Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Ry Russo-Young

Article originally published in The Pictures Zine issue 2

It’s two years since the New York IFC’s “The New Talkies: Generation D.I.Y.” screenings, a programme that collected ten low budget features, all made by a group of loosely knit friends and accquaintances. The films were low key and naturalistic, dealing with everyday lives, youth and relationships. Though each was in itself a distinctive work, the friendships between the filmmakers - often working on eachother’s films - and their sharing of casts, crews and some stylistic features (many of which arose due to low budgets) led to talk of a new film movement. Owing to their understated, conversational aesthetic, the term “mumblecore” was coined to describe the films and their makers.

The class of 2007 has come a long way in the past two years. Budgets have increased and projects become more ambitious, and the mumblecore term shed once and for all. Ry Russo-Young, who directed sisterly drama Orphans and featured in Joe Swanberg’s mumblecore who’s who Hannah Takes The Stairs, has just released her second feature, You Won’t Miss Me, which premiered at Sundance to wide acclaim.

“I think it’s great that we are all still friends and care about eachother’s work,” she says in reference to the mumblecore years. “I think being grouped in with some fellow filmmaker friends didn’t really help or hurt me, it was just part of a moment in time that has now passed. There will be more moments like that. Seems like everyone is doing good, we all have many years ahead of us still to make films and progress, and I’m looking forward to being there.”

Orphans, released in 2007, always stood a little apart from the other films, whose plots generally focussed on romantic relationships. Instead, Orphans is a tale of two estranged sisters whose birthday party reunion prompts the unravelling of secrets and long held deceptions that threaten to destroy both siblings. Heightened by the strong performances of stars Lily Wheelwright and James Katherine Flynn, the film is often tense, claustrophobic and surreal, and always heartfelt. The games played by the two sisters, both mental and real, reflect Ry’s own childhood, much of which was spent inside her own head.

“I would constantly play what my parents called ‘imaginary games’, this would often involve costumes and elaborate stories of princesses being taken away and sent to orphanages, train rides and narrow escapes and rescues…school wasn’t easy for me, I was dyslexic and had a really hard time learning to read. The school I went to tried to kick me out on account of my not being able to read but my moms fought tooth and nail and hired a tutor to teach me. I studied with this lady Nita for years and learned how my brain worked. I learned to be very disciplined.”

Ry went about putting this discipline to good use, finding a love in acting. “When I discovered acting as a tween, I realised there was a socially acceptable term for what I had loved to do my whole life.” Taking parts in school plays, getting head shots, begging her mothers for an agent, she was determined to fully explore her passions and make them her life. A class in high school awoke her love of photography and she took a series of dramatised, episodic self portraits, damsels in distress (“when my photography teacher showed me Cindy Sherman I was deeply disappointed that somebody had my idea before me.”)

Before leaving for college her passions coalesced. “I made a film with my best friend from childhood, the same one I used to play imaginary games with as a kid, and all these things clicked. Acting, images, narrative and fantasy gelled into one medium that felt right in my bones.” Guided by her college tutor, “an Iranian filmmaker named Amir Naderi [who] made great big films in Iran and then came to America and started making lower budget films with tiny crews”, Ry began making her own films. Amir was a great influence on the young filmmaker. “He would recommend films for me to watch and then we’d meet and talk about them. He helped my develop my taste and confidence…when I had an idea for a movie about a boy who can’t read and enters a dream world with his teacher who is a ballerina, he pushed me to go out and make it for no money.”

Ry continued experimenting and working, releasing Marion in 2005. An eight minute short on three screens, the film wittily deconstructs the shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho, showing three alternate versions of the event. The film won awards for Best Experimental Short at the 2005 Chicago and 2006 SXSW films festivals, setting the scene for the production of Orphans, which was made with the same spirit of experimentation. The film reflects different mental states by segueing between different formats and aspect ratios. It’s an idea that’s taken further in You Won’t Miss Me.

“The whole film is shot on five different formats,” Ry explains, “each format expresses the character’s psychological state. When she’s feeling very bad about herself we shot on a 1 chip flip camera that looks all pixelated and crappy. We also shot on Super 8, 16mm, HD and DV.” But crucial to the effectiveness of this mix of formats is the flow of the film, reflecting the flow of genuine feeling. “The formats are constantly changing and yet it all feels fluid, like the broken pieces of a mirror being slowly glued together. I love each medium for what it brings to the table.”

You Won’t Miss Me follows Shelly Brown, a 23 year old actress recently released from psychiatric care. She wanders through New York situations and social circles, from a psychiatrists office to coke fuelled loft parties. The film stars Stella Schnabel and “other notable New York personalities” – actors and non-actors, friends and accquaintances – and has been praised for its mixed aesthetic.

It’s an aesthetic that seems particularly suited to modern times, and one which is being explored on multiple fronts. See Harmony Korine’s Mister Lonely or recent films by Lukas Moodysson. It is perhaps particularly suited to (and influenced by) recently available technology and the plethora of different media available both to view and to work in. Internet distribution is a big and growing part of this picture. “The internet is definitely becoming a viable form of distribution as more people go there for content,” says Ry, “I think we are going to see a lot more creativity and fluidity between internet and film content. We are going to see films more directly having a gaming and web based component to them.”

But this is just one of the fronts to keep an eye on for Ry’s work in future. The door from DIY to multiplex is not closed, and so it shouldn’t be. “I would cast known actors and work within the studio system and get more traditional funding. There are advantages and limitations to every budget and mode of filmmaking. Working in the way that I have has given me a lot of creative freedom but it’s not the only way to make a movie. I think you can still be creative and work within a system.”

