Writer-Director Ian Ebright Explores The Way We Speak

In his debut feature film The Way We Speak, currently enjoying a robust festival run in the U.S., writer-director Ian Ebright explores themes of grief and loss in the context of a high-profile pop-academic debate. It might seem like an unlikely setting for a modern drama, but The Way We Speak exploits its unique setting for a thought-provoking treatise on public and private discourse both. Patrick Fabian stars as Simon Harrington, a middle-aged writer on atheism who is poised on the cusp of pop-culture stardom when he is slated to debate an equally up-and-coming—but much younger and female—writer whose selling point is her devout Christian faith. Their topic: Does God exist? It may be an unknowable, but it stirs up emotions that send Roger—grieving a recent death and the threat of his own wife’s cancer—into a tailspin of self-doubt and worse.

Prior to The Way We Speak, Ebright has written and directed the award-winning short films Pinwheel Horizon (2023), The Devil Needs a Fix (2017), and From the Sky (2014). His Arabic-language dramatic thriller From the Sky aired on PBS and featured in MovieMaker magazine. Cinephilia & Beyond called the film “brilliant…an amazing and pioneering short.” 

Following the U.S. debut of The Way We Speak at the Florida Film Festival, Ebright spoke with Film Obsessive’s J Paul Johnson about the film’s origins, casting, production, and distribution. The transcript following the video below has been edited slightly for clarity and space.

Film Obsessive: The Way We Speak is a film that takes place largely on the stage of public debate, but it strikes me as an especially timely film that not only examines the tenor of our public discourse, but our private discourse as well. Congratulations on the completion of your first feature film!

Ian Ebright: Thank you so much, Paul. It’s really, really fun to get to be here on Film Obsessive.

So The Way We Speak recently debuted at the Florida Film Festival, is that correct? Just a few days ago?

Yep.  A few of us from the cast and crew are down here, and looking forward to the air conditioning and 90 degree weather, but it’s a gorgeous venue. We all come from the Northwest. So for many reasons, it’s nice to be invited to such an area that wouldn’t have otherwise been on our radar. That is hugely exciting.

And could I have you offer our readers and viewers just a bit of précis plot summary, who your primary characters are and what kind of event they’re engaged in?

The Way We Speak stars Patrick Fabian, who most of us know as Howard Hamlin from Better Call Saul. He plays a character named Simon Harrington, who’s an up and coming essayist, futurist, atheist. He’s set to debate his best friend at something that would be something like a Ted X meets the Olympics, a highbrow thought-leader summit. And his best friend has cardiac arrest. Simon’s there with his wife, herself a renowned doctor who is very, very ill. And when his best friend falls ill, both the president of the summit, played by Ayana Berkshire and his wife, Claire (played by Diana Coconubo), they understand that this is not good for optics.

But for reasons that the film digs into, Simon insists that the show must go on, and the replacement ends up being a young best-selling Christian author. So the debate itself very much shifts, and really what the film is sort of we think like a modern cautionary tale, exploring obsession, envy, maybe not to give too much away, but the smoke screen is almost the “God or no God” debate. But what we’re really watching, I think, is two characters for their own distinct reasons devolving into their worst impulses in a very public manner.

I see that happen! I’m going to circle back to the storyline and the themes a little bit later and first and just offer you a compliment on your casting up and down throughout the whole film. The performances of your leads and supporting cast who are all excellent. Can you talk a little bit about how you come to cast, especially when you’re doing a film on—what’s the right word for it?—modest means?

Thank you. That’s really nice to hear. It started with a really good casting director. Her name is Dea Vise out of Los Angeles. And she’s cast a lot of Luc Besson‘s films. We were very fortunate. As you just said, this is a SAG ultra low budget movie that, admitting all my biases, I think doesn’t look or sound like a SAG ultra low budget, and that’s credit to a number of people, like our casting director, who came on board, and were just incredibly generous with their time, and, me sitting there thinking, humbled, why are you going with us?

But I think they believed in the script. And I think a couple of characters in particular were really challenging. As we started seeing more and more auditions for Claire, who is Simon’s wife, and Sarah, who is his antagonist, those were the roles I was really most scared about because we were seeing a lot of auditions that played Sarah, the antagonist, kind of like a Saturday Night Live skit of what a best selling young Christian author would be.

