Interview: Filmmaker Ry Russo-Young
The NYC-based independent writer/director details the creative process behind her series of short films for Cotton
NYC-based independent filmmaker Ry Russo-Young has three feature films under her screenwriter/directorial belt, which have earned nods like a 2009 Gotham Independent Film Award and 2012 Special Jury Prize at Sundance. Her 2012 film "Nobody Walks," co-written with Lena Dunham and directed by Russo-Young, features John Krasinski, Olivia Thirlby and Rosemarie DeWitt (along with some scorpions) in a chilling too-real tale of repression giving into lust.
Russo-Young's ability to relate to her characters and actors, and the intimate results, caught the eye of Cotton—and she was tapped to direct a series of short films for their cotton-promoting campaign. Each film follows the lives of two different people (for example, a classical musician and a wood salvager), noting how cotton is an important backdrop in both and ultimately connects the two. The cotton products in each film are also shoppable; there's a diverse palate of offerings from J. Crew, Baggu, Sur La Table, Ernest Alexander and more. We spoke with Russo-Young to learn more about how she told the stories of these real people through the camera.
I hoped to show people and professions less often seen on screen, people whose lives I wanted to get to know or thought were fascinating.
What was your vision for these films, before going into production?
The original Common Threads concept came from DDB New York, the agency that works with Cotton. I loved the possibilities of the split-screen idea and happily came on board. The casting process was extremely collaborative; we all worked together to find real people (as opposed to actors) and create interesting juxtapositions between them. For example, as you might of seen, we decided to feature Matthew Million as a distiller at Kings County Distillery because I was quite familiar with the place and thought it would be an unexpected (and visual) profession. I hoped to show people and professions less often seen on screen, people whose lives I wanted to get to know or thought were fascinating. The same spirit of collaboration was true of everything onscreen—the props and costumes would be their real clothes and we’d supplement their wardrobes only when it made sense for the films.
There were many factors that went into the decision making of the "Common Threads" series: casting, locations, the split-screen effect, how cotton would be incorporated into each narrative, variation. I wanted the viewer to feel like they were seeing inside each person’s world and living with them and the dual image put emphasis on finding commonalities within those worlds. So again, casting was crucial to this project, as it was casting worlds, not just individuals. I wanted to find people who would have interesting professions and homes that would also be somewhat unexpected in the context of cotton.
There are some charmingly intimate scenes—like Kari and Royden's morning routines or Ernest and Matthew with their respected loved ones. How did you prepare and execute to make the featured people feel comfortable, since they aren't actors by day?
I think making people feel comfortable on set is one of the things I try to do as a director. I’m a very physical person so I just kind of jump right in there. I’ll get into bed with people on set, I’ll act out what I’m imagining—filmmaking is so much fun for me that I hope sometimes my excitement rubs off.
Which Common Threads filming experience was particularly memorable?
Shooting November's film [which will launch in January] was particularly memorable because I was so impressed with both of our talent. There is something about shooting action that is visceral and exciting. Shooting Fire, a champion female boxer at the famous Gleason’s gym was incredible because we were filming while the gym was open. There were boxers all around us fighting and punching and yelling, the energy was contagious. On the other side of the screen, Celia Rowlson-Hall tells a story when she dances, it’s like you can see her physically dancing through a wild narrative in her mind. Both women were absolutely compelling.
What are some of your favorite cotton pieces at home?
I’m actually into my flannel sheets these days!
What other projects are you currently in the middle of working on?
I’m working on a fiction film called "Model Behavior" about the underbelly of the fashion world and a fiction/doc hybrid movie about my family.
Images courtesy of Common Threads