Tim Gonzo Ryan – Unplanned America

by the partae

How did you start in the indie doco / tv world?

My start in television (and ultimately doco making) was fairly traditional. I’d studied film at university and upon graduating applied for a few jobs in film and TV to no avail. Just as I was about to pack it in and sell my soul by studying accounting, I finally got my foot in the door at the Australian branch of a global pay TV network. It was my first job in the industry and I started out as a production assistant, working there for six years until I had worked my way up to producer, which in this particular company also meant editing and directing most of the stuff you worked on. It was a great learning curve but after spending more than a half a decade there it was time to move on.

I didn’t want to just jump into another “career” job straight away working for someone else, and now that I had TV experience this felt like the right time to take a risk and try to create something that I could call my own, this was the beginning of Unplanned America and the beginning of my foray into the indie doco world.

How did Unplanned America come about?

I’d saved up a bunch of money, and with a very vague plan to head to the States with not much of a plan other than hitting the road and filming the adventure with the ultimate goal of a creating a TV series out of the experience. I asked good mates and fellow ex-TV producing buddies Parv and Nick if they were interested as they were in a similar position to me “career-wise”, and they quickly joined up for the adventure. We had no guarantees that this journey would go any further than our Facebook feeds.

In hindsight, it was quite an audacious (naïve) move on our part to think that we could just go and shoot a TV series and sell it to a network and the rest would be history. Once we got back from that first trip to America we knew that we had filmed some interesting stuff with more than enough footage to make a series, but knowing we had enough footage for a series, and selling the series were completely different beasts. It took us more than 12 months to sell the show to SBS2 (now SBS Viceland) who took a punt on three unknowns by agreeing to air the first season of the show and paying us in advance so we could complete the edit…The first series went to air 2 years after we went on the adventure. The fact the show was then picked up by Netflix internationally a year after that, to beam back into the US households we’d adventured around, continues to blow our mind.

Ultimately, the only reason Unplanned America was made was because we took a punt and it paid off. Although my start in TV was fairly traditional, my evolution into an independent documentary maker was anything but.

What have you learnt from making Unplanned America and what would you do different?

I’d say the biggest overall cultural learning from making the show was seeing firsthand the vastly different ways people go about their lives, from crime-fighting real life superheroes to transgender bounce musicians to aging UFO chasers to off-the-grid communities, people experience life in a tremendously diverse manner.

In terms of documentary making, i think a big learning curve was about the delineation of roles. Due to our lack of budget we basically took on our every role ourselves in making the show from pre to post-production, which did become quite draining and stressful. In reality Unplanned America would’ve been made no other way, but in the future if budget permits it will be nice to be able take off some of workload so that we can try to give our full attention to each role.


Please give an example of your film making process?

The process changes for each story. Sometimes certain subjects were very hard to get a hold of or a read on until we met them face to face, while others we hit it off with straight-away when we reached out to see if they’d be interested in being a part of the documentary.

It all boiled down to making our interview subjects feel comfortable, listening to any of their concerns and helping them understand that our goal was to give an insight into their lives from our naive perspective. Essentially we were there to learn about them.

What are you working on right now?

At the moment just exploring/developing a bunch of new shows, some in the vein of Unplanned America, some vastly different. Just recently started thinking about perhaps taking Unplanned to another country or region…I’m getting itchy feet to start shooting again and get back on the road.

What is your gear setup?

I’m not much of a gear guru, but we shot the last couple of Unplanned America series on an FS700 and a 5D, had a couple of Sennheiser lapel mics and Rode Top mic. We travel fairly lightly which helps with our run and gun style and with a small set-up it’s not very intimidating for our subjects and allows for a more intimate approach.


What do you like to do outside of tv / doco’s and does it affect your tv / doco making?

I’m a big fan of music, unfortunately I can’t play anything to save myself, but I get along to as many gigs as I can. I think that of all the things I’m into, music would have the biggest influence in the doco’s, even just purely from the music we choose to put in our edits, which adds so much to the overall finished piece.

How would you describe your tv / doco film style?

I actually had to Google what our style of documentary making is generally called, and the best description I could find is “participatory documentary”, which basically means that as documentarians we interact with the subjects we’re covering, as well as interviewing them, in order to tell their story. I’m definitely interested in other styles of doco making but this has been the most successful for us, and I feel it provides a fairly easy way in for the audience, and a transparent and not too intrusive way to tell the subjects story.

Do you know any film making theory?

Yeah, some. I did study film at uni, but to be honest I probably spent more time at the bar than I should have so my retention of my studies could be questioned.


What are your plans for the future?

An extended trip to London is on the cards very soon, so I’m really looking forward to seeing what opportunities present themselves there and just having a change of scenery.

What are you listening to at the moment?

Right this very minute I’ve got Bad//Dreems new album ‘Gutful’ on repeat.

Who are your top 5 influences and icons?

Louis Theroux

Conan O’Brien

Matt Groening


Peter Sterling/Brett Kenny

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