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Not Sure What to Do With Your Free Time? You Might Want to Watch ‘Free Time’

We talked to writer/director Ryan Martin Brown about his micro-budget movie, shot in New York City, about wasting your life in New York City.

BTS from the making of NYC micro-budget movie 'Free Time.'
(Nolan Kelly)

Are you starting to feel the pressure of weekend plans (or a lack thereof) breathing down the back of your neck? Do you have so many things you want to do that you never manage to do any of them? Have you ever felt the creeping realization that being "fun-employed" is the same thing as being unemployed? Then you might see a bit of yourself in "Free Time" a movie about the perils of getting exactly what you want when you're not ready to receive it, about the pressure to be productive in leisure, and about the gnawing feeling that there's something better you could be doing right now, if you could just figure out what it is.

"Free Time," written and directed by Ryan Martin Brown, stars Colin Burgess as Drew, a 29-year-old man who abruptly quits his job as a data analyst to make the most of his life, but finds himself struggling against the quicksand of ennui when actually faced with the task of self-direction. Drew's post-employment flailing is amplified by the backdrop of New York City (where the movie was shot over a 10-day period), a city where everyone else is hustling, pursuing their dreams, making better art, and going to better parties than you are.

Clocking in at a delicious 71-minute runtime (other filmmakers could take note…), swinging by Quad Cinema from March 22 to March 27 to catch a screening of "Free Time" would be an excellent use of your free time—but I'm biased, because Brown is a friend of mine, and I like his movie, so I took time to speak with him about his debut feature ahead of its theatrical premiere. We talked about making a movie on a shoestring budget, frittering away your youth, and getting stuck on the train—which, by the way, Brown was on for our entire conversation.

When did you start working on 'Free Time?'

I was like trying to write a different movie, actually, and I was working on that for like two years and just never really figured it out. Then COVID happens, and in that first month or two of being stuck inside, it suddenly felt like there was no immediate time pressure anymore. So I was like, you know, what, I'm just gonna write a different thing, an easier movie—this movie. And it happened really quickly, again, probably because of the "being stuck inside" of it all. 

Where did you get the idea to make a movie about someone quitting their job? Was 'Free Time' based on any depressing desk jobs you've had before?

I had been working full time for the first few years I lived in New York, on some sets and in the production offices for bigger movies—usually, like $10 million "indies." Eventually, I told myself I wasn't going to work full time anymore. And a lot does come with the realization that all of a sudden, you're not having to go to work today, every day, but that doesn't automatically immediately make your life super awesome all the time. So that was definitely a part of it—the cosmic joke of it.

Then, there was the idea we'd already been working with, where the main character has a want, and they just are handed exactly what they desire. For Drew, the want was freedom from the things that he thought were taking him away from where he wanted to be. 

Speaking of multimillion dollar "indie" filmmaking, I know this was a micro-budget movie—can you talk a little about what that means? 

I don't know if there is really an official definition for the term "microbudget." When I hear the term, to me it's like $300,000 or less. For us, it was a lot below that—way below that.

I think people have probably been making micro-budget movies since there was any sort of technology that made it possible—although obviously, that technology is way more prevalent in the past few years than it's ever been. I had worked on another movie that our friend Justin Zuckerman did, "Yelling Fire in an Empty Theater." That was so small, and he was trying to figure out a way to make movies that was sustainable for his life as a hobby, basically. And it was such a good time for everybody that we were like, oh, you know, maybe we could just do that. 

We—and I mean we, in the sense of myself, a bunch of people I went to school with in Florida, and other people that we had come to know in New York and work with—had this idea, and it felt like an impossibility that somebody would ever just come and say, yeah, here's a couple million dollars. 

There wasn't really any sort of expectation either for what it would turn out to be; the attitude of it was, we'll just do this, and then if we want to figure out how to make a real movie later, we can always try to learn what that would involve.

When did you make the choice both to set "Free Time" in New York City, and to shoot it here as well? And was the whole kind of Team New York based? Sorry, that's like, three questions. 

In a way, they're all the same question. Yeah, everybody was based in New York, except for Holmes. She lives in LA, and she came over for a week when she was planning to do some stand-up shows and stuff anyway. Otherwise, the New York of it all was really just a logistical need. For how small the movie we were making was, it was pretty much essential that people could just wake up in their apartment, get on the train, be wherever we needed to be that day, and then go home. Even for locations, it just needed to be places that we knew people and could just show up for a few hours, essentially. So yeah, there was never any idea of doing it anywhere else. Because I don't know that we knew how we would be able to do it otherwise.

