Interviews · Movies

‘Before I Fall’ and The Profound Universality of the Teenage Experience

By  · Published on March 6th, 2017

“Ghettoizing happens not just to the teen genre, but to films about women, too. This is a film for everyone.”

Ry Russo-Young needs no introduction to filmgoers with a finger on the pulse of the indie world. The multi-talented filmmaker debuted her freshman feature Orphans (2007) at South by Southwest, won a Gotham Award for her sophomore feature You Wont Miss Me (2009), acted in Alex Ross Perry’s The Color Wheel and Joe Swanberg’s Hannah Takes the Stairs and has been a recurring presence at Sundance through the years with three features including Nobody Walks, which she co-wrote with Lena Dunham. With the stylish and meticulously calibrated Before I Fall, her latest directorial effort that premiered in Sundance just this past January, she finally makes the leap to mainstream. And the audiences are in for a rare treat.

Before I Fall tells a contemporary nail-biter of a story, which follows a teenage girl forced to live out an especially defining day in her life on repeat…until she discovers her purpose and figures out what she needs to do. This might be a “Groundhog Day-meets-YA”-type premise on the surface, but Russo-Young’s profound film (written by Maria Maggenti based on the novel by Lauren Oliver) is a world apart from Harold Ramis’ comedy in its themes. Watching Before I Fall, which approaches the teenage experience with the seriousness it requires and deserves, is a deeply profound experience. None of the young women in the film (the pitch-perfect supporting cast includes Halston Sage and Elena Kampouris) behave or sound like the reflections of what adults imagine them to behave or sound like. They feel, speak and move like real teenagers with relatable joys, fears and insecurities. Anchored by a stunningly layered performance by Zoey Deutch as the lead character Sam, Before I Fall unexpectedly leads the viewer down some dark avenues and confronts them with universal questions that are relevant to any audience of any age.

Joining me on the phone just a day before the film’s release, director Ry Russo-Young addresses the film’s universal appeal while also stressing how gratifying it’s been for her to be able to tell a story about young women. “I wish I had that as a teenager. I remember being so starved for those films,” she says. We immediately bond over our shared experience of being a female voice in our respective male-dominated fields. In that regard, she tells me we’re still talking about the anomaly that is “a female director” in her industry, as women aren’t given the opportunities to direct mainstream films. “It is important to point out that there are many female filmmakers and directors,” she continues. “But they’re just making films for very small budgets because they’re not given the chance or the “risk” to make movies on larger scales, with bigger budgets. And so, only four women have been nominated for a best director Oscar in 86 years, one of which has won. The numbers are so terrible that I think it’s starting to reach a little bit of a fever pitch, so that people are very aware of it. This is how change eventually happens.”

Here’s how our conversation progressed from this point on (lightly edited for flow and clarity).

What you said about “big budgets” is the key indeed. When it’s a female director, it’s perceived as a risk, but then we have seen several young male directors out of Sundance with one hit that get signed on to blockbusters.

Yes, exactly. And the funny thing is, it’s not even a hit always. It’s sometimes a film that shows a lot of promise, and that women aren’t often given that same opportunity to jump budgets. I recently pitched on a studio movie, and the feedback I got was, “we’re not convinced that you can make the jump to a bigger budget.” And this is a budget that was not even that big of a jump. The marketing budget for Before I Fall was the same budget for the movie that I was pitching on. There’s an inherent bias in that statement. Why do they trust men to make the leap to a bigger budget and not women? Also, even when women are asked to go to a bigger budget, [the budget is] actually far lower and more challenging, often, than their male counterparts’. Like Selma for example, I think was made for about $20 million. That’s extremely low for a movie that’s period and an Oscar contender and all that.

Before I Fall feels like new territory for you; being in the Y.A. genre and being a project you didn’t write the script for. How did you come on board to it?

I co-wrote my last two movies, so I was already moving away from wanting to author every film. I was finding more and more that I enjoyed the collaborative process; being able to have something come to me that was already baked and then having my response [added] to it. It felt like it made me better, gave me fresh eyes and a fresh take. I was able to bring my own perspective in a way that felt like I was very good at.

After Nobody Walks, I was looking for a script that I didn’t write, I was developing my own material, but I was also working with other scripts and pitching on them, and I wanted to do something bigger. This movie was originally at a studio, so I had one meeting when it was at a studio and then never heard anything. Then a year later I got a call from my agent asking me, “Do you still like that script that you read a year ago? The studio is no longer making it and they’re going to go the ‘indie’ route and they want a Sundance-y director.” Which sort of means they’re making it for less money, and that means there’s an opportunity for a woman to get a job. You get my point.

And then I had a conversation with Jon Shestack, the producer, and he gave me the job. A lot of credit should go to him, because he is the one who hired me. And this is what we need. We need producers to hire female directors.

The dialogues feel very alive. And the four actors sustain a great rhythm in delivering them. How did you help them capture it amongst one another?

Maria Maggenti’s script was very strong, and she really captured a lot of the truth, with sometimes direct quotes from the book that were very strong. The actors and I improvised a lot and we rehearsed. I really encouraged them to make it their own. I think that the really strong lines and material stick with the actors and those never changed. But, for me, it’s always about saying to the actors, “Make it comfortable.”

