“My soft spot is coming-of-age films about teenagers, sort of the reckless after-dark sneaking out, make-out points, skateboarding,” Ryan Ohm confesses. The Chicagoland indie filmmaker has parlayed his love of music and film into a burgeoning career making music videos for the likes of Empires, Twin Peaks, Modern Vices, Yawn, and more. His voice fizzes with enthusiasm. It’s clear that beneath Ohm’s chill skateboarder vibe, there’s a show going on in his head where thoughts tap, roll, and ricochet like a jazz drummer’s solo.
“I am an indie filmmaker,” he says. “I say filmmaker because a lot of people say, ‘I’m a director, I’m a so-and-so,’ but the people I work with closely, we all do a lot of things. I will typically write, direct, edit, and a lot of the time do some shooting as well with Jackson [James], who’s the primary [director of photography].”
The operative words in Ohm’s definition of himself are “indie” and “we.”
Ohm is one half of Weird Life Films, an independent company he shares with partner and collaborator James. While the pair sometimes have flexible roles between writing, producing, filming, and editing depending on the project, Ohm says, “The bottom line is that he and I work together exclusively; we’re a duo.”
Ohm shirks the idea of being tied down to one role and working by the book he was taught from in film school. “I respect that, but it’s not what I love about film,” he says. Weird Life is indie filmmaking in its purest form, often working with micro budgets or no budget whatsoever in locations that range from above board to “let’s hope the cops don’t show.” There’s not a lot of room for egos, and projects are propelled by the love of the craft.
There’s a clear cadence and movement to much of Weird Life’s work that likely stems from Ohm’s movie-making roots. “I started skateboarding when I was way little and loved that before anything else came into my life,” he says. “I started shooting and skating a lot, just with my buds… just filming while skating and shooting fireworks, whatever shenanigans we’d get into.” Alongside these teenage home-movies, Ohm has “always” been in a band and most of his friends are musicians. “Music videos were kind of the natural next step.”
He recalls finding Twin Peaks before they were big and just “hitting them up.” It sounds laid-back, but that attitude lends itself to starting a collaboration on a level playing field. For the video “I Found a New Way,” from Twin Peaks’ Wild Onion, Ohm recalls, “Clay [Frankel, guitarist] called me one day and was like, ‘Hey, I’ve got this idea, like Sandlot-style,’ and the next day we were in Indiana shooting.”
Ohm’s style of indie filmmaking works well with his soft, old-school aesthetic. “I’m obsessed with nostalgia in a lot of different senses,” he says. “I think there’s a certain…fabricated nostalgia element that I try to get in there. Whether it’s a story, or a costume, or artistic push, there’s always this idea that ‘this is in the past.’”
Weird Life’s music video for “I Found a New Way” looks as though it was ripped directly from a mash up of The Sandlot and Stand By Me.
The band gathers with friends and strolls through a sleepy town to a field where they can play baseball. While Twin Peaks bellows, “I found a new way,” Ohm creates an image that is timeless, American, and young. Ohm is his own Norman Rockwell in this way. His music videos and films present an idealized, though imperfect and often surreal, depiction of life.
He’s lucky to have found bands whose sounds match his vision. “I have a certain aesthetic style that I like,” Ohm says, “and bands dig that usually, and when they see my other work they kind of expect that.” This isn’t to say that Weird Life is one-note; Ohm just happens to have cultivated a way to capture a band’s music, essence, and tone while still staying true to his own aesthetic. Videos range from simple, to surreal, to a little of both. Yawn plays a garage show with ballerinas while crew members change the color of the stage lights on camera (below); Twin Peaks makes breakfast on a garbage can in a stagnant shot; and Ohm follows Empires as they ride motorcycles through empty streets.
Whether it’s a wide-angle lens in Empires’ “Please Don’t Tell My Lover,” or the shower of colors, lights, and post-production effects inside of a car in Modern Vices’ “Cheap Style,” Weird Life merges familiar, old-school references while keeping it, well, weird.
“What draws me to film is in a sense is creating an atmosphere,” Ohm says. “I like films usually not based on the story, but based on the mood, the tone, and the visual atmosphere. I just like feeling a certain way.” This artistic push exists not only in many of the music videos he creates, but also in his long-form films. In many ways, the music is just as important in Finn and the Sea of Noise, an independent film of Ohm’s creation, as it is in one of his music videos. Weird Life collaborated with several artists to get the right feel for Finn, pulling from Twin Peaks’s LP Sunken and a few Empires songs for their soundtrack. “That’s the cool part about Finn…we can still work with these bands on a different front and use their music to create an atmosphere in our narrative work,” Ohm says.
In the end, what rises above the din created by his drumming, crashing thoughts is his passion. “Every time I do a new project, it becomes my favorite,” he says. It’s his aspiration to keep besting himself with each new project, and for now he’s succeeding. “I hope in four years I’m still saying that.”