And I didn’t want to watch that. It’s not the kind of film we wanted to make. And similarly, with Claire, we saw a lot of very talented women who could either do kind of lively and human and grounded or elegant and buttoned up. But it was really starting to worry me because I needed to find someone who could do both, and we found one person in Diana Coconubo. So we shot in January, and it took until about December before I wasn’t worried. And then, of course, the big umbrella or glue, whatever analogy I’m not completing that ties everything together is getting Patrick Fabian for the lead.

Ian Ebright directs on the set of The Way We Speak.
On the set of The Way We Speak with Ricco DiStefano and Patrick Fabian. Photo credit: Adam Sweeney.

As much as he’s a name actor and as much as I’m a fan of Better Call Saul, it was really watching him in that sixth season where it had never occurred to me prior, but I just saw this protagonist in him. And again, writing a script where we were really mindful of what we don’t want to be and having the good fortune to find actors who shared not only brought the intrinsic talent, but again, back to those conversations, we were really enlivened by each other. Here’s what we could be. You know, we could be the thing that scores points for one side or the other, but let’s not do that, you know, let’s try to make it like human and multifaceted, and that’s credit to not only the actors and casting director, but the intelligence that each of those actors brought.

I’m going to take the liberty of saying, too, that I can understand entirely what would bring them to this film and to this script. Patrick Fabian gets a lot to do. He has an incredibly wide range of behavior in this film. He is by turns charming and roguish and reprehensible, but also sympathetic. And I think each of the each of the two main female leads are equally well-drawn, charismatic and complex characters as well. So I can see what draws them to these performances.

That is really, really nice to hear. I have to throw a bone to my wife Lauren, who’s a published poet and an incredible writer, and she has the best taste of anyone I’ve ever met. And one of the most exciting things for me in the script writing process is almost like a kid running home with the A-plus paper to his parents. I want my wife’s approval, and I remember early on, somewhere in the early rewrites, you know, we’ve been married a long time, and it’s that [stage of], I see what you’re articulating, but I’m not sure it’s on the page yet. So it’s really nice to have a partner who is encouraging me.

And yeah, this script was a lot of time spent in that lonely office setting that you’d picture. As I’ve said, there’s no spaceship that arrives in Act Three. It’s like the hardest of the 12 scripts I’ve written because there’s just nowhere to hide. It’s like character and motivation, and if that stuff isn’t there, we’re very, very dead in the water. So that hearing you say that is really gratifying because this one, it was one of those things that kind of made me scared. Like, do I know how to write? Because again, usually you have a plot or something, to hang your framework on. But this [script], if we’re not tracking with these characters, we’re going to be stalled out.

Well, it’s an ambitious script, too, in the regard that each of the central characters in the film are all highly professional, acclaimed in their field, and the script needs to deliver on that, right? I mean, it’s the words of the writer Simon that need to be in the script, and he needs to be believable as as a man whom others would follow for his insights. The same is true with Sarah’s character, right? If she is a best-selling Christian author, we need to believe that she has the intellect, that she has the charisma, that she has the verbal dexterity, that she has the insights, to be able to convince lots of others. So it strikes me as, you know, similar to a film in which we see, you know, a performer, an artist, a musician. Their artwork, their music needs to be convincing. And I think their debate, like you put it, TedX meets the Olympics is equally convincing as well.

Paul, I really appreciate that. That’s fun. I come from a research background. And so, you know, I was just sharing the part of the script that’s less fun, which is that kind of lonely isolating rewrite after rewrite, am I cracking the nut of the thing I envision? The fun part of it is what you’re describing, which is the research. I feel like the framework’s finally there. I also come from marketing and a copywriting background. So it was nice because I felt like it met aspects of my former lives that actually were in service of the script, which was kind of deep diving to make these people sound credible. And that stuff’s fun for me.

And I read in your press notes that the script is at least partially autobiographical, as well. You mentioned that you have a research background, but in what ways does the film come out of your own experience or training?

For about six years I was a blogger on faith and human rights, you know, for sites like Relevant. And so there’s something in there that I haven’t quite put my finger on. Something about the the mindfulness of the presentation and a growing concern that this is part of what the film is saying: if we’re successful, but we can convince ourselves of anything. But are we doing anything for the right reason? Because both of these characters really believe in what they’re doing. And I was starting to have that crisis of conscience. When I was blogging, it wasn’t so much about the views I was espousing. It was more about, you know, in that third eye, if we want to be a kind of therapist about it.

