Allen Wolf: Welcome to the Navigating Hollywood podcast. My name is Allen Wolf, and I’m a filmmaker, author, and game creator. Today, Ricky Staub and Dan Walser are joining us. Ricky is the writer and director of the Netflix movie Concrete Cowboy and Dan is the movie’s producer. They also run the Neighborhood Film Company, which hires formerly incarcerated people and gives them internships that help them transition to careers. Welcome, Ricky and Dan.
Ricky Staub: Thanks for having us.
Allen Wolf: Thanks for being here. So, can you describe the kind of work that you do at the Neighborhood Film Company?
Ricky Staub: We’re a production company. So, we started out and still do branded content and commercials. Obviously, in the last couple of years, we’ve branched into the narrative space, especially with Concrete Cowboy, but, you know, we launched the company in 2011 with a mission to be able to hire adults returning home from incarceration to work full time at our company, and that’s what we do today.
Allen Wolf: And where did you first get that idea?
Ricky Staub: I mean, legitimately, it has everything to do with my faith journey. At the time, I was in Philadelphia working on a movie called “The Last Air Bender.” I was Sam Mercer’s assistant, who’s a producer. I was living in a city that at the time was new to me and a lot of my normal bubble, so speak, and when I was in high school, I had become Christian which meant nothing really more than I just felt guilty about all the same things I continued to do. Now, it wasn’t really until I was in Philly where I started to ask myself, like, why do I tell people that I’m Christian, and it was really the first time deciding whether this is really something I want to tell people because my life didn’t really feel that very influenced by my so-called faith. So it was my first real reading of scripture that I found just a vast difference between the Jesus in the Bible and the Jesus that I saw, preached in churches, or lived out by other Christians. And what drew me most specifically is in Matthew 25, Jesus talks about how what you’ve done for the poor, the lost, you’ve done specifically to him. He’s actually in the poor.
I was like, I’m going to actually meet some poor people and see if Jesus is actually chilling there. There’s a guy named Well that I met who was homeless, formerly incarcerated, and that was really the first relationship that enlightened me to what was really just the base of a huge mountain of problems with our criminal justice system. I was lying in bed one night, and this whole vision for Neighborhood came to me, a much more fractured version than it is now. Obviously, Dan coming on was a huge player in making it a reality. Essentially, I had never filled out a resume in my life, yet I was making really good money working for a world-class producer, and I thought, well, if I can train someone to do my job as well as me and no one ever had to fill out an application and had my recommendation that could change their entire life and open up career opportunities. So, yeah, that was really the seed, and then that was ten years ago at this point, actually more than ten years ago. It was a couple of years before we started the company. So, twelve or thirteen years ago.
There was like an actual physical conviction, like a weight in my chest. The longer I decided not to do it, the heavier it physically became. I feel as though I was forced to make the decision to quit my job and start the company. It’s the only way I can describe it. Whether you think I’m crazy for describing, it doesn’t matter. There wasn’t a moral or an altruistic decision. It was a genuine conviction where I saw a path, or at least I’ve been given a vision for a path, and I knew if I didn’t do it then in my 20s, I would totally wus out if I got successful, and I would never do it later. So, it needed to be the core DNA of this company that didn’t have a name at the time with this vision. So, I never wanted to start a company. I’m an innovative storyteller, but I wasn’t like trying to come up. I’m not inventing widgets and selling. This was truly a vision I had that was like, okay, and this could be a game-changer if it’s real.
Allen Wolf: How did it go from being a vision to reality?
Dan Walser: One thing that was really important from the beginning is that we wanted the quality to be just as much of a core element to the company. So, that’s why we made it a for-profit company. We wanted people to recognize the work, one, so that the company could actually grow and provide more opportunity but also we found that inviting someone, one of our apprentices is what we call them, into a company that is doing really good work has this incredible dignifying and rallying effect because they’re being asked to add to that dynamic. There’s no charity, there’s no sense of it being compulsory, or you’re just shadowing and sitting on the sidelines. We wanted to invite them into a company that was known for its creativity and known for the quality of its work, so the opportunities that would come out of their experience would be much more beneficial, and more doors would open. You know, it was kind of a process of learning multiple parts of, a, how are we running our production company but also every year I feel like we would learn new barriers for people that are reentering society after being incarcerated. So, there’s a little bit of experimentation certainly in the first few years where every time we create one pathway to opportunity. We run into another barrier.
