High-Concept High School: The Teenage Experience Gets Universal in Ry Russo-Young’s Before I Fall

For those of us suffering fatigue from the endlessly recycled Young Adult genre, Ry Russo-Young’s adaptation of Lauren Oliver’s YA bestseller Before I Fall comes as a breath of much-needed fresh air.

The high-concept high school drama has Zoey Deutch (in a breakout role) playing the privileged protagonist Sam, a popular student forced to relive the same day over and over. As she struggles to discover the meaning in this initially senseless repetition—and you struggle to not think about a certain Bill Murray comedy—rest assured that Russo-Young and her collaborators’ creative decisions lend this film its unique place among the various genres it straddles. They shot with anamorphic lenses, Russo-Young says, to “dignify the teenage experience,” employed a cool color palette not often associated with the high school setting, and worked diligently with a young, very talented cast to populate the film with empathetic characters who defy typical John Hughes stereotypes.

On a stormy afternoon in Los Angeles (one that invited its own YA-esque post-apocalyptic vibes), I chatted with Russo-Young—who previously made well-received indies You Won’t Miss Me (2009) and Nobody Walks (2012)—about her third feature.

Director Ry Russo-Young and actress Zoey Deutch at the Los Angeles premiere of Before I Fall

Caleb Hammond, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): While Mean Girls also comes to mind while watching your ensemble cast, I was reminded of Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. Before I Fall captures the actions of teenage girls and how they interact with one another when no one is watching. What was your process in building the chemistry so that the characters seemed like they had been friends for years?

Ry Russo-Young (RRY): One thing that resonated with me about the book and the script was that there seemed to be a real sense of detail and warmth, and the kind of co-dependency in the relationships that reminded me of my own teenage girl friendships. That felt very authentic to me. It reminded me that my friend and I used to share clothing obsessively. There’s this time when you finally leave the cocoon of your parents, and them as your primary relationship, and your friends become the big relationships of your life. It’s right at that time: junior to senior year. I thought that the book captured that really well. There’s a detail in the book: Sam is talking about her friend Lindsay’s purse and the Trident gum, the random Trident gum and the sort of cacophony that is her purse. She knew exactly what was in her best friend’s purse: the loose change, to the Trident gum to the lip gloss that had made everything sticky. It just felt very real and took me back.

How do you capture that on screen? Part of it I think always is in casting, and talking to the cast and to the girls. I remember Halston Sage, who plays Lindsay, and I had a conversation really early before she was fully cast, and she said, “I don’t want to just be a mean girl.” And I said, “No, I’m not interested in that either.” We really want to create every single character in the movie to have vulnerability and backstory and a really fleshed-out soul and personality, in that there could be a whole movie about that character. So first I think it was about getting on the same page with each cast member to make sure that we were all making the same thing. And then we rehearsed a lot. Part of the rehearsal is not just about the lines or the dialogue or anything like that, but it’s just about a sort of intimacy, from going out to dinner, to all working in our sweatpants together on the weekends when we could, to encouraging the girls to hang out on their own. It took a bunch of forms in terms of the bonding rituals.

MM: Is that hard as a director? You say, “We’re all going to do these things together outside of shooting,” but is it hard to get actors to participate?

RRY: I totally had this fantasy, and I was pushing for it: “Let’s all rent a big house and live together.” That didn’t work out because we were staying in this one hotel, but it wasn’t quite as communal; we weren’t sharing a kitchen or something. I think it depends on the experience and on the actors and what’s going on. Part of it might be luck to a certain extent. It just depends on the people. I have had less luck with it in the past, and this film it happened very naturally. I can’t take all of the credit for their chemistry on screen. It’s them. Part of it is the fact that they were kind of pretty young and pretty down. They were excited to play with each other, in a way that I really encouraged, and then just let them run with it. So much about directing for me is just getting out of the way, and letting actors do their thing and discover and find and bounce off each other.

(L-R) Actors Cynthy Wu, Zoey Deutch, Halston Sage and Medalion Rahimi are a high-school posse in Before I Fall

MM: How did you work with your cinematographer to create the visual style of the film?

RRY: It’s interesting because Michael Fimognari, the cinematographer, comes from the horror tradition; he shot The Lazarus Effect. That was really appealing to me. One of the things about teen films is that they tend to be very colorful and bright, and the themes and ideas of this movie are way darker. Therefore the movie could look moodier and darker and have teen angst. Part of it was the choice to shoot it in Vancouver, a place with of a lot of drama and a sense of pain and almost anguish to its look.

I really wanted to shoot it on anamorphic. I wanted to dignify the teenage experience. So we shot it on the Alexa with Cooke anamorphic lenses; they’re just really stunning. They’re really fast, and they have that sort of classic anamorphic look with the fragility around the edges of the frame, the softness there, and certainly the depth. It was a really fun collaboration with Michael. I think we pushed each other in a great way. We were working with a lot of limitations from a budget perspective, but he did amazing work in terms of making the movie look big and moody.

