For her third feature film “Nobody Walks” (opening October 19), thirty year-old writer/director Ry Russo-Young reached an enviable amount of career milestones. It was her first time working with a relatively mainstream cast (John Krasinski, Olivia Thirlby, Dylan McDermott and Justin Kirk, among others). It was her first screenwriting collaboration with Lena Dunham, creator of the hit HBO series “Girls,” who happens to be a fellow Oberlin College alumnus. And it documents John Krasinski’s first on-screen sex scene.
Like many small-scale independent films of its kind—most chiefly mumblecore films like “Funny Ha Ha” and “Hannah Takes the Stairs,” the latter of which Russo-Young appeared in—“Nobody Walks” is about generally decent characters making impulsive mistakes, and it is up to the audience to determine how blameworthy or misjudged they are. The setting is deliberately insular, with most of the action unfolding in the back rooms of a Southern Californian mansion. Structurally and visually, though, “Nobody Walks” is a more polished and placid film than Russo-Young’s “You Won’t Miss Me” and “Orphans,” which employed jarring, blurry camerawork to penetrate the mindset of one or two jittery, maladjusted characters. In “Nobody Walks,” the characters are certainly uneasy; the recurring theme is how indecisive they are about setting sexual boundaries, between patient and shrink, tutor and student, sound editor and budding filmmaker. But there’s an element of optimism which was missing from Russo-Young’s previous films.
Screen Comment talked with Russo-Young at her publicist’s office about her collaboration with Dunham, her distaste for villainizing characters and her most up-to-date viewpoints on same-sex parenting (she herself was raised by two mothers).
Screen Comment: How was the adjustment to directing your first big-name cast?
Ry Russo-Young: I thought, “Wow, how did I get here? This is really lucky that I get to work with such smart, incredible, talented people.” And in some way, it becomes a much more hands-off experience. I’m there to guide or tweak, but they know what they’re doing, so there’s some level of just sitting back and watching the actors work their magic.
“Orphans” and “You Won’t Miss Me” involved collaborating with the cast on character development, but this was the first official script collaboration. What was working with Lena like?
Lena’s such a brilliant writer in terms of nailing who people are, just the truisms of human beings and their humor. The truth kind of hurts, sometimes, when she writes. It’s funny and it hurts.
The tone is different from her earlier work, less wisecracking.
Definitely. The tone skews more towards what I want to do, a little bit darker, very intense visually, less dialogue.
Was there a part of the story that she wrote more of and vice versa?
The whole thing was pretty split. I think probably on the page it was more Lena, and then the actual movie was more me, in terms of the directing and editing and casting.
Was there tension as far as cutting material?
Not really. Everyone was on the same page about what needed to be cut. When something works, people say, “Keep it in, don’t screw with it.”
I know that you’ve said that the characters in the film make bad mistakes but are sympathetic anyway, but did some audiences on the festival circuit find it hard to sympathize with them?
I’m sure. I think a lot of people probably judge Martine [Olivia Thirlby’s character] the most, and felt [she was a] slut.
Although that’s hard to say, because she makes the first move on John Krasinki’s character, but you could say he really steps over the line in the bathroom scene, with the sound equipment.
Yeah, where he’s shoving the microphone down her throat? That’s sort of the point, that all the parties are responsible in some way. We didn’t want there to be villains.
I assume the title means that nobody can walk away from responsibility and they have to sit with what they’ve done.
That’s part of it. It’s also that nobody walks in LA. There’s lots of ways it could apply to the movie.
Do you think people are supposed to relate to John Krasinski’s character’s longing to stray? Rosemarie DeWitt clearly plays a supportive wife, but she has the ex-husband that still figures heavily in her and her daughter’s life, and he’s a bit condescending.
I think Krasinski’s character is emasculated, by the fact that he’s joined this family and he’s living in a house he didn’t pay for, and the ex-husband still comes over and his wife is still very flirtatious with him. The ex gets to be the good dad, but he’s not the one picking up the kids at school. He’s the kind of dad who flies in for two days and everyone loves him, he brings presents and tells cool stories. I think Dylan McDermott just killed it. He’s so amazing, so funny. A lot of that was actually improvised, when he talks about opening for Wilco.
