Before I Fall: Director Ry Russo-Young on the Inspirational Drama

For many years, filmmaker Ry Russo-Young was hustling on the indie circuit both as an actor and as a writer/director with her well-received second movie You Won’t Miss Me famously not being released until nearly two years after it premiered at Sundance. Its release was predicated on by winning the less-than-coveted Gotham Award for “Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You.”  (It actually beat La La Land director Damian Chazelle’s first movie for that award, too!)

Her fourth movie Before I Fall, adapted from Lauren Oliver’s popular young adult novel, is a giant step forward for Russo-Young in terms of tackling someone else’s material and a movie she didn’t write.

It stars Zoey Deutch (Everybody Wants Some) as Samantha Kingston, a typical high school student who hangs out with the popular girls, who are constantly tormenting a strange classmate named Juliet Sykes (Elena Kampouris). After a party prank goes horribly wrong, Sam and her friends end up in a potentially deadly car accident. Instead of dying, Sam wakes up to find out that she’s reliving the same day over again…and again…and the more she returns to the same day, it forces her to make different decisions in hopes that the outcome will change.

Yes, it’s definitely something that plays with the concept behind the Bill Murray comedy Groundhog Day, but is a more dramatic way as a high school coming-of-age tale. Deutch is quite a revelation in the lead role, but when it comes to capable women directors who probably should be given more chances to make bigger films, Before I Fall is quite an impressive calling card for Russo-Young, showing that she’s ready to take on even bigger movies.

LRM spoke with Ms. Russo-Young over the phone last week for the following interview.

LRM: What got you involved in this? Had you found the book and the script was already in development or how did that work?

Ry Russo-Young: Well, first of all, I wrote my first film and then film two and film three were both collaborations in terms of the writing, and I think I always wrote out of necessity. Like when you’re being an independent filmmaker who didn’t have two stones to rub together, you know, I started writing by just needing to generate material, and kind of ignorant, not knowing how to option a book, and just thinking, “Well, just write what you know.” Doing it has been a process. The more films that I’ve made has been a process of figuring out where I’m strong and what kind of process generates the best films, and where I can be the best that I can be. I sort of have been wanting to do something that I didn’t generate from scratch for a while, and had just been looking for the right thing and the right opportunity. I didn’t option the book myself. The script was sent to me by my agent, and I liked it. This was when it was at a studio that was developing it. I had one meeting about it, and then never heard back. Nothing happened. A year later, I got a call from my agent, saying, “Do you still like that script that you read a year ago?” and I said, “Yes” and she said that it was no longer at the studio, and they want to go the indie route, “Are you interested,” and I said, “Yeah, absolutely” and that’s when I came on board.

LRM: You hadn’t read the book at all either before or after first reading the screenplay or did you read the book eventually?

Ry Russo-Young: Yes, of course. After I had read the script and liked it, then I read the book, yeah. Many times.

LRM: Even though it had already been adapted, was there a lot of things you wanted to change and did you work with her on the script or even Lauren at all? How did things progress once you signed on to direct it?

Ry Russo-Young: Then I went back and read the book and I pulled things from the book that I’d fallen in love with that maybe weren’t in the script, or things that weren’t in the script that should be further enhanced and whatnot. I got in touch with Lauren and had some talks with her about the seed of the book, where did the book come from for her? How did she feel about it? I did a lot of research on the book and looked at what fans tapped into. What did other people love about this book? Where did it resonate with an audience? So yeah, it was a process, for sure.


LRM: As I first started watching the movie, I thought, “Okay, this isn’t going to be for me. These young girls are annoying,” and it kind of grew on me. I realized by the end that it was important for Sam to go through a change and have some sort of redemption for her. How did you go about casting those four characters, particularly Zoey?

Ry Russo-Young: I had a really similar experience as you when reading the script. I read the first 30 pages and I was not sold on this movie at all. These characters are kind of superficial, this seems like a trite teen movie, and then when I was really surprised by the script. It felt ultimately like it took me in places where unexpectedly emotional and profound, and that was very much by the design. It’s a little bit of a psych-out in that beginning of the film. You think you’re getting into one thing and you’re ready to write the whole movie and the characters off, and then it’s not what you think it is. How I went about casting them is that I auditioned a lot of young women, and we did some chemistry reads, and it was a process of finding, a hunt, if you will.

LRM:  I assume none of the movies that Zoey did last year, including Richard Linklater’s, had come out when you cast her, because you shot this over a year ago I guess.

Ry Russo-Young: Mm-hm. We shot in 2015, the very end of 2015, right up until Christmas. I think she had shot Linklater’s movie, but no, I mean, I just thought her audition was extremely, extremely strong. When I was watching her audition, I felt like I was lost in the film. I was watching Samantha Kingston in this moment in the movie; I wasn’t watching an audition. When I become like an audience member and I can lose myself in the film when watching an audition, that, to me, is an incredible sign. I think Zoey is an amazing actress. This whole movie wouldn’t work if it wasn’t for her performance. It’s her performance that enables the audience to kind of be on her side the whole film, and it’s a really challenging role, because she has to play so many different characters, in a sense. What’s so great about it is I think that Sam has all these different sides, all these personalities and different formations of the self, and they all come out in this journey of hers. So you need an actress with a real immense range, and Zoey has that and it was really able to pull it off. She worked very hard.

