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Interview: Writer-Director Ricky Tollman Talks ‘Run This Town’

April 22, 2020Ben MK

In Canadian politics, few figures have been as polarizing as Rob Ford. So when writer-director Ricky Tollman set out to make a movie revolving around one of the most pivotal moments in the former Toronto mayor's saga, it must have been hard to resist the temptation to sensationalize the story. Instead, Tollman has crafted something of a political drama for the Millennial generation — a film focusing on three young people (Ben Platt, Nina Dobrev and Mena Massoud) whose lives become linked by their proximity to the real-life scandal.

I caught up with Ricky Tollman to chat about the making of Run This Town and to find out how he has been coping with the current worldwide pandemic that we all find ourselves dealing with.

You went from acting to directing a couple of years ago, and Run This Town marks your feature directorial debut. What motivated you to make that leap?

Tollman: I wasn't acting in a serious way. I was a child actor, so from the age of, I think, 9 months I was doing commercials. I was doing a lot of commercial work and some TV things here and there, but it wasn't something I was taking super seriously. As a child working in commercials, I was fascinated by a lot of the stuff that happened on a set. And I always knew that I wanted to work in film, so it wasn't like I just decided to change from acting to directing. I always knew that I wanted to write, and when I realized what directing actually meant, when I got a little older I knew that I wanted to direct the work that I wrote.

Speaking of which, you also wrote the screenplay. What made you choose this particular real-life story to base your somewhat fictional account on, and what kind of research did you do into that story?

Tollman: People my age, or my generation, are impacted by the shift to the political right of which Rob [Ford] was really the first of his kind, really. Especially in a major city that views itself as particularly liberal. So was I very affected by Rob himself? Probably not necessarily. But I and my peers are definitely going to be — and are — affected by the politics of division and the politicians that followed, seeing what happened with Rob. As for the actual story, all the Rob stuff, it was mostly the police reports that came out about Rob. And then everything else was imagined — putting myself into the situation.

The framing of the narrative from multiple viewpoints is also interesting, especially since Ben Platt's reporter character, Bram, isn't actually the one to get the big scoop, as it were. Why did you decide to tell the story in that way?

Tollman: It was important to me to reflect the people that I knew in the film. A great amount of the people that I know that went to college with dreams of graduating and getting the job that the degree that they graduated with would open doors to — they ended up interning of getting contract work not necessarily in fields that they wanted to work in, as they watched the rare few people of their own generation break out and be able to do what they wanted to do and to make a name for themselves. But those stories are few and far between. I think if you spoke to a group of 100 people from this generation, the majority of them would not be where they thought they would be at their current age. And because of social media — Facebook and Instagram — and seeing the way that people curate their lives, it adds an additional stressor in their lives to attain success which may not actually be real.

And what was it like working with the cast — Ben Platt, Nina Dobrev and Mena Massoud — as well as Damian Lewis under all that makeup as Rob Ford?

Tollman: I was incredibly fortunate with my cast. We had a great time on-set, we had a lot of fun, we enjoyed being there. And everyone just came to work. So there were no issues on-set. Everybody knew their lines; they were able to move along at the pace that we had to move along at. Because we were only shooting for 20 days. And some days we had to shoot 8 or 9 pages, which is a lot of dialogue. So if the cast didn't come out and know their stuff, we would have been screwed. I was just lucky that everybody came — not only prepared — but with a great attitude. Because it was just fun, it really was.

What was the most memorable scene to shoot for you, personally?

Tollman: The opening scene in council chambers was challenging. Because on paper, it was 7 or 8 pages of dialogue, and we had 4 hours to shoot the thing, which is a lot of characters and a lot of coverage. We shot it overnight at City Hall, and we only had a limited amount of time to work there because City Hall was going to open, whether we were there or not. It was challenging, but a ton of fun. And Jennifer Ehle, who plays the editor of The Record, [the newspaper] where Bram works, is an actor whose work I have admired for many, many years. I just think she's one of the best. She was on-set for two days and just working with her was just amazing. Watching her steamroll through a monologue — Ben [Platt] and I just sat there in awe afterwards.

You mentioned earlier wanting to reflect the people around you in your storytelling. So what do you want moviegoers — especially Millennials, Canadians and Torontonians — to take away from the movie?

Tollman: I think it's important to remember that though it looks like people might be doing well — or succeeding or making a ton of money — they are very likely also struggling. Everything you're seeing about them is very curated. And I think that that view of your friends and the people you grew up with can be damaging to the way that you look at yourself — to make you feel beat down. So when larger things in the world are happening outside of yourself — relating to politics or government policy — those things can be so overwhelming that you don't want to take it on. But those are the exact things that this generation can really have a voice and make a difference in — if they get out of their own heads and look to the world at large and what they can do together.

Last but not least, it's hard to ignore the whole situation that we're in right now. How have you been adjusting to the new normal and how have you been keeping busy during this quarantine period?

Tollman: It's weird. The first week was really difficult, because I wake up, I'm in my apartment, and I take my dog out — and then it's like, "Ok, I'm back in my apartment. What do I do now?" And I ended up watching movies or reading. I watched the Criterion Channel a lot over the past few weeks, so it's been great catching up with movies that I haven't seen at all or haven't seen in a long time. But it felt like I wasn't being productive; I still needed to feel stimulated. That didn't mean that I have to write the next great novel; it just means that I have to keep active, physically and mentally.

So in week two, I started to really break down my days and say, "Ok, I'm going to wake up and then I'll take my dog to the park. And then this will be my time where it will just be creative time. And whether I write or watch something that I want to be inspired by, that will be the time that I do that." It's just about creating a schedule for myself to make it feel more normal. And now that we're 5 or 6 weeks in, my days feel like this is the new normal. It doesn't register for me, really.

Run This Town is available now on all digital platforms.

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