So, a couple of huge things that really helped formulate the apprenticeship, one, is that we started a really amazing partnership with these two federal judges in Philadelphia who run a reentry program, Essentially these nonviolent drug offenders are coming into their program right out of prison for an extra year off their parole. They’re a part of this program where every week they’re in front of these judges talking about what they’re doing to get their life together, and then they have a team of advocates essentially that are helping take away barriers for them, but one of the major things that they couldn’t provide was opportunities at private companies because sadly, particularly at that point, there was huge reticence, as there still is, in private businesses to hire people that are formerly incarcerated. So when we showed up, they were, like this is amazing because we don’t have pipelines to career opportunities, we might have job placement programs that put people in high turnover, low pay, basement positions, but we don’t really have opportunities for them to like be invested in as though they’re going to build a career and not just have a job. So it’s a perfect marriage. They’re incredible communicators, collaborators, and incredible people.
So, that was a big thing because then all of our apprentices that have come through our company have come, for the most part, through that program that was a big part of it and then I think just we’re learning every year what elements need to be added. Now we’ve determined what additional education, necessary counseling because, you know, a lot of these individuals, if not all of them, if they’ve been in our prison system, they have undergone trauma, the need for trauma-based therapy after they get out of prison is incredibly important and something that’s separate from us as their employers. We learned where the lines, the boundaries needed to be between being their bosses but also holistically hoping for and pushing them toward transformation.
Allen Wolf: When you explain what you’re doing to people, what are the reactions that you typically get?
Ricky Staub: At the very beginning, when I was pitching the idea, people thought it would never work. It was not a great idea. I always like to talk about a meeting I had with some folks at Wharton School of Business that told me that someone who is formerly incarcerated would never be able to compete at the level that we’re at. And then, three years later, they had me come back and teach at their master’s degree program. But then there was some convincing, maybe some trepidation, when clients would find out that we had someone who was formerly incarcerated. That was less common than I thought.
People were actually pretty gracious in terms of clients, but many just didn’t know. We don’t put it out there front and center. It’s on our website. More people know about it now, but in the last couple of years, even with how many people of color are formerly incarcerated, the conversation has definitely changed where there’s a lot more encouragement and support for what we’re doing, well beyond what I would have ever dreamed. What would typically happen is we’d get hired because of our work, and then at some point down the line, the clients would see the TED talk I gave or like read an article and say, Woah, I didn’t know you guys were doing this and then we would get these really heartfelt emails.
Dan Walser: It’s also interesting because there’s definitely been a societal shift. We’re in a season of our country where common ground is very difficult to find, and I think what’s interesting about the concern about our criminal justice system as it’s become more of a bipartisan issue than it ever was before. I think people have, for the most part, a common understanding of how broken the system is, even in terms of prevention, incarceration itself, and then reentry. I mean, obviously, we live in more of the reentry side of that journey. So there’s just a lot more goodwill towards any kind of advocacy, change, improvement. We think there’s a long way to go, particularly in the area of private businesses, because it could be an incredibly beautiful engine for the opportunity for people coming out of incarceration. So, there’s a lot of work to do, but I feel like it’s changed to where people are more often coming to us now asking, how did you implement this because they have an interest in doing it versus at the beginning, which is like that’ll never work. Don’t call me again.
Ricky Staub: We’re not actually doing anything magical. We’re literally just giving an opportunity to the right person. We do a really heavy lift on the interviewing side, and it’s not charity work. We’re recruiting. We’re just recruiting out of people who are coming out of prison, but they’re just as talented, just as motivated, and just as ready to work as in some ways, way more than a college graduate who’s partied and wasted four years not actually learning how to do what they need to do at my company because I have to train them anyway.
Dan Walser: Yeah, we’re always encouraged. It isn’t magic, and really, it’s a very intentional internship, and almost every company has internships, and you have to train new employees no matter what. No one comes out of college being like, “Yeah, my class schedule really got me ready for your law office,” like you have to show them and explain to them the DNA of your company and how it works and if they’re driven, focused, they’re going to succeed.
Ricky Staub: There might be some hurdles for someone who’s formerly incarcerated. They don’t have a safe place to call home, which we’re addressing or don’t have certain money, or they don’t have a car, but those things are solvable and shouldn’t withhold someone from having a future.
