Critical Questions: Ry Russo-Young
Maintaining her voice within a star-studded collaboration.
Ry Russo-Young first gained widespread attention on the festival circuit with her second feature, You Won't Miss Me, an intense character study and a deeply personal collaboration with her lead actress, Stella Schnabel. While her new film, Nobody Walks, is also a portrait of a confused twentysomething woman, it marks a significant step forward in the filmmaker's career, in terms of its budget and the recognizable names in its cast (Olivia Thirlby, John Krasinski, Rosemary DeWitt, Dylan McDermott, Justin Kirk). She even co-wrote the script with budding superstar Lena Dunham. But surprisingly, Nobody Walks is just as intimate and personal as her earlier work.
Thirlby stars are Martine, a New Yorker who flies to Los Angeles to work with Peter (Krasinski), a sound designer, on her experimental film, living in Peter's house with his wife, Julie (DeWitt), and stepdaughter (India Ennenga of Treme) and disrupting their fragile ecosystem.
When I sat down to speak with Russo-Young about the film, the first thing she noticed was the voice memo app on my iPod.
RRY: I used that. I actually recorded a bunch of sounds, around the time we were shooting the movie. Just to think about how sound...You know, just to be with sound, and be with silence. I just did some listening.
CM: Sound is such an important aspect of the film, especially that one scene where Peter has Martine with the cans on listening, and he's exposing her to various sounds using a directional mic. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how that scene developed.
It seems like so much about sound is actually silence, and actually kind of stopping talking and just using your ears to listen. So that scene kind of came about in terms of being aware of this whole other thing, this presence that's always there, that we're not necessarily conscious of, and in a way that Peter would turn her on to this other world, and that almost creates a sense of intimacy between them.
It's surprisingly seductive but then at the same time you have him sticking this big directional mic in her face--
(Laughs) Right. It's totally overt and phallic and subtly seductive.
Can you talk about how your collaboration with Lena Dunham came about? I know you both went to Oberlin, but you weren't there at the same time?
I'm older than her, so we weren't there at the same time, but right after she graduated, we met at an IFP event, and just completely got along. It felt like we had a lot to talk about. And I think me being at the end of my twenties and her being at the beginning of her twenties, I think we were both really interested in meeting in the middle in that place of like, 23 years old, and what that experience was like trying to be a young female artist, and trying to make work, and how sometimes that gets really complicated when sexual dynamics are factored in.
In terms of Martine's work in the film, what was the inspiration for that? I know whenever I see scorpions in a film, I immediately think of Sam Peckinpah and Luis Bunuel, but I was wondering where that came from, the black-and-white nature footage with the sound effects.
I showed Olivia Bunuel as a reference, and I was thinking a lot about the experimental films that Martine would be watching, like Bunuel, but also like White Mane, by the same guy who made The Red Balloon, or even Maya Deren, and that culture of early experimental filmmaking and expression. From my perspective, less Martine's, Irma Vep, the art film within the film was a big influence. And I think that just in contrast to the Nobody Walks itself, we wanted it to feel really New York, which to me is much more high contrast and black-and-white, with almost a harshness to it that's not delicate and sensitive to peoples' feelings, because bugs don't have emotions. You know, they're not gonna be like "You cheated on me!" So her working with bugs should be this hard-and-fast look at the gruesomeness of nature. I was actually looking at films like The Wasp Woman, films from the '50s that dealt with bugs and femmes fatale and all of that, that she would maybe be influenced by, and how to incorporate that -- the monster film -- into this. That's there super-subtly though, in terms of sound design, mostly.
You really capture the light of Los Angeles and a genuine sense of place, but Martine is from New York, and doesn't quite fit into this setting. Like the title says, nobody walks. But does that sense of being an outsider come from your own perspective?
I think growing up in New York, and going to Los Angeles, and having the whole driving thing be really new to me -- Lena and I definitely pulled from real life experience. Also, I love to research, so I became a real nerd in terms of watching a lot of films that were shot in Los Angeles. And just reading about Los Angeles and its history as a city and its identity from City of Quartz to Stephen Shore to Terry Riley minimalism, and just the different cultures and ideas of what people were thinking about in the city and how that factored into its portrayal, and also its own sense of identity.
