Contrary to how it is for many filmmakers, it will be after Ry Russo Young’s third feature “Nobody Walks” hits theaters that her career will be going to the dogs.
“I kid you not,” Russo Young says. “I’m going to be working with 20 puppies of all different breeds. It’s a completely comedic sort of commercial and [there’s] a ref who’s trying to tame all the puppies. It’s a different part of the same skill set [as a director] that gets used and I think that just makes me continue to grow and get better at what I do.”
We’ll take her at her word since the writer/director has accomplished what few do with her latest film, gracefully transitioning from the emotional and budgetary-imposed rawness of her first two films, “Orphans” and “You Wont Miss Me,” to smoother, more broadly appealing terrain without sacrificing either the complexity or intensity of her earlier work.
One needn’t look beyond the sun-soaked Silverlake setting of “Nobody Walks” to see the filmmaker in transition. Although the film isn’t autobiographical, it’s hard not to see the resemblance between New York-bred Young’s graduation to a bigger-budgeted production and the film’s central protagonist Martine (Olivia Thirlby), an experimental filmmaker who heads West for help with a new film from Julie, a family friend (Rosemarie DeWitt) whose husband Peter (John Krasinski) is in the industry. But even if Russo Young isn’t immediately familiar with the firmament, she finds her footing in a way only an outsider could, realizing underneath the slick surface exists the fragile psyches of those living in a place built over constantly shifting tectonic plates with Martine’s
arrival unsettling a seemingly happy couple and the aftershocks threatening to reach everyone in their orbit including Julie’s teenage daughter Kolt (India Ennenga) from her first marriage, who herself is wrestling with her first romantic complications.
On the eve of the film’s arrival in theaters after a successful bow at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, Young took the time to talk about operating at a lighter pitch, both aesthetically and tonally with a script co-written by Lena Dunham, her desire to not “make the same movie over and over again,” and why you’ll never see her driving on the freeway.
What was interesting to you about Los Angeles as an environment for the film?
I’m fascinated by Los Angeles as a place. Mainly, a part of it is that I love movies and moviemaking was born there, but it’s also the reasons behind why moviemaking came out of there. One is the light. Right now, it’s kind of grey in New York and overcast and I’m sure in Los Angeles, there’s a golden hue. Even in the morning, the light is very powerful and really strong and so beautiful and cinematic. There’s a real idyllicness to it. I think also just culturally, it’s almost like New York and L.A. are two sides of the same coin where they share a lot of cosmopolitan awareness and art happens there, but it’s also different approaches to art.
So it’s probably not coincidental that Martine is an experimental filmmaker from the East Coast and Peter, an Angeleno, is someone helping her on the side with sound design during his time off from studio work.
Well, yeah. I feel like in New York, you could still be an experimental filmmaker. You certainly wouldn’t make any money as a living, but if somebody told me they were an experimental filmmaker in New York or with Anthology Film Archives and just the kind of culture here, it seems like something that is still relatively accepted or legit. In L.A., that just wouldn’t make any sense. It would be like, what are you doing? Because the atmosphere is so much about bigger films. There’s no judgment on it. I’m really excited by both and it’s really interesting to see the interaction of those two worlds and have them collide. Coming from an experimental background myself and then moving more towards larger narrative filmmaking, I think there’s a nice meta relationship that goes on there.
Was this a situation where art imitated life?
Did you feel like an outsider coming into California at all?
Initially. Having grown up in New York, my first experience of being in Los Angeles, it took me seven times to pass my driver’s test, so I remember going on the freeway for the first time. I still try to avoid the freeway when I’m in L.A. and I drive pretty much on the streets.
There’s just like things that are…different and it takes some adjusting for sure in Los Angeles versus New York. Those are experiences that I think both Lena and I completely pulled from in the writing. But all the characters basically came from people that Lena and I know and modifying them and combining some people with experiences that we’ve had ourselves to just try to make them as real as possible.
It’s actually the first time you’ve officially had a writing partner. With the film’s shifting points of view, was that a necessity?
I think it was. I don’t think either of us would’ve made this script if it wasn’t for the other one being involved and there were certain characters that came a little bit more from Lena and others that came more from me. It was the combination that made the whole movie come together. It’s like you can’t have pizza if you don’t have…I mean, you can these days, but to make a classic pizza, you need some mozzarella and tomato sauce. And I brought one and she brought the other.
Did Lena help balance out some of the film’s heavier moments? It seems comedy was a little incidental in your other films, but there are some distinctly humorous moments here with some ripe setups.
