When speaking to Ry Russo-Young, the adjective “abstract” will come up a lot in conversation in terms of the style of her films. But that shouldn’t be confused with the substance, which is so emotionally precise. Where many filmmakers have depicted the fear and uncertainty of twentysomethings with quirk and gorgeously lit indifference, Russo-Young portrays it in a grainy haze in her latest film “You Wont Miss Me,” the result of her practical use of a variety of formats, ranging from Flip cams to Super 8s, and the world-weary skepticism of her main character Shelly Brown (Stella Schnabel) that rarely allows for clarity.
As refreshingly tough-minded a character study as Brown is a character, the film was born out of Russo-Young’s desire to do something with Schnabel, a friend since elementary school, and developed from a three-hour interview where Schnabel first portrayed the wild, eternally frustrated Shelly into a loose-knit chronicle of the character’s exit from a hospital’s psychiatric ward that thrusts her into the playground of New York City where acting auditions, concerts and random hookups prove to be just part of a series of opportunities for rebellion. (Alison Willmore’s review of the film is here.) Recently, I got a chance to talk to Russo-Young about her unique cinematic style, blurring the line between reality and fiction and her next film, a collaboration with “Tiny Furniture” writer/director Lena Dunham.
This might not be dissimilar to your experience on your first film “Orphans,” but Stella Schnabel is credited as a co-writer on this film, so did having your lead as a collaborator on the script change your creative process?
I think when I was making “Orphans,” it was very preordained and very controlled in terms of the on-set environment and the relationship with the actors. It was almost like playing dress-up with dolls. It more reminded me of when I was a kid and I used to play imaginary games with my sister and be like okay, so you’re this princess and I’m this princess and we’re in this world and we’re running away from our orphanage. It was almost like putting people in straitjackets and I was just much more interested in what Stella had to bring to the project as an individual with ideas and with her own history. [For me] I think it was just a growing up thing, literally, and learning about the process of collaborating was really interesting to me. She was part of that. It’s not that the actresses weren’t interesting in “Orphans.” I think it was just I wanted to leave it a little more open and be a little bit more free.
As someone who has trained as an actress, does that affect what you do as a director?
I think certainly in the case of “You Wont Miss Me” and that whole me coming from that acting background is that if everybody had a really solid basis for where they were coming from, why they were in that scene and what the reality of that scene was, then you could be more free on set to improvise but it was steeped in character. Because that’s how I felt when I was an actor. I always felt like I needed to know what I was standing on.
I needed to know the origin of the carpet and why I was in the scene and who I was and what I was about. Then it was almost like the lines would play themselves out because there was a firm understanding of who I am. So what I tried to do for “You Wont Miss Me” is really prepare each person with like a backpack of who they are and what they’re about, why they’re there and why they’re in that situation and what the context is and then allow them freedom once in the scene within those confines.
One of the things I particularly loved about the film was all the different cameras you used. How did you decide that as a style for the film and did that make that filming more difficult or easier in some ways?
I think a little bit of both. After I did the interview with Stella, it was like okay, so what is this movie and how is this going to take a form – basically, who is this character? And the character was someone really outside of society and has such an emotional kind of range, an insane emotional temperature that’s oscillating constantly and is sort of always on the brink of self-destruction. So the best way to actually capture that, to feel that on an emotional level was to have these different textures and that is the different formats. Each format kind of is an expression of an emotional state.
Another texture you bring in is how you overlaid the dialogue over scenes of the experience. How did that become part of the film’s style?
I love experimental films, everything from Stan Brakhage to Maya Deren to Jonas Mekas and that whole tradition and part of what I love about movies is the more tonal, abstract moments. That’s something that feels like you can do in film, so you need to film. You can have these musings and these impressionistic ideas – images that relate to concepts and the images can be very abstract and the way the way the aural consciousness connects to the visual can be really loose, but because you’re seeing those two things together, your mind automatically makes the connection. Have you ever seen that movie “Kurt Cobain: About a Son”?
Yeah, it’s a great film.
I think it’s kind of incredible and it’s all about how you hear this and you’re seeing these things that visually very loosely relate. At first when I started watching it, my mind was kind of freaking out. It was like [in mock bewilderment], “I don’t understand. I’m not seeing exactly what I’m hearing.” Now, the more it goes on, you’re starting to understand that departure’s okay. It’s like this nether zone of cinema that’s really exciting.
So that’s something I think with the more abstract things that [Shelly is] talking about and then seeing these images of her, they become these almost like subconscious dreams that she can access, or as an audience member, you access. Then it becomes about the kind of dichotomy between how we validate ourselves to ourselves and then the way we are in the rest of the world and usually the juxtaposition between those two things, how violent it can be sometimes.
There’s a great line in the film where a director (Aaron Katz) tells Shelly, “The distinction between reality and fiction may be hard for you.” Is that a theme you wanted to explore when you have many personal connections to the cast and to the city yourself?
It’s a heavy question and it operates on a lot of different levels. For me, a big part of that is the character couldn’t tell the difference between fiction and reality in a way. I’ve always been fascinated by documentaries and our societal obsession to understand what is real and what is not and it seems so irrelevant to me. I was interested in blurring those lines. The movies I’ve been attracted to in the past deal with that territory like “F is for Fake” or “Close-Up.” Those are films that really ask you to question of what’s authentic and what’s not and the origins of all those things, of even those questions themselves.
I’ve read you’re already starting work on a film called “Nobody Walks.” Is that next?
Yeah, I co-wrote it with Lena Dunham and I think I’m going to direct it in March or April. It takes place in Los Angeles and it’s about a 23-year-old artist who’s a photographer making her first film about bugs, and she goes to Los Angeles and stays in the pool house of the sound designer. His family lives in the house, the wife and two kids, and it’s about her artistic process working with the father and sound designer on this film, but then also about how her presence affects everyone in the house. It’s going to be fun to shoot in Los Angeles, just visually for me because I’m so inspired by cities and locations.
How much does place inform the rest of a film for you?
It depends on the movie, but place and location is definitely a huge part of it. I think it’s characters, place and theme. Those are the three things that I can sink my teeth into first when I know absolutely nothing. Maybe everyone works like that, but it’s when conceiving of what you’re going to make a movie about, it’s such a desert. It’s like I can do anything and it can get really overwhelming. Well, what do I want to see? Do I want to see palm trees or do I want to see buildings? What kind of buildings are they? And just like that, you can start to anchor yourself back yourself into an idea.
“You Wont Miss Me” opens in New York on December 10th.