Ry Russo-Young, director of "Nobody Walks." (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)
There's one question director Ry Russo-Young expects to be asked about her new sunshine psychodrama "Nobody Walks": How much of herself, a New Yorker who came to California to make a movie, is in Olivia Thirlby's character of Martine, a New Yorker who comes to make a movie in California?
The film opens with Martine's arrival in Los Angeles, where she lands at the tastefully bohemian Silver Lake home of the couple (Rosemarie DeWitt, John Krasinski) she is going to be staying with while she works with the husband on a film project. She immediately burrows herself deeply into their seemingly settled, modern family, impulsively leaving a wide wake of bad decisions and hurt feelings.
"For me I relate to all of the characters in a big way," said Russo-Young, 30, while in Los Angeles recently finishing post-production work on the film. "For me personally they all focus on different relationships or different parts of myself at different times. Martine is like a fear version of me when I was 23, the worst possible version of me. And Rosemarie is a kind of fear-based future me that I see like in 10 years. And the men are different amalgams of me and my relationship with my shrink."
Even ahead of its world premiere as part of the U.S. dramatic competition at this month's Sundance Film Festival, the project has an impressive pedigree. The film was cowritten by Russo-Young and Lena Dunham, who made a splash of her own with the personal comedy "Tiny Furniture."
"Nobody Walks" is produced by Jonathan Schwartz and Andrea Sperling, who were also behind last year's Sundance Grand Jury prize winner "Like Crazy," and Alicia Van Couvering, who worked with Dunham on "Tiny Furniture." Russo-Young and Dunham worked on the script as part of the Sundance Screenwriters Lab, while Van Couvering went with the project to the Sundance Producers Lab.
Russo-Young's previous film "You Wont Miss Me," an intense, intimate look at a young woman (Stella Schnabel) spiraling out of control in a whirlwind of emotional instability, played Sundance in 2009. Russo-Young and Dunham grew up in New York City and went to the same middle school and high school and attended Oberlin College, but the difference in their ages is such — Dunham is 25 — that they didn't really get to know each other until they were both out of college and back in New York.
"When Lena and I first set out to work together we just started naming things we were interested in," said Russo-Young. "I was kind of sick of being inside one character's head and having it be so singular in terms of being just one person's perspective, one girl, and I wanted to break it out more, a fractured, layered perspective oscillating between characters at certain moments."
The project was always conceived as one the duo would write together and be directed by Russo-Young. For her part, Dunham appreciated the challenge of writing pitched to someone else's vision. "Ry was really clear about wanting to motivate each character's position, not to have any ham-fisted villains," said Dunham in an email. "The film is about the way we feed off of each other's choices, good and bad."
Anyone who comes to the film expecting a stock nice-guy performance from Krasinski similar to his work on TV's "The Office" may be in for a shock. Going through something of an early midlife crisis, his character puts his stable life at risk for reasons that remain a mystery even to himself. Krasinski's slow-burn, part funny and part painful, as his character grows increasingly frustrated by Martine, comes across as a guy who isn't used to being angry suddenly finding himself furious.
Krasinski noted that he found this particular group of collaborators and the attitude behind the movie "legitimately cool" and that he appreciated the way in which the point of view doesn't exclusively belong to any single character.
"The guilt and blame game shifts, so you're seeing all these different people's perspectives, and there are moments you totally feel for them, and moments later you are condemning them," Krasinski said. "It's very delicate to do, and Ry really pulled it off, dodging the question of who's the villain here. I think everybody's at fault. People make mistakes. That doesn't make them bad people."
The mix of ambition, self-possession and youthful naiveté in Martine make for a particularly volatile combination. Despite her character's at times painfully obvious wrong choices, Thirlby, probably best known for her sidekick role in "Juno," came to feel particularly in tune with and personally connected to the character. Working for the first time with a female director, Thirlby especially appreciated the way in which Russo-Young captured the ripple effect of Martine's actions.
"It's kind of like her presence deepens cracks that were already existing," said Thirlby of Martine, "so hairline they weren't even noticed, but as soon as she comes into the picture these little fractures turn into these huge canyons. I think what Ry really captured is the kind of gray murky areas of just navigating through life."
"Though her heady streak and strong, sensualist visual sense might align her with international filmmakers such as Lucrecia Martel, Lynne Ramsay or Jane Campion, Russo-Young mentions American theater and film director Julie Taymor when asked if there are any filmmakers she admires, noting that finding a space for intelligent, artful dramas is not always easy.
"I can't think of another filmmaker who completely does what I want to do, but that's a good thing," she said, smiling as she added, "I don't want to be someone else, I want to be me."