Oyster #99: Film Director Ry Russo-Young
"It was kind of like making soup" — on working with Lena Dunham on 'Nobody Walks'.
In the century since the birth of cinema, some of the most visceral and innovative voices have been female. It was arguably a woman who kicked off the industry as we know it: when unsung French pioneer Alice Guy-Blaché swapped her secretarial job for a camera in 1896, she became the first person to shoot a fictional story, as others simply filmed the street life around them. One hundred and four years later, Kathryn Bigelow made history when she became the first female to collect the Oscar for Best Director, suggesting the male-dominated landscape is showing signs of change. We spoke to three rising young filmmakers who are blazing a trail of their own — first up is Ry Russo-Young.
"I've always liked that 'stranger in a strange land' story," says Ry Russo-Young. The 30-year-old New Yorker's latest film, the captivating Nobody Walks, adds her voice to the great tradition of filmmakers inspired by the foreignness of Los Angeles — from Antonioni's Zabriskie Point to Roman Polanski's Chinatown. "I think it was the newness of the place to me; it yields interesting results," she says.
The director has a unique talent for capturing female twentysomethings figuring out the world. In Nobody Walks Russo-Young transposes beautiful New York artist Martine (played by Olivia Thilrby) into the pool house of a Silverlake family while she finishes work on her first solo show. Maxine's erotic presence in the Eames-style home unsettles the delicate balance of family life, exposing fault lines as feelings of guilt and blame ripple to the surface. Weaving an intricate web of loyalties and betrayals among a handful of characters, the camerawork makes the most of LA's lush colours and shadows. "There's a genre of sunny noirs, and I wanted a little bit of that — wanted it to be really beautiful, even though fucked-up shit is going on," Russo-Young explains. "But I definitely didn't want any 'villains' in the classical sense." Instead she explores Martine's sexual power (and her still-naïve grasp of it) with a more nuanced eye. "I felt there weren't enough films that explored that. They'll often make the girl a vixen — some really hot girl that comes into town and destroys everybody — but it's more complicated than that! I mean, I was really ugly as a kid," she laughs, "braces and a helmet haircut, and when I started getting not-as-ugly in my late teens it was kind of a shock. That seems like something a lot of women experience — the complications and heartache and thrill of it, too."
The director's interest in family dynamics was stimulated by a more unconventional upbringing than her film's protagonists. "My parents were lesbians and I grew up in a really tight-knit family in the early eighties. My biological father ended up suing for me when I was a kid, so there was this legal case… Not to get too personal, but I've always been really interested in how other people's families operated. Personally, I feel like family is one of the most important things — it's like The Godfather," she laughs. "If you don't have family, what do you have, right?"
Russo-Young started out as an actor, studying at Yale, HB Studio and the legendary Lee Strasberg Institute, before starring opposite Greta Gerwig in mumblecore director Joe Swanberg's Hannah Takes the Stairs at the age of 25. "Working with Joe made me realise how much can be gleaned from spontaneity," she says. That same year she directed her first feature, Orphans, and followed up with the beguiling You Won't Miss Me, co-written and starring Stella Schnabel, daughter of artist/director Julian (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly). Set in downtown New York, the film mixed non-actors and professionals, staged pieces and cinéma vérité to portray a young misfit.
For Nobody Walks, Russo-Young found a co-writer and kindred spirit in current indie girl-wonder Lena Dunham (who we also interviewed for #99), now making waves with her own directorial debut Tiny Furniture and the HBO series Girls. "It was kind of like making soup," Russo-Young explains. "I'd say to Lena, 'How about some cilantro?' and she'd say, 'How about some pepper?' I love that process and I want to keep doing that with everything I make."
Words: Hannah Lack
Photography: Stef Mitchell