LRM: What did you have her audition with, knowing she had so much to do?

Ry Russo-Young:  I had her do two different scenes. I had her do a Day 1 Sam scene. I basically had her do Day 1 because I found that some of the harder scenes to do are usually the quote-unquote normal establishing what life is like scenes, the scenes where you’re supposed to be like, “Oh, this is just a normal day.” That’s really hard to make it feel real, so I think I had her do one of the morning car scenes with the girls, and then I had her do the scene with Kent in the bedroom on Day 4, which is “Angry Day” after she has the bad sexual experience with Rob and she kind of loses it with Kent and has that romantic moment. That’s a challenging scene with some very truthful, emotional layers peeled back, so I kind of did the beginning where she’s kind of the superficial, fun Sam, and then the vulnerable, emotional Sam.

LRM: I assume you cast Sam first, but casting around Zoey, for instance, if you didn’t get the right actor to play Kent, that scene wouldn’t have worked anyway, so how did you cast the other people? I assume you got her first?

Ry Russo-Young: I mean, what happened is that I auditioned a bunch of young women and sometimes I would make notes. They all auditioned for Sam, and sometimes I would make notes like, “Oh, maybe not Sam, but maybe she can be good for an Elodie or an Ally or a Juliet or Lindsey,” or whatever it was. But I ended up casting Zoey first because she was such the anchor and then I built the rest of the ensemble around her. Elena Kampouris came in fairly early. When Elena Kampouris, who plays Juliet, when she came in, it was like, “Oh my God this is such a Juliet,” and I think she didn’t audition for Sam, I think she loved the idea of playing Juliet right off the bat, so I also found her pretty early. It is kinda interesting because in a sense, she kind of the antagonist of the film, if there is one, even though there’s not really in a traditional sense. I sort of found Zoey and her like as the first two–Zoey first and then her–and then the rest came out after that. 

LRM: Earlier, you mentioned the “Angry Day” and I wondered about that because you play a lot of the same scenes over and over again in different ways. You obviously had the same locations. Was that a code you had with the actors so they knew what they were shooting at that moment?

Ry Russo-Young: Yeah, absolutely, but just with Zoey, because all the actors are basically playing their every day…they’re not in on the dramatic irony. They don’t know it’s the same day over and over again. They’re just reacting to Sam being different, so it was only basically Zoey who had to have real emotional clarity on every single day, so Zoey and I named the days early on. I had done sort of prior for my own sanity, and then together, we named the days with a different emotion or psychological idea for each day. She actually color-coded them. This movie was all about the prep of it and understanding where Sam is at each day, psychologically. I mean, I made a visual map on my wall–this is really early on–of each day…1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and then all the scenes underneath each day, and I color-coded all the scenes. Like all the school scenes would be orange and all the home scenes would be blue, and all the forest scenes would be green, so then I could look at them and see she goes to school on Days 1, 2, 3 and 6, right? Then I can say, “So on Day 5, she doesn’t go to school at all. She’s in the car on Day 1, Day 2…she’s only in the car with her mother on Day 3,” and just map out what the movie looked like visually to help me understand, not just locations and how to shoot it, but also where Sam is at psychologically and emotionally. It’s kind of a fun math problem.  

LRM: That’s always one of the challenges as a director is to decide how to shoot things and what order to shoot them. I assume you had a week of the party scene, doing that over and over.

Ry Russo-Young: Yup, exactly, and for Zoey, it’s super-challenging, because for example, we shot all the morning wake-ups on one day. Every time she’s in her bedroom, that was all shot in one day, but sometimes, because we’re using the same camera set-ups, we’re shooting them because the camera set-up is only applicable to certain days, we’re shooting Day 1, Day 3, Day 5 and Day 6 but in the same camera set-up, right? She had to flip between those very difficult psychological states without a lot of time in between them, so she’d shoot three takes of Day 1, “Now, okay, now we gotta go to Day 3 automatically.” There’s nothing different other than her, right? So the camera set-up is the same and we’re just switching to it, and she has to kind of know the difference and understand what the scene is at, very very quickly. It’s very challenging.

LRM: I assume this movie also had a bigger budget than your first three movies, so did that change how you approached things? How important was having that background in indie films in being able to make this with more money or where to spend it?