Were there any locations that were particularly tough to scout out or anywhere that shooting was particularly challenging?

The one thing that we didn't have a connection to, in reading the movie and thinking about it, is that we just kind of figured that we could get someone to let us into an office. This was the fall of 2021, so COVID cases were really down in New York, but still, nobody was going back to the offices—the whole city was just different. So we just were like, oh, somebody will want to make a little bit of money and we can just go like, shoot in their office. But we couldn't get a yes from anybody! It became this stressful thing that we didn't nail down until the last second. I had volunteered for a group of people and they had an office and they ultimately were like, Yeah, you can come in and they were very, very, very sweet.

But otherwise, so much of the movie was just on the street or on the sidewalk. We weren't really having to look for anyone or anything. Victor [Ingles, "Free Time" cinematographer] would pull the camera out of the van and we would put it on a tripod on the sidewalk and Colin would kind of walk around and do the scene. The whole thing was on a zoom lens, so we were across the street from him most of the time and he could kind of just do the scenes and most people didn't even realize that we were shooting, because the camera would be so far away from where the action was happening.

Right, and even if they did realize, I mean…people are always doing something weird in public here.

Right, nobody blinks. Everybody is just walking on by. [Laughs] I think if you see someone doing something weird, you're New York City-trained to actually engage even less—so I think that was probably a lot of what was happening.

When you were writing the movie, did you always know that (spoiler alert!) Drew was pretty much going to piss away his newfound "free time"?

Yeah, that was the sense from the get-go. There's different jokes in the movie, obviously, but in a way there is just one big joke: He isn't able to make use of this thing that he sacrificed so much to get. We always knew it wouldn't go well—and also that it was a kind of inherent character flaw in this guy that ensured that it wouldn't go well.

I definitely related to the pressure the protagonist is dealing with in this movie—periods where I was unemployed and in retrospect I'm like wow, what the hell, I didn't do anything. Do you think being in New York City kind of amplifies that pressure—to be, like, productive even in leisure?

[The conductor enters Brown's car to let everyone know he has no idea why the train isn't moving, but says he's glad that everybody has cell phone service.]

This is the longest I've been stuck on a train in years. I've never seen a conductor do that where they're like, "I don't know what's going on." [Laughs] OK. So I don't I don't know if there is or there isn't more pressure. On one hand, I feel like it would be easy to say yes, because there's so much city bustle, or whatever you want to call it, around you that maybe you'd want to get wrapped up in. But I don't know if it's a city thing as much as it's a youth thing. Thinking, "I've got one life!" or, "My life is over at 30, or 35," or whatever number you want to put in the distance. 

I feel like young people quite often are kind of putting this huge clock on themselves to try to squeeze everything out of life while they feel like they're able to. That's what's funny about Colin's character. He doesn't really have any patience. So, he ends up kind of just cycling through things—and in some ways, if he slowed down a little bit, he probably would get what he was looking for quicker.

I watched all the way through the credits and everything and I love that you all left in that last second where everyone relaxes. What made you leave that in?

When we were cutting the movie, we watched it thinking maybe we cut that part out or whatever—but, I don't know, it's just sweet. You're like, you know, you're like the credits have been going long enough and everyone's like, we understand that this is the movie and that the movie's over so, I thought OK, at the last second you know, it's such a community-built project…

[The conductor re-enters Brown's car to let everyone know he still doesn't know why the train isn't moving.]

OK, sorry—yeah, it was a community-built project, so it felt nice to put that moment in the last seconds, where you can see it's a big group of people getting together to make something. I don't know if we were trying to say anything so much as, every time we watched it, we'd go, "Oh, that's cute."

Something I noticed while watching is that you make a cameo in this movie, and I also spotted a few other producer cameos, which I thought was really sweet in the same way as that last shot. What do you think that community element adds to the movie?

Oh! [The train] just moved again, which is amazing. 

I don't know what it gave to the movie necessarily, but I can definitely speak to what it gave to the experience: It was just a really positive way to make a movie. It felt to me like everyone, at least on the crew full time, was able to have a little bit of a feeling of an ownership stake in it. It's nice because then you watch the movie—and I guess this is true of all movies—but it's like a little memory book of that time, and the people at that time, and what the city looked like at that time. 

So, to have everybody that worked on it pop up, even for a second or two in different places, is nice, because it's really a document of a specific 10-day period in fall 2021 with this group of people. So, I don't know, for people who are unaware of who any of these people are, if that was transferred to them. But for us, who made it, I think it's nice to be able to see all that and remember and have everyone have a little presence in it.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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