Before I met Riley, I knew we were definitely going to talk about two things; comedy and philosophy. Why was I so confident in this thought? Well, if I tell you the name of the short film he has written and directed, everything will become a little clearer.
‘Sleep Tight, Don’t Let the Existential Crisis Bite’ was completed last year and is currently making its way through the festival circuit. A fast paced, witty short, it introduces us to Gary, a 25 year old man in the midst of a late night meltdown. Beginning to question the very meaning of life, he wakes up his long suffering girlfriend Meg, sparking a rapid ping-pong debate between the two that is every bit as funny as it is relatable. A two handed dialogue heavy short is never easy, but Riley’s sharp dialogue and grasp of humour shines, highlighted by fantastic performances from James Gulliford (Gary) and Louise Hoare (Meg).
I arranged to meet Riley on a Sunday evening (that pre-Monday morning period when your emotions fluctuate between bliss and despair). I was a little early but Riley arrived precisely on time with a beaming, friendly smile (neither of which surprised me). He was open but seemed a little shy, perhaps the type of person that finds it hard to promote himself and accept compliments. It’s that British cliche that so many of us suffer with. However, once we started talking, what followed was a friendly, fun conversation and the time genuinely just fell away.
So where did it all begin? As far as Riley’s background in film and creating stories is concerned, he completed a BA in Film Production, specialising in sound. After two years in the freelance world as a Sound Designer, he found he was not finding the time (or money) to create his own ‘passion projects’. Knowing he wanted to fulfil his desire to write and direct, he moved towards a nine to five day and started to set time aside to make the film that eventually became ‘Sleep Tight’.
This approach takes dedication and commitment, it’s not easy to motivate yourself to start working all over again when you get home from the day job and Riley agreed. He tries to plan out his time but admits he is not always successful. “I have to be very focused…the creative part is almost not creative in that you have to schedule it”. It sounds counter-productive right? But it’s actually the reality of creating your own work. You can’t just sit around waiting for inspiration to hit, you’ve got to give it a little helping hand.
Back to my plan of action; I wanted to talk to Riley about comedy. Is it something he has always enjoyed? Does he see himself as a Comedy Writer/Director? Given that it is quite possibly the hardest genre to work in, I’m intrigued to see if he defines himself as a ‘comedy guy’. He smiles and is quick to say that he has always loved comedy, finding that it hits you on an emotional level, “I like to make someone laugh”. He has relied on humour his entire life and credits ‘The Simpsons’ as one of his many influences. In his own words, he “loves things that are just very silly”
In terms of his own work though, he doesn’t see himself as a straight comedy creator, instead he tells me “my stuff tends to be very drama/comedy. When I write longer form, it’s drama with comedy and my shorts tends to be comedy with drama.” I’m intrigued. Does this mean there is a feature on the cards? Riley nods, "in my dream world I want to make my features” but first he plans to create a body of short work, to build upon strong foundations. “Whatever I keep making, I want it to be a step up each time”. With this in mind, he has already written his next short script, which is similar in style to ‘Sleep tight’. The quick pitch he gives me sounds great and feeds again in to the relatable humour that he seems so adept at.
Coffees slowly being sipped, the conversation turned towards philosophy. To be honest, I was a little tentative about the subject, not knowing how out of my depth I was going to feel. I’m relieved when he tells me that he doesn’t feel philosophy has to be a dry, academic subject. Having studied philosophy and ethics, he feels “it’s a daunting world and philosophy is something we constantly engage in but probably don’t even realise”. His take is to make the topic accessible and human, presenting ideas as stories rather than just concepts.
As we veer off down the comedy / philosophy path for a lengthy detour, Riley tells me how much he is loving Netflix’s ‘The Good Place’, “I like that that’s out there, feeding comedy on a philosophical level”. Animated and excited as he talks to me about the show, I admit that I have still only watched the trailer, but it is on my (very lengthy) watch list.
By this point in our chat, I feel like I can ask Riley if ‘Sleep Tight’ touches on particularly personal issues. He thinks a little before lowering his voice and telling me that it’s from a very personal place “although a more extreme version”. I’m beginning to understand that exaggeration is key to his storytelling style. He quickly nods in agreement, telling me “[I love] exaggeration and hyper realism…think Charlie Kaufmann”.
This love of exaggeration pushes me to ask if he has thought about embracing animation in any way? Given that it would be a world in which he could create whatever his heart and mind desires, it would seem a good fit. Whilst he agrees (quickly mentioning his love for BoJack Horseman and Kaufmann’s Anomalisa) he also says it’s not something he has considered, “It would feel daunting and I would have too much freedom”. However, what if he had the right story and found the right collaborator? Then he admits, he’d be tempted. Perhaps I’ve given him food for thought?
Trying not to get carried away with the possibilities of the stories that might be, I pull the conversation back to ‘Sleep Tight’ and his experience of making the film.
The script sat on his hard drive for a year before he eventually sent it to some respected acquaintances on the basis that they would give honest feedback. I think most of us can relate when Riley tells me that sending the script out was genuinely, “a big thing for me”. However, it paid off and the feedback spurred him on in to pre-production and script read throughs. During these read throughs, Riley recalls flipping the genders of the characters to see how the script would read. He laughs, telling me “it turned from a comedy to a dark, horrible thing. It was very 1950’s and quite sexist. It really makes you think about the power of words”. Having seen the film I can completely appreciate what Riley is saying, the comedy works because it plays against stereotypes.
Although the film is now complete, the work is by no means over. Knowing that promotion doesn’t come easily to Riley, how does he balance talking about his work whilst not feeing like he’s bragging? “Its kind of a running joke in the way I use social media…I tend to be very self deprecating. It makes you feel very vulnerable and exposed.”
We both agree that you have to ‘sell’ your work from a very genuine place or people won’t engage and ultimately you want your film to reach an audience. It’s just doesn’t seem very British to ‘toot your own horn’ does it? But perhaps that’s a repressed discussion for another time.
Conscious of time and letting Riley get back to his Sunday evening, I quickly had to ask about his cinema ticket obsession (something I discovered after following him on Twitter). To put you in the picture, from 2012, he has been keeping every cinema ticket he gets and photographing them to reflect his cinematic viewing year. He laughs when I start asking him about it and he freely agrees that it has “just become obsessive”. He is that guy who will go to the concession stand to ask for a printed ticket, even though he has one on his phone. And yes, it has garnered him quite a few weird looks. I worry for the day when print tickets become obsolete and suggest instead that he could take a photo of himself with the film poster or the billboard outside. (I still think that’s a good alternative by the way Riley).
As we say our goodbyes, we note that it is in fact Mother’s Day, which prompts me to ask what his parents think of his creative career? Having moved to the UK from China and then raised a family, he tells me they are supportive “even if [they] don’t quite understand it. It’s what they came here to do; to give me opportunity”. He then says something that deeply resonates; “is not about needing to survive, it’s about enriching [life].”
And on that note, I’m off home to watch Anomalisa and binge on The Good Place.
Discover more about Riley at www.rileywong.co.uk