Headshot of Ian Ebright.
Ian Ebright. Photo: A.J. Marson.

It’s like you’re watching yourself play a role and you know that you may be making some traction and waves and at that point, You know, are you sacrificing whatever the value of the position is for sort of your own gain or something? It starts to feel a little muddy. So that was in there rattling around in my head in some way I can’t fully articulate, but I would say, kind of a bad taste of my own younger self.

And very strangely, you know, I won’t go too deep into this, but my dad was Washington state’s first liver transplant. He was very ill from the time I was ten years old until he passed and my only sibling and mom also passed in three subsequent years immediately after I wrote this script. So I had no idea. I was aware I was writing a script about grief. I had no idea that the sort of, you know, art would form life. And what’s interesting is I went back very recently after they passed and only changed one thing in the script, which was Simon’s monologue at the end across the table from someone that, you know, people will see when they watch about what grief does after some time has passed. It was the one sentiment that I thought I had experienced that I had never read or seen somewhere. And more than that, I felt like it belonged in the story.

So it’s the strange thing of the script was more forward looking than I had any awareness of. It was also looking back a bit into my own kind of icky feelings about things. And then the elephant in the room is I’m a writer who’s cursed to love documentaries. There’s not a lot of narrative stuff that really gets me excited these days, which is not something I’m happy with. I would love to see more story-driven films out there in general. But The Best of Enemies, the documentary,  and Life Itself, about the film critic Roger Ebert, I marinated in those movies for years. And this script of mine, The Way We Speak is absolutely me being like, boy, I couldn’t improve those documentaries if I tried, but I feel like I want to see those themes distilled into a film that I think I could write.

So to me those two documentaries that really knocked me over in the best way and feeling like there’s something here that I want to chew on in a narrative sense.

That is really fascinating. And I want to ask, at the same time that you’re doing your writing and your working and development, are you in film school? Are you out of film school? Are you not at all associated with film school? Are you always working towards this path of directing feature length narrative films?

Great question. I went to a film school in Seattle in my early 20s and was a film critic off and on in what felt like the infancy of the Internet. And was writing feature-length scripts and burnt myself out. And in that six-year gap, I actually kind of went away to blog on faith and human rights and things. Then when my wife was pregnant with our first son, and I’m up with insomnia, which was a new thing. I had what turned out to be a light bold moment of, why don’t I try writing a short film script, which I had never done. And that was the first of the three shorts that I’ve since made that I wrote and directed. And it was funny. These shorts were always in response to the longer content I couldn’t get made.

So I had The Way We Speak written and rewritten, and it was getting good feedback, and I couldn’t get the engine to start on the funding or producer had a TV series also that got some interest, but we couldn’t get it to go. So yeah, I’ve been one of those indie filmmakers that’s, like, How do I get something out there?, even if it’s a short film that’s story driven, high aesthetic, you know, the things that are very important to me. And all roads kind of led to a moment where the universe kind of felt like we got the green light to make The Way We Speak. But it’s interesting that as a script it had existed before even some of these other shorts that I’ve made previously.

So what was it that tipped the scales for The Way We Speak?

It was, to be honest, the passing of family members and taking paid leave from my employer. I was a copywriter, and, you know, contracts running out at work and traditional employment not being available. I had this strange moment of time and some money and, you know, looked at my wife and our kids, and it felt like, yeah, can we do this without jeopardizing the family? So it was this weird byproduct of the passing of these three family members.

Wow, that’s amazing. My condolences, of course, but I’m glad the film has worked out for you in this way. And you mentioned that it is an ultra low-budget film, but it does not look or feel like an ultra low budget film in any way. I also need to compliment both your cinematographer and your editor as well. I mentioned how good the performances were. But the performances, I think, are also allowed to shine and were allowed to register the depth of the characters’ emotions and feelings often visually, not just with words. And we get that in reaction shots. We get it in small, subtle gestures. I know that’s the confluence of the team, all working together, the actors, and you, the director. You are the writer also, but also your cinematographer, and then in post, your editor [are all] looking to bring those things to life.

Thank you so much. Working with those two guys, A.J. Marson as cinematographer—unbelievably, this is his first feature—and Robert Schafer, who is Francis Ford Coppola’s editor on Megalopolis, which is just about to come out and in the can. Robbie is a longtime collaborator. Getting to work with those two guys, they are such a huge part of what makes this thing sort of punch above its weight.

