Interview with Ryan Ozminkowski (Creator and Executive Producer of Princeton Tonight)

One freezing Thursday night on the brink of winter break, I was glad to find myself out of the raging winds, and in the warmth of Murray-Dodge Hall on the Princeton University campus, facing one of the creative talents behind campus broadcast show Princeton Tonight. While conversing with Ryan Ozminkowski, Class of 2019, I was lavished with a flurry of ideas that reflected a level of passion and dedication bordering on sensational. The topic of conversation shifted from the show to his high-school career to some of his favorite films, and I felt a contagious enthusiasm increasingly pulsating through the room, until my companion began to vibrate uncontrollably and dissipated into a beam of blinding light, assuming spirit form.

Admittedly, that last part may be slightly exaggerated, but the producer’s story held some truly inspiring words for the aspiring cinephile. Read our conversation below to learn more about the meaning of film, from the perspective of a filmmaker!

How was the show?*

The show was great. I think it was really well done. I think Art killed it, I think he was just phenomenal, I think so much of it wasn’t commercialized. You know he’s selling out Carnegie Hall, theaters all over the world to perform this stuff and so many of those of are commercial, for a big sort of event. I think what was the most magical about Art [on] Tuesday was that he came for just for the sake of performing and being here. He did some music, he did some poetry readings, that he wrote, he did some Q&A with the crowd. And you know, Richardson’s a big theater…about 900 seats I think, but it’s very intimate, you’re very surrounded, you’re very close. Very personal. Walking around with him earlier in the day, he’s walking around the arches, he’s singing in the arches, he’s looking over at the architecture. You know he was a BA in architecture from Columbia, so he was like ‘I know that’s collegiate gothic over there.’ So he’s just walking around and saying hi to students. So I think that was wonderful, I think we gave him a really good time and I think it was something that hopefully means a lot to him, and all we could ask for is that he really enjoyed it. And on the side of all the fans, the guests, I mean he does the The Sound of Silence, then everything fades to black, and then you get this standing ovation at Richardson. I went around the show before, interviewing some people, asking what Art meant to them. It was amazing, because you had a lot of students and faculty there, and it was amazing how they were like ‘he was my childhood’. [Many] like his music but they don’t understand Simon and Garfunkel were the voice of that generation.

Could you give a brief introduction of the show and talk about your role in it?

The group is Princeton Tonight. It has some very talented people, talented performers, talented artists, talented business people, talented marketing people, all kinds of people coming together with this central idea of providing entertainment. All we want to do is make people happy. We want to be that thing that whether it be the show they go to, or the show they turn on their TV or the thing that they read, we want that to be something that people just like. We don’t want it to be a stressful thing, we want it just to be an enjoyable experience. There’s the TV show, which airs monthly, every Thursday and Friday throughout NJ on the cable access, and that’s usually about an hour long, made up of sketch comedy, man-on-the-street [interviews], interviews with our celebrity guests, you know, just fun stuff like that, reviews of movies, and it’s really going to branch out to a lot lot more. But Princeton Tonight is so much more than that. You know Art Garfunkel. Very little of that is going to show up in any sort of broadcast television. But we just so passionately want people to enjoy everything. We want people to have a great time when they see Art Garfunkel. So much of our crew—we had 15 or so team members—was working on that, between making the posters, getting the money secured, even just running mics during the event. Coordinating dinners with certain lecturers here, we did this fun little event where it was a spontaneous showing of The Graduate (1967) [on] Saturday, it was like a 4:30, and the school gave us a bunch of Raisinettes, Mike and Ike’s, M&M’s, just to get people excited. Princeton people are just so busy. In order for them to go to an event, it needs to be something really interesting.

What are the main roles in your crew? How many members do you need for each shoot?

Oh god, interesting question. So, it absolutely depends on what the shoot is. There are multiple groups. We have our writers’ room, that’s about 10 writers that meet a couple times a week, and they’ll make their own sketches, go over others, they’ll brainstorm on big ideas, like, we had these Canadian filmmakers come last year, so that room was like “Alright let’s do some maple syrup shots with Canadian trivia.” We have a marketing team, about half a dozen or so, people that meet weekly that make the posters, they’ll set up the website, they’ll make sure people can fill Richardson. Then obviously there’s the production team, there’s a lot of talented individuals, they’ll do everything. Some shoots, like a man-on-the-street, we’ll just send two people out, one with the mic, one with the camera. Others might require a bit more, [where we] might have a few people behind the camera, you know, boom, producer, or director there. It’s nice to keep it small. I mean we’ll definitely be delving into some bigger projects next semester. Also I think [with] fewer people, there’s a better sense of ownership, much more of a grassroots kind of thing. If you and I just went out and were like “let’s go film an interview” [then it feels like] only the two of us can make this. But if we go out with a 50 person team, then there’s always someone else that might do [your part]. So I like this thing. It allows for a lot more ownership and passion for what they’re doing.

