Ry Russo-Young’s You Wont Miss Me is an uncomfortable piece of filmmaking, which is one of the things I admire about it. The visually and narratologically layered portrait of 23-year-old Shelly, an emotionally volatile aspiring young actress, feels vital for its refusal to represent neither pop nor provocation — the two poles most indie film shelves (or Netflix queues) gravitate toward. Shelly, played by Stella Schnabel, is a complex female character with toughness and vulnerability that are one in the same, neuroses and strengths that are inseparable. If there’s a vaccine for the Manic Pixie Dreamgirl contagion, this is surely it. You Wont Miss Me was recently released on DVD, so I talked with Russo-Young about the uniquely collaborative of the film’s creation, her upcoming project with Lena Dunham (Tiny Furniture), her friends in mumblecore, and boring movies.
You were just in LA wrapping up a new movie, right?
Yeah, I just left. I was surprised to find… the “June Gloom” that everyone’s always talking about. I was like, “This is not what I signed up for! I want it to be sunny!” And everyone was like, oh, it’s June gloom a few months early.
Yeah, we like to pretend that we have actual weather patterns but they’re based more on rhyme than on actual meteorological data.
That could definitely be the name of a movie: June Gloom.
You should call the one you just finished shooting that.
Yeah, exactly. June Gloom. But, I really love California. My whole immune system just feels healthier when I’m out there.
It’s probably the super-clean air in LA.
Maybe the nature. I know there’s all that pavement and exhaust, but there’s still a lot of green on every block.
I read a great book called Ecology of Fear by Mike Davis, and he says L.A. is actually the most wild, natural city in the country. There’s so much border with raw nature because it butts up against the mountains where you can’t build. So there are more insects than any city, and tons of opossums and raccoons and mountain lions.
I saw a raccoon while I was hanging out drinking a beer on a patio in West Hollywood.
So now you can tell everyone that L.A.’s totally wild. Can you talk about the new movie?
Actually, probably not. I don’t know, but I would err on the side of “no” so that nobody gets mad at me. But I could just say that I was shooting a movie in L.A. that I cowrote with Leena Dunham [of Tiny Furniture fame] and it’s called Nobody Walks and Olivia Thirlby [Bored to Death, Juno], John Krasinski [The Office], and Rosemarie DeWitt [Rachel Getting Married] are in it. I just cut my first sequence yesterday, and I feel like it’s going to be really good. I can feel it already even though it’s really early.
“So I made this very really dark, beautiful, self-conscious film, and it wasn’t received the way that I wanted it to be.”
Cool. Did you have that feeling with You Wont Miss Me?
I didn’t have that so consistently with You Won’t Miss Me because I didn’t always know what I was doing, to the extent that I do now. I didn’t know what it was, in a way, which was part of what made it exciting and interesting. I was always modifying it, it was like a piece of clay. It was always evolving.
Do you think you can feel that in the finished product? Because sometimes I feel like I can, but at the same time, the character feels so coherent and finished that nothing seems made up on the spot.
Well I think that just because something’s evolving and changing and partially made up doesn’t mean that it’s not whole. I think you can feel a certain spontaneity and rawness in the film, but I do agree that the main character’s super consistent. And I don’t think there’s anything vague about You Wont Miss Me, or like there’s anything indecisive about it. But I think it just talks a different language – its mode of communication is completely different.
Right, well, like what the director character said in the audition scene in You Won’t Miss Me. His whole shtick was about process, right?
Yeah, totally. You know that’s Aaron Katz [director of Cold Weather], right? Greta Gerwig was in that scene, too.
And Joe Swanberg was at the table, right? You’ve collaborated with some of those people before.
I was in Hanna Takes the Stairs, where I played Greta Gerwig’s roommate. I met Joe a few years ago and he asked me to be in his movie Hanna Takes the Stairs, so I spent a summer hanging out with him making the movie. That’s how I knew all of them and was friends with them. It was probably in 2006. I’d collaborated with Aaron before, too – I met him at SXSW.
It seems like maybe people will lump you in with that mumblecore crowd since the camerawork in You Won’t Miss Me is shaky sometimes. Do you see your filmmaking as part of the whole mumblecore scene?
The thing is, I don’t really feel like I have a kind of filmmaking. It’s more like every movie that I approach is completely different in its kind of filmmaking. Whether it’s shaky camera, whether it’s shot on one format or five, or if that cast is just people or actors or whatever – it’s completely dependent on the material. You Won’t Miss Me has some mumblecore elements, with those modes of partially improvised stuff and other similarities and overlap, but I think it is pretty different. But the kind of films that I want to make and made before and will make, will probably be completely different.
