BAMcinemaFest is now in full swing and Brooklyn cinephiles are getting a chance to sample some of the films they might have missed at Sundance, Cannes and SXSW. Though the festival is already halfway over, there are still plenty of interesting films coming up, including So Yong Kim’s “For Ellen,” Josh Radnor’s “Liberal Arts” and Craig Zobel’s “Compliance” among others. Check out the full line-up here. One of the highlights of the fest so far has been Ry Russo-Young’s “Nobody Walks.” The dramedy centers on young artist Martine (Olivia Thirlby) who comes to stay in the pool house of a Los Angeles family while she completes her short film. The family includes sound designer Peter (John Krasinski), his wife Julie (Rosemarie DeWitt), a therapist, and teenage daughter Kolt (India Ennenga) who are all affected in one way or another by their new houseguest.
Featuring strong performances across the board from the entire cast, a sharp script by Russo-Young and Lena Dunham (“Girls”) and unexpectedly mature views on relationships and sexuality, it’s bound to be a conversation starter when it’s released this fall. We called it “one of the best” from Sundance this year and after taking a look at the film a second time at BAM over the weekend, we stand behind that sentiment. We interviewed director Russo-Young last week where she told us about working with co-writer Dunham on the screenplay as well as creating a cast of characters with whom the audience’s sympathies are constantly shifting. After the screening — where we spotted director Deborah Granik (“Winter’s Bone”) and comedian Michael Showalter (“Stella”) in attendance — there was a lively Q&A featuring co-writers Ry Russo-Young and Lena Dunham along with cast members Olivia Thirlby and India Ennenga. The quartet of ladies were on hand to discuss trying (and failing) to make a non-female-centric film, casting John Krasinski in the Jon Lovitz role and how sound can create accidental intimacy.
1. The screenplay was developed out of a shared admiration between Russo-Young and Dunham as well as a fascination with Los Angeles which had always felt a bit foreign to the two native New Yorkers.
Describing the origins of the film, Russo-Young said it began with a mutual fascination of Los Angeles. “Lena and I kind of came together always knowing that, you know, we were gonna write something together that I was gonna then direct. I think we kinda went back and forth in terms of characters, I created one character, she created another character, and then we started working those characters together and finding ways in which they could kind of connect, and bouncing them off each other. I think it also came from a fascination of Los Angeles, and that was a place that people visited and been to, but were also really interested in and intrigued by.”
Dunham said for a long time she had been “big fan of Ry's from afar” and was excited at the opportunity to collaborate with her on the screenplay. “I was always like four years behind her so, sort of like, enamoured of her in the way that, like, pre-teens are of teens, and I loved her first two features so much, so I was just really excited by the idea of getting to be involved in any way with her process, I think.” Because Dunham knew that Russo-Young would be directing it, she didn’t feel the same pressure as with her own projects. “We knew the entire time that [Ry would] be directing the movie, so I always compared it with you know you're pregnant with a kid, but you know you're gonna give it up so you don't name it and you don't get that attached to it – like, in the best way.”
Russo-Young was equally effusive with praise for her co-writer, saying she felt lucky to get “the opportunity to work with Lena early on.” She continued, “And the writing that I've learnt from her in terms of her ear for dialogue and incredible astute nature in terms of characters, is something that I feel like she completely brought to this movie and made it come alive.” This helped alleviate her fears about working with a larger budget and higher profile cast than her previous features saying, “We were all working on such a great blueprint, I think that's one of the things that helped kind of cast the movie and get the whole movie in gear.”
Dunham recalled that the genesis of the script had also come out of both filmmakers desire to do something different. “I think it's also really funny, we first had this idea cause we'd both written I think one feature at that point, Ry made two when we started they'd been super female-centric,” she said referring to “Tiny Furniture” in which Dunham herself starred as the lead and Russo-Young’s two features “You Won’t Miss Me” and “Orphans,” which both featured a female lead. “There was this idea we were gonna make a movie with a male protagonist, which clearly didn't work out. But it was, like, this funny thing was like we were sort of running away in some way, over and over again from what the movie was and a big part of the Sundance Lab was sort of like figuring out, like – we both have this sort of feminist, female-centric concerns, and sort of these big sort of meta-questions about balancing life and art, and gender and sexuality, and that we didn't have to be afraid of those.”
