One-on-One Q&A: Ry Russo-Young, Writer/Director, "You Wont Miss Me"
Writer-Director, You Wont Miss Me
Interview by Erin Scherer
Ry Russo-Young's latest film, You Wont Miss Me, premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. The film stars Stella Schnabel, who collaborated with Russo-Young on the story. You Wont Miss Me follows Shelly Brown, a 23 year old recently released from a mental institution. The film was shot using a variety of mediums, including 16mm, Super 8, Mini DV, and High Definition, in order to, to quote Russo-Young, "speak to our entire visual existence today".
Russo-Young's previous feature, Orphans, won a Special Jury Award in the Narrative Feature Competition at the 2007 South By Southwest Film Festival. Orphans is now available on DVD alongside Russo-Young's 2005 short, Marion on Carnivalesque Films. You Wont Miss Me will also be playing at this year's SXSW, with its first screening Friday, March 13th at 9:30pm the Alamo Lamar Theater, Theater 2.
The following interview took place as a phone conversation on the morning of February 23, 2009, the day after the Oscars. Erin's method of recording the conversation was pretty dubious, holding a shotgun mic to a speakerphone, but she did the best she could.
Erin: Having done a lot of searches of you on Google, it sounds like you have been involved with the arts from a pretty early age. What were your first forays into the arts? Did you take dance lessons? Theater? Describe some of your earliest artistic endeavors.
Ry: When I was a little kid, I was really into imaginary things, playing pretend with outfits and kind of imagining an alternate world. So when I got into acting when I was an early teenager, like 12 or 13, it was very similar to the imaginary things--only now there was a word for it, it was called acting. Then I got into photography when I was in high school. I've always been interested in the arts, it just felt natural to me.
When I got into photography, I was shooting photographs of narratives, and when I discovered film, it made a lot of sense. All of my loves kind of came together.
Erin: Looking at your website, I noticed you made your first movie in 16mm before you were even out of high school. How did that come about? Was it sort of an independent study, a senior thesis, or was it just something you did on your own in the off hours?
Ry: Actually, my high school had a filmmaking course, where you could shoot on 16mm, and so I did that in my high school filmmaking class. I don't know if they still have it, but it was part of a class I took in school.
Erin: On top of making movies, you've done mixed media and performance art as well. Can you explain some of the projects you've done, and what they are about?
Ry: I have this project called "Peep Show" that's a series of short films shot on Super 8. Each one is a collaboration with a specific idea. Each person does some kind of sexual show. They design the show with me, and then they perform it. Then it will be installed in a gallery as a bunch of tiny holes in the wall that you look through, and you see all these little shows that are sort of like the older peep shows. It's like a projection of people's sexual fantasies through the lens of a camera.
That's one project I've done. Another project is called "The Middle Ground", where I align my family history with "Little Red Riding Hood", and I try to combine them. It was a show that had a lot of video on it, and audience participation, and it was about growing up, leaving your family, falling in love, understanding relationship dynamics, and how fairy tales inform how you see romantic relationships.
Erin: In Marion, you re-enact Psycho on three seperate screens. How did that idea come about, and why did you decide to re-enact Psycho?
Ry: I was watching Psycho at the time, and was really into it, and I've always been really into Hitchcock. I just kind of got the idea while watching it. I was studying it the way a student of film would study it, look at how people are doing things, and I was doing that with Psycho. I was especially fascinated with the lead character, the way she was sort of a female archetype, and the way [Hitchcock] has characters killed so early on in the film, and the controversy surrounding that. I was watching Psycho and just got the idea.
Erin: You wrote Orphans in the year after you graduated from college. Did you think that you would likely be shooting it yourself?
Ry: Yeah. When I wrote it, I wrote it to be made. I definitely though I was going to be the one to...well, not necessarily shoot it myself, be behind the camera (I had a DP), but I knew that I was going to make it for no money, and probably shoot it within the same year. It was written to be made.
Erin: But it took a little while longer to shoot it.
Ry:There wasn't that much of a gap between writing and shooting.
Erin: How did you decide to shoot it in Jeffersonville? Did you go location scouting, was it a house you kind of knew about, or did you happen about it one day?
Ry: What happened was that I was working at a vintage clothing store at the time. I'd gone up to the boss' house--the boss had a house up in Jeffersonville and I had gone to her house for the weekend. It was kind of a magical house in the summer. We had a pool, we were swimming, and and we just had an amazing time up there. I found the house really, really inspiring. There was something about the location, and at the same time, that's when I was writing Orphans. I think I subconciously, without even realizing it, started imagning it being set in that house the whole time while writing it. After I finished it, I sort of realized: that is the house. And so then I went up and scouted the house and the location, as well as a few other houses, and ended up shooting in that house.
