A half-eaten cheeseburger lies next to a bubbling glass of champagne in a suite in the Sunset Tower Hotel. People move in a frenzy around the room, preparing for the big event. By the window sits a woman, calm amongst the chaos. She is why photographer Koury Angelo and I are here. She is why tonight is such an important night. This woman who seems so relaxed in a room full of kinetic energy is director Ry Russo-Young and tonight is the opening night of her latest film, Before I Fall.
Before I Fall follows Samantha Kingston (played by Zoey Deutch), a high school student riding the wave of popularity into graduation. The clique of teenage girls have a proclivity for gossiping and making others feel unwanted or “less than”. It’s a common trope found inside coming-of-age stories – the beautiful bullies picking on their peers as a source of entertainment. In this story, however, we are following the bully. She isn’t a good girl saddled with a group of bad friends. She isn’t an anti-hero. Samantha Kingston just has an attitude.
Ry greets Koury and I warmly as we come in. She introduces us to her friend who is taking pictures on her phone, and to her husband, Colin, who is keeping her company as the hair and makeup team get Ry ready for the evening. She asks us very little except how we are doing and what’s been going on in our lives. I’m immediately surprised. I had been prepared to be greeted by a list of questions and demands from the award-winning director. “Don’t shoot me during these times”, “How long do you realistically need to be here?” These would have been reasonable questions for her to ask, seeing as how we had only met a week or so prior and now I was in her hotel bedroom with the intention of having a photographer follow her around all night to document her every move. Instead, her kindness upon our arrival was disarming and put me at ease.
This is something I would learn about Ry over the next few hours, she is this way with everyone she comes in contact with. An older gentleman, will come to her later that night with a small insight he had while watching her film. Something about how nice and beautiful the skies looked in the movie. Rather than just saying thank you and floating away back into Hollywood, she gives him an earnest answer. When a smiling cocktail waitress at the after-party comes to check on the food and drink situation, Ry forms an almost two person huddle with the waitress, and suddenly it’s as if she is talking with one of the trusted members of her film crew. It’s absolutely charming, to say the least, to have someone so talented and commanding do anything but make you feel as if they are commanding over you.
I could only assume while watching her treat everyone as a long-time friend and as if they are undoubtedly the most important person in the room that this innate ability has helped make her such a fantastic director whose career has obtained an upward mobility since her debut at The Sundance Film Festival in 2009 with the film You Won’t Miss Me.
Outside of the talent of making people feel at ease, Ry has also been able to move forward as a director by learning lessons one film at a time.
“I think I have finally learned that I am the director and at the end of the day I have to do what’s best for the film.” Ry explained to me. “I used to be so worried about bothering people or making people upset. You know, you have a long day of shooting and then you have to tell people that they have to stay longer because of… whatever reason. I would hate doing it because, obviously, everyone wants people to enjoy working with them and wants to remain friendly with people. So, I would worry too much about that stuff when I should have been worrying about the film. Now, it’s all about the film. We are all there to make the film the best it can be.”
The team at the hotel is now on the move. Running late for the red carpet press line for the film, due in no small part to the impromptu photoshoot we had in the hallways of the hotel when out of the blue we spotted Zoey Deutch – or rather, Zoey spotted Ry and pounced. The two were immediately entangled. The hotel itself could have burnt to the ground with them in it and they might still be holding hands and laughing, had it not been for the PR team rushing everyone to the car so they could make it to their own film.
With a story like Before I Fall, based on the novel by Lauren Oliver, being able to put the film at the forefront of her mind at all times was key. See, in Before I Fall, Samantha Kingston and her friends have an extremely intense encounter at a party with a girl who has been the target of their bullying for years. While driving away from the messy situation they had wrought, the driver of the car, Lindsay (played by Halston Sage) loses control of the car and crashes. Luckily for Samantha, she wakes up unscathed in her bedroom. Unluckily, she is now in a time loop that puts the day on an indefinite repeat, forcing her to examine her friends, her classmates and herself much, much closer than any high school kid would ever want. It’s only after figuring out how to better herself and lives of the people around her that she may be able to find her way back into a regular timeline. Maybe.
The time-loop story is one we are all very aware of now. The coming-of-age story where a teen figures out what is actually important in life is also something we have seen before as well. The marriage of the two is what makes the film so appealing, and has given the film the ability to teach actual lessons worth learning rather than just skimming over the troubles of youth. Behind the camera, Ry’s direction over a young cast of mostly girls takes the film beyond of the realm of “teen movie”.
After their red carpet appearance, I found a short quiet moment to ask Zoey Deutch about her relationship with Ry. “When I first met her it was literally the equivalent of falling in love,” Zoey explained while looking at Ry who stood out of earshot in the crowded press line. “It was an immediate connection and artistic bond. We were instantly on the same page and have been so ever since. I admire her a lot. I seriously love her with my whole heart.”
This sentiment was echoed by the rest of the cast who worked with Ry on the film. The director spent time hanging out and getting to know each one of the girls before filming ever started. She spent time with them at their homes. She raided their closets looking for outfits that the actors owned that mirrored the taste of each of their specific characters. Ry, again, made sure that each of these actresses felt like they were the most important person in her mind, no matter how big or small their role in the film may have been.
As the crowd at the Director’s Guild of America Theater made their way out of the main lobby and into their seats, I hung back and trailed Ry. I wanted to see the nervous anticipation that falls over a young director as the curtain rises for their film. I wanted to watch as Ry nervously scanned the crowd. I wanted to see her wipe away a tear as her film was announced to an applauding audience. I wanted to warm my hands of the fire of her proud moment.
I lost Ry for a moment amid the cattle-drive into the theater. When I found her again she was standing alone just outside the doors, her eyes affixed to her phone.
“So… the films about to start. How’re you feeling?” I ask.
“Pretty good. Just making sure the babysitter is ok.” Ry looks up at me and smiles showing me she understands that it might not be the response I was expecting.
At what must have been a puzzled look on my face Ry continues, “It’s all done. This is been a bunch of work and I am really happy with [the film] and I think and hope people are going to like it, too. How about you? You getting everything you need?”
I thought for a moment that maybe Ry was downplaying this entire event in hopes of not appearing to be a showboat. Maybe she was just exhausted from answering the redundant questions that were hurled at her throughout the press line that it was all she could do to not smack the recording device out of my hand for a moment of privacy. She couldn’t really be so calm at this moment, and what’s more she couldn’t actually be asking how my night was going as a man from the theater is on a microphone introducing her film not a hundred feet away.
Then I thought back about what she had said about learning how important it was to put the film first. How at the end of the day, when you’re making a film– it’s the only thing that matters.
This was the demeanor of someone who had done just that. Someone who had, while making her film, made sure that it came first. The same way she treats everyone as the most important person in the room, she had given her film the same level of involvement. Now, there was no need for anxiety. There was no need for her to wax poetic about the film or her process. She had made a beautiful film that spoke for itself and was absolutely ready for the audience that sat before it.
In the end of Before I Fall we hope that Samantha has learned the lessons and righted her wrongs. We hope that she can graduate from the well-worn territory of an angsty teenager who doesn’t care enough about the relationships in her life to look at them more closely. We want her to grow up. These are lessons we want young audiences to learn too. And I couldn’t think of a better role model to help them learn these lessons than director Ry Russo-Young.