By now, we all know the trajectory of Lena Dunham: Born in New York, studied at Oberlin, came out swinging with Tiny Furniture, and then began media domination with her triple threat (writing, director, starring) in Girls. But for fellow director Ry Russo-Young, watching Dunham's rise possessed a different type of meaning: It eerily reflected Russo-Young's own life, too.
"We've had the same exact education," Russo-Young says. Both her and Dunham went to St. Ann's (in Brooklyn), and then headed to Oberlin, and each found their own way into filmmaking — and telling stories about young women in a time of turmoil. Though they didn't know each other (Russo-Young is older than Dunham) at the time, the two have since connected and have collaborated on Nobody Walks, a film the two wrote together and Russo-Young directed. (Her last film was also a collaboration of sorts: The Stella Schnabel-starring feature film You Wont Miss Me.)
On the surface, the film appears to be well-trod territory for Dunham fans. A 23-year-old New York artist named Martine (played by a pixie-haired Olivia Thirlby) heads to Los Angeles to live in the poolhouse of Julie (Rosemarie DeWitt) and Peter (John Krasinski). But this is where the similarities end: Nobody Walks is much more of an ensemble piece with Martine at the center, while Girls (or even Tiny Furniture) deals with the weird minutia of being a young woman. Peter is supposed to assist Martine with the sound production of a film she is working on, but her arrival unleashes a host of desire from Peter, Julie, their teenaged daughter, Peter's assistant — everyone who Martine encounters.
We caught up with Russo-Young to talk about the collaborative process, working with Dunham, and advice for budding filmmakers everywhere.
So, tell us quickly about how you and Lena approached this film:
"I cowrote this with her. We wrote it for me to direct it, from the beginning. I think she enjoyed the challenge of writing for something that she wasn't going to make...and I was just excited to have someone to write with! After working on You Wont Miss Me with Stella, I was happy to collaborate again."
You seem interested in female characters who are in a moment of crisis...especially in their early 20s.
"I think that's a really traumatic time in young women's lives. That's the first real moment they are really out on their own. I tend to write from fear, I think. A fear of what I'll become or what'll happen to me. I think that period is a sort of elusive period of time. You are supposed to be an adult, everybody sees you as an adult, but you are not an adult, yet, really. You aren't quite mature enough. You are learning the social codes of what it means to be a woman...kind of the hard way. By screwing up. That was kind of my experience, anyway.
And I do feel like there's a lot of young women who I see now who are in that phase."
Well, Lena Dunham is making an entire show about that era. And it appears to be resonating with young women...and men.
"This is very different though, as a movie. It is way more narrative, but it has a darkness to its tone. It is less humorous...It's not like Martine is this character you identify with the whole time. You kind of see eye to eye with her, but you also have to think how 'on her side' you are."
Photography by Kava Gorna
How did you and Lena end up working together?
"We met at a party shortly after she graduated. We didn't know each other in college. We just totally got along. We swapped works. She gave me her featurette before Tiny Furniture that she made, and I gave her You Wont Miss Me. We just had a lot to talk about. It felt very fast and natural and organic.
So, you have all these female writers from large cities who have a very honest, unfiltered perspective on what it's like to be a normal young woman, and how that can be, oftentimes, not very flattering. Is this a zeitgeist?
"Are you talking specifically about Girls? Opportunities always enable other opportunities, and ships rise together. It was like Bridesmaids, and everyone was like, 'Oh God, there are female movies to be had!' I think we are in a moment — especially in television — where we are open to hearing from younger female characters. But we see that manifesting itself in a lot of different places, whether it be Breaking Bad or Homeland...and Girls. They are all totally different shows, but they all feel so fresh to me.
There's so much going on socially, with the election, and the 'War on Women,' and both of those events are really potent. Girls are being threatened in a really aggressive way, and there is a reaction to that. It's really nice that there can be an antidote to that. But that's something I've always been really into."
Well, up until recently, you had a flawed female depicted as a "manic pixie dream girl," and saw girls who were pretty and quirky and they had problems, but not ugly problems. And now there are a group of women who are writing about how Natalie Portman-with-headphones isn't what it's like to be a troubled young woman. Would you consider yourself in that conversation?
"In a way, yeah. Because I am a young woman making art...about other fucked up young women making art, and how they fuck up. There's pressure to have really likable characters, and I don't always have characters in my movies who are adorable. They really do questionable things. That's more interesting for me to watch."
Photo: Magnolia Pictures/Nicholas Trikonis
Because you have worked with smaller casts (and one movie with a friend), do you think that has made you a more collaborative director?
"Yes. I am really collaborative, and I think that's exciting. I want to work with people who have something really wonderful to offer, and to not listen to them is to kind of shut-down possibilities."
Your last movie was distinctly New York, and this one takes place in Los Angeles. How was it heading to the other coast?
"Well, it all felt new to me. Even the really iconic stuff. Like, in the editing room, we'd have arguments and someone would be like, 'That shot is in every other movie about Los Angeles.' And I would be like, 'Is it? No it's not! It looks amazing! It should be in there; it should be iconic!'
Coming from independent cinema, can you give young filmmakers a five-step plan to making a movie?
"Totally. I figured out what I was good at, where I was strong, and where I wasn't. I tried to have people fill in the gaps of what I'm not good at. I tried to get everybody excited and care about the project the way I care about the project. You can't do it alone. You need other people to rally, and you need to use everybody's skills. But mostly, it's determination and not letting anything get in the way. What keeps people back is fear..."
"Yeah, but you don't need that much money to make a film now. You can buy a camcorder for like $50, or you can shoot it on your iPhone. And if it's good, it'll play a festival. If someone shoots six films on their iPhone, the seventh might be good. I think it's about practicing your craft.
You know, the thing that helped me make two independent feature films was that I was kind of relentless. I just continued to work on it, whether I thought it was bad or not."
Nobody Walks is out now, and available On Demand.
Photo: Magnolia Pictures/Nicholas Trikonis
Portrait by Kava Gorna/Jed Root