When I made You Won’t Miss Me I felt like I had nothing to lose because I had just made this other movie that I had shot that was really highly scripted, like a play, where these two sisters kind of torture themselves and each other. I was really into Igmar Bergman’s Persona, it’s really bleak, it all takes place in a blizzard. So I made this very really dark, beautiful, self-conscious film, and it wasn’t received the way that I wanted it to be. I felt at the time like nobody understood. But it was a first movie. Now when I look at it, I’m like oh God – it feels really precious to me, the way that a lot of first films feel, like “This is what I have to say!” There’s not enough self-awareness and comedy to it that I think saves things from being a little too over the top.
Then I acted in Hanna Takes the Stairs. Because it was improvised, there were things about it that I thought were really interesting that you couldn’t necessarily get out of something that was scripted. And so this whole thing just felt refreshing to me – improvising and basing things on what you’re interested in and focusing on character development. So a part of me was pulling from that.
The process was super collaborative, right?
Yeah. Stella Schnabel [the lead actress] and I sat down and wrote a biography of the character, like where she went to school, how old she was, what movies she liked, and all this basic actor-exercise stuff. Then we sat down and I interviewed her for three hours in character and filmed it.
“Just because something’s evolving and changing and partially made up doesn’t mean that it’s not whole.”
Did any of those interviews make it into the film?
Yeah, that’s what a lot of the voiceover is. So after that we mapped out what the movie was going to be while we were waiting for money and grants. We shot what we could do cheaply while we waited for money for more expensive formats. We had another interview towards the end of the filming, too. And I was editing as we went along.
Was the decision to use different formats because of funding, or was it a stylistic thing, too?
It was definitely a stylistic thing. But it’s hard to say that completely. If I had been able to shoot on 35 millimeter film, would I have? I wouldn’t have made this movie. If I would have had $5 million, I wouldn’t have made this movie. So it’s always about, in part, what resources you have available to work with. But I felt like to be able to make a small movie about a character that is emotionally diverse and volatile – and to really see that character and know them and feel them – the best incarnation of that would be to see all these physical textures, and each texture would express a different emotional state.
It makes you work more piecing it together, making it a coherent whole as an aesthetic object. Just like you have to do with her as a character. How did you meet Stella and decide you wanted to work with her?
My best friend growing up was Stella’s older sister. My first friend, literally. So I knew Stella as my best friend’s younger sister, which means I didn’t know her very well, but at the same time, I knew her really well because I’d grown up going over to her house. I ran into her in New York after going to college and finishing my first film, and she told me, “I’m acting now.” And we just hung out and this thing emerged.
It’s cool when somehow the combination of two people can generate something. Because, you know, I sit down with people a lot and I feel like I’m trying to generate something and then nothing really comes—
Are you talking about this interview? No, I’m just kidding! Was your previous improvising as an actress in Hanna Takes the Stairs really different than it was this time on the other side of the camera?
It was totally different. It was a really different process. But having been in Joe’s movie, when I went to approach a character I thought, “Oh, I have to really know who I’m playing, otherwise, what am I doing?” So I made up all this stuff about who I was just for myself in that movie. And I think that that process of character development, which is just stuff they have you do in acting school, really helps. Just things like knowing what kind of music your character liked in 5th grade – all those little tiny details. That’s the first thing Stella and I did with You Wont Miss Me. But what I didn’t expect was that doing that much development on a character could actually make the character so interesting.
“… I didn’t always know what I was doing, to the extent that I do now. I didn’t know what it was, in a way.”
I’ve never actually thought about actors having to think up stuff that isn’t in the film.
Oh totally. Backstory. That’s something I did in my next film. If the actors are married, what was their wedding like? Does he get along with her mom?
Did you communicate that with the actors in the new film or was it for yourself?
I did some of that work for myself when developing the characters, but if the actors are really good – and they were – then they do that on their own. But we talked about it a little bit, me and the actors, about backstory that was related to the film.
So, I just read an article in The New York Times about the bias against boring movies. Not that You Wont Miss Me is boring.
Like Tree of Life or something?
Yeah. Any Terrence Malick movie. Or even Shoah, when it came out, the New Yorker critic Pauline Kael trashed it, even though probably if anything deserves you to sit there for 9 hours, that’s probably it. But she complained about being bored. I just thought it’s interesting.
I saw Tree of Life in L.A. and at the very end, someone yelled out, “Can someone tell me what that means?” And I was like, why do you need to be told what that means? Can’t you be comfortable with not knowing what it means? Why is not knowing what it means so petrifying? One of the things that was so amazing to me was that I’ve been thinking about what it means for the past two weeks. It’s alive inside of me, that movie. Why are we afraid of that as a culture – to have something be percolating, or to have it mess with our sense of time? I mean, when something is riveting, it can be forever or it can be short – it doesn’t matter, it’s either holding your attention or it’s not. That’s one of the things that’s so amazing about Bergman to me, you’re on the edge of your seat the entire time. But Tarkovsky puts me to sleep, you know?