But even as budgets and audiences grow, that D.I.Y., low budget, mumblecore – whatever – spirit, manifesto, remains, in Ry’s work as it does her contemporaries. Voices remain raised and ideas and feelings still hold true. “The manifesto is that you believe what you want to make is important, that it’s necessary and that it belongs in the world. Does cost reflect quality? I think most people can take a look around at Hollywood movies and say absolutely not. I think what is necessary is that we make sure that the films we do make (whatever their budget) are important, necessary and truthful.”

However high the budgets grow, it seems that Ry Russo-Young’s experimental nature and unique perspectives will stay firmly in place. Up next is a family ensemble feature in L.A., “kind of like The Ice Storm meets The Long Goodbye, it’s a very sexy movie.”

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Tom Moore

Article originally in The Pictures Zine #2

Sleeping Beauty carefully folds a note, 'I AM WAITING TO BE FOUND BY YOU X' and lays down surrounded by tissue paper roses, their petals stained red by her lips. Aeroplanes pass over her gothic palace. The credits appear.

Tom Moore's DV films are steeped in mythologies and haunted by fairytales. Each short, succinct scenario resonates with a very old kind of romance. Old Hollywood melodarma mixes with defiant punk rock sloganeering in a sleepy world inhabited by a reverie of costume characters. Circus people stranded in a town, a tentacled kid in a tree, a man wearing Jackie Curtis' eyes, all moving through the film's psychological space and owning it at the same time, projecting into it. It is of them and belongs to them. Though each film, character, is in itself a world, the films together constitute a larger world - carnivalesque, surreal and filled with icons.

The world of Tom's films is familiar from the mythologies that inform it, be it demonology (The Devil's Eyes), pulp crime (Ding Dongs) or, in one of his most personal films, his father's football career (Equalizer).

Like silent movies made by punks, the films move through deceptively simple narratives, whole images made up of parts invested with histories that tell the story of their characters, seen to in the detail and care put into each expressive makeshift costume or mise en scene. Tom's characters stand glamorous in despair and optimistic in shit. A murder is commited with a sword and not a gun. The tentacle kid faces parliament to protest his lovers' incarceration in bracelets. Each isolated character draws on their history and heroes for strength.

The films are about romance and heroism, or the search for these things though they seem elusive in modern times. They're about the hope to overcome, and the original, very old, notion where films equate to dreams.

THE PICTURES: What first drew you to filmmaking?

TOM: Well, I was writing songs that had stories in them and some of them you couldn't set to music and I always watched lots of films so there was this one story that I decided to make into a film which is The Devil's Eyes and it was, it went OK but there are certain things like, it's harder to say with films but when I started making music I heard Suicide's first album and it was really like wow, I could make music that's like this, I love this music. With films it's harder to pinpoit although there are some, like I saw some of the Warhol films and I saw fragments of Kenneth Anger ones and the Jack Smith films and it seems really, like, friends of mine who'd made films before, I'd acted in some of their films, I don't know, I know someone who's trying to make a film at the moment that I work with who is making, it's like they're making it as if she were a Hollywood studio and is looking for a cinematographer... Just seeing people make films that they were doing all on their own and they knew exactly what they wanted and every step that they took was something that they could do and something that they could do well and they came out with really beautiful films and you don't need to be like the head of this big organisation to do it. It's slightly more complicated than some things but it's really not a difficult thing to do once you know what you want.

TP: How would you describe your aesthetic? What are your influences?

TM: I'm interested in drama quite a lot but also other things. I was talking with a friend of mine abut my camera the other day, and my camera is actually quite a big influence in that it doesn't have a viewfinder, so all of the things have to be looked at on this tiny little screen, so everything that I shoot tends to be in closeup, which when I discovered that most of my films are in closeup and this is why I was a little embarassed, but aside from that, the aesthetic, that is heap, quite cheap but also I mean it's quite cheap in that the first thought is the best thought in a lot of ways and a lot of things that aren't thoughts are important, like just I hesitate to say what's natural, but a little bit what's natural and a little bit of what's not thought out. I really like drawing and so things tend to tend towards that, like movement and that kind of thing, caught up in this art practise and the kind of Warhol films fall into that, but I have a few films that don't really have any actions in, just a set of situations which follow on from watching those. And kind of themes, are a little bit to do with glorification. I like glorification and I like affirmation, affirmation of, even if it's like affirmation of tragedy, it's still something, it's making things real, I think it's important to me, making - I've been thinking about making longer films for a while now and adding things together, like The Devil's Eyes had a plot whereas I don't think any of the other films have a plot as such, there's just a series of things presented, situations that happen.

TP: How important is the DIY aspect to you? Would you consider working another way?

TM: I've thought about instructing more than actors before, like having someone shoot things and having another person do this and that and it's awfully complicated and the films really don't need to be that complicated because they're not, they're very simple...although I love big budget films. Yeah, see it would be great to have just a bunch of people do stuff for you as well. I don't know. I don't think I'm quite egomaniacal enough to deal with too many smart people at once. But I've had people build costumes for me before and I asked them to do it and it was really simple, they did it and it was really good, if I had like... If I had a team of like 30 people building hundreds of costumes that'd be awesome, and then loads of actors who could wear them that'd be really good, and ven the Jack Smith films have quite a large cast it seems, although they're all friends, I mean I have a handful of friends, but it's hard to get them together all at once.

TP: What's your filmmaking process?

TM: I tend to have like an image or an action in mind and then set about the easiest way to do that and then all the kind of moments of technique are just what happens as it progresses, like I don't really think about getting good shots until they're there or, like I hate editing, hate it because I don't know why. It just seems very unnatural. Maybe I should stop editing, maybe I should hire an editor...

TP: Where would you like to be in 5 years time?

TM: Really famous. Like really, really famous! But still don't what I'm doing really.
Photo by Ryan Van Winkle