I never want to say to an actor ‘read a line’ because they feel like I need them to say that exact line. If it’s awkward for them, it’ll be awkward for an audience, and I have faith in the actors’ interpretation and feelings. I really respect actors and I try to empower them with their own instincts. I know that they should not worry about being so literal.

It sounds like your actors really love working with you and respond to your style. During one of the Sundance Q&As I was at, I remember Zoey Deutch saying, “She can command the whole set with a whisper,” about you.

I try to be very focused, and I think I’m just very focused. I’m a very in-the-moment person. I was talking about this with Zoey the other day. I’m very present and my feelings –this is what she said of me, and I think it was very true– are very close to the surface. Like when I talk about something I’ll cheer up. On the set, I just try to be as in-the-moment as possible. It’s a very instinctual process for me, because I’ve done all of the thinking on the prep in advance.

I’ve really thought about this movie for thousands and thousands of hours. I’ve done the homework, I’ve done the image pulling, I understand the script, I understand every single character, how to shoot it, all of that. So when I’m on set, I can actually just be. I can let all of that go and just be pure and just be watching it as a viewer, and allow my instincts to guide me.

Can you talk me through the time loops in the film? They must have been a major challenge to shoot, since many minor and major details alter throughout the repetitions.

Yeah, it was a real challenge for Zoey. It’s really an amazing role for an actor, and she has to have so much range to play all of those different characters. Zoey had to bounce between the many different facets of Sam; day one, day four, day six and we would shoot those scenes back to back, in the same location. And sometimes we would shoot camera set-ups. It would be one camera set-up and then she’d have to do day six, day four, day one, in that order, and even out of order because of demands of makeup or hair or whatever. Otherwise, we’d lose an hour if we tried to shoot conventionally. So it was very challenging for her. And because she’s so organized, we worked together to map out Sam’s psychology in advance. We knew everything about where the character was at, and that helped us. She’s just an incredible actor; this whole movie plays out on her face. She’s so good at letting the audience in. The movie wouldn’t have worked if it weren’t for her performance. It’s really her performance and her face and her psychology and emotions that carry you through.

Your film refreshingly takes the young-adult experience seriously. Things we experience during those ages define things about us in later life.

Yes, absolutely. There’s a philosophical seed here that talks about the finite amount of time we have on this planet, and what we do today really matters. And that is incredibly profound. I really responded to the material: I found it to have these themes and ask these questions that transcend youth. They are questions that we can all ask ourselves at any age, about the kind of person that we want to be before we die. And that’s to me what makes the movie eternal.

Also, it is a movie targeted at teen girls, that’s the demographic. And it’s really meaningful to me to speak to those teen girls as I think that at that age, you really look to movies to tell you how to be. And you look to movies for models of “What can I be?” and “Who can I be?” and “How should I be in the world?” And to be able to speak to them, to show them a model that doesn’t objectify them and doesn’t tell them that their value is in their hotness, or doesn’t tell them that finding a man is the answer to their problems, is extremely valuable to me.

But the other hand, it’s actually a movie for everyone. If this movie was about a young boy that goes through this classic hero’s journey, we would [say it’s for everyone]. And I think that is a double standard. But ghettoizing happens not just in the teen genre, but in films about women, too. We still rarely see films about women as universal.

That double standard does drive me crazy, I’m glad you brought it up. We think universality by default belongs to the male experience.

Exactly, especially when things are authored by women. When a movie is by women and about women, then it really gets ghettoized. If a man makes a movie about a young woman sometimes, like Black Swan, then it has the potential to go on to a more rigorous artistic canyon, but we rarely get that opportunity. And certainly if women make movies about men, then they have more opportunity also, like Lost In Translation or The Hurt Locker.

You’re a Sundance veteran now. It seems like every time you went back, it was for a movie maybe a little bigger than the previous one. And Before I Fall had a distribution already when it premiered there. So, how did that alter your Sundance experience…being there while not worrying about sale?

The first thing I want to say is, Sundance is really a beacon of light in this landscape, and they should get the credit for that. Their ratios are way higher in terms of films directed by women. They have a lot of programs that put the money where their mouth is and that help female directors get their films financed. They were really crucial in the progression of my career. I did the Sundance screenwriters lab with Nobody Walks, and premiering [it at Sundance] was a huge step in my career. It enabled me to keep going. And I think filmmakers, especially young female filmmakers, need those milestones of encouragement. It’s so hard financially and physically, and you have to have a lot of faith in what you’re doing. The rewards are actually quite small for most people along the way. So Sundance is really an incredible organization that I’m very grateful and proud to be associated with. Beyond the festival, they really do all kinds of fascinating things that help filmmakers from process, financial and career perspectives.

But, to answer your question, it was a relief to go to the festival with distribution already and be able to just screen the film for audiences without having to worry about the sale. It’s a lot of pressure, the idea of a sale. And it’s very hard not to have your self-worth tied up in a movie’s sale, as a filmmaker. So you can’t really enjoy the response, it kind of robs the purity of the response, and [the experience of] seeing it with an audience, listening to them, and feeling how they respond to the movie psychologically and emotionally. I was really able to do that and it was really rewarding because this is so much an audience’s movie, in that people respond really emotionally to it.

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Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.