Were there specific films that you looked at, because I thought of Lisa Cholodenko's Laurel Canyon, because it's set in a similar milieu, all taking place in one house with this pervasive sexual tension. Are there other films or filmmakers that influenced this work?
I definitely saw Laurel Canyon, but it didn't really influence me. I think it's similar in some ways. Scott Macaulay from Filmmaker Magazine actually read our script, and then he said you guys should see Teorema by Pasolini. We watched it, and I was like oh, there are a lot of interesting similarities, with this sort of unknowable stranger coming into this house, and having sex with almost everyone and affecting them for better or for worse. Visually, films from the '70s...When I'm in Los Angeles, the way it looks to me is actually the way that those '70s films depict it. So films like The Long Goodbye, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. Shampoo is actually one that really feels like L.A. to me, and it's also I think the culture of Silver Lake liberalism, like, we can have houseguests, and we're like a big family, and there's this sense of acceptance that actually gets questioned. So there were films that dealt with that, like Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and even Shampoo: the idea that everyone is being free, and there's a cost to that.
Can you talk about casting the film? I'm wondering how this experience differed from your earlier films in terms of collaboration with the actors, and the whole casting process.
Well, this was a much more "normal" process. The actors were really attracted to the script, and wanted to be part of the movie. So then I would meet with them, I felt really lucky to have gotten the talent, to be given the chance to work with them because they responded to the material. With Stella on You Won't Miss Me, it was much more collaborative from day one. It's like if I sat down with John [Krasinski] and said, let's make a movie together. I really love both processes, and I've learned from both. There were things that I brought from You Won't Miss Me into this movie, in terms of making it. Part of it is just the economics, the budget. The whole way that You Won't Miss Me was made was almost to accommodate the fact that we had no money, making it by the seat of our pants and for favors and with friends.
But there must have been more freedom involved, having so much time to work on it with Stella.
Totally. I edited the movie as we were shooting it. We shot a few scenes. I'd shoot them myself. Then I edited those scenes. Then I raised money to shoot another scene, etc. But it was actually great because then I had a whole assembly of the movie and if I needed more scenes, or I needed a character to come back, I could be like, okay, the movie needs this, and I'd put that together and raise the money and do it, whereas here, there were no reshoots. You have twenty days to shoot the movie, and it's so fast, and then it's over and then you edit it. There's something really nice about the back-and-forth organic process.
You worked on Nobody Walks at Sundance Institute Screenwriters Lab. Was that an extensive process, working on the script there?
It's a week long. But it's helpful, because we had really smart people reading the script and responding to it in a really amazing, giving way, where people are like "this reminds me of my relationship with my wife." The advisors really share of themselves and share their creative juices, which feels extremely generous of them, and helps the script evolve and lets you think about it and see how other people understand it.
In the scenes between Peter and Martine with the sounds, and later, you effectively capture the feeling of two people starting to become attracted to each other. It's very convincing, and sensual. You see Peter in that scene where she's nuzzling his neck, and you sort of know everything that's going on in his head. Could you talk about how you were able to convey that onscreen, the emotional detail and the sensuality of it?
That's one of my favorite scenes in the movie, because it is so identifiable in that way. I think it's a huge testament to the actors, where you can really see the conflict and the thoughts that are going through his mind: "Oh dear should I do this? I wanna do it, physically certainly. What are the repercussions of it? What is she gonna think? Will she mind?" You know. All of that. And I think that for me, a lot of it is about timing. And again, this is an advantage of making an independent film. One of the things that makes that scene so great to me is that we sit with the people and their faces, and we're allowed to watch the full arc of his whole decision. Often in films they're just so rushed-plot plot plot narrative narrative. It's just action action action. And I think to be given that time, that's how we feel in real life. Even though that moment is probably much shorter in real life than it is in the film, the way that it feels psychologically for him can kind of be reflected in terms of how much time we're taking for it. You can really express the characters' inner needs or conflicts or desires based on the amount of time you give it.
|Nobody Walks trailer|