“My first memory is of being in a movie theater,” says Jack Bryan, the charming writer and director of the new thriller The Living. “It was a very traumatic experience, and I was kinda stuck after that.” The movie was The Bear, an emotionally complex tale of abandonment, danger and redemption, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud. “I was a very cosmopolitan 4-year-old,” Bryan observes wryly. Not cosmopolitan enough, as it turned out. Watching the mother bear get crushed by a falling rock sent little Jack over the edge. “They had to pull me out,” recalls the native New Yorker. “I was apparently inconsolable.”
This early trauma did nothing to deter him from pursuing a career in film—far from it. By 16, Bryan had written his first screenplay and was dreaming of the big time, inspired by the “boy wonder” of cinema. “I was thinking, ‘I’ve got nine years to be Orson Welles—I can do that!’” At 18, he filmed his first feature, but abandoned it after editing a couple scenes. In college, he worked as a production assistant and wrote several screenplays that were later optioned. By 2009, he’d completed a documentary about the legendarily rowdy after-hours New York bar Siberia and was dabbling in journalism and film production. Three years later, he co-founded the production company Shooting Films.
It’s unsurprising, then, that he’s now promoting his first real feature film: a tautly plotted thriller, peopled by characters whose actions and choices are morally ambiguous and emotionally fraught. The film pivots around an incidence of drunken domestic violence and the fallout that ensues. In presenting the wife beater as an ostensibly nice, if flawed, human being, and the wife’s choice to stay or go as an agonizing decision, Bryan adds shades of gray to a situation that might otherwise be simplified. “I wanted to make a film that felt more based in the real world,” he says, “and to see the end result of that impotent revenge fantasy played out.”
Bryan promises that his follow-up feature (Private Kingdom, slated to shoot in early 2015) will be “more commercial and probably cooler—a more upbeat thing.” But he’s not too busy to sit back and enjoy the response to The Living, which recently screened at Tribeca Film Festival. “You know, it’s a dark little thriller—kind of like a rustic noir, but people seem to really be enjoying it,” he says, happily. “When you’re in the audience of a movie you’ve made, and you’re watching people screaming, that’s a lot of fun,” he admits. “That’s candy.”