Allen Wolf: When you started this production company, you did commercials, and then you built up to doing Concrete Cowboy. Can you describe the plot of the movie?
Ricky Staub: The narrative set up of it is a teenager who is getting into trouble in Detroit and living with his single mom. She’s fed up, and she decides you need something to change in your life and decides to drive him to Philadelphia to the doorstep of his estranged father, who is essentially the leader of this community of Black cowboys in North Philadelphia that have existed for over 100 years. And so it’s really a coming-of-age story in the context of this wonderful community, but this kid is really a fish out of water and learning about the community and about his father for the first time.
Allen Wolf: Ricky, before that, had you mostly directed commercials? Is that what prepared you for this role?
Ricky Staub: Yeah, definitely. The commercials gave me the skill set as a director. When I first started the company, I was only producing. Dan and I’d always been writing scripts on the side, but at this point, I was writing creative for commercials. And it wasn’t until 2014 or 15 that I first started just calling myself a director because there were jobs that needed a director that no one wanted to do. They were the less cool jobs, as I call them, like the doctor shaking hands. But I own a business, and those commercials pay money. So, I was like, well, I’m going to direct them then. And then I just really fell in love with it, and I just started hiring really great, talented people, DPs that could teach me the difference between a wide lens and a long lens. And then I got my own camera and started getting my own eye and stuff like that. But it wasn’t until we shot The Cage, a short film that we made that we put out in 2017, that I really felt like I was actually a director, which was more or less a way for me to prove to myself that I could direct. But for us who have been writing for over a decade at that point, do we have the actual, is our potential real, can we actually tell a story that’s longer than 60 seconds that actually involves true narrative development and character development and actual acting. Because at that point, we didn’t know. I think commercials are a great testing ground to learn the craft, but they’re very different animals, I would say drastically different. Until we had made the short, that was really the start of what I would call my directing and voice, now our voice for storytellers even.
Allen Wolf: And The Cage was a very compelling, beautiful film, was your hope in that film to create an allegory for what the people in your life were working through?
Ricky Staub: It started out actually as an idea for a promo for a friend of mine, Andre Wright, who runs a nonprofit in North Philly called Give and Go Athletics. He offers basketball camps as a form of basically mental health behavioral therapy. The deeper true understory is it was a lot of my own journey of understanding who God is amidst suffering and pain. This idea that God is not surprised by our brokenness and actually has plans to make it beautiful. A lot of that is something I learned going through my own personal traumas at the time and just seeing that this isn’t something I was being punished for. It was the Lord who was going to use it in a beautiful way, even if I didn’t see it yet.
Allen Wolf: And what were the traumas that you were working through at the time?
Ricky Staub: There was a lot of betrayal I was going through with close friendships. There’s a lot of hardships, and as my brother is incarcerated. Incarcerated since I was in college which I’ve wrestled greatly through his treatment. It’s a mixed bag of my own personal trauma and just looking out as you engage, as our company engages, people who are coming through suffering. You start to ask questions of what everyone wants to use as an excuse not to believe God. Why would there be a God that allows suffering? And at least in our journeys, Dan has gone through his own load of suffering, which is part of what I think binds us together is that there is the most beauty I’ve ever seen coming out of those trenches, and so that film was really a testament to that.
Allen Wolf: Do you think that part of the vision of the film company that you created could have come out of knowing that there’s hope for your brother?
Ricky Staub: It seems like it’d be a likely time, but my brother has severe mental illness. So, it’s totally different.
Dan Walser: I think the hope is a huge part of it, though. I mean, I think if you do any digging or you make an effort to have a relationship with anyone who is incarcerated or formally incarcerated, you’ll quickly find, and be heartbroken, by the reality by people who just need an opportunity just a real opportunity, don’t get one and they would absolutely take advantage of it and make something beautiful out of their careers and lives and, by the way, teach everyone around them some really incredible things in the process. That, I think, is the heartbreaking injustice that you feel in these situations. This is not the way it has to be, and I think the hope that it can be different does drive us and has driven us from the beginning.
Ricky Staub: Totally
Allen Wolf: What were your hopes for Concrete Cowboy?
