Smiling Back Through the Darkness

Director Ryan Lacen on the crucial role his late sister Kelly played in shaping his new addiction drama All the World is Sleeping.

As I search for the right words to say, I squeeze my eyes shut, hoping it will help me focus and organize my thoughts. I’m not fighting to be perfect, but when it comes to All the World is Sleeping, my latest film, I want to express myself with candor and sincerity. It’s challenging to discuss this movie and express its significance to me, as well as the efforts that went into creating it. The film is inspired by the true-life experiences of a group of mothers who entrusted me with their stories and put their faith in me to ensure their voices were heard. I want to be able to articulate it right for them and for my younger sister Kelly, whose face I see every time I watch the movie.

The idea for All the World is Sleeping was brought to me several years back by a non-profit organization called Bold Futures. They invited me to come to New Mexico and create a film about the experiences of seven mothers and their struggles with addiction. Prior to this call, I had directed one other film, a small indie called The Dust Storm. My intention behind that movie had been to rip the scab off my romantic heartbreaks and create my version of a broken love story. So I didn’t initially know why they thought I was the right person for this job, but I agreed anyway and traveled from Los Angeles to Albuquerque.

The staff of Bold Futures. (Photo courtesy Bold Futures.)

Bold Futures is a non-profit that spearheads culture-shift work led by and for women and people of color in New Mexico. For months, they guided me through the process of listening to and learning from these women as they shared with me their personal traumas. There were moments of laughter and tears as I delved deeper into understanding their experiences, so I could write their stories with authenticity.

Bold Futures apparently chose me to be the writer-director not only because I am an Albuquerque native, but because my first film struck a chord with them due to its honest and distinctive storytelling. What they were unaware of, and what I used to keep heavily guarded, was my personal connection to the world of addiction. As children, my sisters and I witnessed how addiction took our uncle away from us – and as we grew older, it began to directly impact my youngest sister.

Kelly Lacen. (Photo courtesy Ryan Lacen.)

Kelly was five years younger than me and shared my love for music, books and films. Her laugh was infectious, and she had a way of captivating everyone around her, whether they were friends, family or strangers. Despite her outgoing nature, she could be very introverted and sometimes frightened. She was constantly searching for her purpose, while avoiding her reflection and refusing to see how much the world loved her. She’d disappear into her favorite songs or a movie, but when the pain of living became too much, she found another way to numb her pain. Once her addiction began to take over, it became increasingly difficult to connect with her. Creating All the World is Sleeping helped to mend that.

When I first started writing the script, I had notes upon notes, highlighting specific parts in the mothers’ lives. My goal was to create a movie that not only accurately captured their experiences, but also captivated the audience. I needed each scene to feel authentic, and when I got stuck, I’d call Kelly. She had different experiences than the women, but like them, she was fighting a daily battle just to make it through.

I’d ask her, “So, I’m writing this scene where the main character, Chama, has lost everything and is struggling to find motivation and courage. What do you think she should be telling herself right now?”

Kelly would reply, “When I hit my lowest points and feel like I’m going crazy, I just say, All you have to do is breathe. Then worry about what comes next. I tell myself, Just be a brave little toaster.”

I added some of Kelly’s sentiment into the scene and also named a character in the film Toaster.

Adilynn Marie Menendez and Melissa Barrera in All the World is Sleeping. (Photo courtesy Normal.)

There’s also a pivotal moment in the film that takes place in a recovery center and I asked Kelly to describe a counselor who had helped shape her life.

This guy named Nick was really cool. He’d tell us stupid jokes to distract us from everything, and then he’d have us play silly games to find the root of our problems. A lot of times it worked.”

I wrote a character named Nick (played by Jorge Garcia) who conducted a Post-It exercise with the main character, Chama (a composite of the seven mothers, played by Melissa Barrera), in which she writes all of her positive and negative memories on the sticky notes. When she’s finished, she sticks them on the wall, allowing her to see all these experiences looking straight back at her.

Sometimes I would just call Kelly to talk about the filmmaking process. She was so much happier talking about movies than discussing the struggles of everyday life. If we weren’t discussing All the World is Sleeping, we’d talk about recent films we had both watched. She spent a lot of time rewatching her DVD collection or going out to the movies. Sometimes, she’d watch films without knowing anything about them. I can recall us seeing Les Misérables in the theater and after five minutes, she turned to me and whispered, “Why does everyone keep singing their lines?”

Ryan Lacen and Kelly Lacen. (Photo courtesy Ryan Lacen.)

By the time All the World is Sleeping was complete and ready for its premiere at a festival in New York, I had lost my sister.

I kept the pain to myself for a while, but as is often the case with a devastating loss, it would hit me unexpectedly. The first time was at a party a couple months after her death, when I suddenly lost my ability to breathe. The second time was the day after the film’s premiere, when I finally realized that not only would my sister never be able to see her contribution to my film, but I also would never see her again.

It wasn’t until the last festival screening in Los Angeles, after watching All the World is Sleeping for the hundredth time, that I let myself think about what Kelly would’ve thought if she were seated beside me. I think she would’ve loved that it feels like a visual scrapbook come to life (we were both big collectors of scrapbooks). She would’ve felt seen by certain struggles within the stories of these mothers. She would’ve cried along with Melissa’s Chama, laughed at Jackie Cruz’s boisterous Toaster and loved Kristen Gutoskie’s character, Nell — especially when she makes a joke about the restaurant Chili’s (where I worked in my early twenties). I think she would’ve liked the film’s mother-daughter relationship the most, because she was so close to our mother and grandmother.

I imagined Kelly sitting there, and leaning over to say to me, “I like it, but why isn’t everyone singing their lines?” She always liked a callback.

Melissa Barrera in Ryan Lacen’s All the World is Sleeping. (Photo courtesy Normal.)

All the World is Sleeping is scheduled to be released in theaters on March 17. During interviews, I may be asked about the film’s meaning, and I will strive to maintain my composure as I express its significance to me and my life. I will squeeze my eyes tightly closed – I’ll remember the strength of those seven mothers and through the darkness, I’ll find Kelly’s face, smiling back at me.

Featured image shows (left) Kelly Lacen and (right) Ryan Lacen on the set of All the World is Sleeping, photo by Maggie Adams.

Ryan Lacen is an award-winning filmmaker whose secod feature, All the World is Sleeping, won Best Film at the HBO New York Latino Film Festival and is in theaters nationwide from March 17 through Gravitas Ventures. He studied under the famed directors Kevin Smith and Michel Gondry before going on to direct his own feature film, The Dust Storm. Made on a shoe-string budget, the film initially sold to Hulu in the United States and Flix Premiere in the UK, before moving to Amazon Prime. He’s since directed commercials and branded spots for companies like Disney, Fender and Amazon. He currently resides in Los Angeles, where he runs his production company Normal TV.