Left to right: Ryan Beickert, former N Square advisor Paul Carroll, Nuclear Threat Initiative president Joan Rohlfing, and journalist and author Eric Schlosser at a 2019 N Square Innovators Network gathering. Photo: Dave Cooper Photo
Filmmaker on a Mission
The only way to boost public engagement on nuclear issues, says filmmaker Ryan Beickert, is to unleash the power of story.
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.
Q Many of the people who’ll be reading this are nuclear risk reduction professionals who have no idea what you mean by “branded content.” What is it, what does it have to do with filmmaking—and what does it have to do with them?
A We’re all familiar with brands in the commercial sense. Subaru, Coca-Cola, Apple, etc., are all brands. But a brand isn’t a name or a label or a logo. A brand is a relationship. And like any relationship, it comprises an entire set of expectations and experiences. You pay a premium for Mercedes or Land Rover or any luxury car because you want that intangible thing that it evokes in others, evokes in yourself, and that it makes you feel. Companies create marketing, ads, and associations that help reinforce all these feelings and expectations and build connections between people and brands. At the end of the day, that’s what a brand is.
“WHY SHOULD NUCLEAR PROFESSIONALS CARE ABOUT BRANDING? BECAUSE BRANDS AREN’T JUST ABOUT PRODUCTS. NUCLEAR DISARMAMENT IS A BRAND. JUST LIKE LAND ROVER. JUST LIKE COORS LIGHT.”
Creating branded content is about telling visual stories that communicate and promote these intangibles. The tools of filmmaking, the tools of theater, the tools of storytelling—these all ladder up to what you need to make a brand; they’re all tools for creating emotional connection. So, the branded content studio I ran at Mic, and the one I now work in at Courageous Studios, tell stories that help build out that emotional connection between a brand, what it represents, and the people watching—whether it’s through short films, long-form features, virtual reality, or live television.
Branded content is exciting. Drawing on market research and consumer insight, we get to tell compelling stories with the tools of the filmmaker that reflect the brand, reinforce brand relationships, and are also great to watch. So I don’t think about branding and filmmaking as separate. I see them as two decks of cards that are being shuffled; it’s inevitable that they blend. And I believe Courageous is going to be one of those studios amongst a bunch of others that will be right there trying to figure out and make stories that are blended in that world. So that’s why I’m at where I’m at.
Why should nuclear professionals care about this? Because brands aren’t just about products. They can represent movements, or policy. Nuclear disarmament is a brand. Just like Land Rover. Just like Coors Light. And my goal would be the same—to tell compelling stories that help audiences connect emotionally and urgently with that brand.
Q How did you get connected with N Square?
A Gena Cuba, who is a partner at Nucleus, was in my class at the School of Visual Arts’s Masters in Branding program, and Nucleus’s Elizabeth Talerman was one of the professors. They were both in the first cohort of N Square Innovators Network fellows. Gena tried to rope me in then, but I couldn’t commit to it at the time. The following year, when I was deciding whether to take the job at Courageous, I sought out Elizabeth’s advice. Is this a smart move? Should I do this? Ultimately she said, “Ryan, I want you to go to Courageous. And I need you to get involved with N Square.” So she recruited me and I’m happy she did. I’ve met such amazing people that I would never have met and never have thought I wanted to meet. Plus, nuclear accidents or detonations now top the list of things that I fear.
Q Did you know much about nuclear threats going into it?
A Not really. I had a list of major things I was worried about, like climate change, and nuclear wasn’t on it. But the fellowship curriculum brings you up to speed on nuclear issues and what kinds of threats they pose. After dedicating 20 or 30 hours of time and energy to learning about these issues, my inevitable response was, “Oh, shit.” But you can’t do that for everyone. That’s literally the problem, right? That’s the thing we’re trying to solve. How do we get everybody else to that “oh, shit” moment without that 20 or 30 hours? Approaching it with a filmmaking and branding lens, I thought, well, this is a campaign. What types of stories can we tell that would create that “oh, shit” understanding without us having to actually live through a nuclear event?
“ALMOST NOBODY IS INVESTING IN STRATEGIC NARRATIVES ABOUT NUCLEAR FUTURES RIGHT NOW—AND WE CAN CHANGE THAT.”
The nuclear community has a thorough understanding of the complexities of the threat. But they tend to shorthand it, creating language that either isolates others from getting involved or oversimplifies it to the point that it gets almost romanticized. And then you start getting storytelling around a post-apocalyptic kind of romance, where the hero survives and lives an exciting adventure as a vigilante cowboy. And that’s dangerous because it turns an existential threat into a plot device rather than something that’s painful, urgent, and real. It becomes deus ex machina, right? An unavoidable act of god. Those types of manifestations reinforce this sense of it being inevitable, which is terrifying to this community, and rightly so.
But that, to me, is the biggest opportunity. This community can leverage the tools that modern brands and modern storytelling use to try to correct that error. And the timing is opportune. Covid-19 has robbed us. People are starting to say, “We’re not getting robbed by things like this again.” We’re seeing how events that one could argue were “acts of god” or inevitable could have been prevented with policy, awareness, planning, and oversight. So, I think we’re at a time when the culture is being primed to handle these narratives and to receive that message. There are so many companies and creatives that can help with that effort, too. There are brands that can enter these conversations. There are celebrities and studios that can enter these conversations. But almost nobody is investing in strategic narratives about nuclear futures right now—and we can change that.