I completely credit Lena with bringing more of the comedic tone and edge. That was something that I was thrilled to embrace and wanted to do, but didn’t necessarily have the ear for it in the way that she does. I think it was also very needed, especially in a story like this.
Did your thoughts about the film change when you’re working with people that the audience has more of a relationship with?
Yes and no. The biggest difference was working with actors that were just extremely knowledgeable and masters of their craft that really know how to get on set and do their thing. So in a way, it made my job easier. There’s less nuanced coaching needed. Sometimes when you’re working with non-actors, they’ll be freaked out about the camera or something will be bothering them and [here], you’re just like wow, you just go in and rock and roll.
Back when we spoke about “You Wont Miss Me,” you said you armed all the actors with “a backpack full of information” before letting them go. Was there a similar process here?
Sort of, but because there was such a strong script, which again, I mainly credit Lena with, I think the reason why a lot the actors wanted to come onto the project is because they responded to the script. They felt like there was a lot of depth to the characters on the page. I always do these character biographies for myself in order to write them and really know who they are and know the answers to questions should they come up, but in the case of this movie, so much of it was on the page that the actors didn’t need as much help in that sense or could do that on their own.
Part of what I liked about the film was how the characters were really able to demonstrate their personalities through their work whether it was Julie’s calm demeanor as a therapist or how you could really see Martine and Kolt trying to find their voice in their art. In the case of the latter two, did you go through the process of actually creating either Martine’s film or Kolt’s poetry to discover who they were as characters before writing the script or did it come later?
We figured out Martine as a character and the first thing that we decided was that her work was going to be bugs. We actually tried changing it once, like having her art be something else and gave that a shot, but then we ended up going back to bugs because it felt so right. In terms of the making of the bug film, I had a lot of visual references from other films and how I wanted it to look and what we were going for and what the narrative was and the metanarrative and what kind of the meaning was, so not only would Olivia could really understand what she was playing and what the work was, but so then when we actually shot it two weeks before filming, it was really clear. When we wrote Kolt, she just kind of came with the poems. I think there’s definitely a poet inside Lena, so she really enjoyed being able to exercise that.
Was it interesting for you to tell a story that revolved around a family where the parents were present? In your previous two films, you felt ripples of their influence, but they were never actually onscreen, so it seemed like it might bring a new dynamic to how you structured this.
Yeah, I’ve wanted to more overtly work with family dynamics for a long time. The movie that writing [now] has a lot of family dynamics and parents, [who] are like the lead part, so that’s something I’m really interested in. I was a little afraid of it actually, starting out. They weren’t as present and now, I’m just fascinated by that relationship. My parents are some of the most important people in my life growing up and to this day and I feel like we learn who we are and we become who we are based on seeing our parents and their experience, being absent or being present or what they tell us, so it’s such an important relationship. For someone who’s interested in those dynamics, it’s a goldmine for me.
It shows. There’s one scene in particular in “Nobody Walks” that may be my favorite in the film where Julie outlines this very unromantic, pragmatic view of marriage to Kolt where you can see the influence she has over her daughter, but that there’s still some uncertainty in her voice.
I think that [scene] also speaks to the whole idea that there’s three generations of women in this movie going through different forms of kind of navigating sexual territory. One of the things I love about that scene is that Julie is almost talking about herself the whole time and we’re very aware of her own current struggle at that moment – of her distance from her husband and thinking about her ex-husband and all of those emotions, but then they do apply in that moment so aptly to what Kolt is going through and the decisions that Kolt will then make about her own relationship with Avi. That’s one of my favorite scenes too because in a sense, it’s so innocent between the two — the mother and the daughter — and it’s so private and at the same time, it’s also so separate because they’re worlds away from each other.
Since your films often feel so complete in spite of leaving room for interpretation, it came as a surprise to hear you’re actually developing something for television as well. Has that been an interesting experience?
I’m also writing a new movie, but I think there’s just a lot of opportunities in TV to actually be really risky in terms of the character depth and in terms of the subject matter. The stories go on and you can continue to evolve the characters and take them to places you wouldn’t necessarily have time for in an hour-and-a-half movie. So that’s really exciting to me, to just get deeper.
“Nobody Walks” is now available on video-on-demand and opens theatrically in New York at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema and in Los Angeles at the Sundance Cinema Sunset 5 on October 19th before expanding on October 26th. A full list of the theaters can be found here.