Ry Russo-Young, You Won’t Miss Me
Something of a prodigy even before she made her first feature, Manhattan native Ry Russo-Young (Orphans) had an early apprenticeship in the medium, studying visual arts and drama at Oberlin College and Yale, respectively, before putting in some time at the Lee Strasberg Institute and NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Russo-Young eventually directed the short film Marion, a multi-screen deconstruction of scenes from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho enacted by three actresses, which won the 2005 Silver Hugo Award for best experimental short film at the Chicago International Film Festival. Two years later, she debuted Orphans, an emotionally wrenching drama about two twentysomething sisters, estranged since the death of their parents, reuniting at the family’s isolated country-getaway house in the midst of winter. The film, produced and co-edited by Russo-Young’s mentor Amir Naderi (A.B.C…, Manhattan), made a splash on the American independent scene, picking up a Special Jury Award at the South by Southwest Film Festival and earning high praise for its crisp visuals and authentic lead performances.
For her latest feature, the more stylistically adventurous You Wont Miss Me (which debuted at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival and was a Gotham Award winner for Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You), Russo-Young collaborated closely with actress Stella Schnabel (daughter of painter/filmmaker Julian Schnabel) to create a naturalistic portrayal of Shelly Brown, a bold, needy, confused young aspiring actress just released from a psychiatric hospital after an out-of-control episode only vaguely alluded to in intermittently glimpsed one-on-one therapy sessions. Adopting a variety of film and digital-video formats (16mm, Flip HD) with DP Kitao Sakurai to create different emotional textures for the character, Russo-Young unspools Shelly’s story in a series of loosely connected, chronologically jumbled vignettes, tracking her desperate search for sex and human connection, mostly, from her cramped East Village flat to a post-concert hotel room in Atlantic City, but also her awkward attempts to please stage directors at open casting calls and her aggressively anti-social way of manipulating (and alienating) friends, lovers, and colleagues. Although it isn’t hard to locate referential hints to other visual and cinematic work here (Russo-Young has mentioned Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency as an influence for at least one scene), the film’s central performance and overall sensibility shares something in common with Anna Thompson’s desperate and emotionally reckless title character in Amos Kollek’s 1997 New York drama Sue.
Nevertheless, as she guides Schnabel and a small stable of actors (Joe Swanberg, Aaron Katz, Greta Gerwig, and Mary Bronstein all make brief appearances) through discretely realized, semi-improvised conversations, Russo-Young achieves something unusually fresh here, emphasizing the anxious performativity of social identity for a frustrating, unstable, yet ultimately sympathetic woman-in-crisis, largely through formal means.
Filmmaker spoke with Russo-Young about artistic hindsight, female archetypes, and her upcoming Lena Dunham–penned project Nobody Walks. Factory 25 releases You Wont Miss Me on Friday at Cinema Village in New York.
Filmmaker: It’s been two years since You Wont Miss Me premiered at Sundance. What’s your relationship to the film now?
Russo-Young: I struggle with my relationship with it, as most people do with past work. In some ways I’m proud of it because it captures something that still feels fresh to me. There’s an honesty and truth to the character, and an energy that I respect. And in other ways, I’m ready to make something completely different that’s formally rigorous, more planned out. The psychological state I was in when I made that movie is so different than the one I’m in now, in terms of what I want to do and how to do it.
Filmmaker: There’s a tradition of female characters in crisis that your previous films, like Orphans and the experimental short Marion, have tapped into. Is that important to you, or was that important to you earlier?
Russo-Young: The movies I’ve always found really incredible actually do have characters who are very questionable, where, as a viewer, you’re oscillating between your opinion of that person’s moral standing in society, like In a Lonely Place, that whole genre of noir where people all have a darker side. In terms of female archetypes, it’s something I’ve always been into. I remember when I was in ninth grade, where we had to do a theater piece on a character, and mine was Joan of Arc, which is the quintessential female archetype. To be honest, I think growing up with lesbian parents, I’ve always been really conscious of how to look at women because I grew up in this family where they were making their own rules of what a family should be. And that was never questioned within the family, but was by the outside world. When I figured out my own sexuality of being a straight woman, it was kind of like, well, how am I going to do this? I think that made me conscious of female archetypes that I wanted to work out cinematically.
Filmmaker: Do you think that affected your relationship to cinema as a viewer?
Russo-Young: Totally. I’ve always assumed that other little girls felt the way that I did as a kid, which was really hungry to see myself on the screen, and so attracted to it when I’d see a film that was indicative of my experience. Or that had a little-girl character who had an attitude. [Laughs] Like Curly Sue. Or Wednesday, from The Addams Family. I think everybody does that, no matter what age you are, but part of going on to make a film –what I wanted to make as an adult was something that I’d spent my childhood looking for.
Filmmaker: What do you think adopting different styles and methodologies is teaching you and where do you think it’s pushing you ultimately?
Russo-Young: It’s teaching me, in some way, what I like and don’t like. It’s teaching me to be a better director, what works with people and what doesn’t. It’s almost like a life film school.
Filmmaker: Is it all crystallizing for you somehow?
