From Amy Jellicoe on “Enlightened” to Hannah Horvath on “Girls,” there are a growing assemblage of female characters cheerfully breaking conventions and stereotypes while refusing to fall into the trap of focus group-approved likability. Yet whereas many of these vividly realized, three-dimensional women remain confined to the small screen, New York filmmaker Ry Russo-Young has set out to paint arresting portraits of femininity on a truly cinematic canvas. Her mesmerizing 2009 effort, “You Won’t Miss Me,” stars Stella Schnabel (daughter of Julian) as a defiant 23-year-old outsider who re-enters the world upon her release from a psychiatric hospital.
“Girls” creator Lena Dunham collaborated with Russo-Young on the script for her follow-up feature, “Nobody Walks.” Though the main storyline follows a young experimental filmmaker, Martine (Olivia Thirlby), who entertains the advances of a married man, Peter (John Krasinski), it’s every bit as much about Peter’s wife, Julie (Rosemarie DeWitt), and her flirtatious patient (Justin Kirk). Some of the film’s most potent moments center on Peter’s young daughter, Kolt (India Ennenga), as she lusts after an older hunk, David (Rhys Wakefield), while being pursued by an infatuated peer, Avi (Sam Lerner), and–most distressingly–her adult tutor, Marcello (Emanuele Secci).
In this exclusive interview, Russo-Young spoke with Indie Outlook about her experimental roots, her thoughts regarding Martine as a complex heroine and her ingenious short film (embedded below) that brilliantly pays homage to Hitchcock’s “Psycho.”
Q: “Nobody Walks” is the sort of film that I’m most excited to discuss since it leaves a lot for the audience to interpret.
A: I love when films do that. I’m honestly surprised when audiences see something like “The Tree of Life” or “The Master” and they’re pissed that they didn’t get told more. And I’m like, “Really? Is that the kind of films that you want to see, where you’re told everything?” It just seems so simplistic in a way.
Q: Like Martine, you have a background in experimental filmmaking. How has that background influenced your current work?
A: It’s sort of the perspective on which I view all films. I don’t think narratively first. I think about what would be visually interesting. Manipulating form is innately what’s most exciting to me. One of the things that excited Lena and me when we were writing the film was that there’s a lot of me in Martine, especially in terms of her experimental filmmaking. Narrative isn’t necessarily my go-to, but the more I make films, the more I’m interested in having tighter narratives because it’s not where I come from. It’s what I want to do in order to continue to challenge myself. I just want to keep changing and growing as a filmmaker. I’m not interested in making the same kind of movie over and over again, even though maybe I would get really good at it if I kept doing that [laughs]. It’s not as appealing to me as trying different things every time–manipulating narrative and manipulating time–all those amazing things that you can do with films.
Q: Both “You Won’t Miss Me” and “Nobody Walks” center on a heroine who is sort of an outsider. She wants to belong and yet also marches to the beat of her own drummer.
A: I love making stories that aren’t about–a guy in the midwest [laughs]. The idea of telling those stories are really appealing to me too, but after growing up watching a bunch of movies, I’ve been craving to see more women onscreen who were really complex. Women who weren’t just there to aid the guy and become a sounding board for his problems. I was hungry for films like “Postcards from the Edge” and even “Matilda.” They really spoke to me and I’d watch them over and over again. Now one of the things I’m interested in is creating those sorts of characters and putting them out there because I didn’t get enough of them.
Q: Your experimental film, “Marion,” offers three different futures for the doomed heroine, Marion Crane, in “Psycho.” Would you consider that picture an example of feminist film theory?
A: Yeah, I love that kind of work. I still do make some experimental films that are homages. I was super into Hitchcock. The way that he kills the lead character, Marion Crane, off twenty minutes into the movie was one of the most astounding and revolutionary things about “Psycho.” I come from a place of character in terms of my approach to filmmaking. It’s always deeply character-based. I’m not as interested in asking, “What’s the good twist in this movie going to be?” I wondered what would happen to Marion Crane if she lived or had behaved differently in the events that led to her death, and then tried to explore those in a re-imagining of Hitchcock. I still go back and read “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” by Laura Mulvey and get excited by thinking about “the gaze.” A whole lot of cinematic nerd going on here! [laughs]
Q: You explore “the gaze” in “Nobody Walks,” particularly in regard to how society objectifies Martine. Do you feel there is a double standard among some audiences where male infidelity is more acceptable than female infidelity?
