I first met Ry Russo-Young when she accompanied Orphans, her debut feature film, to the 2007 Sarasota Film Festival. While I really admired the film, I am even more proud to have made her a friend. I have spent some time with Ry over the past year, seeing movies at Film Forum here and there, having dinner now and again. She is one of my favorite people, someone with whom I can talk about movies and ideas; her limitless curiosity is coupled with a completely unpretentious, generous desire to connect. A few hours before today’s DVD release of Orphans (from the good folks at Carnivalesque Films) , I sat down with Ry to discuss the movie and talk about what’s on the horizon. After a few minutes of catching up, we got down to business.
BRM: From the beginning, sitting down to write your first feature, where did this story come from, and how did you find these characters?
Ry: I have always believed in “write what you know.” I had a sister and I had just gone through a lot of hell with her in terms of her being, in a way, mentally ill. I think I write from fear, and I try to take that to a whole other level when I write fiction. So, I took what was going on in real life with my sister and made it into a dramatic situation.
BRM: And the fear is losing your parents and having to care for her, or…?
Ry: The fear was having to take care of someone who is not capable of taking care of herself for the rest of my life and the loss of a sibling. What I was thinking of at a time was how we grow with a sibling and loving them, and you get to a certain age and you become estranged from them—you both grow up, you go off to college, you’re not just kids anymore. And then you re-meet one another in the space of adulthood, and it’s like “Who the fuck are you? Did we have this shared history?” My sister and I did; we could quote the same movies, we come from the same place and we know each other so well but at the same time we have very little in common now. We are very estranged, the way Rosie and Sonia are. So I embittered that situation in order to write the film.
BRM: How did that work for you then, creating that anxiety? How did you design this fear into a movie?
Ry: A lot of that was in the writing. I know a lot more about the movie now than I did writing it, and I feel like that’s part of the learning process, but also when you’re making something you have to figure out what you want to articulate and how to articulate it. It’s the push-pull of “what am I saying and is it being said clearly?” But when I designed the story, it was in terms of their relationship and the dialogue. After that, it was working with the actresses, translating this relationship to film and having it all fall apart. In the three-month rehearsal process, we really built this collaborative history, and they took each other to locations in New York; This is where I had coffee in sixth grade and did my math homework, things like that. We created a hybrid childhood between the two actresses and my childhood; toys, music, locations, food, clothes, tastes, everything. They brought all those things so that it could then fall apart on-screen.
BRM: So what do you know now that you didn’t know then?
Ry: A lot. I feel like I understand the movie a lot more and the process of making it. I still struggle with this, but working on a film, it has to have a deep resonance for you. You’re spending years of your life talking about it, living with it. I didn’t realize at the time what I was in for, but for me, the translation process is the most important process. By that I mean, what do I care about, what is the heart and soul of this idea and then translating it in a way that is both clear and ambiguous. If you can do that well, the other stuff can fall into place.
BRM: Looking back, how do you think you did?
Ry: I think I did okay, for being 23 and trying to do it, but there are things I would do differently and it’s not a perfect film to be honest. I think it has problems… am I supposed to say that? (laughs) I think it’s a good movie, I do. What you’re trying to make at the time, and what you learn from what you’ve made, I think it satisfies a hunger. When I first set out to make it, I had this hunger to make this certain kind of film and I think it’s exactly the kind of film I wanted to make. But the point is that I made the film, and now it’s done and I want to make something else. And whatever problems I ran into on Orphans, I want to solve them in my new film by making a different type of movie, using a different cinematic language than I used before.
Ry Russo-Young Directs
BRM: Let’s talk about specifics here. One of the things that stands out about the film are your locations and exteriors, that bleak, isolated winter in a big old house. Can you talk about how those elements came into the film? Was it written that way or did you discover the location first…
Ry: I found the house first. I think I’m really inspired by locations; I can see a location and create a scene for it, as opposed to writing a scene and then deciding where the hell we’re going to put it. I was working on the screenplay already, but then I saw the house. I took a bunch of pictures of it, and it had this very magical quality to it. But it was summer, and I was working on the story knowing that it had to be in a bleak environment, so I brought the two together and knew the house would work in winter. I don’t think I realized it would be that snowy; we got snowed in for four days, cars stuck in the driveway, completely stuck. And it was suddenly like “Oohhh, this is survival!”