How did you get the idea to make Krasinski’s character a sound editor?
When I was working on “You Won’t Miss Me,” I had to ADR [additional dialogue recording] a scene from scratch, and that experience made me conscious of what you can do with sound, how you can create it from the ground up. I wanted to show how, through this artistic process, he and Martine bond in some way.
Did you come up with the idea for the story because of your sound work experience?
That’s how I came up with the idea for the sound stuff. The story came from Lena and I discussing what it was like to be a young female artist, and how creative relationships could get really hairy. The boundaries are much easier to cross, especially when you’re getting free favors. I think we’ve all had that thing of being 23 and needing favors from people, and you hate to ask and it’s really uncomfortable. And how as a young woman, sexual dynamics sometimes come into play, and that’s how you think you can give back. That’s how you return affection.
Even when you know it’s going to turn ugly?
But you don’t necessarily know that. You just think that you’re complying, that you’re making that person happy. And then it blows up in your face.
I was really impressed that the movie doesn’t judge Krasinski’s character as harshly as you might expect, and I’m happy that movies are starting to be less moralistic.
That’s how I feel. I feel like in so many movies, it’s so often this polarizing right and wrong. The end of the movie is always [supposed] to make us feel good about ourselves, and order is restored. And I think in this movie, for me everything is going to be OK, but it doesn’t wrap it up in an artificial way. This family went through some crazy shit and now they’ll begin to heal. They’ll get over it, in a human, slow, evolving way. They’ll talk about it.
Visually, this movie has a lot less of the blurry, jittery, jarring close-ups from “You Won’t Miss Me” and “Orphans.” What made you decide to change the camera approach?
Well, part of it is budget. I made those two films for no money whatsoever. I funded “You Won’t Miss Me” with grants, from New York State Council of the Arts. I shot part of it myself. For “Nobody Walks” the story demanded a certain look and a certain authority to the filmmaking. The story in “You Won’t Miss Me” was about a jittery character.
What’s in the works right now?
I’m writing a new movie and I have a pilot on cable. It’s collaborative, it’s a co-writing situation, but not with Lena.
I read the 2004 New York Times Magazine profile of you and your family. Do you think psychological studies and perceptions about gay parent upbringing have become more accurate in the past eight years?
I definitely think so—I don’t know about the studies. But I do feel that when I was younger, even before that article, when I was a teenager, it was like, “Oh, you have two moms, what was that like?” Just this total foreignness to it. And now I think a lot of people are like, “Oh, that’s really awesome. My neighbors have a six year-old,” or whatever. So there’s a real familiarity. As a kid, I felt like the only one with gay parents and now I don’t feel that way. It’s cool to see society change.
Do you think pop culture has captured the change accurately? What did you think of “The Kids Are All Right,” for instance?
I think that’s a romantic comedy, and yet it’s starring a gay family, which is great. My whole family went and saw that on opening night, and we laughed, and we all enjoyed it, because they were just a really loving family. My family related to that, because we’re very close. I think a lot of the time, gay families, almost in reaction to society, end up being super normal. Like, my family had dinner every night, more than a lot of kids whose parents are divorced. It was very conventional even though I have two moms.
And I imagine there’s a lot more open dialogue?
There’s a lot more open dialogue about sex. From the time I was born, I had to describe how I was conceived. And I did, and that’s part of my story, and that’s what you end up talking about half the time. And I think that creates a certain level of openness, which is part of the reason I’m interested in issues of family and sexuality. I have an outsider perspective on it. I thought I was gay growing up, and then realized I was straight. Most people, when you grow up in a straight household, you assume that you’re straight. But growing up in a gay household, I assumed I was gay, and you’re just more open to whatever you’re gonna be.
Are you exploring any of these autobiographical subjects in your current or future projects?
I think I will at some point but that’s not my next project.
You mentioned in an earlier interview that you idolized Shelley Duvall. Besides her, which actors would you most want to work with?
[pointing to poster in room] I really want to work with Vincent Cassel. And Christoph Waltz. Knock on wood.