As intelligent and provoking as it is sensory and poetic, Ry Russo-Young’s latest drama, Nobody Walks, will make you want to wrap your arms around a person and listen hard. Co-written with Lena Dunham, the film is a tale of unforeseen human connection, the pain of desire, and the consequences of betrayal told through a cast of characters whose lives intertwine but for a brief period—however, there’s nothing ephemeral about the effect they have on one another.
With an affinity for making films about strong, independent young women and the chaotic nature of love, Russo-Young’s latest feature tells the story of Martine (played by Olivia Thirlby), a young filmmaker, who is invited to stay with a cool, open-minded Los Angeles family while finishing a film she is creating for an exhibition in New York. Martine and Peter (played by John Krasinski) spend their days developing a fast intimacy as they work on the sound editing of her film; Julie, Peter’s wife (played by Rosemarie Dewitt), begins to blur the lines of professionalism when one of her patients begins having erotic fantasies about her; their sixteen-year old daughter Colt (played by India Ennenga) lusts over an unrequited first love. From the moment Martine enters their home, she serves as the “gentle catalyst” that begins to unthread the family’s dynamic, leaving a trail of sexual and romantic wounds that challenge the family’s strength and examine the power of a young woman’s sexuality and the boundaries that we cross when held captive by desire.
We sat down with Ry Russo Young to talk about eye-opening sexual experiences, the sensual nature of Los Angeles, and the dualities that make us human.
How did you and Lena go about writing the film? Was it a collection of experiences you both shared?
I think for both of us, we were both in a sense struggling with and thinking about what it was like to be a young, female artist—both professionally and of course, personally. I think in your early 20s you—I certainly went through this and think Lena was maybe just starting to go through this—all of the sudden can kind of have sex with whoever you want. When you’re 17 or 18 you’re a teenager so you’re not going to have sex with a 40 year old, but once you’re out of college, all the sudden anything is open and you become this fair game object of society.
That’s definitely something I remember being conscious of after I turned 21—realizing that I was attracted to older men and that, for the first time, there wasn’t anything wrong with that.
And they’re attracted to you! And a lot of people do it; it’s interesting, there’s something in it for both people. It’s very much like a mentor relationship and somehow about power too, almost a teaching relationship, but it can also be manipulative at times. And I think the complications of that dynamic was something we were really interested in terms of Peter and Martine but also just something we experienced in our own lives—and certainly in mine. We realized all the stuff in the movie is actually dealing with this on different levels; they’re all coming of age despite their different ages—even like Rosemarie Dewitt’s character, in terms of her job as a therapist and boundaries and crossing that line in terms of professionalism. You know, or like the intimacy of us talking now about this movie and being really honest about it and it becomes intimate. Then if we did for three hours, I bet you we’d be like sitting on the couch together smoking a cigarette, and then it’s like well would we be making out later? It’s a continuum, especially when you are working with people in creative fields, it gets more and more intimate whether you like it or not.
So how did you meet Lena?
We both went to Oberlin but we didn’t know each other then because I had just graduated when she entered but we met post-college at a party and just really hit it off and swapped work and got along like gangbusters and then just sat down and started to talk about our lives and about relationships and then from that the movie started to birth.
Do you enjoy the process of writing with someone else?
Yeah, a lot. It’s so much more fun than writing on my own. I think it becomes a mixture of who I am and who that person is, and then we create something new from that together. Different people have different skills so it’s really great to be able to lean on someone; and I think by now I kind of know what skills I do have and what skills I don’t have. So then, I can just make something better with other really talented people.
There was such a sensuality to the film that wasn’t only in the content and the story but in the sounds and tastes and textures of it.
I think, for me, when I travel to Los Angeles, it has a certain feeling. It’s a much more body-conscious culture than New York. I was just out there last week with my boyfriend and whenever I go there I’m just like, “God, there are so many hot people here!” And people say that about New York but it’s a different kind of attractiveness. Like in Los Angeles they’re not wearing much because it’s warm all the time and they all work out a lot and I’m not even attracted to people with perfect bodies necessarily. But just the combination of the light being so soft and the weather, that’s how it feels to me when you go there. I think that’s in the culture, this heightened sexuality and image-consciousness and visual soft of loaded sensual world.
And that felt appropriate for the movie, so we shot on Super 16. We did a lot tests in the beginning whether we wanted to shoot on the Alexa—sort of HD versus film—and I felt like film had the emotionality that digital didn’t have. There’s something very cold about digital and it can look amazing for the right film, maybe for a thriller or something, but for this it was so much about the people and the subtlety and the quiet and the listening and the intimacy, in a way that if felt really right to have that texture.
For you Los Angeles is a different sensory experience than New York in terms of sight and texture but for me, it’s always been in terms of sound—the sound of Los Angeles as night is very different than the sound of New York. There’s a sort of glowing hum that’s hard to describe but I can always feel it very strongly when I hear, and I think Fall on Your Sword’s music for the film captured that perfectly. How did you collaborate with them?