MM: There’s a certain frustration with Zoey’s character watching people around her—including herself at times—fall into the same traps, the same clichés, every day. On a certain level the movie itself has to be frustrating at times for the viewer, in order to put ourselves fully in her shoes. How do you walk that tightrope of having the audience share in Zoey’s frustrations without actively exasperating them at the same time?

RRY: The thing I think that would frustrate audiences would be if the character is actually not changing and if the story isn’t moving forward. The big thing for me was to make sure that even though we were in the same reoccurring day, Sam is in a completely different emotional and psychological place each day. She’s actually on a rapid progression, and we are with her in that progression. Where she’s at psychologically really informs a lot of the subtleties of how we see each day, and how each day looks and feels, from editing rhythms, to shot size, to certain lenses that we used. There are certain differences between the days certainly in the creative choices. Certain things have to be the same; for example, the music playing at the party, but what is her experience of that music? How does where Sam is at in her head change the way that that music is heard and seen and felt? So on day two, the music becomes distorted because her world seems extremely surreal and she starts to doubt the reality of her world in that moment.

The timeline is really fun to sort of play around with. If she comes to the party 10 minutes late, and these are all things that had to be mapped out really meticulously in advance, then we’re at a different part of the song. So all of that is a really fun mathematical issue that then interacts then with where the character is at psychologically and emotionally, and you have to navigate that line.

On day five, when she’s having this romantic scene with Kent in the bedroom, in the background she starts to hear the screams of the bully scene, and even though our attention as a viewer isn’t on the fact that that’s happening, we’re planting the seeds in the deep background that that is actually occurring at that moment. When she hears it, we realize it, and we’re like, “Oh my god. That’s happening.” Even though we know based loosely on the timeline that that should be happening.

Logan Miller as Kent with Deutch in Before I Fall

MM: You’ve written or co-written all of your other projects, and so this represents a shift because you were working off  Maria Maggenti’s screenplay adaptation of the novel. What are the benefits and difficulties of working with material you didn’t actively have a hand in shaping?

RRY: Even though I wasn’t involved in the shaping of book to script, I have continually realized throughout the process how much this movie and my attraction to this movie fits into the larger themes and ideas of what I’m interested in, in art, and what all of my movies are about in some way. That’s been a fascinating process for me to discover, because when I first read the script, I really liked it and I was attracted to it, but I didn’t necessarily initially articulate why. Through the process of examining the themes of mortality and who you want to be before you die, and this kind of self-reflection and self-analysis that Sam has to go through, it made me realize, “Oh, that’s kind of what a lot of what my movies are about.” So it’s interesting that even though I didn’t write it, I feel so much, in a sense, ownership over it. That’s what drew me to the project in the first place.

I really enjoyed that process, not being mired in the creation or writing process, because it allowed me to see with clarity what the movie was. Specifically, because of the fact that it was based on a book that other people had read and responded to, I was able to say, “Oh, this is the nugget that audiences really cherish about this book, and we have to make sure that these ideas or these themes or relationships are in the movie, because they’re the things that people are connecting to, and that I also connect to emotionally.”

MM: This film exists on a larger budgetary scale than your previous work. As a filmmaker how did you navigate this step up?

RRY: It has a bigger release, but the actual budget we made the movie for is still quite small. “Indie” is a sliding word, but it is still very much an indie film. We shot this film in 24 days, which is really really fast for a film that has two car accidents and as many stunts as this movie has. As big as it feels, it was a real challenge from a production standpoint to make the production values look as high as they look. The advantage was that from the very beginning, myself, the producers and the whole crew, we all knew what we were making. We all wanted to make a film that could play to a wider audience. That was the goal, and that doesn’t mean we wanted to talk down to the audience. It just means “communicate on a larger scale,” and that was clear from the beginning. So that informed some of the choices.

Sage and Deutch play best friends in Before I Fall

MM: Do you see filmmaking as an agent for change or is it there primarily to observe and document reality and the troubles of life?

RRY: I think that ultimately most art forms are some kind of form of personal expression that are about communicating to other people, and a sharing of ideas and emotions. And those ideas can certainly be political, and often are. I do believe the personal tends to be political. It’s about connection to me. Any kind of art form, specifically film, is really about connecting with the audience around some shared experience. It’s what unites us. That’s what is sort of miraculous about a movie: Whether we’re watching it alone or in the theater with a bunch of people, you’re experiencing through the lives of the movie. You’re putting yourself in that person’s shoes and experiencing another life.

[Ebert] said that cinema is an empathy machine, and I do believe that, and that it’s incredibly powerful to share experience. Human experience can be used infinitely to political purposes or to more personal—most of the time it ends up being political, whether you like it or not. MM

Before I Fall opens in theaters on March 3, 2017, courtesy of Open Road Films. All images courtesy of Open Road Films.

1 Comment

  1. Mark Coggan

    May 25, 2017 at 10:02 am

    I believe that Russo-Young is one of the few directors who can embrace girl culture without condescending to it. She has the ability to tap into the audiences’ emotions and make them feel whichever emotions the characters are experiencing as well.

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