Ry Russo-Young, Nobody Walks
In Nobody Walks, Ry Russo-Young’s third feature film, which she co-wrote with Lena Dunham, Martine (Olivia Thirlby), is a young artist from New York who comes to stay in the pool house of a Los Angeles therapist and sound designer (Rosemarie DeWitt and John Krasinski) to finish the sound mix on her film. Her presence alters the warm, supportive environment of this supposedly open-minded household. There are permanent repercussions for the whole family, and most crucially for Martine. It’s a smart, sexy, and unresolved film about the struggles a young woman can find in trying to express herself sexually and professionally at the same time. Filmmaker talked with Russo-Young about shooting this quintessential L.A. movie and about her ongoing quest– a struggle between the external and the internal — to film emotional honesty.
Filmmaker: How did you go about choosing Chris Blauvelt, the d.p. on this project?
Ry Russo-Young: I watched a lot of reels of stuff and I met with a lot of people. But I had a great meeting with Chris. I liked his manner; that was the first thing that kind of struck me. It’s really funny because he’s covered in tattoos, he’s like full-sleeved. And he looks almost a punk, and he’s got these huge blue, bug-eyes. But he’s really slow and gentle, and is the sweetest, kindest, most attentive listener in the world. And I think when I met with him, we were really creatively riffing and I loved his bedside manner, and that’s something that’s a big deal to me–on set as well. And then I saw a film he did with Kelly Reichardt called Meek’s Cuttoff, and liked that. He’s from L.A. [where Nobody Walks takes place] as well; his grandfather was a grip. So he had a lot of Los Angeles in his bones and in his blood and that felt really right for the film.
Filmmaker: Who did his grandfather work with? Did he tell you stories.
Russo-Young: He told me tons of stories. Not so much about his grandfather, more about who he worked with. He was a camera operator for years [for the late Harris Savides] on Gerry and Elephant, and worked with David Fincher on Zodiac, and really has worked on large Hollywood films, and knew the language really well. He knew that world in a way that I thought was important to this movie.
Filmmaker: The visual grammar of those films?
Filmmaker: Because that was very different than the handheld, handmade feel of your last film, You Won’t Miss Me?
Russo-Young: I wanted this film to be more traditional and to be more classic in terms of its coverage. And to really be about the actors and looking at their faces and seeing what they were going through and watching them. Whereas You Won’t Miss Me, the camera was like a participant and [the viewer] is along for the ride, and that film has a very rough kind of feeling. So Chris having that background was important for this movie.
Russo-Young: We shot the whole thing handheld with device so it was almost—you couldn’t even really tell it was handheld even though it was. So it has a light, light human touch. In terms of coverage, it’s super-simple. And that was what I wanted, because I didn’t want the viewer to see the camera. I wanted it to feel intimate more than anything else.
Filmmaker: You wanted it to be more about the performances?
Filmmaker: …or you wanted the camera to be non-intrusive?
Russo-Young: Non-intrusive. and I wanted to call up a classic tradition of filmmaking in terms of standard coverage, and I wanted to be intimate.
Filmmaker: What was your working relationship like with Chris, in terms of figuring out how to capture Los Angeles? Since he’s from there and lives there, and you have this outsider view.
Russo-Young: Well, there were some shots that I came in with in my mind, from the beginning. We talked a lot about, I mean I had been researching Los Angeles for the last year, with everything from Stephen Shore to Ed Ruscha and a lot that tradition of art, and City of Quartz, Los Angeles Plays Itself. It was a great research project for me, and I looked at films like The Long Goodbye and Shampoo. We talked a lot about the light—I think that was one of our first conversations—about how struck I was by the light. And he just has a great.
We basically blocked the entire movie together, he and I, in the house that I was staying at. We’d sit together and map out each scene, and sort of story board each scene and talk about what it was about, and make drawings, sometimes act it out. Which is what I like to do! And do with everybody. And then we’d sometimes get to go to the location with a camera and we’d have people as stand-ins. Chris has a really delicate touch and he’d always fight for what’s real, for natural lighting, and for motivating it in a way that didn’t feel fake. If there was ever something that—like I remember I wanted moonlight for something, for this scene by the pool with Martine. And he said, it’s not going to look real! And we had this big discussion about the moonlight. And he said, “You’re never going to have moonlight. That’s not going to look like real moonlight. I can give you real moonlight, but you’re going to fall off a lot.” And I said, “I want moonlight and I want it to look magical, so I want it to be bumped up a tiny bit.” And he did it and looks amazing, in this way where it’s bumped up and it’s real. So I think he has a really sensitive, delicate touch.
