Ry Russo-Young may have worked with her highest profile cast to date for her third directorial offering Nobody Walks, but that doesn’t mean she’s softened up. Working off an incisive and surprising screenplay co-written by Girls sensation Lena Dunham, Nobody Walks explores rocky emotional terrain much like to her breakout sophomore feature You Won’t Miss Me, while making no apologies for the wayward heroine at its center.
A hit at Sundance where it was acquired by Magnolia Pictures (they release the film this Friday; it’s also currently available on VOD), Nobody Walks stars Olivia Thirlby as Martine, a 23-year-old artist from New York City, who ventures out to Los Angeles to complete work on her art film with the help of Peter, a sound designer (John Krasinski) she’s loosely connected to. Things get complicated when Peter starts to fall for Martine’s charms, despite being married to a therapist (Rosemarie DeWitt) who has unfulfilled desires of her own.
Indiewire sat down with Russo-Young in New York to discuss collaborating with Dunham for Nobody Walks, shooting Krasinski’s first sex scene on film, and the film’s divisive protagonist.
Like your protagonist Martine, you’re a New York-based artist with a background in experimental filmmaking, who travels to LA for work on occasion. How much of you is in the character?
I think Martine is like a fear-version of myself. She’s like me in a worst-case scenario. A lot of me is in Martine in some ways, but I think it’s more of in the superficial kind of thing. Like the experimental filmmaking background, or the NY or LA — we kind of took that experience and then channeled that into this worst-case scenario type of story.
Something I experienced being a 23-year-old woman in the world, is the way that all of a sudden you’re kind of available to men of all ages, in a way that when you’re 16, it’s kind of creepy for 40-year-old men to be with you. But when you’re 23, it’s like totally legit. A lot of friends of mine, and me, and young women I think, experience this thing when all of a sudden you’re that age, and you totally have sex with people who are much older than you, and get in relationships with them. It’s sort of a mentor-esque relationship often. That is gratifying for both parties. I don’t think it’s like statutory rapish at all, it is very complicated because it is very…mutual. I think adding the complications of work and those dynamics, along with creativity — it can get even more kind of complicated.
It’s fitting then that you have a teenage character in the film (played by India Ennenga), who’s exploring her own sexuality.
And an older: a Mom. It’s almost like three characters, generations, that are all coming of age in a sense. And they’re struggling with the line almost between professionalism and sexuality, and when those things get blurred. They have different modes or ideas of what those boundaries are.
Olivia Thirlby is an innately likable performer, but Martine is hard to root for. Throughout she does questionable things and never really apologizes for her actions. Were you wary of alienating the audience?
Yeah, that was definitely something we were aware of from the beginning. Like, “Oh, how likable is Martine, and how empathetic does she need to be?” And all of that. I think that one of the things for me is that, calling Martine almost the protagonist – she’s both the protagonist and the antagonist in a way. I think in a way you very much go into the movie with her, but I think by the end, it’s interesting that your allegiance shifts throughout the film to different characters. You empathize with different people at different times. I think by the end of the film, you’re very much on the different side, you’re with Rosemarie DeWitt and you’re like, “Yeah. Get away! Protect! You’re like, family! Please!” I think that’s something that’s true to life, and in a way there’s such a pressure when making movies to make good characters and bad characters, and to know those moral codes from the beginning, it has to be so polarized. I think it’s more similar to life where good people screw up and some people at times you’re alienated by them and then other times, you feel for them and things kind of become revealed. And that’s something we wanted to play with in terms of allegiance to certain characters.
The other thing I think is that if Martine was a guy, I don’t think there would be as much issue. Like, I don’t think we’d be discussing this as much. I don’t think the audience would necessarily have as much of an issue with empathizing with her. Part of what we’re reacting to is not only that she goes and fucks with this family, it’s also that she goes and has a lot of sex and doesn’t feel bad about it. I think as a society we see a girl that fucks three people in a week, and part of us is like, “Man. She’s a slut. She’s a bad woman.” I think a part of me is interested in questioning that judgment and that boundary, and wanting the audience to think about that ideally, and those kinds of judgments that they have toward those characters.
