective we started together called Tomm Fondle (we’ve got a pilot written that we’re currently sending around), and reading a ton of scripts and taking meetings. I’m open to directing stuff I haven’t written or collaborating on an existing script, so looking into that side of it as well. And I’ve done some pitches recently for music videos. So, staying busy creating, trying to hustle up the next thing. Excited by the doors the short has opened for us and trying to capitalize on the opportunity.