Writer/Director Ry Russo-Young’s previous films – the award-winning experimental short, Marion, and subsequent features, Orphans and You Won’t Miss Me – featured strong, independent women that pushed boundaries as a way of defining themselves. Her latest film, Nobody Walks, based on a script developed with Lena Dunham at the Sundance Institute, focuses on a young, sexually liberated New York artist Martine (Olivia Thirlby) who comes to L.A. to finish her experimental film. Martine uses her sexuality to go after what she wants, leading other characters to acts of betrayal that compromise their trust in one another. The ensemble cast also includes John Kraskinski and Rosemarie DeWitt.
During our roundtable interview, Russo-Young talked about why she intended this as a movie about coming of age regardless of what age you are, how she wanted to examine the evolving chemistry between characters and the impact their decisions had on those around them without making any moral judgment, and why the ‘no-sometimes-means-yes-or-maybe’ moments in the film reflected the ambiguities of sexuality that people experience in real-life relationships. She also discussed how growing up on the East Coast shaped her outsider perspective on L.A., how her early experience as an experimental filmmaker informs the movies she makes now, and what she’s working on next. Check out what she had to say after the jump.
Question: What were your thoughts and impressions about Olivia’s character when you were writing this?
RY RUSSO-YOUNG: It’s really interesting, because depending on where you are in your life, I do feel different people have different interpretations of Olivia’s character, Martine, and how conscious she is of her actions and how much she is manipulating. I personally think that she is definitely manipulating her sexuality to get what she wants but she’s not fully conscious of it, and she’s intentionally going with blinders on, because what you can’t see you don’t have to take responsibility for. And so, there’s a certain level at which she’s intentionally being innocent, which actually makes her guilty in some way.
She is young, but she’s 23, and she’s got to know that she’s causing trouble in that household?
RUSSO-YOUNG: Well, that’s the thing. At what age do you realize that? She’s already had an experience where you would have hoped that she would have learned from it now. I see the end of the film being the dawn of this realization. But I think that we hope as human beings that we want to be more self-aware than we often are and we do often do things like that. I feel like this is a movie about coming of age no matter what age you are and that everybody in the movie is going through their own coming-of-age realizations, moments of where to draw the boundary and when to learn.
Do you consider her character to be the antagonist?
RUSSO-YOUNG: I don’t consider anyone the bad guy. This is one of the things that (co-writer Lena Dunham) and I talked a lot about that I think we were always interested in, which is having all the characters be human, but not having there be a villain necessarily, and that everybody has the best intentions, but then sometimes they screw up along the way. It’s very rare in our lives that we’re like “Ooh, I’m going to really screw this family up.” You just don’t. You work from a place of need, like I want to finish this movie or I want to feel loved at that moment or I need empathy right now. And then, you do things that are questionable. You never…it’s just rare. I’ve never experienced it and I’ve got to work from what I know.
Is she a victim by being the object of sexual desire for literally everyone in the film, because everyone has some sort of physical attraction towards her? What are you saying about the position that puts her in?
RUSSO-YOUNG: That’s interesting. I feel like calling her a victim would be too victimizing and would almost be too simple. I think that there’s an element in which she’s a victim in terms of her relationship with John Krasinski’s character, Peter. I think that she probably feels a lot of pressure to deliver with him on a sexual level because she thinks that that’s all she has to give. But she’s too active in her choices at times and in her allowance of those decisions – such as letting herself be kissed in the car – to actually call her the straight-up victim.
There’s also the idea that “no” doesn’t mean “no.” “No” means “maybe,” “probably,” often times “yes.” What do you think about that message being in there, and that with every character, every situation that leads to something starts with “No, I don’t want to”?
RUSSO-YOUNG: Well, I think that’s real actually. One of the goals in this movie was not to have a kid end up dead in the pool to pay for the sins of the parents. There are certain moral tropes that happen in films like this that make an audience feel good about what they’re watching and we didn’t necessarily want to do those. The whole “no,” “yes,” “no,” that you’re talking about with Martine is actually something that I certainly experienced in my early twenties in a lot of ambiguous relationships with different people. When you’re not confident as a young woman in saying “no” or even saying “yes” necessarily, you don’t know which one you’re more afraid of in some way. That happens a lot. So, I think it was an effort to portray realism.
What does the title mean to you?
RUSSO-YOUNG: It has multiple meanings to me. One is nobody walks out of there unscathed, which I think is the most apt one. And then, there’s the idea that nobody walks in LA and taking agency through walking. In a sense, if we’re talking about Martine being active, one of the few things she does that seems the most bold is when she actually walks out of the house and walks around and dares to get lost and does not know where she’s going and just explores things and soaks them in.
Even in that moment, someone thinks she’s a prostitute. It happens every time she turns around.
RUSSO-YOUNG: Right. And yet she is sexualized.
There’s a subtle tension between the cultures of New York and Los Angeles that was more of a subtext than an aggressive point. Was that intentional and did it come from your experiences growing up on the East Coast but now making a living out here?
RUSSO-YOUNG: It’s definitely in there based on personal experience. I remember the first time I came to L.A., I did go on a walk. I went to go to a nail salon and it was much further than I thought, and there were all these cars passing me, and I felt the people looking at me in the car and I was the lone person on the road. I was like “Is someone going to throw a tomato at me?” You’re just not sure who’s going to get out of the car and try to hurt you or whatever. It’s a very vulnerable place and in New York that never occurs to you. Part of the outsider perspective on Los Angeles is certainly taken from experiences that Lena and I both had while in Los Angeles, but I think it’s also one of love. For me, it was a great opportunity to research the history of Los Angeles and the movies that have been shot here, the various many, and when it plays itself and when it doesn’t, the art that has been generated here, and the lens through which the city has been viewed thus far, and outsiders coming to the city to make films like Zabriskie Point. There’s such an amazing lineage in a sense, so I think that having a New Yorker coming into Los Angeles was an exciting place to start for us.
