Ry Russo-Young made her Sundance debut in 2009 with You Won’t Miss Me, an intimate, emotionally charged portrait of a self-destructive New York actress played by Stella Schnabel. This year, the filmmaker has returned to Park City with a narrative set on the opposite coast. Nobody Walks, starring Olivia Thirlby, Rosemarie DeWitt, and John Krasinski, is the story of Martine, a 23-year-old artist who moves into the pool house of a couple living in Silver Lake, setting off a series of volatile sexual entanglements. Co-written with her pal Lena Dunham (Tiny Furniture, HBO’s Girls)—the two are alumni of the Saint Ann’s School and Oberlin—the film features Russo-Young’s signature stylized filming techniques and artfully paced storytelling.
On the eve of the film’s premier, Russo-Young sat down with Elle.com at the Sundance Filmmakers Lodge.
ELLE: How did the idea for the film come about?
RRY: Nobody Walks was almost a reaction to You Won’t Miss Me, which was about being in just one person’s head. After that, what I wanted to do was make a movie that allowed you to empathize with multiple characters—where your empathy shifts amongst them. I really wanted to fracture the perspective. Lena and I were talking about what it was like to be a young woman who sometimes knows what she’s doing and is sometimes still figuring it out. I think relationships with older men are part of that. The film is in many ways about navigating a new world: LA, older men, interactions with adults when you are an adult but don’t totally feel like one yet.
ELLE: What was it like collaborating on a script with a friend?
RRY: It was really fun. It actually allowed me to have more perspective on the story. Lena is such a good writer at dialogue and characters that to have someone else add their talents to it allowed me to see the story and the characters in new ways. The intention was always to write something that I would direct so I think she enjoyed that challenge and I loved being able to work with her.
ELLE: What do you think made Thirlby and Krasinski right for the lead roles?
RRY: With actors, for the most part I just go with instinct: Do I want to watch them? Do I find them smart and interesting? I loved all of those actors and I felt somehow compelled with them prior to making the movie and when it came time to cast it, I had already had them in my head. I really like to collaborate with actors and give them a chance to do something different. That’s actually how I ended up casting Dylan McDermott. It’s not a role he usually plays and because he was very excited to play it he brought all of this underlying passion to it, which is exactly what that part needed. All of the actors actually wanted to collaborate and play with the roles and that was really exciting to me.
ELLE: What’s it like coming back to Sundance?
RRY: This year, I feel a little bit less like a deer in headlights. The first time, I didn’t know there were shuttle buses, I didn’t know I had altitude sickness, I had a hard time getting into movies. Now I know how to navigate it all a bit better. One of my favorite memories was actually meeting a lot of filmmakers here who I’ve since become friends with and now we’re all back together this year. It’s like we were all freshmen and now we’re sophomores.
ELLE: The perpetual dilemma of Sundance is figuring out what to wear. Is the fashion something you feel like you understand better?
RRY: Well, I went for a parka this year because it gets so wet and you definitely need warm boots. But within those limitations, I like to go for colors [points to a red parka and royal blue corduroys] to keep a little bit of that funky New York look.
ELLE: What are you doing next?
RRY: I’m working with a writer I’m really excited about on my next movie. It’s actually a period story—it’s not contemporary—but that’s all I can say for now.