Erin: One of the stars of Orphans, Lily Wheelwright, died just days after the movie's premiere at South By Southwest in 2007. What was your relationship with her prior to Orphans? I know you attended the same school together. Were you close friends, or mutual acquaintances?
Ry: In high school, she was someone I knew. She was friends with people I was sort of friends with. We were different ages. I knew a lot of people that knew her.
The around the time I was making Orphans, I actually asked my high school drama teacher to name the ten best actresses that came out of my high school that were within the age range of what I was looking for, and she named Lily's younger sister, Josephine. So I auditioned Josephine, and I thought that she was too funny, and the character kind of has a more innate sadness about her. She said to me, "Well, my sister's acting these days. You should audition her." And I auditioned Lily, and I thought that Lily was perfect for the part. She had the quality that I was looking for.
Erin: How did you come to cast James Katharine Flynn? I know you worked with her in Marion. Did you write the role of Sonia with her in mind?
Ry:After writing Orphans and making Marion, I knew I wanted to work with James Katharine Flynn, particularly because she was so good in Marion. I didn't write the part for her, though.
Stella Schnabel in You Wont Miss Me
Erin: The casting of someone with a legacy might usually be to attract funding for a film, but you and Stella basically grew up together.
Ry: Lola [Schnabel, Stella's sister] was my childhood best friend, and Stella was her younger sister...another weird younger sister. Shortly after Orphans, Stella told me she was acting. I'd never worked with Stella before. I knew her, but she was a different age than me, so she wasn't like my childhood best friend. I thought she would be interesting on camera. I just felt, "Let me run a test and see what I can do with her." We got together, and made a character of Shelly Brown. I interviewed the character for about five hours on video, with my cinematographer shooting. What happened was that I went home with the footage, edited the interview down, and started writing the script, the story, based on the original interview.
Erin: I haven't seen the movie yet, but Karina Longworth, in her review, had this to say about the movie:
Writer/director Russo-Young and co-writer/star Stella Schnabel remind us how rare it is to see a film about the inner life of a beautiful, troubled young lady without the objectifying filter of the male gaze, without the beauty and the trouble fusing into a fantasy cipher of a postmodern damsel in distress.
A trend in recent, more mainstream independent films have had this character that's almost become a stock character: this sort of adorable, quirky girl that captures the heart of the male protagonist. Natalie Portman's character in Garden State is the most notorious example I could think of. Did you have that type of character in the back of your head when you were putting this together?
Ry:Once you'll see it, you'll definitely understand that this character is far from those quirky kind of indie-type girls. In some ways, it's actually an antidote to that character.
Erin: That's what I meant, actually.
Erin: Why did you choose to shoot this on multiple formats?
Ry: I chose multiple formats because I felt that it would be the best way to capture this character, and the way you're looking at this character from all these different angles, and all these different situations. It gives a more generous portrait, who she really is and what she's about. I wanted to show the diversity in different ways of looking, and the formats are part of that. One minute, she's being the sweetest person in the world, and the next, when she's being cruel to someone. It's about the way you see those things, and how the emotional temperature of the scene is carried through the actual texture of the medium it's shot on. Does that make sense?
Erin: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense--
Ry: It also changes your way of looking. Like if you're looking through a magnifying glass, looking at something straight, and if you're looking at it over the hill, it changes the way you're seeing things.
Ry Russo-Young (left) with Greta Gerwig in Hannah Takes the Stairs
Erin: How did you get cast in Hannah Takes The Stairs?
Ry: I met Joe on the festival circuit, at the Chicago International Film Festival when I was there with my short, Marion. Basically, we kept in touch, and then he asked me if I wanted to do it.
Erin: What was it like working with Joe?
Ry: It was good! It was a lot of fun!
Erin: What filmmakers have inspired you in the past? You mentioned Hitchcock a little bit earlier.
Ry: That's a really hard question to answer, because it really depends what I'm working on at the moment. It all sort of depends on what I'm interested in making, and what I'm watching. For example, when I was making Orphans, I was watching a lot of Bergman. Bergman definitely inspired me. And I guess for You Wont Miss Me, I was watching more--actually, you know, I don't know what exactly inspired me. I think it was more documentaries in general, a general cultural moment in the time we are living in, with everything like the implication of YouTube and reality television to the banal.
Erin: Are you working on anything else right now?
Ry: Yeah, I'm in the early stages of a new movie.
Erin: Are you willing to share some details, or would you rather wait until later?
Ry: I'd rather wait until it's more developed.