Interview: Filmmaker Ry Russo-Young on Nobody Walks

When Ry Russo-Young’s experimental film You Won’t Miss Me premiered at Sundance in early 2009, few people who saw it realized it would take almost two years to be released, helped greatly by winning a Gotham Award for “Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You.” Meanwhile, Lena Dunham was also writing a movie about being a 20-something woman in New York City called Tiny Furniture. Due to circumstance, the two movies came out in the same week in 2010 and considering how much they and their makers had in common, it probably surprised no one when the two filmmakers collaborated in writing Russo-Young’s next movie Nobody Walks, which premiered at Sundance this past January.

Russo-Young uses far more conventional storytelling techniques to follow the journey of Olivia Thirlby’s Martine, an experimental filmmaker from New York who is finishing up her latest work while moving into the California home of sound engineer Peter (John Krasinski) and being absorbed into his family life. When the two of them become closer, it starts causing rifts in Peter’s family as his wife Julie (Rosemarie DeWitt) and her friend’s daughter Kolt that they’d been watching (played by India Ennenga) are going through their own issues. sat down with Ms. Russo-Young at the Magnolia Pictures offices last week to talk about her movie. We spoke briefly at the Gotham Awards when you won for “You Won’t Miss Me,” but I didn’t get to see the movie until quite a bit later. I thought it was really interesting that it came out the same week as Lena Dunham’s “Tiny Furniture.” Did you know Lena from Oberlin or did you meet her on the festival circuit?

Ry Russo-Young:
I met her at an IFP event after she graduated from Oberlin, so we both went to Oberlin, but we didn’t overlap because she’s younger than I am. I had just left and she had just began. She had just graduated from Oberlin and we met at an IFP event. I think we were both sort of loosely aware of each other.

CS: You collaborated with Stella Schnabel writing “You Won’t Miss Me” as well, so why do you like to collaborate on the writing?

I love it. I want to do it again. My next movie, I’m co-writing a movie right now with another writer. I think it yields really interesting results to me, because it’s so much about the combination. It’s like if we’re cooking together, if we’re making pizza together, you bring the mozzarella, I’ll bring the tomato sauce, and we’ll see how it goes. If I have an idea to add oregano and you say, “Oh, I have this spice that my mother gave me, let’s add that.” In a way, each person that I collaborate with, I feel like we make a film that only the two of us can ever make and there’s something not as interesting or that seems like it would get boring to me if I just keep making my own thing. It feels like I’d just tell the same story over and over again.

CS: Did you have some plot ideas going into this one to start with?

I have things that I’m interested in, like things that I’m thinking about that are usually somehow thematically related to an experience that I had in my life or something that I’m going through at that moment. Usually, somehow the psychology of what’s going on in my mind ends up working its way into the movie and I’ll bring that maybe to the initial discussions of the collaboration but then once the two of us get together, it usually becomes its own other thing.

CS: I’m interested in the idea of New Yorkers moving to California. I’ve only been there a few times and I really hate it because it seems like such a weird place. I’m always fascinated when people I know here decide to move there, because it’s so different. Was that in your mind when you wrote this? It doesn’t really take place in California as much as in and around the house.

It was very California to me, the movie, and I think part of it was the fascination of first going there and being so enamored with it as a place. It is such a different (place) visually. I mean if you look out here (points to windows) it’s like (motions about all the buildings going up to the sky) and if you look out there it’s all horizontal and just like the weather and the entire kind of disposition. I feel that if we were in Los Angeles, we would be having a completely different conversation about the movie in terms of our pacing, everything. It’s just got a very different psychology and at the same time there’s a lot of crossover between New York and L.A. and people and culture. I think I’ve been really interested in that, both similarities and dichotomies.

CS: I did feel that way when I first went there, which was 16 years ago, but then it took me 16 years to go back because like I said, it was very weird and I just didn’t see any reason to go back.

To me, one of the things that’s amazing about it is that it’s like the birthplace of Hollywood. Like you go and you’re like, “I’m on Rodeo Drive.” I remember that from watching “Beverly Hills 90210,” you know?

CS: I feel that these days they’re making more movies in New York while Los Angeles makes a lot more television. One thing that’s different with this over your previous movie is that you’re working with far more established actors. What was your process for finding John Krasinski and Olivia and some of the others?

We wrote the script and then people were into the script basically. There was a lot of interest from actors and casting directors came on and read a bunch of people and I had a bunch of meetings with people and I just cast actors that I was kind of in love and who I thought were incredible in all different kinds of work and hoped that we could make it happen.

CS: So was that process very different than “You Won’t Miss Me?”

Completely. It was completely different, and I feel that part of that was the economics of the movie, just the fact that I made “You Won’t Miss Me” with two grants and from the very beginning was a collaboration with Stella. We didn’t have a script. We didn’t start and write it with a script. We started with this collaboration of “Let’s make up a character who you could play in this thing. I don’t know what it is.” We didn’t even know it was a movie. It was a very organic process of… similar with Lena where it was like, “Let’s sit down and make something together and who knows what it’s going to be?” With Lena, it turned out to be a script and Stella, it turned out to be a character that we created and then put in different scenes and then wrote a treatment from that. It was just a very different animal, and I think that the stories were different and that dictates the approach to the movie.

CS: “You Won’t Miss Me,” at least when I first heard about it sounded more experimental and this one is a little more scripted…

It’s like a real movie! (laughs)

CS: I realize almost everyone involved in this indie sub-genre hates this term, but you come from out of the “Mumblecore” scene and know a lot of those filmmakers. Is that a scene you’ve tried to separate yourself from or is that still part of how you make movies?