Ricky Staub: When we first got involved, there was a gentleman named Eric Miller, the first Black cowboy that we met actually in court while we were talking about our apprenticeship. He was the one that really laid out the real nitty-gritty of what this community was facing, the larger Black cowboy community in Philly and that Fletcher Street was a representation of the last homestead there and that he wanted to use this film as a way to help solidify their legacy in the city and keep it around because they were facing, even in 2017 when we met him, gentrification issues which now four years later actually came to fruition. They lost their land three or four months ago, right on the heels of the release of the film, ironically. So, the goal of the film is actually to make a great film that people enjoy but also use it as a catalyst for change which we’re in the middle of now. There are many groups in the city that are benefiting from the film’s success.
The group that was involved in the film was able to establish a nonprofit that we helped put together with them, and we raised over a hundred grand and are working with the city. Hopefully, the city comes through and actually delivers on their commitment to give them land to create a permanent home, but we’re in the middle of it right now. But that was the mission, so to speak, behind that film and what really got us excited to make it besides just the obvious, which is Black cowboys riding through the heart, the hood of North Philly is majestic and dramatically beautiful. But there’s a lot of heart to this community that, over the years, getting to know them, we were drawn into more and more.
Allen Wolf: What’s been surprising to you about the way the movie has been received?
Dan Walser: On one end of the spectrum is people that absolutely love the film. I think, particularly in Philadelphia where the community is, I mean, the sense of excitement and pride to the point of tears like that they all have for the film, I think that’s probably the greatest joy we get in terms of reactions to the film. I think you’re always pleasantly surprised when someone sees layers in the film that you intended. I think that’s always a joyful surprise. It’s interesting for it to come out when it did. You know, I think we never intended necessarily to have a film that was specifically so joyful in many ways, and in some ways, I feel like that was something that was really amazing to see, how the timing worked out that we needed a story that was ultimately uplifting obviously there are difficult things that some of the characters are going through but, ultimately they left you with a sense of joy. I was pleasantly surprised by how that met our audience at a time when they needed to see that.
Ricky Staub: Yeah, but you can’t. It’s like in this conversation I had with Mr. Elba several months ago.
Allen Wolf: He makes you call him Mr. Elba.
Dan Walser: Mr. Elba, with utmost respect. You can’t look him in the eye.
Ricky Staub: He actually called me and was just celebrating. He said, “it’s amazing. You know, when we started working on this film, this was 2017.” And he’s like, “Incredible. You had no way to predict how important this film was going to be for us in 2021 as a country, as a people group, something that really just celebrated this community. And he was just waxing poetic about how we did it, we pulled it off, and it’s ready to go out into the world. And he was just so proud and excited to be behind it. I think the film had come out two years prior. It still would have been really beautifully well-received, I hope. But it did come out at a time when we got a lot of responses that, maybe it wasn’t surprising, but it felt surprising just how many people were like, “I needed this so bad just to be like reminded of community.”
Dan Walser: Community when everyone’s feeling so isolated.
Ricky Staub: And just how the film was made with such a vast array of voices. There are more community members in that film than Hollywood actors. That time, that four months over the summer, was truly like this cosmopolitan melting pot of people coming together to tell the story. The process of making it was actually one of the greatest testaments of unity that our country needs right now. So, I have a lot of hope because I saw it happen in the corner of North Philly one summer, you know.
Allen Wolf: Wow. As the actors intermingled with the community, did the community realize who these actors were? Did they treat them like everyone else? What did that look like?
Dan Walser: Yeah, it was amazing. I mean, they didn’t care at all that they were actors. I mean, they knew who they were. I think the only one I saw who created a sharp reaction was Method Man. He came on the block just, and it was like pandemonium. But I think what’s incredible about this community, they really don’t care. It doesn’t matter who you are. If you come into this community, you’re expected to get up on a horse, to do your part. They’re going to talk trash to you if you’re not doing things right in a really playful, ingratiating way. The whole approach in casting so many non-actors, real people from the community, all the background, all the extras were people from the real community, and the hope was that the Hollywood actors would be grounded into the world by working alongside their real community members. Then that went both ways, which is really cool as the real community members, the non-actors, their performances were lifted because of the help of the Hollywood actors who were just so generous with their time. I mean, Idris, the Method Maine, Lorraine, Durrell, they became a part of the community. They were just there. They hung out in between takes. There was no separation of the worlds. It was like an ongoing family barbecue with cameras that had their own producing standpoint.
Ricky Staub: Yeah, it had its own challenges, trying to get people to focus. Sometimes they got a little too friendly as family. All right, guys. We still gotta make a movie.
