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.”

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