2. Russo-Young and Dunham weren’t concerned with creating likable characters and their elastic screenplay allows each of the characters to be sympathetic in one scene and off-putting in the next. At the center of which is Martine (Thirlby), who ends up unintentionally wreaking some emotional havoc upon her gracious hosts.
The film is full of complex characters making sometimes crucial mistakes that might cause the audience to shift their sympathies scene by scene. When asked if Martine was supposed to be a sympathetic or unsympathetic character, Russo-Young was quick to explain. “I don't really see it that way, I mean, I really empathise with all the characters in the movie – at certain times, at certain moments in the movie. I think we wrote all the characters to be empathetic at one point in time, and then that completely sort of changes, and it shifts throughout the movie and I think that's one of the things to me that was really appealing about the movie is that life's life, we're human beings, they screw up or they do bad things, they do good things to redeem themselves and we're constantly push-pull good and bad and working through that, and I think that in that sense all characters in that sense are often in that place.”
Dunham responded, “Olivia [Thirlby] brought such an amazing – I knew Olivia since we were five, so I was really excited, and I was very excited when Ry cast her. But I think that the thing about Martine is that, like, I leaned over to my friend Wes at one point because I just felt like I needed to comment 'What a ho.' I didn't even mean that, I just felt like I needed to prevent myself from being implicated in what she was doing. And at the same time there's just, I think, for everyone who's ever lived or worked or been confused about the boundaries of things, like, her behaviour is completely understandable – what she's supposed to do, like do something like that and then stab herself or she's behaving like a 23-year-old girl?”
She then asked Thirlby if she ever hated her character while playing her and Thirlby responded definitively. “Definitely no,” she said. “I really understand Martine, I have to come from a place of really understanding her in order to do her justice and not just turn her into this kind of ho. But you know, I think she definitely makes some really dumb moves, that we all as the audience have the ability to kind of watch from this bird's eye view and watch somebody flailing around in naivety and inexperience, but she herself is really acting from her heart and she just I think hasn't had the experience and hasn't really lived long enough to understand that sometimes you can act from the heart but you also have to have a kind of backseat view of yourself as well, so that you can make sure that you're, you know, check some balances, keeping tab of yourself. So I never, in my mind – she was never the villain, she just, you know, she just – she just didn't know any better when she should have and her mistake was kind of not seeing the huge red flags that kept popping up.”
3. The film does a remarkable job of eliciting great performances across the board from cast including Olivia Thirlby, Rosemarie DeWitt and John Krasinski, who was initially very different than who they had in mind for the part.
As sound designer Peter, Krasinski gets to flex some of the laid back charm he displays on “The Office,” but also allows him to play to his darker side including an outburst untethered emotion. If seeing Jim Halpert freak out isn’t what fans of his sitcom are expecting, it initially wasn’t what the writers had in mind either, but they were won over by him. “John Krasinski actually came in for the role of the patient, initially,” Russo-Young said indicating the role played by Justin Kirk in the film. “[But] when I just met John he seemed so Peter to me, it was like everything I'd just imagined about that character from his physicality to his sense of hungriness. He had like hunger to him that it just felt like this person is Peter, I can't deny that, this is right. Rosemarie DeWitt and John Krasinski also had an incredible kind of relationship, like they seemed like they sort of spoke their own language.”
Dunham said that she was even more surprised as she had been expecting someone with a completely different physicality to fill the role. “I was so surprised, cause I was totally outside [on the casting when I] heard about the John Krasinski addition just because I'd imagined the character being like 40,” Dunham said. “I imagined a Jon Lovitz instead of John Krasinski. So when I heard, I was like 'Ry went to LA, she lost her mind, I'm just gonna have to bid that one farewell.' Not because he's not a great actor [but] he was not what I [had in mind]. He just felt, in my mind he was like 28 and there was like a casualness to what he did that wasn't completely…” she trailed off before explaining. “I was being completely judgemental, and the minute I saw the first cut, I was so impressed by what he'd done, there was so much pathos and intensity, I was moved and aroused, I just…I loved it.”
