How Ryan Lacen Took the Stories of Seven Women and Made it Into One for ‘All the World Is Sleeping’ [Interview]

Lacen also discussed working with Melissa Barrera, filming in New Mexico and the long road to distribution.

What a year it has been for Melissa Barrera. I’ll be honest — she was my least favorite part of last year’s Scream (apparently, this sentiment was shared with a lot of Scream fans), but she has stepped up her game in a major way. From her layered performances in Scream VI to the upcoming film Carmen — in which she stars alongside Paul Mescal — Barrera has really gotten on track to becoming a star. And give her credit for going from mainstream films like In The Heights and Scream to the smaller independent films including All the World Is Sleeping

Ryan Lacen, a talented young director, directed All the World Is Sleeping which follows a young mother (played by Barrera) who struggles with addiction. Plenty of films have tackled this subject matter, with many falling more on the side of Cherry and less on the side of The Panic in Needle Park, but Lacen’s film is really stunning. It’s a tough watch but tells a beautiful story. 

The Hollywood Handle spoke with Lacen over Zoom and touched on a variety of topics including the long road to distribution for All the World Is Sleeping, working with Barrera, the real-life inspiration for this story and the unique research he conducted in preparation for the film. 

The Hollywood Handle: I just wanted to say congratulations on All the World Is Sleeping. I know this is probably kind of weird to do an interview for it when I think it did the festival circuit in 2021 — I saw some interviews with Melissa Barrera from 2021 — so I wasn’t sure when this movie was made. What has this road been like?

Ryan Lacen: So we filmed right before the pandemic and then right when we wrapped, we went into post-production during the pandemic. So it’s kinda like juggling that whole sense of like, Okay, now we have to edit, [do] color correction [and] sound either remotely or within like these small bubbles. 

And then when [we] finished, it was like, Okay, great — we’re ready to jump into festivals, but by that point, the whole world shut down, so we waited until the end of 2021 to premiere at the first festival. So we did the HBO New York Latino Film Festival as the premiere and that was still the point where it was like at a drive-in outside [laughs] in this huge parking lot on the big screen there. And then we continued the festival run through 2022, and then, I guess midway [through] 2022, it was like, Okay, cool, let’s jump into distribution and get this film out there.

THH: I always love hearing about smaller films and that dynamic of going through the festival circuit and then trying to find distribution. I was just interviewing a filmmaker who was at Sundance and he kind of had he ranted about that kind of journey can be tough. So for this film, did you guys find a distributor and what has that been like?

Lacen: Yeah. So during the festival run, the film sold out almost every single screening it was at, won a bunch of awards [and] kind of had a nice little amount of buzz going with the film during that period, but it was still holding out for like the best deal. And a lot of times with like indie films too, most films just get the typical round of like, Okay, great, you’re gonna go straight to a streamer, you’re gonna go straight to digital, but you know, like for myself, I grew up going to the movie theater — I grew up in a cinema, in a seat, watching a film with a collective, with a community. So I really wanted this film to be able to have its day in a theater. So we really, really  [pushed] hard to be able to get a theatrical release. 

And we ended up going with Gravitas [Ventures] who promised us like, “Hey, we will do our best to get this into theaters,” and they came through. So now, [on] March 17th, we’re coming out in theaters and on digital.

THH: And so I wanted to ask you to jump back a little bit cause you mentioned going to the movies as a kid. Can you talk to me a little bit about your background? I imagine then you were a big movie lover as a kid but was directing always what you wanted to do?

Lacen: I always wanted to be part of films or always part of movies in general. My very first film experience was [when I was] I three years old, going to [the] theater with my mom and my grandma, and from that moment on, it became kind of like the pastime. So it was like every weekend spending my entire time in the theaters. I started collecting VHSs, then DVDs, then Blu-Rays — I still have a huge collection to my wife’s dismay [laughs]. But it was always something too where it was like kind of all I had, all I gravitated towards, so I don’t know if [it] necessarily was like I wanted to be a director from my youth, but it was always like I wanted to be a part of cinema in some way whether it be like writing, directing, being behind the camera in any type of capacity. 

So once I graduated from college, I came out to LA and I started just kind of like getting on any big-budget set I could get onto as an assistant [or] any type of role possible just to be a part of it. And after spending like two to three years working on other people’s films, I finally got to the point where I was like, I’m ready to do my own [film] — I want my own stories to get out. So then I started writing my own scripts and then I was lucky enough to get my first film, The Dust Storm, financed. We shot that in Tennessee and ended up selling it to Hulu. 

That definitely opened up a lot of doors for me to not only have the confidence in myself to be like, Hey, directing is kind of what I want to do, but [also that] this is something feasible that I can do. 

THH: How did you come to this story for All the World Is Sleeping — was it based on real events or a book you read? 