Dan Walser: I mean, the things they were yelling outside windows at Idris from women in North Philly were graphic.
Ricky Staub: At Idris Elba. Yeah.
Allen Wolf: What were some of the biggest challenges in making the movie?
Dan Walser: Unbelievably beautiful how it all came together but making a film with the community, not about the community, had its own challenges from a producing standpoint. Even just logistically working with a majority of people who have never been on a film set, don’t understand call sheets, call times, hair, makeup, the process, all the things, and then I think, how many the stunt doubles were real people?
Ricky Staub: Eleven or fourteen. This was a SAG show, so all these people got Taft-Hartley, trained.
Dan Walser: Made great money throughout the process.
Ricky Staub: A lot of money pumping through that neighborhood.
Dan Walser: Even the dynamic of the hurry up and wait of a film shoot where we had a young kid who was Cole’s stunt double. A couple of hours would pass, and he would just get bored and roam offset somewhere. And we’d have to find him. It was really no fault of his own. We would always laugh. It was half producing, half community organizing. That part was challenging, ultimately incredible.
Ricky Staub: We knew it was going to be worth it. We knew it would be hard.
Dan Walser: Some of the other things were pretty typical. Time. We only had twenty days to shoot it. I think two of those days, half the days got rained out.
Ricky Staub: Three. I still had to shoot the same amount, the same day.
Dan Walser: So, we had days where we shot 12 pages, like crazy fast.
Ricky Staub: It was fun to say, let’s kick it to next week but then it would rain. Our AD, Hristo, would say, you know there’s a cut-off like, we don’t get an extra day.
Dan Walser: There’s no next week.
Allen Wolf: And it’s funny that on your first film you chose to work with animals too because the warning with directors is don’t work with children or animals and on your first outing that’s what you chose to do.
Ricky Staub: And lots of them. I mean, there were some scenes like I think, why there are so many horses. Why did we do this? There were so many horses.
Dan Walser: I mean, the irony is when we were writing the scripts, and then we were getting into pre-production, we had to cut a tremendous amount of the horse work just to make the 20 days.
Ricky Staub: It was hard actually because I’m like, guys, there have to be some horse scenes. People have to ride. This is a cowboy movie. Contrary to what people believe, because Idris Elba was in it, and this other cast, it was a low budget. There was a quick pace.
But yes, you’re right. Funny didn’t feel like the right word for it. We’re going through it. It’s like stupid or crazy. It was probably more ambitious, that’s what they say.
Ricky Staub: This is an ambitious schedule, an ambitious script writing.
Allen Wolf: Codewords.
Ricky Staub: Code words for crazy. Might fail.
Allen Wolf: Can you talk about what happened with E before production started?
Ricky Staub: So, E was the cowboy that I mentioned that we met in court. E had been out a week when we met him, and he is telling the judge that he bought a horse which really perked our ears up at that point. We knew about the Fletcher Street cowboys at that point because their stables are less than a mile from our office in Philly.
We struck up a conversation that led to a friendship which led to us collaborating with him and the other cowboy male who played Paris in the film. The two of them really stayed shoulder to shoulder with us for years leading up to putting the script together and getting into pre-production. Unbeknownst to us, E had fallen back into drug dealing, and a week prior to our production office opening, he was murdered in his home.
Yeah, it was really tough. It’s still tough. I don’t know if I’ve even fully mourned his loss because I literally was in LA. I flew to Philly to his funeral, fly back, get my family, and two days later start on my first movie without the person who was going to literally escort me through the entire process with the community. But something that was really beautiful that happened over the course of that summer, and it’s still happening, in particular, when I was at his funeral, I couldn’t help but ponder whether us making this movie were even a reality anymore without him because he really was a leader there and this was his movie in so many ways it wasn’t mine.
But the amount of people that I met at his funeral who he had already talked to for years about how important they were going to be to make this movie, it was as if all the seeds he had planted were coming up, and I was seeing the fruit of his work. So many people were coming up to me and saying we got to finish this for E. This was so important to him. I remember sitting with his sister in our office and her saying this was going to be the best thing he ever left his kids. And so there was a handful of cowboys and cowgirls who, no joke, showed up every single day to support me directing this. They were always behind the camera, behind the monitor, throwing out lines.
