"I never really understood Camus until now. That feeling of disconnectedness. It all makes sense to me since I moved here."
These words start "The Light Side," a short film by director Ryan Ebner, who cut his commercial teeth on brands like Slim Jim, Snickers and Reebok, among others. We open on the streets of the Bronx by night, as an old man—our subject—meanders down them.
"I wielded great power. I was a destroyer of worlds. The glory was infinite," he says. He isn't speaking figuratively.
This marks Ebner's first non-branded short film, and it depicts an ageing Sith Lord wrestling with irrelevance and the passage of time. You're up—way up, galaxy dictator up—then you're down, using your lightsaber to toast bread in an apartment that's probably a five-floor walkup, and that probably hurts your back.
Ebner conceived the film while taking physical therapy for a shoulder injury; his specialist's office overlooked a fencing studio. "Sith's character is all about checking his ego and accepting humility," he says. "He used to be someone important, someone big. But now he's fallen from power and is facing his sordid past. That's just life. It happens to all of us in various ways: careers, relationships, family dynamics, etc."
Small subtleties betray the Sith vibes early on, even before he uses the Force to pass himself the hot sauce: His preference for dark clothes and a hood, and the slow walk, formidable in any other context but the streets of New York; not to mention the dry, staccato delivery of his thoughts.
The lightsaber makes a few comedic appearances, and we're fans of how it's used to express the inexpressible: our ex-Sith's inner weather, the part of himself he must either adapt or struggle with forever.
It first appears when he uses it, inappropriately, upset over a student's insubordination in fencing class. Later, it expresses his listlessness … while toasting bread. Then, in denouement, it stays out, finding its place in an auto garage full of immigrants.
"Like me, they all come from somewhere else … they don't seem to care where I come from or what I've done. And I like the work," the former Sith says as his lightsaber cuts planks like a hot knife through butter.
Finding a new tribe, a new community and a new normal don't quite kill the melancholy of having once been the iron fist of tyranny, but it does make it easier to live with.
"I may have lied when I said I didn't miss my old life, a little bit," he admits. "But I did some bad things. Some very, very bad things. I'm not that person anymore."
"The Light Side" debuted at the Tribeca We Are One Global Film Festival, and was chosen as one of five narrative shorts to represent Tribeca 2020.
We caught up with Ebner to ask more questions about this piece, which so neatly expresses displacement in chaos, or just that feeling of being in a world populated by people against whom you are powerless—people who don't know how great you are, were or could be. Check it out below.
Muse: If you could pick three pieces from your career that tell a story about where you are now, what would you pick, and why?
Ebner: Instead of three pieces, let me try to sum it up in two.
One of the first things I ever shot was a Spyke Beer campaign for Anheuser-Busch. I was a creative at Butler, Shine, Sten & Partners, and my partner, Paul Renner, and I just went out and made it. We had no budget. We had no production company. We just had an idea and an old Canon GL1. It was gritty. It was lo-fi. And it was raw. But most importantly, it was exhilarating.
Years later, shooting my film "The Light Side" was really no different. I had an idea, and I went out and executed it. It was so much fun to do. The production level was different, but the spirit behind it was exactly the same. These two pieces serve as bookends to a 13-year career that spans just about every type of commercial you can imagine. But what they epitomize is the self-made, run-and-gun nature of where I see a lot of filmmaking going today—commercial, television or film. And it's a type of storytelling I love, not only as a director but as a writer.
In the current market, you absolutely need to be a self-starter. Companies and brands are looking for stories. They're just begging for new ways to communicate. So you need to go out and start making stuff. If you're just sitting around waiting for boards or projects to come in, it's going to get pretty lonely.
So today, I'm leaning on my past. I'm taking cues from when I was younger, and dumber, and less inhibited. I like to make things. So I'm writing and I'm shooting.
This film is inspired by a period of humility for you. But why a Sith Lord? Are you a Dark Side of the Force kinda guy?
First off, I am a huge Star Wars fan. But the idea for the Sith came from observing a fencing class one night through large plate-glass windows. The whole scene seemed so banal. So mundane. It was a kids' class and the instructor looked absolutely broken.
I started daydreaming. A fallen Sith Lord, now teaching swordplay to kids, just struck me as the ultimate downfall. The story then wrapped around that moment. I wasn't concerned with how he got there. Just how he reacts now to the change. The story isn't really autobiographical, but it's definitely based on some experiences I'm going through as I get older. The industry has changed. The rules have changed. And I have changed. But you cannot stop it.
The key is acceptance. You have to embrace it. The Dark Side is something you have to muscle. You need to wrangle it. I was more that way when I was younger. But the Light Side of the Force just simply flows through you once you finally stop trying to control it. Just let it happen. It's almost effortless. I'm more of a Force guy now. And the ride has gotten much more pleasant. And more productive.
What happens to the Sith after the story ends?
Here's the elevator pitch: An exiled Sith Lord finds redemption from his past by using his evil powers for good. This 12-spot webisodic follows the zany shenanigans of Sith and his working-class buddies as his saber shines a light on the most pressing social issues of the day. Think Rosanne meets Rogue One meets CSI: The Bronx.
Did the creation of this film teach you something unexpected?
The whole point of doing this was to experience something unexpected. I've been shooting commercials for over 13 years now. And I do a pretty narrow niche, which is comedy. And I absolutely love it. Advertising comedy is an art form. It's incredibly hard to do and to do well. So I will never stop learning new things. But "The Light Side" was an opportunity to make some new mistakes. I wanted to open a new chapter in my career by taking a stab at independent film. I'm passionate about making things and telling stories. Moving to longer-form content was inevitable.