Ry Russo-Young: The thing is that even though I had more money than theprevious film, I didn’t have more time, at all, to shoot the movie. I shot two more days on this movie than on Nobody Walks, which is insane. It looks like a really big budget, but actually, for what we did and how it looks, is actually an extremely small (budget). If this movie was made at a studio, which it originally was going to be and was developed as a studio movie, it would have three times the budget of what we made it for.  It was very much spinning straw into gold in terms of the making of the movie, and very challenging. I will say that absolutely my having made independent films before, I’ve developed a process of pretty intense preparation that helped me be prepared, which helped me work quickly and helped me get high production values.

LRM:  You mentioned earlier about directing someone else’s script, and I speak to a lot of filmmakers who write their own materials, but if they want to direct more, they start looking for other scripts so they can be on set more. Have you looked into directing more TV stuff as well or have you been too busy doing the last few movies?

Ry Russo-Young: No, I’ve sort of developed a couple TV shows, neither of which got made, but I would love to do TV. It’s not for lack of trying…

LRM: All of your previous movies played at Sundance, but this one played there in a different way, because you already had distribution and knew when it was coming out. Was it a very different experience for you because of that?

Ry Russo-Young: Totally, oh my God. It was definitely like a huge difference…I was like a mess. Going to Sundance without distribution, it’s so hard on the filmmaker because you’re such a nervous wreck, you know? With Nobody Walks, it was like, “Is my movie going to sell? Is anyone going to like it?” Your self-worth cannot help be completely wrapped up in the sale of your movie, unfortunately, at least mine once. In a way, that’s kinda f*cked up. And not in a health way. If one of your articles does well, then you think, “Oh, I’m so great!”(Note: She’s right. I do.)  If it doesn’t, then you’re like, “Oh my God, I’m a piece of shit.” I try to remind myself all the time to note have my self-worth get caught up in my work. Just do the best I can. So yes, having the assurance of knowing that the movie was going to come out theatrically, and that we had screened it enough to know that people were responding fairly well. It didn’t mean it was going to be critically…I was still very scared of the critical response, but I also had a lot of faith in the movie is the answer. As soon as it cut together, it always cut together really well. Like Joe Landauer, who is my editor and is amazing–a really, really talented and smart man who should have a lot of credit for making this movie what it is–the first time he showed me an edit of the film, I was like, “Wow, this is a good movie” (laughs). In a way that I never had a movie that seemed to come together so early on in terms of a cut.

LRM: Interesting. I feel like a lot of first-time filmmakers spend a lot of time editing and in post and getting their films to a point they’re happy with it, but it also must be great to see your first movie at the Eccles and see what their reaction is like.

Ry Russo-Young: Oh, totally. It’s such a learning experience about what an audience needs, you know? An audience needs certain things that I think I’ve learned from watching audiences’ responses to movies that I’ve made, and I look at now whether I’m writing a movie myself or co-writing it or reading a script, I think about those things in a way that what the audience requires, whether it be a story moving at a certain pace…or a character coming in very late in a story. That’s really challenging for an audience, because they don’t connect to a character if you’re halfway into the movie and that character comes in. That’s not to say that you can’t subvert some of those expectations, but to really understand what those audience expectations are and when you’re subverting them and when you’re not is really key for me.

LRM: Did you find you had a younger audience at Sundance for this movie, either because of the book or the subject matter, or was it similar to your other audiences?

Ry Russo-Young: I don’t know, is the answer. I think that Sundance is reaching out to younger people and making sure that they’re aware of the films and that there are films for them at Sundance, but I actually noticed a lot of adults at my movie. Hm… yeah, yeah… but I didn’t get a full beat on the audience. You could probably speak better to the audience at the Eccles than I was. It was dark. There was a lot going on, so who knows?

LRM: The next challenge for the movie is its theatrical opening, and it’s getting a wide release in a very busy market. If you were someone reading this interview, what would you want them to know about the movie to make them choose your movie over others?

Ry Russo-Young: I think that the one thing that everybody says about the movie is that it’s not what they think it’s going to be. That it’s unexpectedly really profound and emotional, and it makes them think about their own life. That’s something that I keep hearing from it is that it really catches them off guard and made them examine their own…I mean, literally the person I was talking to before you said, “Yeah, after I saw your movie, I really wanted to call my mother.” It makes you examine your own choices and think about how you treat other people and that’s something where I always felt like I wanted the audience to literally while they’re watching, towards the end of the film reach down to touch the person that they’re with whether it be their father or sister or husband or whatever it is and just squeeze them and hold on for dear life, in a way, because you realize that we have a very short time on this earth, and that what you do today really matters and to express the love that you feel for the people around you is kind of what life is about. The movie is more of a celebration of life than it is of death, so to me, I think that what I’ve seen is that people feel like the movie really gives them something, emotions to walk away with on their journey into their lives. That’s a lot more than what most movies do. That’s maybe more than Logan is going to do for you. I don’t know. I haven’t seen it, but that is my sense. This is my fourth movie and I made a movie that really resonates with audiences, and I just really hope that audiences get the chance to experience it, because I think they will be grateful for the experience.

Before I Fall opens nationwide on Friday, March 3.


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