They’d say like this that’s not how you’d say this, or you don’t sound like you’re from Philly. One of the cowboys, Al, said, “We got to make sure you don’t f*** this up.” And he meant it with the most beautiful heart. He knew how important the story was to everyone but most specifically to E. And in some poetic way, I think us losing E because he fell back on poor decision-making, let’s say, that him being a drug dealer isn’t the legacy he’s leaving for the film, for his kids. To steal a quote from Bryan Stevenson, he’s more than the worst thing he ever did. He genuinely was really a beautiful person. There were a lot of tears that summer. It’s still strange. I still don’t even understand how I fully did it. There’s a lot of heartache, but we made it through, and I think what we did felt beautiful.
Allen Wolf: When that happened, did that bring up any questions for you to God?
Ricky Staub: No, I’ve gotten all those out of my system through all my other deaths in my life. Eric is not the first person I lost in my life. So, I’ve exhausted that complaint. God is God because there’s always things we can’t answer about his existence. If we could, then one of us could be God. So, I’m okay hanging in tension that there are going to be things that can’t be answered that happen, particularly around suffering. No one seems to have a problem with miraculous, positive things happening. Someone can always take credit for that, but when there’s negative, death, unexpected death, tragedy, or suffering, we always want to blame someone or something.
God is the easiest target, but I think it’s ultimately more of an excuse not to deal with the reality that we live in a world where people die every day and hurt every day. We can choose to ignore that or try to hide from it, or we can accept its reality and live into it. It doesn’t make it easier. It doesn’t make sense to me that Eric was murdered because of how just divine the whole process leading up to actually getting a movie made was in this fashion. It’s just so sad.
I still have my last text exchange with him because the morning he was killed, Lee Daniels posted on social media about the movie, and Eric doesn’t have social media, so any time I was like, “Dude, look, Lee Daniels is talking about your movie,” and I could look it up but he was like, “Yeah, I still got to go through the script with you. I still have more changes.” He always wanted to make a change, to make sure it was right. It’s probably something I will continue to find clarity on the rest of my life that I have left.
Allen Wolf: It’s amazing the dichotomy that we can live in with one amazing, glorious thing happening and then simultaneously some really dark things were happening in his life too.
Ricky Staub: I hope people can learn that there’s nuance in everything as we live in a polarized world where we like to think that there are good people and bad people, but there’s not just people who are all hurting, all broken. That’s just the truth.
Allen Wolf: Yeah. Well, Concrete Cowboy is rooted in the history of Black cowboys in Philadelphia with a majority black cast. What would you say to someone who says, “Oh, well, should you be telling the story because you’re white?”
Ricky Staub: I get that a lot.
Allen Wolf: So, people have actually asked you that question?
Ricky Staub: Yeah, pretty much every interview I’m ever in or every person we ever go to pitch the movie to when we were trying to get it off the ground. Why you?
Allen Wolf: Wow, okay.
Dan Walser: Yeah, I don’t think that there’s a quick and simple answer to it. I think a lot of what we just discussed is probably the answer to it. Particularly when we started this company, it wasn’t to tell Black stories, but when a majority of the people who are incarcerated are Black, and then those people are coming through our company, those relationships matter to us. And when I first became a quote-unquote storyteller, I looked around at what stories to tell, and the people who are closest to me, and they happen to be Black. And prior to Hollywood knowing who I was, I was in this community that didn’t question me as a storyteller, telling stories with them. You know, even if you ask the cowboys today, I’ve been in some interviews where they’re confused by the question. Why wouldn’t we trust your team? Ricky is down there with us. I don’t want to say that it’s a manufactured dilemma, but in some ways, there are certain people that I think because of the color of their skin they may not be an appropriate fit to tell the story, but I don’t actually subscribe that you have to be the same race as the lead character to tell that story.
Something that was so beautiful about this process is that I obviously did not grow up a Black cowboy but to be invited into this community and to what it taught me in terms of empathy, compassion, and understanding for people who aren’t anywhere near me has changed me into a more sensitive, empowered person for that community. I think, and I hope that that is actually the goal to see healing, and I also think that there’s just a disingenuous amount of priority put on the director. If you watch Concrete Cowboy, I didn’t do that. It’s not a film by me. That community is behind the camera, in front of the camera, all over the camera. I was just one important part of it, but I was just one player in that and the whole cast. It’s everyone. This film, in particular, is everyone’s film because, without their involvement, it wouldn’t be the same. I helped shepherd it in a lot of ways, but I don’t know if there will ever be a story I tell that is an exact replica of my life. I don’t know if that’s a reality for any filmmaker.