They did the music on my last movie, You Won’t Miss Me, and that was a great experience working with Will so part of the thinking on Nobody Walks was to get him involved really early, almost like as soon as the script was finished. So before we were even casting, he had read the script and we were talking about what we wanted. We tried to get more ambient sounds that he could incorporate and be inspired by in terms of making the audio; we talked a lot about California minimalism and he quiet and the repetition. And what’s funny though about the process of working with a composer, as much advanced work as we did in the beginning prior to the movie even being shot or made, by the time there was a rough-cut, when you actually put music to it you’re just kind of responding to what’s there, like, Oh, we need more emotion in this moment or we need to ease into it. So it becomes almost more functional. I think from the beginning it was something we knew would play a big part.
Why did you choose to make the film about sound and have Martine’s entire reason for being there be about sound?
I think sound, to me, it’s like one of those things that’s around us at all times that we’re not really conscious of. I feel like we’re so conscious of the visual and having that be something we notice, but sound is like the stepsister to sound in terms of it’s reputation or how it’s been utilized in movies. So to have this thing that is often not noticed come to the forefront, it almost creates this intimacy and this quiet. Because sound is as much about what you don’t hear as much as what you do hear, so it’s almost like having an affair, like it’s this little secret that if we stop and we listen it takes over, the smaller sounds. It’s like John Cage, those little things become everything and then new things come out of that quiet and silence. And it’s also amazing to me the way that we tone things out.
And it allowed for a lot of moments of intimacy. All the characters had these things they weren’t proud of or these secrets and flaws but they did’t apologize for anything, nor was there a moment where you didn’t like any of them because they really made you look at your own self and say, “Would I have done this, too?”
Thanks. That’s great. That was kind of the goal for me, to make it feel like the characters are deeply flawed in the way that I am and human beings are, but to still make them empathetic to the point where they’re deeply human and have the best intentions. That’s been a really hard line to walk and that also came into consideration while casting. And that’s the thing about John Krasinski to me, I just love him. He’s so empathetic in his own admittance of his inability to be perfect.
And someone like Rosemarie who is just cool and beautiful and smart, how could you not be in love with her too? There was something relatable about all of the characters and the situations they were in showed so many different facets of human emotions and relationships that you have throughout your life. Like the young girl, Colt, everyone has been that girl and you feel so terrible but at the same time, you’ve also been Martine.
Yeah, that’s exactly the hope. I really do empathize with all the characters and I really think that so much of the time in movies we have these good guys and bad guys and the bad guys are ugly and are yelling and the good guys are pretty and mean well, and it’s so polarized. I feel like that’s not as interesting. The fact that people kind of do both and share both is what’s interesting.
How did you go about casting the roles?
John originally came in for the role of Billy (the role Justin Kirk played) and as soon as he came in and I started talking to him I was just like, I love you, I really want to see you having sex. That is literally what I thought because it was his first sex scene on film. He was very anxious about it. But I could feel the fact that he wanted to get a little dirty and there was a hunger for that. When you meet him you’re like, Oh my, he’s so charming and so handsome. He just felt like Peter because he was inately upbeat and is a generous, fast intimacy kind of guy—but not creepy. And that was really important. One of the things we thought about from the beginning also, was that we didn’t want Martine to look like Megan Fox. Because then to me, the movie’s not as tense or an interesting. You know exactly what’s going on if some hot girl walks in and some old guy’s like, “hey baby.” It’s much more interesting if she has this sexuality that she’s not aware of and is sort of feminine and masculine at the same time and that he’s in the right place in his life to have that fall apart. Rosemary has said in the past that, it’s like a thread on a sweater that was loose and Martine was just the thing that starts to unravel the sweater, the gentle kind of catalyst in that way.
I thought this dichotomy between Peter giving into desire and having to deal with the consequences of that and Julie restraining herself from desire and having to live with the what ifs, was really heartbreaking to see.
Well, one of the things that Lena and I talked about a lot was that families goes through amazing crazy emotional upheaval in the course of their lives, and sometimes that feels detrimental to the rest of their life. And there are moments where you’re like, how could I ever come back from this, how is this ever going to be not be in my mind? And then you do, you actually get over it. Horrible things have happened to all of us, whatever it is, and then we do go on and we can forgive and we can pull our lives back together and move on and have great times again and be in love. And that was something we thought a lot about and hopefully, at the end of the film, the audience feels like this family is able to climb out of this horrible vortex you’ve been in and this intense trauma in a way that they went through, but everyone’s going to be okay because they love each other and they’re committed to each other and they can go on and it will be like a moment and blip.
It was interesting to watch Martine push the boundaries of her sexuality because it seemed like she really enjoyed using her sexual power which feels like something she just tapped into. And that’s a very natural thing, that doesn’t make her a bad person. And we’ve all done that.
Totally and also, like if she was a guy, people would be like, “wow, what a guy, look at him go!” But because she’s a woman we judge her so much more. Girls tend to really empathize with her and that’s what the movie is kind of trying to do, is make you look at the assumptions you make when you see a female protagonist that has a lot of sex. And it’s weird because it’s actually still controversial.
I feel like I would go through moments where I really didn’t like her but it was only because I’d realize, Oh, I’ve done that too. It’s rare in film to see an intelligent young woman who is so open about her sexuality without any judgements or guilt.
It feels like, in terms of the zeitgeist right now, there’s a new openess or interest in the female experience in a way that’s in-depth and hopefully there is more space in the culture to show a more complex, interesting, darker side of that.