Friday, January 16, 2009
You Wont Miss Me is Ry Russo-Young’s second feature, and her first in Sundance. Orphans, which premiered at SXSW last year, was a Bergman-esque tale of two sisters, now separated, who come together in their parents’ sprawling, snow-bound house to hack emotional pieces out of one another. You Wont Miss Me is very different in style and tone. It uses experimental film techniques – disjointed narrative, a salad of film and video formats – to paint a portrait of one desperate, uncensored, sexy wreck of a young woman named Shelly Brown. Russo-Young invented the character with the film’s star, Stella Schnabel, and they filmed the movie in dark, surprising New York City locations, with local personalities of the sort perfectly familiar to someone who grew up inside the town’s downtown art and music crevices.
That the making of You Wont Miss Me followed its own collaborative, intuitive path seems in tune to the structure of the film and the character itself. Life seems to alternately bore Shelly to distraction or overwhelm her to the breaking point. She’s a girl who keeps saying she’s sorry but never apologizes. We meet Shelly upon her exit from rehab, the days of reintroduction intercut with her by turns vulnerable and manipulative confessions to a staff therapist. She returns to her friends, goes to auditions, looks for love in sex and sex in love, tries in vain to connect with her mother. On paper, these situations are as banal as anyone’s life, but through the force and originality of its characters, You Wont Miss Me’s scenes each unravel to reveal their own specific gems of strangeness and truth.
Filmmaker: How did you meet Stella and start working together?
Russo-Young: Stella’s older sister was my childhood best friend, so I knew Stella peripherally, as like, my best friend’s sister. It wasn’t until after Orphans that I found out she was acting, and I remember thinking, she’d be interesting on camera. Just that — she’d be interesting. [Stella] has a really magnetic presence. Then she came over one day and we just started shooting an interview on DV and made up this character. I took the footage home, showed it to some people that I trust. It wasn’t anything yet, but eventually I started mapping out a whole movie based on this initial interview.
Filmmaker: Sounds like a really organic way to make a film.
Russo-Young: Yeah, it was, it was nice to truly collaborate with someone and just follow my instincts. Of course as you shoot, you get more structure locked in, and then you get more problems.
Filmmaker: What was your shooting schedule like?
Russo-Young: We’d shoot in little chunks -- a week here, a six week break, two scenes here, a week off, and then three days… I shot Orphans [straight through], and it was just like six weeks of hell. On this movie we had the luxury to shoot and then edit, and then shoot and watch and make sure that the outline was being smartly carried through. I remember on Orphans feeling that I was sometimes fighting my instincts. Maybe what you have to shoot next doesn’t feel right given other things that you’ve shot, but because you’re not thinking critically, you’re just trying to get through the day. It’s much easier to have the time to sit down with the footage and figure out what you have, to be realistic about what we’re shooting next and double check yourself, as opposed to being forced into the next scene by the schedule.
Filmmaker: How did you direct the actors in unscripted scenes?
Russo-Young: There was no script but there was a pretty extensive outline. There were times on set when dialogue was sort of written, on the spot, and I would feed it to the actors. There was a lot of pulling actors aside and whispering to them what they should say, and then they would put it in their own words. I cast a lot of people that I know, a mixture of actors and non-actors, but most of them performers in some way. I called each new actor beforehand and told them who they were playing, why they were there, what they wanted out of the scene, and all the rest of the stuff you would realistically come to a situation knowing – where you were from, your parents, your history with the other characters. Everything.
I knew very clearly what I needed emotionally from each scene, even if it was unclear how it would eventually play out in screen time. For me the film has an emotional trajectory, not a linear trajectory necessarily. Time is very elusive; you don’t really know where you are a lot of the time, in terms of scene order. That was deliberate – what happens first and then what chronologically happens next, that’s just not a concern of the movie. But it was important to make sure while editing that the audience feels the slow burn and build of the character so that they know they can trust the story. That was a huge challenge in editing, trying to figure out that balance.
Filmmaker: One motif in the film seems to be her stunted relationship with technology and attempts to learn how to use it -- like the scene where she learns how to use her email. She seems very outside the rest of the world, like she’s missed the last decade.
Russo-Young: I think she’s an extreme example of what we all go through in different ways. No matter how tech-savvy you are you’re always playing some kind of catch up. You can never know enough. She’s still learning this basic thing that most people are assumed by now to know, and she’s kind of got to go out and learn it on her own. It was more about the feeling of always having to play catch up, and being outside of something than something literal about email. The character that we made up was almost a perfect manifestation of many things that I was feeling about society at the time, including the sense of media speeding up and becoming a more multi-format, transient experience. But it is still believable, you know -- there are people like that still, who don’t use email.
Filmmaker: You use a lot of different film formats – how did you make those decisions?
Russo-Young: That kind of fell into place as we went in a very organic way. Some things were part of the story – for the scenes where they’re shooting a movie in Super 8, the footage should be Super 8. For the auditions we used the HVX with 35mm prime lenses, because we wanted the scenes to have a theatrical quality. For a day when we were shooting outside on the street, and the character is going through a really negative emotional time, we used the Flip camera, which is a one chip, very low-res camera. The different formats shed light on the diversity of the character’s personality and perspectives.
Filmmaker: How do people relate to Stella’s character, who is a kind of impossible, volatile, and unconstrained sort of girl – the sort not represented on film very often?
Russo-Young: For one thing, we knew that no matter what, there was going to be some consciousness about Stella’s father [painter and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly film director Julian Schnabel], so we were careful about constructing her back story, especially with her parents. It’s very weird the way people deal with celebrity. People come to the table with a set of presumptions and judgments; sometimes they want to hate her [and then they hate the character.] That might be true for any famous person, but I think it’s different because they come to the table with a perception based on her family, not on her -- though when people do actually see the movie, I think they let go of it. For me the story is not about a girl with a famous parent. Her mom in the film is supposed to be a working actress. The thing is that the movie is supposed to feel so real that you question whether or not it’s fiction, which is a mirror for the character — where the character has a hard time telling fiction from reality. And then there’s the parallel blending of those elements in the film’s structure and format itself.
Another line we were always calibrating was how funny she should be, how much humor was needed to make her enjoyable to watch but still be complex. Most people who have seen the movie either personally empathize with her or feel like, “Wow, I have a friend just like that.” Everyone has someone in their life who is just, simply, impossible. But you love them anyway.
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