So, it’s a lot of ways. I think it needs to be handled with nuance, but I understand that there will be people that just don’t approve of me doing it because of the color of my skin, but I can’t make everyone happy. I do know that as it relates to this specific film, something really beautiful took place. And well past the film’s existence, these relationships with Black cowboys and cowgirls will exist in my life probably till I’m gone, and so that to me is something really special and beautiful.
Allen Wolf: And just you saying you can’t make everyone happy: great life lesson. And just hearing everything that you’ve been through, it seems like you were the one who was most prepared to tell this story. I think it comes across in the movie as well.
Ricky Staub: Thank you.
Allen Wolf: Well, this interview is sponsored by Navigating Hollywood which helps people who work in entertainment to lead relationally and spiritually holistic lives. Navigating Hollywood offers courses for pre-marriage and marriage and the Alpha Course that gives entertainment professionals the chance to explore the big questions of life. You can find out more at NavigatingHollywood.org and if you use the invitation code “podcast,” the courses are all complimentary. You can also sign up to get updates on the site as well.
When your teenage character first arrives in Philly to live with his father, the neighbor across the street mentions that “he hasn’t eaten the pig slop yet.” For people who don’t understand or are not familiar with the prodigal son story that she references, what were you trying to convey in that moment?
Ricky Staub: He hadn’t hit his bottom yet.
Danny Walser: Bad news before it’s good news, right, and part of the bad news is coming to the end of yourself and that story of the prodigal son, when he’s eating the pig’s slop and recognizing how far he’d fallen, so to speak. There’s a moment of recognition that made his eyes finally look up and say, “What am I doing?” I think what that Nessie character is essentially trying to explain to him is that there’s no shortcut to growth and transformation. So, you have not eaten pig’s slop yet. You haven’t hit your bottom. You haven’t come to the end of yourself.
Allen Wolf: Was there a moment in your life where you felt you got to the point of eating the pig slop?
Ricky Staub: Oh, man, how many times have I eaten pig slop?
Dan Walser: Yeah, I mean, it’s interesting. It’s almost more like there are moments that you can signify in your life where you have recognized the harm of your own pride, selfishness, and desire to make yourself king, so to speak. I also think that the pig slop journey feels like a daily one too. It’s not necessarily like you eat it one time, and then you turn from it then perfection is the next step. That journey of recognizing you’re hitting a wall of your own making is a daily one, at least for me.
Ricky Staub: Yeah, man. I think it’s why the only thing I feel I can even teach my kids is how to repent, confess, and seek forgiveness well because they’re going to constantly seek the slop. We just can’t help ourselves. We’re just so broken. I feel as a people group we try to pretend that we’re not broken or that we can achieve some level of manufactured, wholeness or success, but we can’t, it’s just impossible. Honestly in my worldview, that’s why I feel like I need a savior, because I’m well aware the longer I live, the more I seek the pig slop or the brokenness. I’m aware of it; it’s just being able to come to terms with that more quickly versus ignoring it.
Allen Wolf: And for you, Ricky, was there a certain moment of revelation for you that you needed something outside of yourself?
Ricky Staub: It’s been certainly an evolution, but I think that time in Philly was most formulated. I think previous to meeting Will and actually engaging scripture myself, my faith actually wasn’t necessary for my survival. I was more ignorant to other people’s hurting and suffering. I think it’s in my opinion why Jesus says I came for the poor, and that’s where you should go. Because when you engage in other people’s suffering or cause, if you aren’t gifted with your own suffering, it is where the Lord is met. And not that it can’t happen in success or good times flowing, but I’ve never experienced that. It’s only through when I engage in a relationship with this guy Will if I started to meditate on my own losses and his loss and then loving him like a brother and being like, this is wrong and then others that came after him. The gospel became actually necessary for my survival that was a big changer for me, and then obviously since then, things have happened in my life, whether it’s losing E or other painful events that helped put greater things in context like why I’m alive, what am I doing here, and that there’s a real beautiful gift that you have when you recognize that you can actually offer healing and wholeness, essentially the kingdom of God to people now. It’s not something you just get when you die. It’s actually something Jesus calls us to usher into reality now like. We can be as hands and feet, all these cliché terms. They actually started to make sense to me when I participated.
