Ry Russo-Young’s second feature film, You Wont Miss Me, opens tomorrow; it’s a striking indie character portrait and memorable showcase for its star and cowriter, Russo-Young’s childhood friend Stella Schnabel, as Shelly, an emotionally unstable actress and sexual free agent in scruffy-boho Manhattan and Brooklyn. (It’s also a great cinematic depiction of New York City when it’s cold but not snowy.) The 29-year-old Russo-Young, a lifelong West Village resident and a loose affiliate of the yep-still-haven’t-found-a-better-word-than-mumblecore movement, was kind enough to answer a few questions about her working methods, and what her colleagues think of Stella Schnabel’s dad.
How scripted was each scene—were your actors working from a script, an outline, or directions shouted at them from off-camera?
For some people we would write out a character biography to prepare but most of the time we’d just talk before each the scene. I was working from a scene by scene outline but I didn’t show that to the actors.
Along those lines, when you’re going mobile, and shooting around a public event like when Shelly and Carlen Altman go to see the Virgins in Atlantic City, do you go out there with a clear idea of what you want to happen dramatically in the (presumably more constricted) time you have there?
Atlantic City was one of the most spontaneous shoots of the whole movie. Our schedule was set in advance in terms of the locations but the details of the drama weren’t worked out until we were all in the room with the camera.
You shuffle chronology and visual textures to somewhat impressionistic effect here, and I’m curious to hear how you went about finding the film’s emotional and pictorial rhythms, and what you think it adds to our understanding of Shelly.
In shooting, I tried match the emotional temperature of the character with the format that best visually expresses what she’s feeling in each scene. For example, the audition scenes are theatrical and cinematic because she’s performing in them. We shot those scenes on an HD camera with prime lenses, a heavier set up requiring more lighting. After she does poorly at one of the audition, she heads out onto the cold night street feeling terrible about herself. It’s here that the format switches to a small and rough pixilated flip camera. I think you feel these changes even more than you see them.
When Nick Pinkerton (who sometimes writes for us) wrote about You Wont Miss Me in the Voice last year, he wrote that you’ve “been affiliated with the unassuming lowercase-title crowd formerly known as mumblecore, but I’m betting she’s too much of a live one to settle for critics’ ‘modest’ and ‘wryly observed’ backpats.” I don’t know whether you agree with Nick’s skepticism about your friends’ movies, but I did think of his comment during the scene in which Shelly auditions for what appears to be a mumblecore movie, and sets Greta Gerwig and Aaron Katz aback with the sheer ugly force of her emotional nakedness. Am I wrong to read the scene as partly a parody of the indie film community’s relationship with honesty?
Well, it’s funny because I was originally thinking of a different director to play the director in the scene. I wanted a director that was a bit older than Aaron Katz and who had no association with low budget filmmaking. When we were actually shooting the scene with Aaron, the plan was for the audition to go well and for Shelly Brown to have a little break in her bleak life. However, when we were shooting that scene, Aaron was at the time nominated for an Independent Spirit award for his film Quiet City. Someone asked him who else would be attending the ceremony and he casually mentioned that Julian Schnabel would be there but that he was an “idiot.” Aaron didn’t know that Julian Schnabel was Stella’s father. She called him out on his comment and the two of them argued a bit. So, when we went to shoot the scene, Stella was harboring resentment at Aaron on a personal level. She decided to surprise me and spontaneously insult him on camera instead. After seeing this amazing turn of events, I thought we should go with it and suggested he say the line to her about her being unable to tell the difference between fiction and reality. This way, they would both have reservations about their possible working relationship.
What are you working on now?
I recently co-wrote a script with Lena Dunham called Nobody Walks. The project was at the Sundance Screenwriters Lab this past June. I’m going to shoot it in the Spring of 2011.