Lacen: Yeah. So it, it’s, it’s kind of a really kinda unique way of a film getting made. So my very first film, The Dust Storm, took place in Nashville and it toured a bunch of festivals and this nonprofit in New Mexico called Bold Futures — they’re a nonprofit that kinda leads policy cultureship by and for women and people of color in New Mexico — they saw the film and they contacted me and they said like, “If you can do for New Mexico what you do in Tennessee, we would love to have you come out and possibly talk to us about doing like a film.”  I mean, New Mexico was my hometown, so any type of opportunity to come back there I was excited about, but still not really knowing what this was going to be. 

I went out there, I met with the nonprofit and they introduced me to seven women who have and continue to battle addiction. And for the course of like three to four months, I would go, I would sit there and I would just listen and take in all their stories, their life experiences and truly just try to understand their lives and their stories and what they want to tell. And from those experiences, I went back and wrote a script based on their lives and that kind of became All the World Is Sleeping

A still from All the World Is Sleeping. Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures.

THH: So since you wrote the script, based on the things you sat in on and observed, did you ever ask for input on your script during that process?

Lacen: Yeah, absolutely. So once the first script was made, I sent it over to the nonprofit and to the seven women, and all of them read it. And at the end of the day, it was not about like, “Hey, what’s the most exciting aspects of the script of the film?” it’s like, “What is the most honest and truthful aspects of it?” because every part that we all wanted to put into it was that it felt real and it felt like it was a reflection of the true life stories that it was based upon. So they would give notes back, like, “Okay, yes, this part is exactly what happened,” or, “No, it kind of happened like this way,” and I would take those notes, go back and kind of recreate the draft until we all felt like this is the script that we want to kind of put out there. 

And then even after that point too, once we were filming, several of the actual women who inspired it were on set, not only in consultant-type positions, but they’re there kinda like producing and helping to make it happen. So it was this kind of cool composite of this Hollywood film company coming in and working with the women and with the nonprofit to make one film. 

THH: It seemed like you were excited to go back to New Mexico to film this movie. I know that it likely felt special, but did that ever make it easier since you know the locations? And also, were any of the locations in the film areas near where you grew up? 

Lacen: [Being from New Mexico] definitely made it easier in the sense of I know New Mexico, and I know the state and like to try to make it a character in the film. I, at least, felt like I knew how to bring an authentic approach to it as opposed to like saying like an insider coming into the state and just maybe filming what they have heard about or know about. Like I knew the ins and outs of the [state].

THH: Piggybacking off of that, I know movies have been filmed in New Mexico before, and when you see a movie that’s made by someone who maybe isn’t from the area, do you ever notice things like touristy spots or cliched spots?

Lacen: Oh yeah, absolutely. You’ll see these actors talking in certain spots, especially in Albuquerque, [and] you’re like, “There’s no way anyone’s actually having a conversation there. There’s no way anyone’s meeting up in this exact spot.”

So we definitely try to keep an authentic approach to the locations that we use for this film. I mean, I will say there are movies or TV shows like Breaking Bad that basically encompassed every single aspect of [it] and did it in a very authentic way [with] the restaurants they would go to or the places that yes, we all go to all the time [smiles]. 

THH: Going back to the addiction aspect of the film, that’s a topic that’s covered in so many films, but sometimes some films don’t handle it well. Were there any films that kind of inspired that? I know that you talked to the women from the center, but were there any films then that kind of inspired that as well?

Lacen: Kinda like what you said, there are a lot of films about addiction, but this definitely wanted to tackle it in a way that felt very different than every other film that’s been made about it. So I kind of stayed away from watching any of those films just cause I didn’t wanna be influenced by [them]. I tried to basically take the approach [of] taking their true life stories and bringing it to screen, but I also wanted to do it in like a way that felt unique and visually different.

Since it was seven different stories, composited [into] one, I want to kind of create this kind of flip book of like memories. So therefore as the film goes on, it’s a non-oral story and we’re kind of cutting in between specific moments in the lives of the character of Chama (Barrera) so we’re able to see like her past, her present [and] we’re able to kind of hear her thoughts. We’re able to kind of see like even how her thoughts might contradict her actions. We’re able to kinda see her during her struggle, both sober and while using, and to try to be able to create one storyline with that. But then when you’re watching it too, I wanted to create that idea [that] we are going through like this scrapbook of this character’s life. 

THH: The film is led by what I believe is Melissa Barrea’s best performance to date. What’s interesting to me is that this film you mentioned was filmed early on in, or before the pandemic, so I believe that that would be before Scream (2022) or In The Heights — so what was it like casting her? I imagine this was when she was a little bit lesser known. 

