In ‘Written by Mike,’ local filmmaker finds a direct route to catharsis

by | Apr 7, 2024 | ALLFFP, Arts and Entertainment, Fredericksburg

Long before the cameras started rolling, Ryan Cudahy’s first feature film came into focus through a therapeutic lens.  

Cudahy, who’d struggled with mental health issues dating back to his early 20s, finally told his therapist in May 2019 that he’d exhausted his usual coping strategies.  

“I was dealing with a lot in my life,” said Cudahy, who works as a marketing assistant in Fredericksburg’s Economic Development and Tourism department. “I had a lot of issues I was dealing with, and I said to him: ‘I don’t know what to do, I don’t know how to deal with what I’m going through.’”  

“He said, ‘Well, you’re a screenwriter: write a script about it.’” 

So he did.  

“Written by Mike,” which debuted at the Regal Fredericksburg theater last month, explores two couples dealing with family trauma and illness at the onset of their relationships. Offered Cudahy: “One of the questions we want to raise — not necessarily answer — is: ‘Is loving someone enough to make a successful relationship?'”

One of the film’s characters, Keller, draws heavily from the director’s lived experiences.

“It turned into a lot about my life,” Cudahy said. “[Martin] Scorsese says the most personal is the most creative, and that’s really how I view it. And I’m really proud of the script, and I’m really proud of the film for that reason.” 

When Cudahy began location scouting in 2022, he initially considered Richmond — where he lived for two years — before concluding that the metropolitan downtown “was a little too big for the feel I was going for.” 

Fortunately, he happened to work for a city with a slightly cozier vibe.  

“The nice thing I’ve always viewed about Fredericksburg is it’s got that small-town feel, but it’s also not entirely a small town,” said Cudahy, slipping momentarily into tourism marketing mode. “You’ve got things to do here. You’ve got 40 blocks of downtown.”

Many of the film’s scenes are backdropped by familiar local businesses, such as Red Dragon Brewery, Curitiba Art Cafe, and (the former) Water’s End Brewing. Other shots took place in Riverfront Park and Market Square and across the Rappahannock River in Stafford County.

Many of the film’s scenes were shot at Fredericksburg businesses, like this one at Curitiba Art Cafe. (submitted photo)

“It frankly turned out to be a wonderful setting for the production,” Cudahy said. 

Cudahy started working in film at age 20, shortly after he dropped out of James Madison University due to a mental health crisis. He landed an internship with a production company, and gigs producing commercials and music videos led to a role in the crew of the Apple TV series “Swagger,” which was filmed in Richmond.

In 2021, after “Swagger” wrapped its season 1 production, Cudahy turned down an offer to work on the crew of “The Walking Dead,” instead tending bar at Grill 309 in Culpeper County before landing his current position in Fredericksburg.  

“I had kind of given up on film,” he said. “But I always wanted to make this movie on the side.”

When “Written by Mike” crystallized as a project, Cudahy pitched the script to the restaurant’s owner — his old boss James Laughorn — who started a production company to fund it and came on board as an executive producer.  

Shooting began on May 23, 2023, and lasted 12 days over six weekends. The film’s total budget was $30,000.  

“We had an idea that it was going to work, but it was a hard schedule. It was a hard plan,” Cudahy said. 

The cast consisted of people known to Cudahy, actors recommended to him and those who responded to online casting calls. Few, if any, had previous feature film experience. 

Maggie Gough, who plays Lynn, made the drive from New York City to Fredericksburg each weekend during production. She quickly grew to appreciate Cudahy’s dedication as a director, especially as it pertained to rehearsing dialogue and hashing out subtleties in the script well in advance of shooting.

“You could tell how much he really cared about the project,” Gough said. “He put so much time and work into this.” 

The culmination of their efforts came on March 3, when the film held its premiere in Fredericksburg to an “overwhelmingly positive reception,” Cudahy said.  A Virginia tour featuring screenings in Charlottesville, Harrisonburg, Winchester, Ashburn and Arlington is set to begin April 18, and talks are underway for a possible distribution deal.

As mental health is one of the film’s central themes, 10% of ticket proceeds will go toward Region 10, a community services board based out of Charlottesville.  

The lead role of Mike Romano was played by Matthew Malito, a family friend of Cudahy’s who had limited acting experience before auditioning. However, being privy to parts of the emotional backstory that motivated Cudahy helped influence Malito’s treatment of his character, a wistful 24-year-old with a penchant for writing.

Equally impressive to Malito was the script’s potency as a form of treatment for its director.  

“He could’ve easily wallowed around with his troubles and his dismay,” Malito said. “But he was committed to this story.”  

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