What part of Princeton Tonight are you most proud of?

Creating the team. I think not the show, not creating events, or bringing guests, but creating a team of people. On Princeton’s campus there are so many extra-curriculars. Literally anything you want, there’s like a thing for it. So one, you have to compete with all of them, because like why are doing Princeton Tonight, when your time could be spent doing like Comic Book Theater? Like I don’t know if that’s a thing, but then two, it takes a lot to have belief in the program. I mean it’s a one-year-old show. We started it last year, and when you have Triangle, which is the oldest touring musical group in the country—it’s 125 years old this year, it’s professional, it owns McCarter theater, and [has] million dollars of endowment—you know it’s a lot to be like, “Don’t do that, come trust us, there’s a lot more potential here, come with us and do that.” And so that’s one thing. It’s just so amazing to get people here to do it, and on top of that I think it’s great because there’s such a diverse group of people involved with it. You have your finance guy, the guy who resolves all the financing and accounting and funding requests. But then how is he supposed to connect with an actor who’s had a small role in a few sketches? They’re just so different. It’s hard to both claim ownership of a show or feel like they’re part of that organism of Princeton Tonight. There’s just no need to ever interact. But it’s cool that it’s still just a big cohesive team. So yeah, creating the team, and that whole dynamic—I’m really proud of that.

Did you guys start off with a few core members? How did you expand?

Good question. So I guess the story in terms of member growth started off with Jordan Salama, whose younger brother just got in, and me, Class of 2019. The two of us met in the basement of East Pyne, and we watched this film screening of another film group on campus. And we started talking, and we realized we got along really well. We had really similar interests, and he was like “I kind of did this really casual talkshow in high school”, and I was like “I made a film festival”, and we were like “Why don’t we both do stuff? Let’s make something happen.” It was just the two of us, and we shot our first episode of Charlie Baker, who’s a student here, a musician. We shot our first ten minute long interview with him, and he did some good talk, and that was that. So we were like “We did it. This is so cool!” And then after that we were like “We should start growing a little.” Like we had our talents but we needed some more talent with this. So we brought on two other guys: Ben Jacobson and Rami Farran. Just two of our friends. I knew Rami had wanted to get some sketch comedy on, and we knew Ben was a director, had done some stuff in high school, [and was] also very good on the technical editing side and everything. So we had the four of us, and we did our Emmanuel Udotong interview, who was another student on campus who did this startup in Africa. And we were like “Oh man we did it. That’s so cool!” and then we sent out an email to all the listeners. We invited everyone to Lewis 306. We told everyone, “If you’re interested, come come come.” And about ten people came. I’d say about eight of them are still with us. It was just the most oddly organized meeting. It was a meeting to talk about Mike DelGuidice, a member of Billy Joel’s band, who was going to be here January. This was like last December. Jordan and I had no idea what we were doing. You know, we literally assigned roles. We were like “We’ll need to email…who wants to email, anyone? You want to email? Ok great, you can email…” Kind of throughout that year it organically grew. A friend would bring a friend, so we maybe grew to about fifteen or so active people last year. It started getting a little notice on campus. Still not everyone, but you know, people reach out, and were like “I really want to do Princeton Tonight.” “Hop on you guys.” And this year was the big time, during the fall, just big recruiting, a lot of freshmen, a lot of other sophomores or juniors. So now we have about 40 active members, between all of our teams. Part of where we’re pivoting now is interacting with more groups on campus. Like, “Hey, let’s get the improv group to act in one of our sketches”, or like “Let’s all make this really funny thing with the dance group dancing behind it.” So that’s kind of a direction we’re thinking about.

What was your film experience prior to entering Princeton and starting Princeton Tonight?

