Before I Fall is director Ry Russo-Young's first wide-release film, but she is well known in the independent film scene as an exciting, thoughtful, and visually sophisticated young director. Nobody Walks (2012), co-written with Lena Dunham and starring John Krasinski, Rosemarie Dewitt, and Olivia Thirlby, won a special Jury Prize at Sundance and was released theatrically by Magnolia Pictures. You Won't Miss Me (2009), starring Stella Schnabel, premiered at Sundance and won a Gotham Independent Film Award. Her work has premiered and won awards at film festivals including Sundance, SXSW, Stockholm, Torino, and Tribeca. Russo-Young grew up in New York City, studied film at Oberlin College. She now lives in Los Angeles. Her work has been praised by outlets including The Wall Street Journal, Variety, Vanity Fair, and The New York Times among many others. Russo-Young is currently in development for two upcoming studio projects.
On New York City v. Los Angeles:
I’m from New York City originally and am now based in Los Angeles. I love New York, but I’m glad to be living on the West Coast for a change. I’m an outdoorsy person, so I like the opportunity to go up in the hills and go hiking and be outside most days. I don't even mind driving. After living in New York for as long as I have, the privacy is nice. But I still go back to New York a lot. My husband runs a whiskey distillery there, and it has one of the best bars in New York City.
On her childhood:
I grew up in the West Village with lesbian moms, so I would certainly say my family was very accepting of whoever I wanted to be. I always liked theater, photography, and acting, and did summer Shakespeare programs, so found myself going in the direction of visual storytelling, which led me to experiment with film in college. I’ve had other jobs (in a bakery, a vintage store, as an artist’s studio manager), but I’ve only ever had one career.
On her favorite literary heroine:
I liked this book series [The Song of the Lioness, published in the 1980s by Tamora Pierce] that followed Alanna, a girl who disguises herself as a boy to become a knight. In retrospect, I’m sure my parents had a hand in guiding me to the books—they are a great series that, by the way, would make a great movie series.
On her first feature, Orphans:
I was 23 when I started writing Orphans, and I had no idea what I was doing. It took me about a year to get a draft of the script I was ready to shoot. I always knew I was going to make the film for no money, so the approach was always to keep it simple and write what I knew. My relationship with my sister has always been very intense and complex. Over the years, it’s changed so much—from being very close as kids, to more distant in middle school, and then close again in high school, estranged in college. I’ve always been fascinated by our shared history and just how different we are. So I took my feelings and fears about our relationship and channeled it into the movie by creating a nightmare scenario: What if, at the moment when these two sisters’ relationship is at its worst, their parents die? How do they move forward? How do they cope?
On co-writing Nobody Walks with Lena Dunham:
Lena is an amazing person who understands people in an uncanny way. I loved working with her on the script—I remember a lunch where we ended up crying together. She wrote Nobody Walks before her first feature, Tiny Furniture, and long before Girls, but she was already clearly an incredible writer with a gift way beyond her years. I’ve always been impressed by Lena’s generosity, raw talent, and hard work. She is truly a wunderkind.
On the making of Before I Fall:
My agent sent me the Before I Fall script when it was still at a studio. I found the script (written by Maria Maggenti) to be surprising and emotional. I had one meeting about it and then never heard back. A year later, I got a call saying that the studio was no longer making the movie but that the producer (Jon Shestack) was looking for a director. That’s when I came on board.
The movie is based on a high-school senior girl (Zoey Deutch) who relives the same day over and over again until she gets it right. The challenge from a filmmaking perspective was to take this plot device and make each day feel fresh and different.
I cast Zoey Deutch through a fairly straightforward audition process. Several young women came in and read for the part, and when I saw Zoey, it felt like I was watching the movie already. I was instantly sucked in. She had that star quality, both charming and vulnerable at the same time. It’s not an easy part and requires an immense amount of range, but Zoey has that rare combination of talent and discipline. I’m extremely lucky to have found her and grateful for her contribution to the film; Zoey was one of the key collaborators I had on this movie. She was and still is, my partner-in-crime, and I adore her.
On the making of You Won’t Miss Me:
[The film] really began as a performance. Stella Schnabel and I sat down to see what might come of a collaboration, and through some extensive interviews—that actually ended up in the movie—I realized that Stella was an incredibly gifted actress who was fascinating to watch. We shot on five different formats and moved between them seamlessly. The idea was that each format would reflect the character’s thorny psychological state and its variability. Shooting on multiple formats and in different contexts suited the material, which was organized around the part that Stella was inhabiting.
On the making of Marion [A contemporary deconstruction of Hitchcock's Psycho]:
There are a lot of reasons why that [shower] scene in that movie has become so famous. It’s interesting as a director to take a moment in cinema that everyone is familiar with and take it apart in order to learn about why it works. Gus Van Sant, who is a great director, did a similar thing a few years later, recreating the entire movie shot-for-shot. In some ways, this is all part of a director’s process. I was drawn to the character of Marion Crane because I was fascinated by the fact that she died 50 minutes into the film. At the time when the film came out, it was a shock to kill off the lead character in this way, but my interest was in why she died and if there was anything she could have done differently that would have made her live. So [in my version], three actresses played Marion Crane at the same time and did three of her scenes from the film, but each Marion did something different in each scene and this affected her fate in the penultimate shower scene.
On what’s ahead for her:
This is my favorite question, because I think articulating what you want is a good way to accomplish it—and that’s something that isn’t stated enough, maybe because it’s so obvious, but still. I want to direct another movie, probably not one that I write, but a bigger movie. I want to be challenged and keep growing as an artist. I want people to communicate with a broad audience and then have another kid while in post-production. ★