We interview directors Abby Horton and Ryan Dickie, and star Jason Selvig on Blow Up My Life, a comedic crime thriller full of surprises and a shocking ending.
After impressing audiences at Austin Film Festival and AMC theaters, Blow Up My Life is coming to digital platforms. The film follows a disgraced pharmaceutical employee as he seeks to expose his former employer’s corrupt plans. Starring Jason Selvig and Tony-nominated Kara Young, the film will have you on the edge of your seat. With great acting, production, and a screenplay that is sure to surprise at every turn, Blow Up My Life is the perfect film for comedy, action, and heart. Its final moments are jaw-dropping and unpredictable.
We spoke with directors Abby Horton and Ryan Dickie, and star Jason Selvig about filming during COVID-19, Blow Up My Life’s festival and theater success, and making a small movie that rages against Big Pharma and capitalism. Read the interview below!
Abby Horton and Ryan Dickie on writing a comedy thriller, and shooting during COVID-19
Thank you, Abby, Ryan, and Jason for speaking with us today on the film Blow Up My Life. It has a little bit of everything, from comedy to romance and drama, with thrilling moments throughout. Abby and Ryan, what was it like writing and directing a comedy thriller? How did you approach that process?
Abby Horton: From the beginning, we wanted Jason to star in it, and really wrote it for him. He’s super funny, and we’ve worked with him on many other occasions, so we really wrote it knowing Jason’s sense of humor. We knew we wanted it to be funny, entertaining, and fun.
We’ve heard someone describe this kind of approach, like hiding the spinach in the popcorn, where you have a really fun time watching the movie, but secretly, we’re raging against Big Pharma. But we didn’t want to make an essay film either, though I personally love them. Generally, I think you’re hoping to make a film that you would like to sit down and see yourself in.
Ryan Dickie: It’s really fun to have that roller coaster ride of creating tension, then disarming it with some comedy, then from there, you can kind of build it back. And I think that back and forth is always very pleasing. It keeps you on the edge of your seat.
You’ve co-directed in the past, but this is your first time co-directing a feature film. What was that process like?
R.D.: This was a story I started writing around 2016–2017. I had outlined and started the script, and was even telling Jason about it back then. At that time, it was on a much larger scale, almost an international scope. But once I got into a certain place with it, I thought it was bigger than what I was going to be able to take on, so I put it on the backburner and focused on something more practical. Abby and I both started working on different scripts. Then in 2020, what we had been working on kind of hit a wall. We pivoted, looked around and thought, what are we going to do now? What can we do with the few resources that we have out in Connecticut, while everyone is out of work?
We looked back at the idea for Blow Up My Life and thought, if we could distill it down from the international scope, and make it a suburban scope, would it still work? Could the characters and the themes still come through? So we started to break it down and it felt like, even if this was a stage play, this would still have something for people to engage with. We started breaking the scripts down to fit into the Middletown, Connecticut setting, and the few actors that we had. We had to navigate the logistics of COVID and figure out how many actors we could have on set interacting at one time. That ended up informing a lot of our creative decisions. But, like most creative endeavors, the more boundaries you have, the easier it gets to work within them. That helped us focus a lot. Then we started to prep the film about eight weeks before we started shooting. That was a blast. Middletown, Connecticut was very accommodating to us as a filming location.
A.H.: I grew up there, so I had a good understanding of what was available for us to utilize.
R.D.: Right, so it was already familiar. We had been working out the script together so thoroughly, and constructing the production together, so once we got on set to start shooting, we had a good idea about what we were looking for in terms of actor motivation, the tonality of the scenes, and how to cover them with the camera. It came together very well. We shot for 18 days, over three weeks, and it was just a blast.
A.H.: Ryan and I had worked together quite a few other times. We had met working on set for another project and now we’re married. So working on set together has always been a part of our love language. Making a feature film was just the next step. We kept saying, “this is like the time we made the short, but we’ll just do it for a longer time.”
Especially making a film during COVID, it was great to have a partner because it was emotionally overwhelming. Making a film at all is emotionally overwhelming, but having that feeling like I might contract COVID added to the stress. It was great having a partner there. We both cared just as much about this going well, and just as much about making the film come to life.
R.D.: The filming was just a small piece of the puzzle, because then the next three years were editing,taking it through the festivals, and distributing it ourselves. We held each other up during the long process of making the film.
Jason Selvig: Abby and Ryan, you did a lot of the effects too, right?
R.D.: We did some. There are 150 VFX shots in the film. It doesn’t feel that way when you watch it, but between all the screens, masking things out, and changing the logo on a building and little things like that, it becomes a lot. That took a very long time. That’s not our primary area of expertise, so we worked with extremely talented VFX artists and graphic designers that helped us get that together. It was a long journey, but it was crucial to the film. It’s such a delicate balance because no one wants to watch anyone watching screens. So we had to be very strategic about it.
