A Conversation with Ry Russo-Young (BEFORE I FALL)
I recently spoke by phone with filmmaker Ry Russo-Young on the occasion of the release of her delightful new fourth feature, Before I Fall (here is my review). Her previous three films are Nobody Walks (2012) – nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance – You Won’t Miss Me (2009) and Orphans (2007). This new project is based on the 2010 bestseller of the same title, by Lauren Oliver, and tells the story of what happens when a teenage girl dies in a car accident and is then forced to relive the same day over and over again until she can figure out what fate requires her to do to change the outcome. The film stars Zoey Deutch (Vampire Academy), Jennifer Beals (Flashdance) and Halston Sage (Paper Towns), among others. Here is a condensed digest of our conversation, edited for clarity.
Hammer to Nail: So I really enjoyed your film, which is interesting, since I do not consider myself part of the target demographic. I wanted to ask you, to start with, about what drew you to the material. Did you first read the book (which I just read, myself), or did the screenplay, by Maria Maggenti, come to you first?
Ry Russo-Young: The screenplay came first, from my agent, when it was set up at [the production company] Fox 2000 – it was going to be a studio movie – and I read it and I had one meeting, and then didn’t hear back until a year later, when I got another call from my agent, and she said, “The studio’s not making the movie anymore; they’re going to go the indie route. Are you interested? They want a Sundance director.” That means they were going to make it for a third of the budget they would have made it for at the studio. And I said yes, I absolutely would be interested, because it was one of the few scripts I had read where I felt like there was a…it surprised me…I was kind of ready to write the movie off, and wasn’t sure that I was on board for the first twenty minutes of it, and then I was really impressed by the deeper questions about time, and the other philosophical questions and emotions, and it moved me. And then I read the book.
HtN: That’s funny, because that’s a little bit of what I felt while watching the film. For the first twenty minutes, I wondered whether I was going to like it, just because it takes place in a well-trod world of the high-school film, with these slightly meanish girls, and then, yeah, the story totally changes, and becomes much more profound than I had thought it would be, and moving in many ways.
RR-Y: It’s very deliberate. It’s sort of a psych-out, in terms of taking on the familiar genre of the trite teen film about these young women. We’re intentionally, in that first act, letting the audience think that it’s that kind of movie, that [the main character] Sam’s major conflict in Act I is whether she’s going to lose her virginity to her asshole boyfriend, and that’s a trope of the teen genre. So it’s very referential, in terms of the slow-motion of the four girls coming towards the camera. I did a lot of the things that I had seen in other teen movies, to kind of connote that idea of a world that we are familiar with.
So one of the things is that Sam is part of a herd; she’s a member of the crowd, and she doesn’t take responsibility for her own actions. She’s a follower, and she kind of thinks that she will float along and everything will work out for her. She’s young and she’s pretty and everything is OK. And then, as the film progresses, it’s really about her own sense of self-determination and awareness, and this moral reckoning of realizing that her actions matter, and how she treats other people has an effect. And so that’s when we lose the language of the teen movie – and the herd – and we start to zero in on Sam, and what’s going on inside.
HtN: That’s a great way to describe the experience I had watching the film. And you streamline the story a little bit from novel to screen in a way that I think actually improves it. I don’t know if it was already in the script or not, but you avoid certain plot details that I don’t think help the story that much, and I appreciated those changes once I had read the book.
RR-Y: Well, Maria Maggenti, who wrote the screenplay, did a lot of the heavy lifting, in terms of streamlining the story, taking out things that weren’t critical. The book takes place over 7 days; she decided to make it 6. She really was always cognizant of the psychological state of Sam, and sort of intuitively really understood that the whole movie was dependent upon the emotional psychology of where that character is on every single day. And if that wasn’t clear, then you would have a lot of repetition, and the film would be very boring. So she kept it very fresh on every day, and that was a great gift to me.
HtN: Right. Now, you say she simplified it from 7 to 6 days, but there is a moment in the film where you have a little montage of Sam waking up that reminds me of a similar technique in Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day, where we get the sense that once we’ve established the rules of this particular world, you don’t have to show us every day. I got the impression, from that moment, that unlike in the book, where it is very clear that it’s 7 exact days, this could have been going on forever.
RR-Y: For eternity.
HtN: Yes, for eternity.
RR-Y: And that was a choice we made in the edit room. Joe Landauer was our fantastic editor and he’s a brilliant man, who should take a lot of credit for the film. He and I heavily debated…because it was scripted as 6 days, very clearly, just like the book was very clearly 7 days…and then we added that montage in the edit room, in the Groundhog Day sense, of do we want to make it multiple days. And because I had done a lot of Nietzchean philosophical research on the idea of eternity, and time, and the time-loop movie, and cyclical time vs. linear time, it felt like it fit very well into the philosophical context of the scenes to have the idea of her living this day for eternity planted within. So it’s 6 distinct days, but then yes, you’re right, in the center is this idea that she’s doing this over and over again. And that’s what gets her, psychologically, to the nihilistic day.
HtN: It also, potentially, leaves open the idea – no overly precise plot spoilers here – that unlike in the book, where we have a clearly tragic, though optimistically tragic, ending, one could read into your movie this idea that, no, this is still going to continue.
RR-Y: Interesting …
HtN: (laughs) If one wanted to read it that way, I feel like that montage in the middle supports that.
HtN: So what motivated the choice to shoot in the Pacific Northwest, since the book takes place in Connecticut? Was that just convenience? I mean, it’s a beautiful location.
