Having built a body of work over a decade with three indie feature films, filmmaker Ry Russo-Young is teetering on the precipice of a mainstream breakout with the young-adult thriller Before I Fall.
Russo-Young debuted her first feature, Orphans, in 2007. You Won’t Miss Me, starring Stella Schnabel, followed in 2009. Her 2012 film Nobody Walks, co-written with fellow Oberlin alum Lena Dunham and starring John Krasinski and Olivia Thirlby, took on the intimate entanglements of a young filmmaker working on an experimental short while staying at the home of a married Silver Lake couple. Along the way Russo-Young took part in the mumblecore movement, collaborating on and appearing in a few classics of that canon—including the film that launched Greta Gerwig, Joe Swanberg’s Hannah Takes The Stairs.
Before I Fall is something of a departure for Russo-Young. Adapted from the novel by Lauren Oliver and starring young Hollywood standouts Zoey Deutch, Halston Sage and Logan Miller, it tells the story of Samantha (Deutch), a popular girl who relives a Friday over and over again, trying to make things right before a disastrous car crash. This isn’t your average high school romp, though, embracing tough questions about the meaning of life and making the most of our brief time here.
As we chatted over the phone, Russo-Young, 35, was surrounded by the hubbub of the New York City streets on which she grew up, and was contemplative about her own high school experiences and memories. She stressed the importance of films featuring teenagers that embrace the most raw aspects of that age. “I was sitting on the floor of my room, melting wax on my composition diary notebook with a crayon, questioning my existence in a really dark way,” she reminisced. “It’s not like I had a bad teenage-hood, but it’s a really intense time.”
Before I Fall captures the complex and intimate friendships of high school. How did you bring that dynamic from the script to the screen?
That was one of the things that resonated with me specifically about the book—that intimacy of the female relationships. There was a really specific time, right around 11th grade, senior year, where your parents aren’t your primary universe anymore. That struck me as very true. Those relationships are extremely high-stakes because this is the new world order. It’s about talking about that time and that experience with the actors, individually, sometimes together, getting on the same page about what we’re making. Some of it was them spending time together without me, some of it was all rehearsing together, and some was letting them play on set and feel that they can experiment and have the sort of crazy environment where they can bounce off each other in a way that they would in real life.
How do you create that environment on set?
I try to protect the actors from feeling the pressure. There’s such a formalness to set—all these men and cables. The director sets the tone of the set, and if I’m relaxed and encouraging of what the actors are doing, then the set will follow suit. I try to communicate to the actors, in my actions, that it’s OK to try things and play around. There’s no mistakes.
I do everything I can to create all of this, and then part of it is the magic of the actors and what they’re doing, and the magic of the editor. Films really take a village, and I’m just one part of creating that authenticity and magic. I’m delightfully surprised on set when it all comes together and it feels real and special.
There’s a strong female voice and perspective throughout, from the novel to the screenwriter to you. Was finding this kind of project an anomaly?
This is a movie that is a female hero’s journey and the relationships are primarily between women which, believe it or not, is very rare. The reason that I was so attracted to this movie is that it felt like it worked on a lot of different levels. It worked on a philosophical level, and there were a lot of questions about how we live our lives, about time, and self awareness that I felt were really deep and rare, especially a movie about teenage girls asking these heavier questions.
But then also I felt it was rare in all the sense of the dynamics between women—there’s no hero and villain. You figure out that nobody’s evil, everybody’s human and coming from their own unique place that makes them who they are.
You figure out that nobody’s evil, everybody’s human and coming from their own unique place that makes them who they are.
There’s a very specific style on screen—you could feel the cold, the trees, the overcast skies of the Pacific Northwest—what was your approach to the look and the feel of the film?
I took a lot of cues from Sam’s psychological journey. This is a character who’s between life and death, and it’s a very existential voyage for her, so I wanted the visuals to represent that. That was the choice to give it this moody, dramatic, ethereal landscape.
A lot of teen movies, or movies that are focused on the youth experience, have this very over-lit, pop, bright color aesthetic. That’s not necessarily how I felt as a teenager. It’s a really intense time. The movie asks questions about the self that we should all be asking ourselves no matter what age we are. It’s not a movie just for teenagers.
She gets to relive this day over and over to figure out her mistakes. Most of us just have to figure it out over the course of one lifetime.
The entire movie, she’s in this process of “becoming.” Part of our lives is that “becoming” is a permanent process, we’re always continuing to come into ourselves and become more of our true self and on the path of discovering what that is.
What are some of the big challenges that you’ve had to overcome or important lessons that you’ve learned getting to this point?
My motto, the thing that I tell myself a lot, is just “perseverance.” If you look at any director’s career, from Altman to Aronofsky, they have had movies that have been incredibly meaningful to the culture, hits, and other films that have been complete bombs. It’s a process, and it’s been important for me to keep working. It’s hard to be able to do that.
The goal for me is to keep making work, because I love what I do so much. It feels so right in my bones to be able to make things and it is something that I’m really good at. I’m trying to continue to do what I love to do, and to continue to challenge myself.
You’ve also acted in some films. How does that inform how you work with actors?
My experience in front of the camera has certainly made me realize how hard a job acting is, how much vulnerability you have when you’re giving it your all and you’re the one being looked at, putting your emotions out there. How much trust you have to have in the director to be able to really give a performance.
My job as a director is to make sure I earn that trust, and I earn that trust by doing my homework, by being really, really prepared. So much of directing is prep. I do the hard work to know what I’m doing so that nobody doubts me and that I earn the trust of not just the actors but everybody on set.
What are you doing next?
I have a few different things that I’m working on, including this movie about my biological father suing my lesbian mothers for visitation and paternity of me when I was nine years old. It’s been incubating for a while. It’s a very personal movie, like a modern day Kramer vs. Kramer.
Before I fall opens this Friday, March 3.