Ryan Dickie and Jason Selvig on seeing a small film play in AMC theaters
Blow Up My Life premiered at festivals and even had a 10-city theatrical run, eight of which were in AMC theaters. What was it like seeing that happen?
Ryan Dickie: It was a total dream come true, especially because the production of the film was so homegrown and small. We shot it at the height of COVID-19 in Connecticut. We brought everyone out from New York to Connecticut to stay with Abby’s family and put the production together from there. It felt like summer camp or film school, with close friends and collaborators, and Abby’s mom making dinner every night for everyone.
Jason Selvig: There was definitely a summer camp aspect to it, because it was such a small crew. We were all hanging out together; we had to because of COVID. We couldn’t see anybody else due to COVID restrictions. We were all sleeping in the same house. So it was a very tight knit group. Abby’s mom was a great cook!
R.D.: Yeah, good food is a very underestimated factor in crew morale. So going from this kind of backyard mentality to AMC and playing at the Austin Film Festival alongside Oscar-nominated films was wonderful. It was very validating to feel like all the work we were doing was reaching people and they were connecting with it. The audiences during those screenings were very engaged with lots of laughs and gasps, especially at the end. It was very satisfying. I used to work at AMC theaters in high school at the concession stand, so it was especially meaningful to me to bring it back to AMC.
Jason Selvig on playing the lead and chemistry with co-stars
Your character has quite the journey throughout the film. What was it like to encapsulate a character with so many emotions?
Jason Selvig: He was so fun to play. You know, he is an asshole. Which is funny because in the last two short films that we worked on and even with some of the stuff we’ve done with The Good Liars, I’ve played assholes. But there’s this journey where he has his redemption after being part of this evil pharmaceutical company. The film leaves unanswered the question of whether he is so dense that he just couldn’t realize that he was working for this evil corporation, or if he was just willfully ignorant to it, and kind of shut that out. When he discovers it, he decides he’s going to do the right thing, at first for his own selfish reasons, but then at the end he makes the decision to do things for the greater good. So it was a lot of fun to work on.
You’ve worked with Davram Stiefler on The Good Liars, which contributed to the chemistry that you had on screen. What was it like working on this film with your co-stars?
J.S.: It was very easy to do the scenes with Davram. Abby and Ryan were really smart planning it: they had Davram come in for the first part of shooting, so it was easier for me because I was working with Davram, who I talk to every day. It was really nice working with him the first couple of days. Then of course everybody else was amazing; they were pros. Kara Young is a two-time Tony-nominated actress, she’s a total pro. She was very open and just easy to work with. Ben Horner and Reema Sampat were the same way, too. So, everybody was great to work with. I think everybody has their own little gems of scenes in there.
Considering Blow Up My Life’s underlying message while planning for the future
I think the more communal, small town aspect of Blow Up My Life gives inspiration about who can change the world. Having a smaller scope for the story and production lends to the film’s underlying message.
Ryan Dickie: I’m so glad that comes through. I do feel like that is a major theme. Jason is making a change from the smallest beginnings. Even the title Blow Up My Life begs the question, what is that point one can get to where they’re willing to make a change, they’re willing to separate from their old life, their old system, and go the other way?
I think now that we’ve made the film, which certainly explores anti-capitalist themes, I think we’ve realized that it’s way better that the movie didn’t cost like $100 million. It would be better if movies didn’t cost so much, and could be made in a much more community-based process. Making a film like that was very important to us. That is something that we definitely want to carry forward in our next projects.
Speaking of next projects, what do you all have planned for the future?
Jason Selvig: We’ve done a movie for the last two presidential elections for The Good Liars, so we might be putting something together, we’ll see. But we are on the road a lot filming for The Good Liars, and we’ll continue that into 2024. We’re excited about the possibility of some ideas that we have right now. So I guess you’ll just have to wait and see. Unless you’re an investor reading this, then send us money right now. Please send us money.
Abby Horton: As Ryan mentioned, we were both working on other projects before Blow Up My Life. We both feel very excited about the next one. We learned so much while making this film, about just how practical an art form it is. If you want to make a film, it is a practical pursuit. What resources, budget, cast, and locations are available? I think that is going to inform our next project. Ryan has a script that he got a grant from the state of Montana to do, and I am just finishing up a script about a woman who works in private equity. We both hope to get those off the ground soon.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Blow Up My Life will be released on digital platforms on November 21, 2023. Read our review of Blow Up My Life.