RR-Y: That was sort of a major change I made from the book, and that was because I felt that the darkness of the subject matter, and the angst and the drama that Sam’s going through – her existential angst – were supported by that landscape, visually. The landscape offered an amazing visual metaphor for all of these themes, with jagged rocks, and cliffs and the deep, dark forest, and the fog, and all of the rain that’s almost like tears. All of that, to me, felt very applicable to what the movie is about and for a character who is between life and death. It had a kind of magical realism to it. So I was really excited to shoot in Vancouver.
HtN: That makes a lot of sense. What about the high school, itself? It’s such an amazing high school. Was it your location manager who found that? Did you see it and just know it had to be your high school? I love that location.
RR-Y: Well, the location manager showed me 10 high schools – maybe 10 to 15 – and I visited probably about 4, and I fell in love with that one. It’s actually also the high school from Jennifer’s Body. The amount of glass makes the movie feel modern. It’s definitely an aspirational high school, shall we say…(laughs)…architecturally, at least.
HtN: (laughs) But it’s unusual. I mean, it might have been in Jennifer’s Body, but it doesn’t look or feel like the typical movie high school. Speaking of “Jennifer,” I wanted to segue into a question about the cast. There are only two cast members that I really recognized from other things – maybe I’m not watching the right movies – and they were Jennifer Beals (obviously) and then Zoey Deutch. And they were both great. Can you talk about how you found them? And just, in general, how you cast. Because it is also interesting how, in the book, the popular girls come across, outside of their different personalities, as racially and ethnically homogenous. You cast differently, in the movie, and it’s a wonderful group of young women, so if you could just talk about the casting process.
RR-Y: So I think a lot of credit should go to Awesomeness Films, which financed the movie, because they allowed me to go through the audition process and were open to having people who weren’t specifically huge names and letting me find the characters and the girls who were going to be appropriate for the parts. And that’s not always the case in moviemaking.
So I auditioned a ton of young women, and when I saw Zoey’s audition, I felt like I was watching Samantha Kingston in a moment of high-stakes turmoil. It didn’t feel like a director watching an audition, and I was completely sucked in by her performance, and so much of this movie is dependent upon getting inside the psychology of Sam’s head. And that’s something that a book can do more easily than a movie can. And I felt that Zoey, as an actress, had a certain level of emotional transparency that was required for the role, as well as range – but it’s kind of like she’s playing 6 different roles, in a way –and it’s a challenging part, and she was really able to carry that off.
So I was thrilled to find her, and then while I was going through the auditions, I was making notes about building the ensemble around her. And yeah, in terms of representation, I think we need more diverse representation on screen, and that’s something that I remember feeling when I was a teenager, wanting to see myself on screen. And I know that is a huge issue that there’s a lot of conversation about right now, but it’s also just about doing it, and so, when I found Cynthy Wu and Medalion Rahimi, they had such great personalities, and they seemed so much like these characters, and were so smart and incredible … it was a joy to work with them. And certainly Halston Sage was a real find, and she had just been in Paper Towns – she played sort of the other girl, not Cara Delevingne …
HtN: And Halston Sage plays Lindsay [the main popular girl] …
RR-Y: Yes, exactly. And she and I had a lot of conversations about not wanting to create a sort of stereotypical mean girl.
HtN: Well, that’s the appeal in both the book and the movie, that none of them are stereotypically one thing or another. That’s, I think, the point, that everyone is capable of being a multifaceted person, even if you have chosen one particular role in life, or at least at that point in your life.
RR-Y: Yes, exactly. And I always think about in terms of “there is no hero and there is no villain.” And I like to think that every character could have their own movie about them and that would be a fascinating movie.
HtN: Yes, indeed.
RR-Y: And the one thing I want to say about Jennifer Beals is that I always wanted her from the beginning. I think she is an extremely underrated, incredible actress, and I was complete committed to casting her, and thrilled that could happen, and it was a joy to work with her. She is a very smart and generous human being.
HtN: And she doesn’t have a lot of screen time, but that scene with her daughter in the car, when Sam turns to her and says, “I think you’re beautiful,” is a really sweet scene.
RR-Y: And I think it’s a scene that’s really unexpected. You know, we kind of think, within the genre, that the mom character is just there to be a mom. Those parts are usually very limited. So it really hits you off guard when her status is elevated.
HtN: Right. So one final question. I have to admit that I have not seen your other work. So I’m curious how you see this film – its story and themes – fitting into your overall œuvre, so far. Is this a radical departure? How does it stand in your work, as you see it?
RR-Y: So the first thing I would say before answering that is that I do not think this is a movie just for teenage girls. I think because of the questions that it asks, these larger questions about who you want to be before you die, it’s actually a movie for everyone, or that everyone can benefit from seeing. I’ve had a 60-year-old man come up to me, crying, saying that the movie really got to him, so I think that’s always something important to mention. But in terms of my own work, I take ownership of this movie as I do all of my other movies. And a lot of my other movies are about young women struggling with self-awareness and coming into who they are, and struggling with how to be in the world and how to navigate themselves. And so it all comes from the same place, even though I didn’t write this book and didn’t write the script. I love it!
HtN: And it spoke to you, so…
RR-Y: Yeah, it spoke to me, emotionally and personally. It’s what I struggle with. It’s what I’m going through, in my life. Throughout my whole life. And so it’s meaningful to me.
HtN: Well, I’m a 48-year-old man, and I was moved by it, so there you go!
RR-Y: That’s really important and meaningful to me. I love that and I want more people to say that.
HtN: Well, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me.
RR-Y: Nice to meet you and chat with you, too.
HtN: You take care, and good luck with the film!
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)