I embrace all the parts of me. I also come from experimental filmmaking. The first couple films I ever made were like multi-screen, more like the sh*t Martine makes, so for me, it’s important… I’m such good friends with Todd (Rohal) and I saw Joe (Swanberg) when he came to the premiere of “Nobody Walks” and Craig Zobel. It’s a whole sort of community of great filmmakers who really just want to make films, like Lynn Shelton–we were at festivals together in 2006. The best way to make movies is to get them made with the technology available to us, that’s how we can do it. If we can get it made for more money and get a bigger film with actors, that’s great too, but I want to make bigger films and continue to evolve as a filmmaker and working with established actors is an amazing part of that. I think just because of the drive that I have and the ability we have now… what’s so great right now is that we don’t need people right now to sanction us or to have that much money to make a film. Let’s say I have a project that’s been developed at a studio, if that doesn’t happen in the next couple years, maybe I’ll just make another independent low-budget film and then make that. There’s just a lot more freedom and you’re seeing people like Ira Sachs, older filmmakers in a sense who are made bigger films who are frustrated with the system that are now making smaller films. There’s just a really nice interplay.

CS: I think most of us assume that filmmakers will see each other at festivals and know each other from the circuit and then they’ll go off and do their own thing until the next festival, because writing is such a personal and private thing. But you’re working with Lena and Ti West and Joe Swanberg are constantly doing stuff together. Do these collaborations come together rather organically or is there a conscious desire for them to happen?

Totally, and you never know who you’re going to collaborate with. Alex Perry saw Carlen Altman in “You Won’t Miss Me” and thought she was great and started working with her for “The Color Wheel.” Especially here in New York to a certain extent, it’s a small enough world and with the internet, it creates ease of use with conversation so that we can all really be in touch and help each other, whether it be working together or just saying, “What was that distribution company like?” Just everything from “Who is your cinematographer?” or “Do you have a good editor?” or two actually collaborating, saying, “Let’s make a film together.”

CS: One of the interesting things about “Nobody Walks” is that you go into it thinking it’s going to be about Martine’s character but it’s just as much about Rose’s character and even Kolt. I was curious how you guys developed this as a three-pronged story and made sure it was just as much about them as Martine.

I actually think your allegiance kind of changes throughout the movie. You start with Martine and you end with Rosemarie, you grow up. But I think for me, coming off of “You Won’t Miss Me” because it was such an “inside this person’s mind” type of movie, you’re just in this crazy girl’s head for so long, that I was really looking forward to making a movie that would split the perspective among many people and knowing that Lena was so good at writing characters and writing a litany of characters—I think she’s really good at writing male characters and getting inside that kind of psychology and just different ages. She’s really prolific and deep in terms of who she could touch on and capture, so that was a great opportunity for me in writing with her is to fracture that perspective and have it shared and be in different people’s heads at different times. Then to kind of strategically decide when you’re allegiance is going to shift. Part of that is in the editing.

CS: I was curious how much of what you two wrote changed when you shot and then edited the movie, because stories do change as you’re getting into each step.

It does. I think the scope of it was always in the script in terms of different characters and aligning yourself with them. I think in terms of how much it became Rosemarie DeWitt’s movie was more the editing and just the sheer incredibleness of her performance.

CS: Once you had the various actors come on board, did you and Lena spend time rewriting for them specifically?

She was busy with “Girls” so we didn’t. We did a little tweaking.

CS: Did you work with the actors to develop the characters beyond what was in the script?

I worked with them a little bit and I certainly gave them the opportunity… I asked them, “What do you think? Does it need work? What can we do to make it better? Let’s talk about the biographies.” That was one of the great things about working with these guys is that especially Rosemarie DeWitt felt like it was on the page. She said, “I really think it’s there. I’m going to do my homework. Don’t worry about it. You have a million things to think about. I’ll bring it to set.” And then they did, you know? If there ever was an issue, we’d go into a corner and chat but I think a lot of it was there, which is really a nice thing, having done “You Won’t Miss Me” where a lot of the time they were working blindly. Which is good because you get really spontaneous performances and things happen that would never f*cking happen if it was pre-written, but at the same time, when there’s a document that everybody is on the same page about and then brings new stuff to, it’s really reassuring.

CS: How long did you guys spending writing that script before you started sending it out to actors?

Oh, a few months. It felt quick.

CS: I dunno. Sometimes it might take a year or more to write a script or if you’re Ti West, it might take three days apparently. I don’t know how he does that.

I mean, Lena can write that fast for sure. It probably took her three days to write, but I don’t know anybody who does that except maybe Lena and Ti. That’s not me. We finished the script and then there was some time that passed while we were working on other things and then we did the (Sundance) lab, so it was an evolving process.

CS: What have you been doing since this premiered at Sundance? You said you’re collaborating with someone else?

I’m writing a new movie with another writer and I have a project in development on a cable network.

CS: Is that going to be a studio movie or was that an example you were throwing out there?

I’m like talking to studios and stuff right now. I’m all agented up and the project that I’m co-writing, we’re taking to people. It’s like a process.

CS: Are you still in New York?

I’m both. I’m very back and forth right now.

CS: It’s sort of been said you can’t make movies from New York.

It’s tricky. I mean, I’m really at the place where I’m like should I… and it’s a pain in the ass to be honest. In some ways it’s great because it’s really fun to get a lot of work done on the airplane. It’s great. It’s like finally I can focus.

CS: As long as you have enough battery life on your laptop.

Yeah, but it’s just a lot of back and forth right now.

Nobody Walks has been on VOD for the past month and it will open in New York and L.A. on Friday, October 19 at the Landmark Sunshine and Sundance Cinemas Sunset, respectively.


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