For a film that’s about, on one level, the dangers of artistic collaboration, Ry Russo-Young’s third feature film Nobody Walks certainly did involve an awful lot of collaboration in its development. The film, starring John Krasinski in a decidedly non-Jim Halpert turn, and Olivia Thirlby, begins with a young woman coming to stay with a slightly older couple to work on the sound editing for the husband’s film. The intimacy that develops from that close living and working relationship soon leads to complications. But this is not a sensual thriller; it’s a deep and penetrating look at the psyches of the characters, and it’s one of the best character studies of the year.
The multilayered script was a joint venture from Russo-Young and her friend Lena Dunham, who has since become a household name with her indie hit Tiny Furniture and her HBO series Girls. Screenwriting can be an incredibly frustrating endeavor and it has driven many a pair of friends apart, but the two indie icons didn’t have that experience at all. “It honestly didn’t feel like work,” Russo-Young laughs. “It felt really, really natural. Like, we would sit on the couch together and drink some tea, and talk about the things that were on our mind as younger women, and experiences we had. The characters seemed to very naturally grow out of that, out of those discussions and experiences. We did an outline together, and then she kind of banged out the first draft of the script. We went back and forth, kind of passing the draft, and it was a really great collaboration.”
They also got a key boost to the project when they were invited to the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. “It’s an amazing opportunity,” she explains, “because you go to the Sundance resort in Utah, nestled in tons of beautiful mountains, ski lifts and all that, and you have mentors who are established industry writers and directors. When we did the Screenwriters Lab it was writers like John August, who did Big Fish. They rate your script in advance, and they give you feedback on the project, and they tell you what they think of the script, how they relate to it personally, how they would make it better. They ask you questions; they get you to think. It’s all completely constructive, just deep thinking, really smart, with the goal of making the work better.”
If you think that sounds like heaven for a young screenwriter, you’re right. “Yeah, it’s pretty much like heaven,” she laughs. “I kept feeling ‘Wow, I’m not worthy of this incredible thing,’ you know? I continue to feel so lucky to have done the lab. And I want to live up to it, in terms of doing the best work possible and making work that’s original and gets people to think, that’s fun, that’s smart, that means something.”
One of the most important changes to the script, though, didn’t come from her sessions with Dunham, or even from the Lab. It came during casting. “It’s ironic,” Russo-Young recalls, “because we didn’t have John Krasinski in mind when we were writing the script. We were sort of imagining an older actor than John, who was a little bit more sinister, a little bit douche-y. But John came in for the role of Billy, the therapist’s patient, and when I met him he just seemed like Peter to me. And I think part of it was his likability, and I think that I was thinking about just his presence. I just got really excited about the idea of him playing Peter. So we did a slight revision to the movie to kind of age the character down a tiny bit, just a few years. The difference between 40 and 35, if you will. I do think there is a difference, though.”
That difference proved to be a crucial tonal shift in the film. As Krasinksi’s character is drawn closer and closer to infidelity, we’re actually sympathetic to his plight. “One of the things I sort of committed to in making the movie,” Russo-Young agrees, “is that there are no real bad guys, in a sense. Everybody does bad things and good things. And I think that some people could criticize the movie for not being icky enough. But, I think, you know, it’s not really about that, or at least it’s not just about that. There’s a little bit more grey area.”
Russo-Young must have been living right and building up some good karma, because her other lead actor, Olivia Thirlby, came to her attention through a bit of happenstance as well. “I saw a lot of young actresses for this part,” Russo-Young sighs. “We really auditioned many, many young women. What’s funny is that when we first sat down, our first meeting with the casting director was to talk about the movie, with some actors in mind but nothing concrete. We were Skype-ing, actually,with Kerry Barden and Paul Schnee. One of them is in New York and one of them is in L.A., so we were Skype-ing and I was with Paul in New York and Olivia was in L.A. auditioning for a different part. I think it was Snow White, she said. And she just poked her head into the Skype conversation and literally just said ‘Hi! I’m here for something else—nice to see you guys! How’re you doing?’ It was like an omen or something. And then tons of auditions and auditions and auditions. And cut to a month later, and she ended up getting cast in our movie.”
Thirlby ended up being a crucial addition to the film. It’s a part that calls for a good bit of subterfuge on her part, as she knows more about what she’s doing than the character does herself, at least consciously. “Olivia is extremely subtle and nuanced and real, where she’s completely connected to all of the complexities that the character is going through. The thing about the movie is that you’re constantly changing your allegiance to each character. And Olivia captured the extreme ups and downs of the character, literally on a scene-to-scene basis.The insecurity, the ego, at times, the kind of sexiness, versus the repulsion, like…all those sort of nuances within who this character is and how she relates to her work, to being an artist, to being a young artist, and to her sexuality are really delicate ultimately, and Olivia was able to walk that line where she was never kind of overdoing and she just walked that line, perfectly. “
The film provocatively captures a very specific time in a young woman’s life, a time Russo-Young, at 30, is not so removed from herself. “I think there’s this time in your early twenties when you’re a very sexual person,” she says, “and you’re very much a kind of sexual object to society. Society views you as hypersexual because you’re young and you’re beautiful, but I don’t think that women really—and I’m talking like 21 to 25, that early twenties period—as a young woman, you haven’t totally realized your own sexuality. You’re only starting to realize that it is a kind of tool that can be manipulated, and that you can actually have a lot of power with that sexuality. But you’re not fully confident yet, and you don’t know that you’re even actually using it, and that it is such an advantage of yours.”
“So that when you go, and you ask for a favor,” she continues, “you don’t understand completely that that’s a part of why someone maybe said yes. Because you’re attractive and you’re using it. Because you’re just who you are and you think you’re ugly or whatever. I also think that you become, as a girl in your early twenties, available to a whole kind of group of different ages now. Whereas when you’re 16, you’re not going to make out with men that are 40. But when you’re 22, you all of a sudden—a lot of women I know, and I did too, all of a sudden you’re making out with 38-year-olds. And it’s just this very strange, intense time. You go a little bit crazy and you’re a little bit out for trouble.”
That kind of highly voluble sexuality can be especially potent when it’s introduced into artistic collaboration, which of necessity brings a certain intimacy to a situation. “Sometimes it does happen without people really realizing it,” Russo-Young agrees. “You do sometimes fall—I think at some point it’s a choice, but it can be a moment of weakness. And that’s one of the things we tried to capture with John, is that he’s literally having a moment of weakness and insecurity and that the family was just in such a delicate kind of place that it doesn’t take much to being their unraveling.”
That intimacy is a theme that has cropped up in Russo-Young’s previous work as well. “I’m very interested in intimacy,” she says. “As a filmmaker, when I walk on a set with an actor, maybe I’ve met that actor twice before, but I automatically want to become comfortable with that person. And I am very open in terms of my own experiences and asking people about theirs. I think there’s an automatic intimacy that sometimes filmmaking requires in order to get the job done well, so it sort of trickles into everything.“
Nobody Walks is a compelling film for anyone, but for those involved in artistic endeavors, especially in collaboration, it takes on a whole new cautionary dimension. Even for Ry Russo-Young herself. And it’s that willingness to explore her own fears that is part of what makes her one of the most fascinating young filmmakers emerging today.