You know, you always want to make the most informed, discerning decision on tentpole people that are really pivotal to the success of the film. And then pretty quickly, whether it’s like a tech scout with AJ the DP or the early assembly with Robbie, you’re like, Oh, my goodness, we have a very, very similar taste. So not only are we getting on interpersonally, but we develop a shorthand, you know, the films that we’re referencing, Moneyball, for instance, in terms of using a lot of negative space, a lot of shadow to create depth, a lot of low light ambience. We talked a lot about playing against type visually. Let’s not do our grandfather’s earnest drama. Let’s almost do Blade Runner. So the score is very electronic instead of something more orchestral. It was just a huge joy at every step to work with those two guys because they’re so good. And it’s in those conversations with the cast that you find that kind of icing on the cake of kindred spirits in terms of, you know, artist and taste, and then the expertise they bring, and that’s when it’s really fun.

You mentioned the score, and I should also just ask you to talk a little bit about how you came to work with Billow Observatory.

Yeah. All the way back to my first of three shorts, From the Sky, I’m a huge ambient electronic music fan. I find that when I don’t want vocals, [since] we have kids, there’s a threshold where I need the noise to come down. And so I found ambient music to be that: it’s not quiet in the room, it’s evocative and it helps me think or something, but it’s also not like vocals being shouted at me. So I listen to a lot of ambient music.

Billow Observatory has been a favorite band of mine. One of their two composers is in Detroit. The other, Jonas, is in Denmark. I’ve been listening to them through the duration of my film career in shorts. And when it came time for my third short, they had two specific pieces of music that I had kind of done that thing of, well, now I need to license this music because I can’t see these scenes in my head without this particular piece, and was very fortunate to get them not only to license the music to me, but they wrote an original score around that for my third short Pinwheel Horizon.

And as we’re getting to The Way We Speak, similarly, it was like, I couldn’t unuse them in my head. It was just, you know, I was so familiar with their soundscapes kind of textually. They had already auditioned in my brain for years prior, and there was just nobody else I could hear. So this is the first feature film that they had done with one exception, a fully original score. So I think we’ve got more than a dozen cues in there. Only the piece that plays out over the end, which we were talking about Michael Mann’s movie Heat, which was a big influence on the script, and that big crescendo of music at the end of Heat, which their song is very evocative of.

Other than that, it’s all original to the film. And like AJ and Robbie that we were talking about, Great, shorthand, great guys, shared taste and really fun to my analogy is building the pyramid. We just get better and better until no one in the room has any more opinions. And, you know, the cliché, I think is true here. I think it’s an important character in the film, the music.

You know, I do too, and I think their contribution as well as the film’s other qualities really do make it feel very unique. It is very much a character driven drama with fairly ambitious themes, and I will absolutely grant that we don’t have enough of those these days, but it feels very new at the same time, and I respect and enjoy that about the film.

So so nice to hear, Paul. Thanks.

Tonight, you’ve got the cast and crew with you in Florida, is that correct?

We do. Then it’s up to River Run International Film Festival in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, for two screenings there. Very cool festival. Then all the way over to Iowa for Julien Dubuque International Film Festival just days after. So before I get home in late April, we’ll screen at two more festivals. And yeah, we’re kind of coming in hot, you know, kicking off The Way We Speak in April.

And for me personally, I’ve written out my version of a topical, unapologetic ghost story that I’m very hungry to direct next. And those tent-pole people we talked about, A.J. as DP, Robbie as editor, they’ve been reading each iteration of the script, and, you know, it’s early, but we’re trying to put together a producer and funding so that we can shoot that thing very, very practically as much as humanly possible. We want to build the aesthetic into the frame, and we don’t have time to go into it, but you know, VFX has its place. I’m a child of the ’80s and ’90s, so I really love movies like The Abyss and Star Wars, just that tactile, lived-in thing, and if we’re able to make this film, we want to make it feel like it actually happened.

That’s exciting! I hope I get a chance to see that sometime in the future, and let me  congratulate you again on the success of The Way We Speak and wish you and it the very best for the future. Thanks for speaking with us at Film Obsessive.

Thanks so much, Paul. It was fun.

Written by J Paul Johnson

J Paul Johnson is Publisher of Film Obsessive. A professor emeritus of film studies and an avid cinephile, collector, and curator, his interests range from classical Hollywood melodrama and genre films to world and independent cinemas and documentary.

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