BRM: As the film begins, I had a hard time connecting with these characters; each one of these women is somewhat unlikable in her own way. And then, there is that terrific set-piece in the film where the girls put on dresses and dance to Sam The Sham and The Pharaohs’ Lil’ Red Riding Hood, and suddenly, I see them in a whole new light and they are humanized for me. Can you talk about how you found that song and created that moment?
Ry: My sister and I used to do scenes from movies. Like Meet Me In St. Louis; we’d do routines to the Cake Walk, all kinds of cinematic references, acting out The Parent Trap, stuff like that. It was kind of coming from that.
Meet Me In St. Louis: The Cake Walk (Note: Skip to the 4:30 mark to view this scene)
Ry (con’t): One of the things we discovered in the rehearsal process was that Lil’ Red Riding Hood was one of the songs both actresses shared in their history. They made mix tapes for one another, these songs from their childhood, and we combined them into one mix, one shared history. Lily (Wheelwright, who plays Rosie in the film) put this song on her mix, and it was one we all liked and all thought was appropriate. Then we worked with a choreographer, a woman who taught dance at my High School. We all got into a room and just danced like mad for 20 minutes, and she would stop us and keep certain moves, drop others, etc. I feel like that is one of the most fun moments in the whole film, a reversion to their youth as sisters.
BRM: The other thing you mentioned earlier were the toys, the use of the Fisher-Price dollhouse in the film; where did you find that?
Ry: It’s funny because I feel like everything is so personal with this movie, more than I am comfortable even saying… When I was a kid that was my dollhouse. I had that thing set up in my childhood home and no one was allowed to touch it or play with it. My parents helped me re-assemble it for the movie; we all spent hours and hours putting it back together. It was in garbage bags in their basement and it took forever to reassemble and then we threw it in the car and drove it up to that house. I think for me it was also about being able to destroy something that you love; as much as you love something, sometimes you have to kill it. As much as she loves her sister, she knows she has to end it. Family is the one thing you can never break, but Rosie has to and does. We had to do that final scene in one take because there was no way to re-build that house.
BRM: Tell me about the life of the movie after the festival circuit and now moving to DVD… I feel like this film has been underseen…
Ry: Me too. I think maybe it’s a bleak movie…
BRM: Not everything has to be a comedy…
Ry: I completely agree. I think a lot of people didn’t know what to do with it, but I feel like it’s their problem. I think the film has been overlooked mainly because it covers an intensely sad female relationship and emotion; it was made by a woman and that many writers don’t connect to the film for these reasons. So many film writers are male and find that the film doesn’t resonate for them. That’s what is so nice about this DVD release; Anyone can Netflix it, anyone can find it online. People have always been asking me when and how they can see the movie and now you can find it anywhere in the world. So, it’s great to have it out there. Now anyone can see it. I think the DIY filmmaker experience is difficult; the relentless promotion of the film that you have to do to see the movie through. I’d much rather be making stuff. With this DVD, now it’s out there.
BRM: Tell me about your next movie… it’s nearing completion…?
Ry: It’s in post-production, we’re finishing the sound mix now, looking for funding to get it completed. It’s called You Won’t Miss Me, and I co-wrote it with Stella Schnabel, who also stars in it. She plays a character named Shelly Brown who is an urban misfit, a contemporary rebel who has just been released from a mental institution. It’s more about trying to create a life for yourself, and it’s funny in a dark way, structured like a documentary. We shot on multiple formats (HD, Super 16mm, DV) because the narrative has that documentary feeling, like you’d find in something like Don’t Look Back. It’s a portrait of a character who is really volatile and fascinating to watch.
BRM: What fear inspired this story?
Ry: Lack of connection. Lonliness. It’s about trying to find someone that means something in the world.
BRM: Is it a love story?
Ry: Yes…. In a way… I probably shouldn’t say too much… (laughs)