A: Yes, certainly. I think if Martine was a guy, it wouldn’t even be an issue necessarily. It’s almost unfathomable to imagine a movie like “Nobody Walks” with a guy in the Martine role. It just wouldn’t be an issue that she sleeps around. You wouldn’t think of her as a bad person and pass judgment on her in the same way. If Martine is a young female, you think that she’s not responsible. If Martine was a young guy, you’d be like, “Oh, he’s just having his kicks and having a good time and being young and free.” The way that we pass our judgment on women is old-fashioned in a way. It comes from this idea that a bad woman is promiscuous. There’s less of that in our society today, but there’s still residue of it. When we look at situations where a woman is sleeping around with multiple partners, we still hold a sense of that judgment.
Q: To what extent do you feel Martine is aware of her effect on men and utilizes it to manipulate them?
A: I definitely think that she is aware of it. She does manipulate him and uses her sexuality to get the film made and get what she wants. It’s a really complicated issue and it’s not as black and white as, “Martine is this innocent girl who has a bunch of sex and doesn’t think twice about it.” It’s more the fact that women do use their sexuality to get what they want because they don’t feel like they have any other means of getting what they want. They have no power other than their sexuality and that’s part of what’s tricky about being a young woman. You have no confidence in anything other than the fact that men want to sleep with you. I think that Martine is an embittered, fearful version of what a lot of young women do. They have this task ahead of them and they don’t know how to get it done without using their sexuality. So I think it is conscious for sure.
Q: As a New Yorker making a film in LA, you shared Martine’s perspective as an outsider. What aspects of LA did you want to capture?
A: The thing that was so difficult to capture is the tone–the mental change that occurs when you go to LA. When I go to Los Angeles, I slow down and feel like I’m floating. The weather’s always nice, and there’s less of the pounding ferocity that I feel when I’m in New York. In LA, there’s this drifting openness that overtakes everyone and enables things to happen very easily, even though they may be very important things.
Q: You’ve spoken in interviews about how Julie, Martine and Kolt could be interpreted as the same woman at three different points of her life. Was that idea intentional from the beginning or did it emerge organically during production?
A: I think it organically emerged from the material. We related to all of the characters and found our way into each of their heads. But then after writing it and even in the shooting and editing of it, certain things rose to the surface–the similarities between the three women and their relationships. Martine could easily turn into Julie and vice versa. That was brought out during the making of the film.
Q: The performances you elicited from this cast were remarkable.
A: It takes a village to make a movie. I credit Lena with the writing and Chris Blauvelt with the cinematography and Olivia Thirlby and John Krasinski and Rosemarie DeWitt–they’re such professionals and so smart with the material. It was a quick shoot on an indie schedule, but everyone was so wonderful to work with. Every day was a total pleasure.
Q: India was a revelation in the film, particularly when she channels her anger into the film’s climactic poem. How did you go about developing that poem?
A: That’s a poem that Lena wrote. There was definitely an inner poet in her. Lena based the character of Kolt on her sister, and she wrote that poem because her sister once had a really creepy Italian tutor, [who inspired] the character of Marcello. We wanted that poem to potentially [function as] a poem that Martine would write to Peter. Though Kolt was writing the poem to Marcello, and the poem is about Marcello being creepy, we’re simultaneously showing Martine in the film to infer that she’s feeling the same way about Peter. One more fun fact: the opening poem, which is kind of a haiku, is actually written by Kolt about David. She writes, “Whenever you’re here, you arrive just moments after I’ve gone.” It’s all about her crush on David.
“Nobody Walks” was released on Blu-ray and DVD on January 22nd.