Russo-Young: I think it is. I think it’s being able to articulate what I want, actually. One of the things I’m learning is that I want to communicate with people in a more direct way. Having studied film and been so enmeshed in the medium itself, [I’ve learned] that personal expression can limit the clarity of communication sometimes. So I’m learning now as I’m maturing that you can make work that’s really intensified with all of these ideas, but the form and expression of those ideas can communicate to people in a really potent way. One of the things I love about You Wont Miss Me is the way it communicates in the formal aspects, but now I want to communicate with people on a wider scale. It’s not about making it more “accessible,” but about communicating to people that you don’t know, who haven’t seen what you’ve seen, you know? They’ve seen other things that are equally awesome and valid for their own world.
Filmmaker: Very few people, not to mention filmmakers, have that perspective.
Russo-Young: I definitely didn’t have that perspective four years ago. On Orphans I think I did worry about those things, and then I felt like the film was a little restricted because of it, a little self-conscious in that way. But a lot of first films are. Then You Wont Miss Me was sort of like, fuck all this, I’m just going to make something really instinctual, with that kind of immediacy. And now it’s, all right, let me codify all of these things.
Filmmaker: You Wont Miss Me has an emotional texture that goes beyond the formal experimentation. I imagine it registers on more than a visual level for people who aren’t normally exposed to this kind of filmmaking.
Russo-Young: Exactly. When I showed the film in places like St. Louis, for example, people really did respond to it and love it. Then you get into distribution and what you think people will respond to and all of that. There is something to be said for working within these frameworks that have been established – genre and story, for instance – but it doesn’t have to be simple.
Filmmaker: Since you are on the other side of the camera from time to time, having put in some time at the Lee Strasberg Institute and appeared in a couple of movies, how much of what you were just saying relates to your thinking about acting and what you want actors to do?
Russo-Young: Well, it’s funny, because actors are all really different, but they’re equipped. If you have the right material, then you can sit down with an actor and work out the kinks in a straightforward way. There’s just much less slippage. Sometimes, that slippage is what makes it great, and other times you’re really able to nail it to the wall because you know what it’s about and so does the actor. There’s an amazing power in that clarity.
Filmmaker: So how are you approaching things in the film you’re making with [Tiny Furniture writer-director] Lena Dunham? Is the process similar?
Russo-Young: The way Lena writes dialogue, it’s very much about the writing. We outlined the movie first and came up with the story together, and the plan was always for me to direct the movie. Orphans was almost overrehearsed—we rehearsed for hours and hours, it was all on tape, I would watch the tape, I’d take notes. And then You Wont Miss Me was very underrehearsed. It was about creating character biographies, having each person be equipped with information for a scene, and then going into the scene where they’re having a conversation. So I feel like the biographies were really important and will stay with me because it describes the essence of who [those characters] are. And that has to match up with what’s in the script. Then you can be very free with the scenes.
Filmmaker: Would you say you liberated yourself from the overmanaged approach on Orphans, and now you’re planning to liberate yourself from the free-form approach on the last film?
Russo-Young: I think I can find a happy medium between the two. But a lot of it has to do with the material. What is the film about, and what’s the best way to formally capture what it is? In You Wont Miss Me, it was about someone who’s really unhinged, so in a way the form was much wilder because that’s who the character is.
Filmmaker: What was the guiding principle in the editing process?
Russo-Young: First of all, we edited as we shot. I shot the three-hour “interview” with Stella [playing Shelly] and then we chose four scenes, kind of randomly. Any time I shot anything, I’d go home and edit it. So it was more about backing into a form, in a way, saying Okay, I know that works, that’s what I’m interested in. The guiding principle was emotion—where are the emotional connections for this character?—and allowing things to play out in real time. It was those two things: to let moments breathe and to oscillate between the character’s own internal logic and the way that she is in the world. And to have those things always be in battling tension, finding north and finding south. I think you always needed to feel like you were in that board game, and then it would be about spinning the wheel to the exact place. So editing as we shot really helped a lot. My co-editor Gil Kofman was really incredible in making certain connections. He had a few moments that just knocked me over.
Filmmaker: It’s amazing how that happens in editing. Two unlike things magically unite.
Russo-Young: I showed John Walter [How to Draw a Bunny] a few scenes that we’d edited, and it was his idea to shoot the therapist scenes, which were not in my original outline. And then it was Gil’s idea once we were editing to cut up those scenes and have them be the framework. Always with filmmaking, it’s so weird to sit here and talk about it without talking about, really, how these people I made the film with [helped] me. I feel so lucky to know brilliant people like that.
Filmmaker: With a lot of younger filmmakers in the U.S. working on small budgets, people like Andrew Bujalski, Joe Swanberg, Aaron Katz, even the Duplass brothers, there’s a strong emphasis on observation and character detail. What sustains the interest, that scrutiny of the everyday, among this generation?
Russo-Young: Isn’t everyone fascinated by other people? I think that’s what lacking in our bigger-budget movies today, those idiosyncratic character details. Something like The Long Goodbye, that’s an amazing [character-driven] movie. And when I see movies now, there’s so much emphasis on story and visual effects. Hollywood can get away with shoddy character detail, I guess. Just like in Richard Avedon’s photographs, people are interesting to look at. So maybe there’s a resurgence in that right now, but I think it’s always been there.