Of course, I leaned heavily on my experience as a commercial director for the project. But perhaps the most unexpected thing about the experience is how it all gelled in the end. Leading up to the shoot, everything was forced. I was constantly trying to drive the square peg through a round hole. Nothing was working out. But once we committed, it's like the skies opened up and the universe just gave us its blessing.
It was baffling. It's like the whole project just grew its own head and drove the film. I felt like I just had to sit back and let the thing steer itself. Again, it was almost effortless. From the casting, to the locations, to my crew, to the post help from Harbor. Everything just fell into place. And I had never expected that.
Doing an indie film is a dog fight, especially if you're funding it yourself and costs are skyrocketing. So many things can happen that can derail the quality of your film, it's a miracle independent shorts films get made at all. But making "The Light Side" was probably one of the best, most fulfilling experiences I've had in my creative career. I can't wait to do another one. I have two more in the bullpen just standing by until we can shoot again.
What abilities did you want to test or spotlight in this work that you don't always get to exercise in commercial contracts?
The biggest challenge with doing comedy commercials is time. There's never enough of it. You are dealing with 15- and 30-second slots. (Sometimes :10 or :06.) So your ability to develop characters and let performances breathe is severely limited.
"The Light Side" gave me an opportunity to let the material play out. It wasn't wall-to-wall copy. In fact, I specifically wrote the film to have no dialogue for this very reason. I wanted to exercise a different muscle by letting the visual mood and tone play the lead. The VO was the thread, but the foundational fabrics came primarily from the cinematography (Stoeps Langensteiner), the performances (Joe Ragno) and the music (Gregory Reeves.)
By stitching these pieces together organically without rushing, little moments were allowed to happen. Maybe it was a micro expression from Joe, or a subtle music change in the score, or an arresting visual of a planet exploding. These moments had time to evolve. And when allowed to do so, they became incredibly powerful tools for the story.
Unfortunately, we don't get many opportunities to do that for brands in standard commercial genres.
What would you say to people tempted to extrapolate something from "The Light Side" about the world we're in now?
The Light Side is about change. Sith is challenged to accept his new environment and learn to thrive in it. It's foreign and scary for him. I don't think there is a person out there right now who can't empathize with that. Our world is changing so fast that our collective heads are spinning off the planet. It's fueling this chaos right now. People are scared, and fear is an incredibly dangerous force.
The theme of the film is accepting this change for what it is, and realizing we have no power to control it. We can fight against the current, but the stream is going to carry us wherever it's going, regardless of our will. Change is inevitable. We all need to get onboard and deal with it. And we need to do it with understanding, grace and compassion.
Any cool production or behind-the-scenes stories?
It was the night before our final shoot day. We were scheduled to film the auto garage scene the next morning, but I still had no "workers" for it. I was scrambling to figure out how I was going to augment a very, very crucial moment from the film without Sith's new work buddies. The owner of the Bronx brownstone we were shooting in overheard us and said his neighbor was a contractor. So he goes outside and literally yells up the fire escape next door. This head pops out and they scream in Spanish at each other for a bit and he turns to me and says, "He'll bring some guys tomorrow."
Sure enough, I get to set and there are five guys waiting for me. And these guys were perfect. You could not have cast this crew any better. All of them were so charming and authentic that I had to just look up and thank the universe. This is an example of how things "just happened." It was incredible.
On that note, I again just have to acknowledge how incredibly humbling and honored I was to work with the cast and crew for this film. It floored me how much people were willing to help out for the project. Everyone, like the brownstone owner, pitched in to make this film what it is. They should feel as much pride and ownership in it as I do. It was a blast.
"The Light Side"
Writer/Director: Ryan F. Ebner:
Executive Producer: Kelly Broad:
Producer: Dominick Ferro:
Cinematographer: Stöps Langensteiner:
Editor: Paul Kelly
Music by: Gregory Reeves
1st Assistant Camera: Alex Purifoy:
2nd Assistant Camera: Nathan Robb:
DIT: Kazim Karaismailoglu :
Propmaster: Brian Lee:
Hair & Makup Artist: Chelsea Paige:
Location Sound Mixer : Sandra Diez:
Location Manager: Pablo Gonzalez:
Production Assistant: Jonny Schaab:
Production Assistant: Edwin Idelfonso:
Production Assistant: Carlos Cruz:
Production Assistant: Kavel Lewis:
Casting Director: Neil Myer:
VFX Supervisor: Andrew Granelli:
Flame Operator: Paul O'Shea:
CG Generalist: Yuichiro Yamashita:
Nuke Operator: Kevin Jones:
VFX Producer: Matt Olmon
Colorist: Adrian Seery
Color Producer: Gabrielle Elder:
Re-Recording Mixer & : Steve Perski:
Sound Editor :
Assistant Audio Engineer : Brian Battersby:
Sound Producer: Cameron McGarry:
Title Designer: Nathan Naylor:
Sith: Joseph Ragno:
Fencing Studio Mgr: Jose Samora:
Fencing Student (Victim): Miles Field:
Fencing Student: Filippo Vanni:
Fencing Student: Willem Joseph:
Fencing Student: Tomas Koeck:
Fencing Student: Eric Zobel:
Sith's Garage Crew: Roberto Meneses:
Sith's Garage Crew: Enrique Alva:
Sith's Garage Crew: Agustin El Ninja:
Sith's Garage Crew: Filiberto Hernandez:
Sith's Garage Crew: Victor Toro:
Sith VoiceOver : TimTones:
Casting Facility: House Casting:
Post Production: HARBOR:
Camera House: TCS :
Grip & Electric: Handheld Films:
Special FX Equipment: J&M Special Effects:
Graphics: EverReady Printers:
Transportation: C&C Rentals:
Hard Drives: Adorama:
Insurance Broker/Provider: Film Emporium/Inland Marine:
Brooklyn Bridge Fencing Club