*Laughs* Well there was definitely nothing well-coached. For the longest time I wanted to be an engineer. I was like dead-set, like MIT’s the place to go, and then one of my best friends, he’s actually the one who designed the logo, during freshman summer, was like, “Hey I wrote this little piece, it’s The Cask of Amontillado by Edgar Allen Poe, but it’s like a 20 years later thing, and it’s a story of revenge and this and that” and I was like “Dude this is ridiculous” and he was like “Yeah we’re gonna film it in Ronald’s basement.” So for like 3 weeks, we’d be up until 3 in the morning filming in the basement. The whole thing came to like a 25 minute movie. Lots of fun. The mistakes in it were just…like there was this scene where we had to a sound effect with chains, and it was literally a person rattling chains on the floor, and you could see a little of the chain rattling.

Is it on Youtube?

Yeah, [the studio is] Above the Line Productions. You can check them out actually. [It’s] a lot of fun to look back on. And then the next summer he came and was like “I have this other story”, and it was this story about post high school, that party after school, you know [with] that one friend that lost another friend because a girl got in the way, another friend’s who’s terminally ill, and who was the other friend? I don’t remember. It doesn’t matter. And then we did another even bigger film, in junior year, which was this kind of crime thing. That was the filming side. But we also did a lot [of other things]…the film festival was I think the proudest thing that we did. The Yesterday Again Film Festival, named after our second film. I come from an agrarian part of California, [and] it’s a very non-arts heavy anything, and our junior year we started this film festival. We had twenty something submissions, [and] we had 200 or so people come. It was fun. It was a night of just showing stuff and then voting and everything. And the next year we made it bigger, 400 people came and we had like 50 submissions from a dozen different schools. We had a whole arts thing out in the gallery, with ceramics and photographs, and paintings. And we just kept building and building. It’s still going on today. It’s in it’s fourth year, so we’ve passed it on. That’s an important thing. So I note to you, with your magazine. Start thinking of people to pass it on to now. That’s my biggest regret with the film festival, is not coaching people on how to take over. Like anyone will be able to keep publishing it, but to keep up a demand for improvement, that takes a lot. You know how, the founder will be so passionate about it. That’s you, you know, you’re like “I love this”. You’ll come here at like 10:30 on a Thursday. You have school in the morning. Like, you’ll come here and do this, which is amazing, like I respect that so much. It’s phenomenal. But you’ll need to start grooming freshmen now, and it’s a little bit of what we’re doing with Princeton Tonight.

How many hours do you spend on production per week? What does a typical production cycle look like?

Well it’s a hard thing to explain, for example Jordan and I (Jordan’s my best friend), I was in his room until 3 o’clock last night, just talking about Princeton Tonight. It was talking about trying to get [censored by request of Ryan] here, talking about our next guests, who are some guests from [also censored], about some group dynamics, about the necessity of training and writing and production. This was just us talking and loving it so much. The team collectively is probably putting in a hundred hours a week, because right now it’s just at such an interesting stage where so much growth is happening and our minds are going like “Do we want to start this dinner series? Do we want to work with these groups? Starting up these shorter series?” It’s weird, because it’s a year old, so it doesn’t really have an identity yet, but it’s kind of starting to get one and it’s like this wild thing so, I can’t answer that, I don’t know. I don’t know exactly what it is.

Would you say this is your biggest time-commitment?

I mean I do track and field as well, so that’s 2-3 hours every day, about 15 hours a week-ish. They’re different. [In] track [it’s] like ‘Here’s the beginning of practice, [and] here’s the end.’

What are your plans for the future?

Plans for the future that I can say on record…I’d be happy to tell you. It’s not that I don’t feel comfortable. It’s just that I don’t know if it’d be accurate. I mean a lot of it’s just ideas. I really think it’s just important to throw out fifty ideas, start going for them, and then seeing one or two that will stick.

Are you planning on staying within the campus?

No. We are not a campus oriented show, and we don’t want to be. We want to make sure all of our content can be enjoyed by everyone. We don’t want to be a broadcast show that says “Wilson dining hall had this for dinner…..” It’s not that at all. But we want a show that can be enjoyed just as much by a student in his dorm room in Rocky as lets say, my mom in California. We want to make sure they still understand. In our seasonal opener we had President Eisgruber, but we presented in a way that we thought was open to everyone.  

Tell us about your favorite films!