Lacen: So we filmed All the World Is Sleeping while Melissa was on the show Vida, but it was before In The Heights came out. And during that whole [casting] process, it was like trying to cast someone that not only is a great actor who could bring the role of trauma to life, but also an actor that would be able to completely encompass themself into the real-life depiction of these women and to meet them and to make sure that like they could bring their story to life in a very honest and authentic way. And Melissa was just a hundred percent committed the entire time she was resilient and just jumped straight in.

And [when] we’re doing scenes, we’re doing like five-page scenes each day where she would have to do a detox scene in the morning — which almost break her entire body and her mental frame — and then an hour later jump into a completely different world where now she’s kind of dealing with a scene with her daughter. 

And she was so flawlessly able to kind of move between each of those while also just giving such an honest, real performance. 

A still from All the World Is Sleeping. Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures.

THH: Speaking of the younger daughter, I should have made a note of it in the credits of who played her, but can you talk to me about casting her because she com I think she was perfect to play the daughter of Melissa Barrera’s character in the film.

Lacen: The young actress is named Adilynn [Marie Menendez] and [it was] kind of the same process [for] casing all the actors. It was like trying to find someone that would just bring truth to the real-life story. And with her too [it] was [about] finding an actress that would not only build this relationship and this rapport with Melissa without too much prep, but that could also be able to emotionally go there in these situations where she sees her mom like OD and for her to be able to like take that in and create a performance that felt real that didn’t feel like she was trying to do a dramatic performance. And then Adilynn came in and just completely was able to put herself in the moment and feel these things too where it was just such a joy to watch her and Melissa together. 

THH: I believe that this one I did get right in the credits, but is that Jorge Garcia in the film?

Lacen: Yeah, that’s, that’s Jorge Garcia. And Jorge, like most people, [I loved] watching him for years on Lost, and he’s usually the comic relief, but for this, it was a great opportunity for him to kind of come in and be the dramatic heartbeat of the film because he’s there with Melissa’s character as they’re trying to get her help.

THH: As I mentioned, watching this film was hard because of its emotional weight, so I imagine shooting it could be kind of difficult. You mentioned some of the days when Melissa would have to do two different types of scenes in one day, did you ever feel that you and your crew, after a day like that, needed to alleviate that kind of stress or heaviness, or were you able to just do the work and that was that?

Lacen: It was definitely a balance. I will say, one good aspect of it was most of us were from out of town, so it was like all of us in Las Cruces, New Mexico, staying in the same hotels, same houses with each other, so therefore, once we were done shooting, everyone was able to kind of get together and have like dinner together, or have like a drink after work. But then even on set too, we tried to make sure like while the actors were on set and while we’re filming that it was just kind of nice and quiet so therefore they were able to go to these hard spots. But the second we move on from a scene, it was like everyone would’ve to break up into jokes, just trying to like get the air to be a little bit more kind of fun and then bring that back down once we got into the next scene.

THH: So do you have a favorite experience from the shoot? 

Lacen: Yeah, I think one of my favorite moments of the filming experience was we filmed at White Sands National Park outside of Las Cruces, New Mexico, and it’s this huge, I guess like, wonder of the world, you know, these rolling white hills of sand that go on for miles and miles and miles. So we filmed a very pivotal scene of the movie there, but when we got to the park, we basically had an hour-and-a-half of sunlight before the sun went down. 

So it was like, not only were we chasing the sun, but it was like we were doing a scene where Melissa and Jorge had to basically run up these sand dunes, and as they’re running up these sand dunes, Michael Garcia, the DP, myself and the crew are like running up behind them. We get the shot and then we got to all run back down and do it over and over and over [smiles]. And not only was it an emotional scene, but it was also a physical scene for the actors and all of us.

Then when we finally got the scene, it was in the can [and] it was good, the sun had just set, the full moon was coming up and the entire cast and crew basically collapsed to the sand and we all watched the full moon together [smiles]. And I don’t think anybody talked for about 15 minutes as we took it in and then we took a deep breath and we’re like, “Okay, cool. Now we go onto the next day of shooting.” 

THH: So once the actors in the scene get to the top of the dune, they’re clearly exhausted. Was that acting or were they truly just exhausted from running up the dunes [laughs]? 

Lacen: I’m sure it was definitely a combination of both [laughs]. 

THH: What do you hope that viewers take away from this film?

Lacen: I just hope it starts a conversation. I don’t think there’s any easy answer to like how you fix the opioid epidemic or how to really tackle addiction properly to a definitive end, but I just hope that this film gets people walking out talking about it and also how people look and judge others that are struggling — I hope this helps them to look at others under a different lens. 

All the World Is Sleeping is in theaters and available on digital platforms now.

Andrew Korpan

Andrew Korpan

Film "critic" and entertainment journalist whose work has been featured in Above the Line, Below the Line, Collider, /Film and Coastal House Media.
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