Ruganzu 'Riggs' Howard Goes From Baltimore Police Detective to Comedy Director

'My experience with humanity is my most valuable asset'

Reinventions profiles people who've made big pivots. Meet Ruganzu "Riggs" Howard, a former detective in the Baltimore City Police Department who's now a comedy director at Epoch Films.

Riggs, tell us…

What were you before?

Before directing? My first job in the realm of advertising was at a boutique post-production house called Bikini Editorial, which did high-end commercial work of all sorts. After that, I worked for several ad agencies—most of that time as a producer. My background in the agency world comes primarily as a live-action producer.

But prior to that, I was a detective in the Baltimore City Police Department, which I did for about a decade. Started in uniformed patrol and quickly became a detective. And in my time, I investigated nearly every sort of crime that there is—if a bad thing happens to a person, I have shown up to it and started asking questions. I spent a number of years doing that before becoming a hostage negotiator and finally fell into or escaped into the Public Information Officer job. It's basically a spokesperson. Like the Jen Psaki of the police department—doing press conferences, issuing formal statements, answering some questions from the press, and sidestepping/pretending you didn't hear others.

What triggered your reinvention(s)?

After years of professionally poking around in other people's affairs, I looked up, and a lot of time had passed. I had spent a long time so very deeply entrenched in this world. I could feel myself slowly calcifying. So many years of seeing the worst and best in people is really a Ph.D. in humanity. I found myself at this crossroads where I needed to use these experiences in another way or commit the remainder of my life to solving crimes. I knew there was more to life than the sort of operatic chaos of solving cases and other disciplines I needed to explore.

What did the first steps look like?

I was first exposed to the filmmaking world when I walked up to a shoot for House of Cards, which was shooting in Baltimore. I was filling in for a coworker who was working on location security. My first reaction was one of intrigue. I had never really seen it that closely before. I knew how people wrote a show conceptually, but actually seeing it happening was an educational experience that sparked something in me that helped push me out and then along.

I had some experience editing police videos on Avid, which landed me a job as an editorial assistant. I quickly picked that up and learned about the editing process by working on some pretty big jobs that I frankly had no business being on. So these crazy, big-budget advertising projects shot by award-winning people were some of the first stuff I worked on, and was really my first glimpse into the technical process of narrative work and how it's assembled. I always loved movies and TV—I mean, I'm American. It's our culture. But getting a peek into this world and realizing it was a job you could get paid for was a real catalyst.

What was one hard obstacle to overcome?

Everything about directing is harder than I imagined. The mission is to really get inside the project and let it envelop you, especially when shooting. There are 1,000 people asking you questions, and you better have an answer right then and there. Then you're trying to figure out blocking on some room you have been in a dozen times before but need to capture it in a way that makes sense for the edit—it's like trying to solve a mathematical problem in four dimensions with 100 people behind you. Sometimes shit doesn't work how you want it to, and you need to figure it out.

What was easier than you thought?

Storytelling was easier than I imagined. Crafting the components you need to tell that story on film is a complicated business. If you can imagine, working as an inner city detective and you can manage to do it without losing your mind, it's a masterclass in story. Investigating shootings is really an exercise in assembling a linear narrative. As an investigator, I was tasked daily with talking to difficult people, angry people, upset people and people in distress. It was my job to get them to tell me their story. You must understand human emotions, a person's drives, and their individual humanity. Where they come from and how to talk to them so they'll open up to you.

I also had the fortune to get a job working under a master editor, and in front of me, I had all these ideas that had been distilled from great advertising agencies. It all very quickly started to make sense.

What's something you learned along the way that other people, hoping to do something similar, should know?

Directing is not a one-person show. You've got these agencies that have been working with a script for the past 18 months for this client. They know this script better than you. They know what the client wants better than you, but you're at the helm of this great privilege where you must bring these things to life. I like to remember that although those people might have tons more experience, they don't have the same point of view or vision that I have. Everyone brings something to the table.

Did anyone or anything inspire you along the way?

It's a really long list. I've worked with a couple of batches of people and others who inspired me to be better and learn about things. I wouldn't be in this position if many people did not share their wisdom, grace and humanity by teaching me what they knew about this business.

There are some exceptionally talented writers that I was fortunate enough to work with when I was at Barton F. Graf. That period of growth was the time when I learned the most about comedy, learned the most about making stuff, learned the most about advertising and learned the most about how to be funny. Lots of names at all levels throughout the biz, Gerry Graf, Matt Swanson, Amber Wimmer, Sara Carr, David Shafei, Jacob Rosenberg, really, too many to name.

Other than that, I'm from a very funny family where everybody's talking shit about each other all the time, but in a very hilarious and loving way. And as you might be able to imagine, being a police officer, you kind of need to be funny to survive, especially if you work in violent crimes. If you're a homicide detective, you'd better be pretty funny.

What has this fundamentally changed for you?

I contextualized a lot of those moments I encountered as a detective. My experience with humanity is my most valuable asset as a person and definitely as a director. I have seen people at their absolute best and their absolute worst. I'm able to draw from this rich gamut of life I've experienced and use it to connect with people—actors, my collaborators—to pull this narrative out of the ether. In a way, it's the same chemicals, a different lab. I've seen some of the darkest stuff you can imagine and, even in those moments, found humor in them. With all the absurdity that life gifts us, most of the time, you don't have to manufacture jokes. They are all around you.

Do you think you could go back/do you want to?

No, absolutely not. I feel like everything I have done professionally in my adult life, from being a cop to being an assistant editor to working at an agency, has led to this. This progression makes sense to me because everything that I've done has been about genuinely studying and understanding people, their stories, and the things that matter to us. I find a lot of meaning and humor in telling stupid jokes. It's pretty much 65 percent of what I do on a daily basis. It's probably more.

Tell us your reinvention song.

Decline to answer haha.

How would you define yourself now?

Well, I wish it was 2005 when "storyteller" hadn't been used nine thousand times. But, I think that when it comes to advertising, what I do professionally, my guiding ethos is something that one of my friends used to say all the time: If you have to subject somebody to a commercial and present them with some crafted programming or message trying to make them purchase something or tell them something about a burrito, brand, product, or service, the least you can do is try to entertain and make them laugh.

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