Ry Russo-Young has been cutting her teeth on personal indie flicks for over a decade, but she’s on the cusp of a breakthrough that only a young-adult movie can offer. Before I Fall, based on the popular book by Lauren Oliver and adapted by Maria Maggenti, stars Zoey Deutch as a popular, beautiful teenager named Samantha Kingston who dies in a car crash. Samantha is forced to relive the last day of her life over and over again until she makes some serious realizations about the life she led and how to fix the mistakes she made.
Before I Fall opens March 3.
I noticed that the fans really clustered around you, Lauren, and Zoey after the Sundance screening I went to. Did I overhear some tears?
There were tears in the best way. A mother-daughter came up to me at the end of the movie, and the writer and the screenwriter. The mom said, “You’ve made me understand my daughter more,” like as a result of this movie. They were both crying, and then I started crying and then I looked at Maria Maggenti, the writer, and she had tears in her eyes.
As I was walking down the street, three women ran up to me and were like, “You’re the director of Before I Fall?” and I was like, “Yeah,” and [one] was like, “Your movie meant so much to us, we can’t wait to share it with our kids.” This is what you want to make work for, to affect people emotionally. What is better than that?
Gender parity is a huge part of the discussion around filmmaking right now. As someone who basically clawed her way up from indie to this young-adult movie to whatever comes next, what is your insight into your experience in the industry as it is?
This movie in some ways was harder because there’s some more politics, maybe, to deal with. There’s always politics, I think, the politics are slightly different, but you have a bit more. I think as an indie filmmaker, you wear so many hats and it’s hard to give the amount of quality that everything needs. Even on this movie, it was really hard to deliver the quality that we wanted, to deliver the level that we wanted it to be at. I had a little bit more to work with and that was really helpful, actually. It was a complete luxury; I was really thrilled and elated to be able to make a movie with a little bit more to work with.
I think a lot of women want that opportunity; female directors want that opportunity and aren’t given it as easily as their male counterparts. They have to prove themselves. I have a lot of female peers that … make three tiny movies with no budget and their counterparts get to make one [big movie]. There’s a certain amount of having to prove yourself over and over again, but I think it’s starting to change.
I’m proud of the movie mainly because I feel like this is a moment where we need to be aware of kindness and basic human decency with each other, and that’s part of what this movie’s about. The timing is right where we have this bully as president so it feels like the right time.
It’s important to have discussions about teenage girls and how, even if a teenage girl can be cruel at times like some of the characters onscreen, she’s still a teenage girl, she can still be kind.
I remember dealing with that when I was a teenage girl. I remember thinking, “Am I a good person?” It could sound trite but I remember really wondering. My Mom would say to me,”I don’t like the person you’re becoming,” you know, when she was mad at me or whatever. There’s that fear that your kid is going to grow up and become a monster and as a young person, you feel that fear too. You’re like, “Am I a monster?” because everybody does monstrous things at certain times and that’s part of it also, it’s a continuum.
Our self-examination isn’t something that ends when you get out of your teen years, and I truly think it’s something that we could all use more of. Self-awareness is examining our choices, and it doesn’t end when you’re 18, you know? … You become a little complacent sometimes when you get older because we have our ways but it can help us.
You have a very emotional reaction to the movie as well. Do you have a connection? What is your personal connection to it?
One is I remember being a teenage girl and looking for material, looking at movies, being interested in movies, I’m looking at material where I could see myself in it and it would teach me how to be in the world and struggle with all of these issues of everything from my own mortality and fears and social dynamics with my friends, all of that good-person stuff. I had a hard time finding those films that were going to really speak to me.
Part of what was appealing was to be able to make that film for younger women that I never felt like I had. When I found it, it means everything to me — Postcards from the Edge, one of my favorite movies in the world. Spreading that is, I think, important.
The other bit of it is that emotionally … I just had a kid. You know, these huge life things, it’s like really, it’s a really short time that we’re on this planet, and I don’t believe in reincarnation, and it reminds you of your own humanity. That to me is a basic human thing that I’ve always been aware of that. I think we all are, whether you’re consciously thinking about death or not. We always talk about the movie as celebrating Sam’s life and not her death. It really is, ultimately, a celebration of the ones you love and just to embrace them.
The movie takes place during a really intense time because you’re getting ready for college, and you’re wondering, “Am I ready? Are my grades okay? What am I doing?”
The idea’s baked in that these girls think that they have done everything right and that the world will come to them. That their world will be preordained. That they will have the best houses and the husbands and that everything will work out and then that all falls through for them. No, you actually have to take control of your life … You can’t be complacent in your own life, you actually have to take action. Standing by and watching someone be beaten is just as bad as beating them.
This interview has been edited and condensed for publication.