Filmmaker: So you found that overlap where it’s really delicate and grounded.
Russo-Young: Right, which is what I was interested in terms of the performances and the look.
We did a lot tests, and we ended up choosing Super 16. It has the intimacy, the depth and the texture of film, which I love, but we picked what was the least grainy stock possible. Because I knew it would be grainy, of course, but I didn’t want it to be gritty. I wanted it to be smooth but still personal, in a way that digital or even HD—even though it looks good, there’s something really cold about it, whereas film still looks intimate and its softer. So I wanted it to have the soft intimacy that film has, without the rawness of the grain. We also talked a lot about the 70s and that era of movies. [It seemed right for] that family, when people were more open-minded. In some ways, Los Angeles to me feels like there is something sort of 70s about it. When you look around at the sky, it reminds me of those 70s films. So we kept with that, in a way. For instance, we didn’t want to punch up the colors, we wanted it to be very muted, pastel, lighter and airier.
Filmmaker: So did you also have a similarly fluid relationship with your actors?
Russo-Young: On this film I definitely had less time [to work with them], but yeah, completely. I was really comfortable with all of them. I remember John giving me advice on how to work with another actor. It was very much a team mentality while we were working. Rosemary was so giving about when we’re not shooting her side or something, she’ll tell me that she’s going to do something different but that it’ll set up Olivia more, when Rosemary’s not even on camera. But all the actors were really generous, really kind and together.
Filmmaker: Do you have a background in acting? Your were talking about acting out the scenes before?
Russo-Young: Yes, from when I was young. I acted all the way through college, in college also. In Lee Strasberg, and Yale Summer Drama, and with Joe Swanberg. In order to order to understand a character’s actions, I have to understand that I’m literally that character. When I’m writing and even when I’m blocking or shooting, I’m literally imagining I’m that person at the moment. So I feel close to every actor; I’ve been in there and thought about what the world was like looking through their eyes. That’s the only way I know how to do it. So I’ve been everyone in Nobody Walks. So that’s why when people ask me who are you in Nobody Walks, I really relate to all the characters. I’ve been John’s character in some relationships, and I’ve certainly been Martine. And I’ve been Andy. I feel like all those people live inside me.
Filmmaker: And you and co-writer Lena Dunham did the Sundance Screenwriters Lab for this. How was that?
Russo-Young: That was super helpful, to hear different people’s perspectives on the script and how they responded to different characters, and how some people aligned themselves more with other characters. It just helped us kind of push and develop. There are some new scenes that came out of the lab, that are in the movie now, that are some of my favorite scenes. So I feel like that really was beneficial to the process. And as a support network as well—the Lab, and Michelle Satter. Sundance as an institution really helped to getting the movie made.
Filmmaker: You’ve worked with a lot of women, both in micro-budget films in New York and bigger budget films in Hollywood. Have you found there’s a different support network or climate for women in those two places?
Russo-Young: I don’t know, maybe it’s just me. I grew up in a house of all women, so there’s something about women that feels like family to me. I can get closer to women, more quickly. And I feel, with some women, this automatic intensity of interest. I’m actually working on a script now with a man, and it’s hard, it’s really hard. I don’t why. But to answer your question, I feel like there are networks of powerful, awesome women everywhere, in New York and Los Angeles. And it’s really cool to find them and be excited by them, but it’s more just about people. But it’s tricky. I don’t know if I’d always worked with men if you’d have asked me that question. I think those are just the people I’ve met and those are the people I’ve connected to.
Filmmaker: So working on the script with Lena, did you find you had different strengths?
Russo-Young: Yeah, she’s amazing at writing dialogue. She’s amazing at everything—that’s kind of her thing. I was always completely in awe of working with her, and felt humbled and lucky. But she’s really good at dialogue, and she wrote the first dialogue pass at the film. We sat together and outlined it all. We both came up with characters. We sat together and talked about each scene, and she took that outline and wrote the first draft of the screenplay with the dialogue. And then things revised and changed, but I think the reason the script has her ear and wit is because the script has her dialogue, in that sense.
