Movies can play a powerful role in raising public awareness of the threats posed by nuclear weapons. The cluster of nuclear-themed films released at the height of the Cold War—from The Day After and Testament to Threads and War Games—left a particularly indelible mark, awakening millions to the human impact of nuclear detonation. But that was 40 years ago. Ryan Beickert thinks it’s time for a fresh wave of films that spark engagement among a new generation—and who better than a millennial filmmaker to lead that charge?
Beickert, 33, is a storyteller at Courageous, the branded content studio for CNN and Great Big Story, where he creates films, shows, and other visual experiences designed to build emotional connection between audiences and brands. In 2018 Beickert joined the N Square Innovators Network as a fellow. During his fellowship, he developed a new series about a post-nuclear exchange between North Korea and the United States that draws on the wisdom of nuclear risk reduction experts—and he’s determined to bring it to the screen. In this interview, Beickert talks about the power of film to create nearly real-life moments, what “branding” has to do with nuclear nonproliferation, and how the field can better engage creatives.
Q What drew you to filmmaking?
A I grew up in a small town in Long Island called Patchogue, and was raised by a single mom. I have four brothers, and she didn’t have the means to pay for childcare or backup support. So we were a self-regulated system of five boys just surviving. She made sure we had a house and we had food and we were happy. But mostly we were just let loose; the world of the neighborhood basically raised us. We would play all the time and make up adventures. I loved creating stories. When I was seven or eight, we got our hands on a crappy VHS camcorder and started making home videos.
My mom worked two jobs. At night, she was manager at a United Artists movie theater. Instead of going home after school, we went to the theater, did our homework in her office, then watched movies until her shift was over. I’d watch a movie over and over and over again. Sometimes I’d go up to the projectionist booth and help run the film reel through. The entire workforce was like, “Okay, here’s the manager’s kid, we’ll try to help out. There’s five of them.”
It was such an escape. But I remember realizing early that movies can change your experience. You sit in a dark room for two hours, and you leave feeling like you’ve just had some type of life moment. A movie can be almost comparable in impact to a major life event, which is crazy to think about. But that drew me in. By the time I got to high school I was actively making short films. So that was the origin: too much time on my hands, brothers, Long Island, a camcorder, a movie theater. It was like, yeah, of course I’m going to make movies.
Q What happened next?
A I went to the School of Visual Arts to study filmmaking. I was the first person in my family to go to college and had to put myself through school. I ended up managing a bar in the East Village, which was crazy, because I was 19 and not legally able to drink. This was 2006, and a lot was changing in the world of film. YouTube was just coming out. So was the iPhone. The filmmaking industry was going digital. And digital editing was getting easier, thanks to a program called Final Cut Pro, which replaced this hard-to-use system called Avid. I realized that if I knew Final Cut Pro, I could get editing gigs even while I was in college. So, I put a bootleg copy on my computer and started hunting for opportunities.
One of the regulars at the bar was a freelance editor. He said he knew an old-school Avid guy, an Emmy award-winning editor, who didn’t know how to run Final Cut and was looking for help. I worked with him for a year, and it was like a master class; he taught me about beats and rhythm and story structure and how you shape story in an edit. My confidence with editing kept growing, and soon I was working on documentaries, commercials, and reality shows for clients like BBC, A&E, Food Network, and Google. Through that work, I also started transitioning from editing to producing and directing—so, moving from the end of the production process back to the beginning.
When I was still a senior, I was offered a job at MKTG, which produces big events for major companies like Nike. I was in charge of the video department, managing the production of photography and videography at events happening all over the country. But the work started to feel far away from filmmaking. In 2013, halfway through my six years at MKTG, I went back to School of Visual Arts for a master’s in branding. Soon after that, I helped create the branded content studio at Mic and then joined Courageous.