Something Good in the Neighborhood: Ryan Frazee

Every morning before coffee, Ryan Frazee would check on his brain. 

Yep. I’m still seeing double, he’d think to himself. Nope, I still can’t talk. Yep, things are still blurry. 

Doctors told him that they couldn’t do anything for him. They told his longtime girlfriend and business partner, Becky Donnelly, that he may never be the same person. But they also said to have faith. They thought he would return. It would just take time. 

The problem was, Frazee didn’t have time. 

Ryan Frazee – Photo by Becky Donnelly

He was due to shoot a music video for Holdfast, an up-and-coming rock band from Fort Collins. Frazee shoots photos and makes commercial videos, but this music video was going to be the biggest thing he’d ever done. This was their third video for Holdfast, their friends, and Frazee believed in the song, “Walls.” They’d upped their budget, hired extras and had a good story.

Their business, Reign Free Films, was a marmot among the 14ers that towered over the music video landscape. Their “big” budget for this video was $5,000 or so, not the hundreds of thousands for artists such as Doja Cat or Dua Lipa. That was fine. He was 29. She was 28. Donnelly had recently quit her job as a hair stylist, skin care and makeup artist to produce and help run the company. Frazee was essentially living out a dream making videos, something he’d wanted to do since he would wake up at 4 a.m. during sleepovers with friends to watch MTV. They had a small but loyal group of friends and workers, and they lived near City Park in Fort Collins, which their dog treated like a kid at Disneyland. 

They even met through music: Five years ago, Frazee was shooting photos for a band, Donnelly’s friends. She knew him a bit and thought he was cute but didn’t know how to approach him. When he was done, she offered to buy him a shot of whiskey. That worked, and when Frazee asked her to marry him this past Christmas, he did it in the same place, at a Holdfast show, by buying her a shot of whiskey. 

Their idyllic life was challenged, however, when Frazee’s vision blurred on July 17, 2020, while he was in the car with Donnelly. His face tingled, like an allergic reaction, only his hands and feet did too, like they do when they’ve been numb. Donnelly thought he was having a stroke and insisted on going to the ER. 

On the set of “Walls.”

After some tests, doctors told him he had a cavernous malformation in his brain, which caused a brain bleed. They’ve done a lot of research and can tell you more, but it has something to do with blood vessels getting tangled near his brain stem. The bleeding caused his brain to swell. Swelling is not good for the brain.  

Steroids helped, but he couldn’t take those forever and surgery was invasive because it was near the stem; doctors didn’t want to do it unless his life was in danger.

Above: Ryan Frazee (center) and his team on set of the music video, “Time.”
Photo by Maddie Steele Photography.

So that’s why Frazee found himself behind a camera shooting a video for Holdfast just a month after the episode, when he still saw two of everyone and, worst of all, he couldn’t speak. He knew what he wanted to say, but the words sounded like mashed potatoes. He had two of his most trusted friends work beside him at all times, and he’d have to whisper his instructions in their ear. They struggled to understand him. He struggled to speak clearly. All of it would get worse as the day went on and he got tired. 

“It was really frustrating,” Frazee says. “We just tried to get through it. It was incredible to have everyone put the project on their back.”

Somehow, they made it through. It’s a darker video than he normally shoots—the lead singer starts it by climbing out of a coffin—but it was unavoidable considering the circumstances, Frazee says, and it fits the song anyway. 

“It’s very reminiscent of where I was at the time,” he says. 

Still, Frazee was grateful for the project. It took his mind off the fear of losing himself. In fact, the video was accepted into the Denver Film Festival in December, among other events, and is getting his company and the band some distinct attention. Denver had VIP parties and made them feel, well, like one of those video companies with hundred-thousand-dollar budgets. 

“It was a great networking opportunity,” says Donnelly, sounding just like the producer she is now, “and an incredible experience.” 

Ryan with his fiance, Becky Donnelly, and their pup, Ollie.

Thankfully, Frazee’s brain continued to get better. He saw progress every day: People’s doppelgängers faded after a few weeks, and six months after the incident, he could talk again. It’s been more than a year now, and Frazee still hears a wisp of a slur in his voice, but no one else does. 

There is a 3 percent chance of it happening again. Those are good odds, he says. So, they are booking wedding plans, and hoping to go to more film festivals, and Frazee is set to shoot a fourth video for Holdfast. It’s another creative opportunity, the kind he loves, he says, and a chance to use his voice to make his friends look like rock stars.