Young Beyond Her Years

Stella Schnabel in Ry Russo-Young’s You Won’t Miss Me


Ry Russo-Young and I attended the same middle-school, high-school, and college, and her reputation as a creative chick with tireless theatrical and artistic output preceded her in each. She was five grades ahead of me, which for schoolmates would seem to make friendship an impossible dream.  But last year our filmmaking pursuits brought us into extra-curricular contact, and I had to fight the seventh grade awe. It didn’t help my girlish anxiety any that at the age of 27 she has already made an award-winning experimental short, “Marian” (2005) and two remarkably sure-footed feature films. The first, Orphans (2007) is equal parts Bergman and digital DIY, a chilly drama about two twenty-something sisters on a disastrous retreat to their childhood home in the country. The second, You Won’t Miss Me, is a merciless yet beguiling character study of a New York misfit named Shelly Brown. The films stars Stella Schnabel as a confrontational free-spirit looking for a home in some of downtown’s darker corners, and it premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. This week, it will make its New York debut as part of BAM’s CinemaFEST. Russo-Young sat down with Interview to talk about Fairytale females, her collaboration with Schnabel, and the fuzzy line between reality and fiction.

LENA DUNHAM: It doesn’t really lend itself to a concise logline, so tell us a bit about the film.

RY RUSSO-YOUNG: You Won’t Miss Me is a kaleidoscopic portrait of a person named Shelly Brown, seen in many lights, and on many formats. She’s just been released from a psychiatric hospital. You’re not sure exactly how long she’s been there, but you see her reintegration into society. It all takes place in New York-it’s a very New York movie, about the juxtaposition between how we see ourselves and how we operate in the world.

LD: It is very New York, populated with old-school downtown character-types. Can you talk a little bit about the casting, particularly Stella in the lead?

RR: For this movie I just wanted to cast people I thought were really interesting and believable. And it didn’t matter if they were actors or non-actors or musicians or performers. It was more about the given situation and the role that needed to be filled. I did cast close in some way, as in close to me. There’s a certain kind of realism that the movie tries to capture and part of that is drawing on existing relationships. Stella, I’ve known since I was about four years old because I was best friends with her sister Lola growing up in school. Stella was the younger sister who was always running around my best friend’s house. So shortly after finishing Orphans, Stella said to me, “I’m acting, Ry, and I’d love to work with you. We should talk.” I always thought that Stella was an amazing person and that she’d be really interesting on camera. So we met up, and we made up this character of Shelly Brown. We wrote a biography of the character, and then I interviewed the character for about four hours and Stella was partly improvising and partly working off of the biography we had. I went home and edited what we had and then said “let’s start structuring the outline for a film about this person.” Pieces of that original interview are the voiceover in certain parts of the film. (LEFT: RY RUSSO YOUNG)

LD: Had someone like Shelly Brown ever occurred to you, or was she born in that initial brainstorm between you and Stella?

RR: I’ve always been into female characters who are sort of archetypes, heroes and antiheroes. It started with Millificent in sleeping beauty-she’s the evil queen. I appreciate the way these female characters rise and fall. For my short film Marian I was thinking about this character, Marian Crane from Pyscho, and what would happen if you took her out of the film. What I’ve always wanted to do in film is make female characters that are larger than life, challenge our ideas about women, but also take you to a new level of intimacy with these types of characters, that feel like they could just step off the screen and into real life.

LD: So that they’re no longer relegated to being just the evil stepsister or the wicked witch…

RR: Exactly. What happens if you really dive into their psychology? Working with Stella was a great opportunity because she was interested in portraying someone out of the ordinary. And as an actress she felt an ownership over the role, so she was able to really dive in to the psychology and get in there.

LD: Because she had such an active part in creating it?

RR: Yeah, so she was more open to sharing in a certain kind of intimate way.

LD: It’s fascinating to see this movie contrasted with your first feature, Orphans. Your explanation of your relationship to archetypal female figures makes a lot of sense when viewed in that context. Orphans has a kind of fairytale quality and it’s about complex, lost girls, as is You Won’t Miss Me. What do you feel the connection between those two narratives is?

RR: I think that the projects are really formally different for me as a filmmaker. I’m exploring similar territory in terms of these female characters that are young and figuring out the world, but the approach is radically different. I’m trying on styles and seeing how they fit. In a way it’s as if I’m trying to discover something. I’m digging a ditch and keep coming across different tools to dig with.

LD: Are there any movies that you thought a lot about when you were this film? Major influences?

RR: No, which is odd. Because with Orphans, there definitely were. But You Won’t Miss Me was based on so many things that I’ve always been interested in that it wasn’t like I needed to go back and watch a lot of F is for Fake, for example. That’s one of my favorite movies and a huge influence on this film, but it had already penetrated so deeply. In the moment I was thinking about Youtube, reality television, the culture of capturing, and stolen moments.

LD: Orphans and You Won’t Miss Me are formally different, but they explore similar concerns about cinematic femininity. In both films, the main characters are sympathetic but also incredibly hard to watch. Shelly has such flawed inner logic. She’s streetsmart but also childlike, placing herself in compromising situations and flying off the handle inappropriately. The main characters in Orphans, Sonia and Rosie, have similar flaws.

RR: In some ways I feel that You Won’t Miss Me picks up on a different world that could have been part of Orphans but wasn’t. Rosie could have known Shelly in her New York life. It goes really intricate, because Stella says at times that she based the character of Shelly on Lily [Wheelwright, the lead actress in Orphans who passed away in 2007.] So there’s this cross-pollination of worlds.

LD: The performances in You Won’t Miss Me are so naturalistic and the style is so verite. Do you feel like people get confused about what is reality and what is fiction?

RR: Definitely. But from the beginning, part of the goal of the movie was to confuse that line. Because the character can’t tell the difference between reality and fiction, so why should the audience?

You Won’t Miss Me premieres at BAM this Friday at 9:30 PM. BAM is located at 30 Lafayette Ave, Brooklyn, New York.