Russo-Young jokingly added, “I'm moved and aroused.”
4. Though Thirlby’s character Martine does some unlikeable things in the film, Dunham felt that her behavior would’ve likely been viewed differently had the role been written for a man.
“I think Ry and I talked about is ideally how would you view the behaviour of a character like Martine if she were male.” Dunham said, “There's a sense that when a man sort of mixes work and sexuality he's a man, and when a woman does it she's a whore, and I feel that when women make the moves that they need to get their work done, that they're somehow, it runs counter to the idea of like being a mother, being a nurturer, and sort of like, somehow people act like serious professional women, women committed to their work in that kind of primal way, that there's some sort of missing chip or broken link, and… I don't know, that's for me what I was interested in looking at and talking about. It's like a topic I think about all the time, and my feelings about it shift constantly. And also the way we also both talked about the fact that we both make work that's about our life and sort of rides the line between reality and fiction and how you wanna try to do that in a way that's considerate and doesn't fuck with people, but that can be a real challenge. The idea of this character that sort of life is her work, and her work is her life, and they're all mixed up together in her, and her attempts to be moral are made harder. Yeah, it's really rich territory that I hope to always be exploring.”
Ennenga mentioned that the director had told her that she saw all of the female characters in the film as being potentially different points in the life of a similar type of woman. “I think that something we – Ry and I – talked about a while ago was looking at the three women in this house, living together, and how they represented in a strange way very different point in a sort of similar life,” Ennenga explained. “There's the teenager [Kolt], and then the 23-year-old [Martine] and then the completely grown-up woman [Julie], and how the sexuality of the characters changes over that time period is really interesting, and I know that going in, at least, I didn't necessarily see it that way. But then I think that being in the house with everyone and working on the scenes, I really came to understand that that was a big part of the story, which is really important for me and my role, and I found that very interesting.”
5. The cinematography & intimate sound design helped achieve the intimate feel of the film, which features several sexually charged scenes between the characters.
For inspiration Russo-Young and cinematographer Chris Blauvelt (“Meek’s Cutoff”) looked at “The Long Goodbye,” “Short Cuts,” “Shampoo,” and “Bob & Ted & Carol & Alice” for how to shoot L.A. “In terms of the cinematography we looked at a lot of films that felt like Los Angeles to me when I'm there. [And ] just the feeling of this was this sundrenched world that almost like days go by and wouldn't necessarily notice the difference between the days and there's something about Los Angeles that feels like it sucks the time away, almost in a wonderful way and almost in a scary way simultaneously.”
Since Krasinski's character Peter is a sound designer, sound was a crucial element for the film. Rich Bologna (“Inside Job”) was responsible for the sound design on the film, which gets the spotlight thanks to extended sequences of Peter and Martine gathering sounds for her short film. “Rich was so incredible in the bug scenes [in Martine’s short film] and make those come alive with this kind of psycho sexual sort of textures and sounds,” Russo-Young said. “But then also in terms of making the recordings seem really grounded – not only believable in the reality but also impressionistic. So I think that also Rich in terms of the sounds worked really well with our composer Will Bates [of electronic duo Fall On Your Sword] and I think that for me it was really important from the beginning to have the sound and the music, sometimes seem interchangeable [so] it was like an omnipresent texture of the movie”
Thirlby added that she thought the sound was an especially important feature in this film because it created an intimacy between the characters. “I think that sound is really intimate, and that if we were all to decide to sit in silence and really open our ears and try to listen for a specific sound, it would suddenly start to feel really intimate,” Thirlby said. “And there's something about having to open your ears and kind of leaning closely, especially between two people, I think it sets the groundwork for a lot of accidental intimacy, and I know that had to be intentional somehow.”
"Nobody Walks" will be released on VOD September 7th with a theatrical release to follow on October 12th.