Ry Russo-Young on the Virgins, Patti Smith, and Capturing the Modern Nihilist on Film


New York-based Ry Russo-Young is no newbie to the indie film scene. After graduating from Oberlin in 2003, she made a super 8 short called Marion that deconstructed Psycho; it earned critical buzz at Tribeca and SXSW, which led to her debut feature film, Orphans. In 2007 Ry appeared in Joe Swanberg’s mumblecore masterpiece Hannah Takes the Stairs, and even more recently she worked on artist Doug Aitken’s large-scale film installation at the MoMA, Sleepwalkers.

Ry’s second feature film You Won’t Miss Me — which she describes as “a kaleidoscopic film portrait of Shelly Brown, a twenty-three-year-old alienated urban misfit recently released from a psychiatric hospital” — will screen at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Watch the trailer here, and find our IM interview with her after the jump.

1:23:42 PM Caroline: Did you realize when you Google your film’s title, this Craig’s List post comes up first.

1:26:39 PM ry: That’s amazing, especially the part that says,“…who do I claim to be? Who do I defend? And how can I be honest with my beliefs and positions and still be respected…” It’s definitely a relevant voice for the movie. I like the idea that the title is more than the film itself, but also the voice of this married lady who, in her words, is addicted to CL. Her and Shelly Brown, while different on the surface, they both have a dire need to understand their place in the world.

1:28:31 PM Caroline: Were you in that head space? Or was it Stella [Schnabel]? I’ve been there. I think I was a little older than Shelly though, like 25.

1:30:02 PM ry: Yeah, it seems like a lot of people are in that space at some point in their lives. I’ve been in and out, but to be honest I’m not even sure what that head space is exactly — it’s kind of an elusive thing and that is what makes it interesting.

1:31:04 PM Caroline: Was making this film draining? Parts of it are pretty gut-wrenching to watch.

1:32:14 PM ry: Hmm. At times it was exhausting, as most films are, but for the most part it was more fun than the other films I’ve made. I think I was more relaxed on set.

1:32:33 PM Caroline: Because you were working with so many friends?

1:33:17 PM ry: Because I was more confident in what I was doing and I didn’t feel the need to control everything. I’m sure the fact that I trusted Stella’s choices so much helped too, but the ability to trust was a skill I’ve learned over time. Over trial and error — and through instinct.

1:34:51 PM Caroline: I was just going to ask if you felt a progression from Marion to Orphans to where you are now.

1:35:39 PM ry: Totally. Every movie is different but an outgrowth of the one before in some way. Orphans was super controlled in style and for You Won’t Miss Me, I wanted to do something much more free and modern. And funny.

1:40:43 PM Caroline: The Virigins, how did they come to the film? And the soundtrack in general — are you a big music person?

1:45:16 PM ry: Stella told me that the Virgins were playing in Atlantic City and that she thought they would be good in the movie. This was early enough in the process of making the movie that we could be more flexible in terms of gathering content. So I decided that the lead character Shelly Brown would go see the band with a friend she didn’t know very well. Then I cast Carlen Altman as the friend. Will Bates, who composed the score, I met five years ago through my friend Victoria Asher. We stayed in touch and he’s made music for commercials but wanted to get into film stuff, so we started working together. It was a long process of perfecting the score. The music is so integral to the movie. Wills was patient enough to find the right sounds. We used harmonium for some of it which has such a specific, almost soulful growl.

1:53:32 PM Caroline: It really captures the downtown scene. Was that something you were trying to do, or did it just happen?

1:54:51 PM ry: I was trying to capture the psychological mindset of our age and time. I didn’t think about it in terms of a scene or specific group of people, more a feeling of wanting so much but at the same time a total nihilism. Shelly Brown was the most potent outlet for that.

2:00:56 PM Caroline: Is she someone you’d be friends with?

2:02:15 PM ry: Yeah, I would be friends with Shelly but I also imagine that she would make it hard. I think Shelly is very empathetic but also fatally flawed. Human.

2:06:14 PM Caroline: Ok, last question. If you had to take someone’s life and turn it into a film, who would it be?

2:07:38 PM ry: Maybe Patti Smith. That’s a tough one.

2:10:23 PM Caroline: Did you see Dream of Life?

2:10:33 PM ry: Yeah, it’s so pretty.

2:10:43 PM Caroline: I can’t believe Steven Sebring took more than 10 years to shoot it. That’s commitment.

2:10:47 PM ry: I’d want to do her story and Mapplethorpe’s too.

2:11:13 PM Caroline: I agree with that.