Q During the fellowship, you were part of a team of fellows looking at ways to make nuclear issues more personal and resonant for the public. How was that experience?
A Honestly, it was such a cool array of humans. We had Joan Rohlfing from Nuclear Threat Initiative, Eric Schlosser, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his book Command and Control, and Maxwell Downman, an amazing nuclear policy analyst. There were about 12 of us on the team, and we split up to work on different projects. As part of that effort, I started developing the concept for a series about a post-nuclear exchange between North Korea and the United States. I wanted to create conditions, for narrative reasons, that would work as a larger analogy to the state of division within the US, and a visual motif of a country folding in on itself. Maxwell and Joan did a ton of research, coming back to me with things like “Here’s precedent for an exchange and how and why it could happen” or “Here are the targets North Korea would aim for” or “Here’s what that damage would be.” And that was invaluable. It wasn’t me, the filmmaker, just making stuff up. Eric was able to round out the narrative and how the story might unfold. Lindsey Harper, executive director of Georgia WAND Education Fund, looked at it from a minority narrative and the relationship communities of color have with nuclear power. All of that made the storyline extremely realistic, compelling, and different from what we’ve seen before.
A sneak peak of the treatment for Midnight, Beickert’s series about a post-nuclear exchange between North Korea and the United States.
Q Let’s say you were in charge of a nuclear risk reduction branded content studio. What are you putting out?
A That’s simple—films. It’s easy to generate compelling ads or short pieces. They’re important because they can help galvanize a sentiment and make it feel more urgent. But you have to get people over to that side of the equation first in order for that to work. The painted sidewalks and the signs and symbols that are coming out in support of Black Lives Matter are galvanizing. But the thing that won everyone over was being forced to stay at home, with no sports, no distractions, and see a lynching on TV. That is what pushed us over. That’s why the whole world decided that this is a conversation we need to have.
That experience pushed millions of people onto one side. Now the tools of social media and ads and short films can galvanize that shift into action. Social media is like LSD; it’s an amplifier. It doesn’t change minds—it just solidifies our bubbles. When have you ever reversed your opinion about something because of a Facebook post or a tweet? It doesn’t happen. First you need something bigger, real, monumental, to shift people over. And then you amplify.
“YOU HAVE TO SHIFT AND CHANGE HEARTS AND MINDS FIRST, AND THAT DOESN’T HAPPEN IN 30 SECONDS. THAT’S WHERE FILMMAKING AND STORYTELLING COME INTO PLAY.”
So, what are things that can shift people over? Films and storytelling can, because of their ability to create almost real-life experiences. If I go to an old Art Deco style hotel, and I walk down the hallway, the hairs stand up on the back of my neck every time, because of The Shining. I’ve never been haunted. I’ve never seen ghosts. But if you told me to go in the basement and put on the boiler, I’d be freaked out. Why? Because I had an experience so visceral that it felt like it was real.
When it comes to nuclear threats, filmmaking is the only safe way to create that shift and push everyone to one side. It’s the only tool we have for that, short of a nuclear event. So, you could pour all of your budget into social media. But all you’ll do is galvanize the people who are already on your side. You have to shift and change hearts and minds first, and that doesn’t happen in 30 seconds. That’s where filmmaking and storytelling come into play.
Q What do you think would attract more filmmakers and creatives to cracking this problem?
A If you want more filmmakers making films about nuclear issues, you have to understand their universe and find ways to strategically support that. Most people think it’s in a filmmaker’s power to make movies, as if we’re a band of magical artists who can just generate things. But artists have always needed a benefactor. We’re not lacking the energy to tell stories on a grand scale. What we’re lacking is funds; we need financing. Movies are hard to make and really expensive. If an investor said, “If you could tell a story about nuclear, and do it properly, I’ll pay for it,” and that’s the brief? You would have a laundry list of high-quality, talented filmmakers coming up to bat.
If the nuclear risk reduction community wants to get serious about this, they should put out grants, put out support, put out development funding. But I don’t think they should dangle funding without first ensuring that these filmmakers have a strong baseline understanding of nuclear issues and threats. You need them to be on the “oh, shit” side first, for all the reasons I mentioned already. You could have filmmakers go through the N Square fellowship program and then start writing and creating some films. Give more creatives an N Square-like experience, offer that in tandem to funding so that they have to participate and engage in the issues first, and then let them find the stories they want to tell.
Without a doubt, having real experts onboard as advisors would give filmmakers huge competitive advantage. You might pitch to a producer who says, “Nuclear post-apocalyptic narrative? I’ve seen that a thousand times.” But then you could say, “Sure, but this is based on what actually would happen. And here is the fleet of experts that have all stood up to counsel on this pro bono, and this invaluable set of experts is the reason why this series will be unlike any other post-apocalyptic narrative series ever made.”
Q What’s next for your series concept?
A It’s been developed into a treatment under the working title Midnight. Right now I am tapping all sorts of people in my network to help make the pitch, knock on doors, and make this series as salable as possible. But I’m aiming high. It has to be big. We’re talking at the level of Westworld or Chernobyl. That’s the arena this needs to be in if we want to impact culture. That’s my hope with Midnight. Develop the series, enlist writers and directors with weight behind them, and create an experience that gets people thinking, and gets them engaged.
Story thumbnail: Dave Cooper Photo