With BAMcinemaFest kicking off this week, New Yorkers who didn’t get the chance to attend Sundance, Cannes or SXSW this year will have a opportunity to sample the best of those fests alongside other cinematic special events. The lineup includes festival favorites “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Compliance,” and “Nobody Walks” among many more (check out the full lineup here). And while the latter hasn’t generated quite as much buzz as some of the other entries just yet, we called it “a sensual, emotionally complex film” and “one of the best at [Sundance].” The third feature from writer/director Ry Russo-Young centers on a young New York artist who comes to stay with a Los Angeles family while she completes her short film and ends up affecting the lives of each family member. The ensemble includes John Krasinski, Olivia Thirlby, Rosemarie DeWitt, Justin Kirk, India Ennenga and Dylan McDermott and features a sharp script by Russo-Young and “Girls” creator Lena Dunham, which we suspect will help draw attention to the film as the fall release date nears.
The film will screen this Saturday at BAM followed by a Q&A with Ry Russo-Young along with actresses Olivia Thirlby and India Ennenga and co-writer Lena Dunham. The Playlist had a chance to speak to Russo-Young recently about collaborating with Dunham, her musical and filmic influences and writing characters who have the best intentions even when they’re doing terrible things.
Describing the origins of the film, Russo-Young said she had a desire to do something different from her previous film, the mostly improvised indie drama “You Won’t Miss Me.” “I had just made ‘You Won’t Miss Me’ and it was so much inside one character’s head for half the movie, with voiceover narration and seeing her thoughts. And I really wanted to fracture the perspective and show different characters and have your allegiances change with different people. That was one of the goals going in, almost as a reaction to the last thing I had done. And I knew that’s something that Lena [Dunham, co-writer] could do so well,” she said, describing the now-infamous writer/director/star of HBO’s lightning rod “Girls.” Fans of that series should recognize Dunham’s voice present in the screenplay which features more character-based comedy than Russo-Young’s earlier work.
“I definitely wanted to make something that was funnier than what I had made before and that was part of the fun of working with Lena. She has such a great ear and is able to write dialogue [so well] which is really something I hadn’t done before [working on the improvised script for ‘You Won’t Miss Me’] and that was really exciting to me.” Russo-Young said, adding that she and Dunham hit it off after meeting at a film event a few years ago and the script developed naturally from there. “We actually met at an IFC mixer. Basically we met there and just hung out and we got along and had a lot to talk about. And then we hung out a couple times after [that] and it just came about really naturally. I think she was sort of interested in writing something that she wasn’t going to then make and I was really interested in working with a writer who was willing to collaborate in that way. So it was always clear that we were going to write a movie together for me to then go and make, probably on a very limited budget. So we were really conscious of keeping the scale pretty modest in terms of locations and actors.”
The filmmaker had nothing but praise for her collaboration with Dunham. “She’s a really, really talented writer and she has the ability to write different voices [for] people. And in collaborating in the writing it was a great opportunity to get outside what I’d made before and do something different.” When asked about Dunham’s series, Russo-Young said that she was a big fan and on the subject of its backlash said that she thought it was “inevitable because Lena’s so young and so smart and has so many positions on that show, the jealousy factor does work its way in, in weird ways.”
For “Nobody Walks,” Russo-Young and Dunham got together to write an outline and define all the characters before trading the script back and forth to come up with a finished draft. The filmmaker described the writing process as “very fast” saying that the pair had attended the Sundance Screenwriters Lab in 2010 and were shooting the film by June of 2011. One of the most compelling aspects of the film is that even though the characters may act in screwed up ways, there aren’t any villains. According to the filmmaker, this was part of the film’s design from the beginning.
“In life and in movies, even people who do bad things are still human and filled with pathos and they’re just making mistakes and they’re trying to survive,” she said. “That’s something I’ve experienced in my own life, trying to be a good person, to make good work, have real friendships and be in love and all of those things. And I feel like everybody around me that I know always has the best intentions even if they’re doing terrible things. But so often in movies, you get very black and white [depictions] in terms of the polarity of who is good and who is evil. And I like showing a more complicated, more realistic side of human beings and why they behave [a certain way]. I haven’t seen enough of that, [which is something] that I crave [when I’m] watching movies.”
After reading the completed script, producers Alicia Van Couvering (“Damsels In Distress”), Jonathan Schwartz and Andrea Sperling (“Like Crazy”) came onboard to help the filmmaker assemble a proper budget and amazing cast anchored by Thirlby, Krasinski and DeWitt. When asked if she felt any pressure working with such recognizable names, she said she “didn’t have time to be intimidated but was completely honored to be working with them.”
Some of the most memorable moments in the film involve Krasinski’s character, Peter, who works as a sound designer, collecting and mixing sounds with Martine (Thirlby) for her short film, which result in some unexpectedly sensual moments. The origins of those sequences came from doing sound work on her previous film. “I had to ADR a scene from scratch for ‘You Won’t Miss Me’ and… I was amazed by the detail and the artistry that went into that,” she said. “Sound is so awesome and [can be] the thing that makes a moment incredible but we don’t necessarily recognize it because we’re so consumed by the visuals and the all encompassing power of the movie itself that we don’t stop to think about it. So in a way, it’s part of my love of moviemaking and all the things that contribute [to that process], the details and the psychology that is often not noticed but very omnipresent.”
Russo-Young also cited Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation,” Brian DePalma’s “Blow Out” and Jerry Skolimowski’s little-seen cult film “The Shout” as influences for “Nobody Walks,” specifically the way that the sound can play a role to “make the story come alive.” She said, “Anytime where you have to stop a movie and go ‘Listen to that, listen to that’ is noteworthy in a sense, because it’s not often to be noted.” For the film’s dreamy L.A. score, the director once again tapped indie duo Fall On Your Sword (“Another Earth”) who had previously scored ‘YWMM’ for “music that would work in the same world so there wasn’t much of a distinction between what was sound and what was score.” “We talked about [composer] Terry Riley very early on and then we kinda moved on to Pink Floyd and then Grizzly Bear. And I think what came out is some sort of interesting hybrid that has its ancestors in all those people but is also nothing like them whatsoever.”
As for what’s up next for the young filmmaker, Russo-Young said she’s currently developing a pilot along with another writer for an unnamed cable network and writing another film as well but was hesitant to jinx either by spilling any details just yet. If you’re not in Brooklyn this weekend to catch the film at BAM, Magnolia picked up the film back in January and will release it on VOD September 7th with a theatrical release to follow on October 12th.