Filmmaker: And what were some of the strengths that you brought to the collaboration?
Russo-Young: I think I wanted to keep things really grounded in the characters and I didn’t want there to be a specific villain. And so I was just always pushing her towards psychological truth and to keep things grounded, and not too cute. To just keep it really real, and sexual and full of ripe human tension.
Filmmaker: That sounds right, that sounds like you.
Russo-Young: And Lena is so prolific in terms of just being able to crank it out, and crank out really amazing material. And she seemed to really enjoy the challenge of writing for someone else. And so we just kind of riffed for a while about different characters that we thought were interesting. It’s funny, I think I started out by saying, “I really want to make a movie about men.” A movie starring a bunch of guys, that would be really fun and refreshing. Because I was really trying to get away from You Won’t Miss Me—that “Ack, so female…” And so I think we talked about the character of Peter first: an older guy who’s frustrated with his life in some capacity. And then it evolved and we came up with Martine and other characters.
Filmmaker: Were the basic ideas for these characters coming from other movies or your lives or somewhere else? For instance, why did you start with Peter?
Russo-Young: Well, I think it was about being about a guy, first of all. But I knew a guy who reminds me of Peter, so it started based on him loosely and then evolved, and changed a lot overtime so that now it has almost nothing to do with him. But I think the seed came from this guy I knew who was older.
Filmmaker: What was that seed? That same ambivalence?
Russo-Young: The seed, ha. Well the seed was really me having an affair many years ago. I met this older guy, when I was younger, and we were really friends instantly, and creatively we were of the same mind-set. And he basically said his wife said he could have an affair, that she didn’t care. So I ended up having a thing with him for a little while, and it got really fucking complicated. And I think that experience was the thread. But the reason why I don’t really like to talk about the experience is because it’s different from the movie, maybe even more interesting.
Russo-Young: Yeah, it’s actually something that I struggle with in my work a lot. Maybe it’s the process of putting it in a film. Or maybe I’m just so afraid of the reality that I haven’t quite gotten there yet?
Like the movie I’m writing now, I can feel it getting further away from the emotional reality of what it’s based on. You can do visually whatever you want, if the emotional reality is there. But sometimes when the story changes, often for dramatic reasons, the emotional reality changes as well. You keep the seeds, but I think sometimes, because of the dramatic needs of the story, you take leaps that are trickier. You skip beats sometimes. But I’m not sure if I had kept the story closer to what really happened if it would have been better. It might not have been.
Real life can be more interesting, because it’s way rougher. But I don’t always want to make things as rough as real life. I kind of did that with You Won’t Miss Me. Even though, well [laughs] life is way worse than You Won’t Miss Me.
Filmmaker: So, in the two differing styles of the last two films, one really internal and one really external, is that trying to get at the heart of that real experience and experimenting with different ways to get there?
Russo-Young: Yeah, it’s different modes of communication, really. I think I’m interested in the ways that we not only internalize things, and what we say to ourselves, but then also our actions, what we actually do in reality. And You Won’t Miss Me was all about juxtaposing those two things, inside this girl’s head, and then also her actions in real life. But in Nobody Walks, it’s more about watching these people’s behavior, and having just their actions tell us about their psychology.
Filmmaker: Is that more realistic?
Russo-Young: I don’t think it’s necessarily more realistic. But it is…
Filmmaker: More realistic to how it is to be in the world with other people.
Russo-Young: Exactly. It’s more about how people actually interact, where you don’t usually get to hear their thoughts. And that’s one of the things that’s so amazing about film or a novel, is you do can get that inner monologue, which I love. But there’s also something riveting about just watching people, watching them interact and work on impulse. And Nobody Walks relies on the fact that you are just watching these people and you wonder about their motivations at certain points; there are moments where you emphasize with them and when you don’t. But the movie doesn’t tell you: this is the main character, and you’re going to empathize with him and you’re inside is head. The perspective is… polyamorous. And it deliberately shifts at certain strategic points in the film, so that the viewer can align themselves with different people, with different perspectives.