Dan Walser: In times of suffering, I think what becomes so clear is that all of the things on this earth that we worship that are not God can’t take on the weight of that worship. They crumble, they break, they betray you—even relationships. There’s nothing that can hold that weight. So, I think there’s a helplessness in suffering that is actually merciful because it requires you then to look for something that won’t break, that won’t decay, that is eternal. I think when I was going through severe loss, I was finally able to clear all that out and just look at God for the first time clearly because it was the only thing, His presence was the only thing that felt real and felt like could handle that weight.
Allen Wolf: You’ve worked with incarcerated people and Hollywood people. What would you say are the similarities or differences that you’ve seen between those two groups?
Ricky Staub: I don’t know if there are differences.
Dan Walser: No, I think the similarities are as varied as human beings are varied, but I think a desire for purpose, desire for meaning, a deep desire for opportunity for themselves, and for their children and their children’s children. The desire to leave something behind them. I think the differences are not necessarily anything to do with the individuals. I think the differences are normally circumstantial.
Ricky Staub: It has nothing to do with their incarceration or lack of incarceration. Outside of that period of incarceration, they have all the same hopes and dreams as you do, maybe in different forms, but they have hopes and dreams. There’s just a lot of things blocking those from coming to fruition that shouldn’t necessarily be there. You can look at two people on a set that have the same amount of skills or desires, but one is just handicapped because our society has set them up to fail.
Allen Wolf: There is a really touching moment in the movie when a character who is paralyzed rode a horse for the first time. And I really teared up at that moment, particularly because I felt like it captured what you’re doing, that you are giving people who feel paralyzed in their lives because of their circumstances an opportunity to do something that would feel impossible otherwise. That was a really great moment in the film, and I love that it just reflects what your passion is every day.
Dan Walser: I appreciate it. That’s really cool. Certainly, given the context of what we’ve just been talking about, we are obviously attracted to stories that are rooted in transformation.
I think all good narratives have that to a certain degree, but I think we are not afraid to dive into characters and communities, situations that are complex and compromised, and live in that tension that Ricky talked about between light, darkness, and choices that lead either way. Part of the story of Concrete Cowboys is that we’re all influenced by the presence or absence of our father. I think that from an earthly father standpoint or a heavenly father standpoint. And so it was fascinating to be involved in a story that isn’t just about the absence, isn’t just about the presence, you get to see in some sense both sides of that coin. We’re in our hearts optimists, but we’re also realists to the struggle of being human and the reality of difficulties, death, and loss, so we gravitate towards stories that include both.
Ricky Staub: And just taking darkness and showing how beautiful it can be. I think we live in a world that wants to avoid pain, or we want to raise kids like they’re never going to have to experience conflict. Yet, that is not the world we live in.
Allen Wolf: Now, for someone who’s listening who’s inspired to help the incarcerated, what would be a good next step for them?
Dan Walser: Names and faces. Meet people who are incarcerated, who have been incarcerated, and long-standing passion will come out of that. I also think, if there are people listening that are in companies, positions of leadership in companies, and they have a desire after listening to this maybe have their company or them be involved in providing opportunities for the formerly incarcerated, I’d really encourage them to reach out to Ricky. We’ve done that a lot with other companies. I think we can dispel some of the fears and passionately lay out how we approach it and give some real helpful tools on how to do it, so it doesn’t feel overwhelming, and it’s just one step at a time. So, if there’s anyone that’s like that, we’d love to hear from them and happy to chat.
Allen Wolf: How did they get in touch with you?
Dan Walser: You can go on our Neighborhood Film Company website.
Allen Wolf: Great. Okay, and we’ll include the link to that in the show notes as well.
Dan Walser: Great.
Allen Wolf: Well, thank you so much for being with us today. Ricky and Dan. I really appreciate hearing your stories, your passion for telling stories, and your heart for helping others. Very inspiring.
Ricky Staub: Thanks for having us.
Allen Wolf: Yes, absolutely. And thank you to all of you who have joined us, be sure to check out Concrete Cowboy on Netflix, and we’ll include a link to their short, The Cage, in the links as well. If you work in entertainment, be sure to look at the courses that are available at NavigatingHollywood.org and again use the word “podcast” to register for a complimentary course. Please follow us and leave us a review, so others can discover this podcast. You can find our other shows, transcripts, and links to anything we talked about here and more at navigating hollywood.org. I look forward to being with you next time.