Nobody Walks finds you working with your biggest cast yet, but you really do some atypical casting with the big names you snagged. Why did you cast those Olivia and John in their respective roles. Were you actively trying to subvert expectations?
No, I mean, I’m not that organized. It’s more like I believed Olivia Thirlby would be an artist. For me it was like the barometer was, “Can I see this girl lying with a Bolex in the desert shooting ants?” Like we also didn’t want her to look like Megan Fox because that would just be so like – talk about a movie that we’ve seen before. Eye roll. So that was part of the thinking of Olivia, to cast someone who was more enigmatic than maybe overtly sexy. Someone who people were interested in and attracted to, and wanted to kind of be pulled in by, but in a less obvious way.
And John actually originally came in for the role of Billy, played by Justin Kirk in the movie. And when I sat down with him, as soon as he walked in, I was like, “God this guy is so Peter.” Like he’s so lovable, and affectionate, and giving in a way, I think, that I felt like was really true to Peter. And he also really seemed ready for it. I could tell that he wanted to go there, and was down to go there. He never had sex on screen before, and that was a first for him. He was excited to do that, and enter this new realm.
Did he say that to you? That he was excited to have sex on screen?
Yeah he told me he was nervous actually. He told me, “This is a big thing for me.” In the first rehearsal we blocked the sex scene because we were just like, “Let’s get it out of the way. Let’s get the nerves off the table, so we can just work.” But, yeah, I felt like all of the actors were really incredible because they all like stepped up to the plate.
How was working with a cast of this caliber?
In some ways it’s really intimidating because they’re so smart. Rosemarie DeWitt would say things to me on set and I’d be like, “Holy shit, you’re making my brain hurt, lady.” In a way, I feel like I just want to feel like the most unintelligent person on set and I want to be surrounded by people that blow me away, which was the case in this movie. At the same time, when I was shooting this movie, I don’t have time to think about being intimidated. It’s just like, “Get the job done because you have 10 hours to shoot this and you gotta shoot out the kid by, you know, in 2 hours, and you have to shoot this thing.” And it becomes like this survivalist kind of just get it done and do it great. And that’s what it becomes about. So, it was like a huge honor and I was really excited to work with all of them, and I feel continually lucky to text Rosemarie and be like, “I love you!” But yeah, it’s just about making the best movie possible.
Those coming into this cold might be surprised to learn you co-wrote this with Lena Dunham.
Because it’s not funny?
Well, it’s not a comedy. Not only that, but she has a self-deprecating wit that seeps into everything that she does, that’s not apparent in Nobody Walks. What led you two to collaborate?
What led us to collaborate is that we met before she made Tiny Furniture and we really got along as human beings together, and I think we had a lot of the same kind of – we were thinking about similar things, like what it is to be a young female artist in the world and sexual relationships. I think, we both have a very intense interest in sex, but come at it from different ways. She comes at it much more from a younger girl perspective (she’s younger than me, so it makes sense) and I have this woman thing that I’m fascinated by. So it felt really natural, and for her writing seems to come so easy. It’s amazing to me how she can sort of crank it out like pasta. Like a machine, that just spews out for her in this incredible way. She’s like a force. I’m like, “Oh my god. You’re so brilliant.” And I think, at least initially what was appealing to her was that we would write something together that I would then direct.
Do you see this as the beginning of a collaborative relationship?
I kind of feel like I’m going to collaborate with different people on different films. There’s like a new energy that comes from working with somebody else – you know, the film is what it is because of the kind of chemistry between the two voices. I’m interested to work with somebody else now on a new movie because I think that what we generate will be different. And I think if Lena and I tried to write another movie it would be Nobody Walks (laughs).