These are quite different roles for John Krasinski and Olivia Thirlby. Can you talk about casting them?
RUSSO-YOUNG: It seemed important that if Peter is going to screw up that he still be empathetic. For me, John has that thing that the character needed to have, which was almost a goofiness and a humility and a very giving generosity that Peter has. That felt right for the character, for somebody who is almost vulnerable enough to then make those mistakes. It takes someone who is almost overcompensating for something to be able for them to do that. And Olivia, I really believed that she was an artist. There were some people who came for the part who I could see in all the other scenes, except when they said that they were in a desert with a 16mm camera filming bugs. It just didn’t feel right. They felt like an actress to me. It was important to have an actress that I bought would literally be shooting that experimental film. That was a big part of it. And then, I think she’s got a charisma and is character-driven and you want to peel back the layers to see what is going on with this person. There’s something both very thoughtful and very unconscious about her at the same time, and that quality felt right for this specific character.
Early in your filmmaking career, did you make any experimental films like this bug film?
RUSSO-YOUNG: Totally. I started with experimental films. I went to Oberlin College. I wanted to do narrative filmmaking but they didn’t have a lot. It was a lot of Maya Deren-type of stuff and Stan Brakhage. I wanted to make bigger movies than that, but that school was my first access point. I definitely made some 16mm films, not about bugs but weirdo stuff, like people running around in circus costumes in the woods, for example, an old lady and a young woman and just fun stuff. So, we pulled some of that in. When I was working with Olivia, we talked about a lot of references and stuff that she would be watching. It was fun.
It was clear that you had either a passionate interest or background in sound engineering. Can you talk about your interest in that area?
RUSSO-YOUNG: On my last film, which was more of an experimental feature, we had to ADR a scene from scratch and it was an incredible process for me, having never done that before, where the actors recorded all the VO and synched it up to the screen, and then the Foley artist came in and did all the shuffling of the feet and the creaking and the air conditioner vent that we had to add so it sounded real. It was this process of watching a really intelligent person work who was a master of their craft, and I felt enamored with seeing the artistry of that. And then, it ended up working its way into this movie. I watched films like The Conversation and Blow Out. There’s not that many movies about sound design, and as Olivia said, sound is very intimate, so it also felt very appropriate for this story.
What were you trying to say about women and their sexuality?
RUSSO-YOUNG: Maybe that it’s complicated. It’s not so much a specific message as it is exploring these themes and ambiguities in terms of the relationship of being a young female artist and all the baggage that comes with, and then trying to have people take you seriously or make work and the ambiguities of sexuality that come in the workplace in all forms — whether it be a therapy session, or with an Italian tutor at 16, or sitting in a dark sound room at 3:00am trying to push through. There’s often a lot of tension there, and that’s something that I hadn’t yet felt like I had seen from a female perspective, especially within that age range in a film.
Where did the idea for the party scene with the parents and children come from and have you been to a party where there are all ages?
RUSSO-YOUNG: I would say that I have experienced smoking weed among different generations here. In terms of the party, I think it came from Lena and I both being at New York parties that we would go to with our parents that were very much our parents’ parties, but there would be a younger contingent there, like a Christmas party if you will or something. The party [in the movie] was originally a leap year party but that didn’t make it into the final movie. So, there was an occasion which helps you think about it as a holiday-style party where kids go with their parents.
Did starting out with experimental films and learning that at the beginning inform the way you make bigger movies now?
RUSSO-YOUNG: I would say that the experimental stuff and history I find does show up in terms of having narrative maybe be more fluid, like wanting to cut to the bug film full frame or maybe more in the editing choices at times. I don’t know what you thought of The Master, but I was enamored by the way that movie floated in and out of this narrative. You never knew what was coming next in terms of what scene and sometimes it felt more associative. I relate to that kind of filmmaking, like in the Terence Malick Tree of Life sense a little bit. I tend to lean that way because I know you don’t always need Plot A point, Plot B point, plot A point. You can sometimes do A, C, D, E, A and that the harmony will come together again.
What was your work process like with Lena?
RUSSO-YOUNG: It was really friendly and easy in a sense to work. We basically riffed on characters. I made up some characters and she made up others, and then we swapped them and revised them, and then we sat in a room together and banged out an outline, and sometimes we would act out the scenes to just get it in our bodies and blood. That was really fun, too. It was a complete pleasure to work with her. She’s brilliant and I’m glad that everybody else is seeing that.
How did that collaboration come about?
RUSSO-YOUNG: We met and really got along as friends. Sometimes I feel a little bit like if I just sit in a room with anybody that I think is awesome and I admire, something is going to come out of it. Sort of like “What are we going to do together?” “Well, let’s maybe make something.” It really did come out that organically. It wasn’t a preordained kind of thing. It was like we had similar interests.
Are you working on something else right now?
RUSSO-YOUNG: I am. I’m co-writing a new movie and I have a pilot in development.
Can you say anything about either one?
RUSSO-YOUNG: I don’t think so. I’m sorry. I’m kind of superstitious. I don’t like to talk about things until I’m on set shooting them because it doesn’t feel real.
Because the stuff you do is a little more esoteric and non-linear, can you ever see yourself doing something like an Avengers film?
RUSSO-YOUNG: Yeah. Maybe not The Avengers specifically, but I could see myself making a bigger film like that. I don’t know if it would be like The Avengers. Maybe it would be more like The Master. I’m kind of kidding. (laughs)
Nobody Walks opens in theaters on October 19th.