Aww heck yeah! My favorite movie…Love the Coen Brothers’ movies, they’re just great, umm…Ethan Coen, Class of ‘69 philosophy major, no, Class of ‘79, from this school! Joel went to NYU. Favorite movie would be Cinema Paradiso (1988). It’s just great, it’s Italian. Wait for the subtitles, [they’re] ok. Subtitles doesn’t mean the movie’s bad, black and white doesn’t mean the movie’s bad, you can put up with it. It’s fine, sometimes it’s a good thing. It’s a great movie. It describes my life. I have my Alfredo in my life too, who worked in the movie theater, and was like “Toto, you must leave, go to Rome, don’t come back here, we’re not welcoming you”, but it’s [in] Italian, not just [with] an accent. It’s a great movie. I also had a girlfriend in high school. He kind of had a girlfriend there. It’s my life, if you want to know, [and] that’s our small town [where] I came from. We didn’t really have a town drunk, that like stood in the square and was “This is my square!” We did have some homeless people downtown on School Street and Elm. There were a few people there. But they were fine, they were polite, [and] they really didn’t say anything. That’s a great movie.

Why do you watch movies? What draws you to them?

Movies are cool! So movies are fun, I think it’s important to analyze them, but at their core you need to just have fun with them, and enjoy them. Or feel the appropriate emotion. But like happy, sad, both are fun. It’s fun to experience emotions. I think they’re cool because they’re our culture. I think small talk like, “Oh, you seen any good movies lately?”, or “Hey Rogue One’s coming out this Friday!” is a cool thing. Like “What’s your mom’s favorite film?” “Love Actually.” “That’s my mom’s favorite film too!” So it’s just such a cultural thing, it’s a thing we center around. They can last for…You know The Wizard of Oz (1939), it’s like, 75 years old, [but] it still has [as much] cultural influence as even like a Deadpool (2016) that comes out recently, you know, and you just have that constant interaction. It’s popular, it’s Hollywood, it’s gold. As the Oscars motto was a few years ago: “Everyone dreams in gold”. You know, if they’re telling you otherwise, they’re lying! People love that. It’s the movies! It’s magic!

What kind of movies do you have the most fun with?

Ok [laughs]. One of the best movies I’ve ever seen is Hot Fuzz (2007), which is like this British comedy. I don’t know why I liked it so much. That was just a great movie. I like the British stuff. Going back to Love Actually (2003), I love the Mr. Bean scene, when like, with Rowan Atkinson, he’s putting that sprig of holly in the bag for Alan Rickman, and that whole thing…I guess it’s just a British thing. I guess British movies are fun. Monty Python, I grew up on those, but [I] also like Mel Brooks, Spaceballs (1987), Blazing Saddles (1974), just these little things that are like honest and human. I know that sounds like a really sort of pretentious things to say, but like *laugh*, they’re not trying too hard. Just very silly. Those are great. Other fun things….I mean anything Wes Anderson. Wes Anderson movies are so fun. You know, if you have an Ed Norton with some telescope, you know like the product commercial, like Jason Schwartzman, he breaks down, he’s in a car and the car breaks down, in like this small Italian town square, and he goes “ahh familia! We’re familia! Ahh!!!!” It’s just the dumbest— “Ahh!! My steering wheel was screwed on backwards! That was the problem!” That doesn’t make any sense, but it’s fun!

In your opinion, what was the best film of 2016?

This is actually the answer I gave to these two executives. Two movies were the best. One was on the artsy side, it was Embrace of the Serpent (2015), which was like Oscar nominated for best foreign film. [It has] this beautiful black and white cinematography in this Colombian jungle. Wonderful, can’t recommend it enough. Second best movie, Weinstein Company’s Sing Street (2016) was just wonderful. It was every cliché you could imagine in a movie, between like, the guy falling in love with the girl, but he needs to impress her, but his parents end up getting divorced, and his older brother’s a drop out, and they dream of going to England. You know, [there’s] the priest that’s in charge of the school that shuts them down, like “You can’t do that.” It’s music, it takes place in Ireland, but it’s just happy, and it all ends well, obviously. Great music, lots of ‘80’s music. Also Hail Caesar (2016). Loved Hail Caesar. I know it wasn’t loved by everyone, but that was a funny movie. I think as a whole, it was really confusing, but the individual [scenes], like the scene where he’s sitting with the rabbi and the priest, that little thing was hilarious.