Before I Fall turns Mean Girls into Human Beings
Director Ry Russo-Young and star Zoey Deutch talk double standards in Hollywood, and how they backed each other up to make the best teen movie of the year
Filmmaker Ry Russo-Young began her career as an actress in the early films made by mumblecore auteurs Joe Swanberg and Alex Ross Perry. After writing and directing her first three features Orphans, You Won’t Miss Me, and Nobody Walks (the latter co-written with Lena Dunham), it’s clear that Russo-Young displays a talent for crafting complicated female protagonists who are forced to face their inner demons. Her fourth movie Before I Fall (adapted by Maria Maggenti from Lauren Oliver’s popular YA novel of the same name) plays to her strengths while boasting a high-concept conceit familiar to fans of Groundhog Day and Edge of Tomorrow: high-school queen bee Sam (played with charisma and vulnerability by rising star Zoey Deutch, last seen in Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!! and the James Franco-starring studio comedy Why Him?) arises each morning to experience the same day over and over again, forcing her to come to terms with the dark side of the teenage experience and the things she hates most about herself.
Before I Fall is a confident, compelling teen movie with a nuanced understanding of sex, death, and friendship. Perhaps that’s due to a new lens on familiar tropes and stereotypes brought by the film’s core female collaborators. While Sam and her posse may first appear like the vapid über-bitches seen in any John Hughes movie, the film unveils, layer by layer, their complexities, fears, and doubts, building to a revelatory climax.
We caught up with Russo-Young and Deutch (clad in bespoke suits!) ahead of the film’s screening at the TIFF Next Wave Festival to discuss strong female characters, why studio heads are scared of the idea of a woman-directed blockbuster, and how crying in a garage was a turning point for their collaboration.
I’m curious about the movies that women see themselves in when they’re growing up. What were those movies for you?
Zoey Deutch: Growing up, it was probably Stage Door. All those female parts are so fucking rich, smart, well-written, and complicated. I'm constantly interested in people's discussions about the lack of strong female characters. To me, as an actor in this time, I'm actually faced with a lack of complicated, interesting characters, rather than strong female ones. In Stage Door you see good, bad, ugly, in-between. The characters were vulnerable and complex, and I identified with that. I just think it's a great film.
Ry Russo-Young: I have two movies. The first was a movie that I watched a lot as a child, which was The Sound of Music. I would always sing (starts singing) "I am 16, going on 17.” Liesl was my 16-year-old dream of being that girl in a gazebo with a guy, that dress — it was so magical. When I was a teenager, it was Postcards from the Edge. My sister and I used to recite whole scenes from that movie. Meryl Streep is just the queen of complicated female characters.
That idea of complicated versus strong is really interesting. Because it's easy to be a strong, idealistic heroine, but maybe not one who makes selfish choies, or mistakes.
ZD: There's such a weird thing about the likeability of female characters. That has always bugged me! I appreciate in Before I Fall that Sam goes on this journey to discover herself and who she wants to become. The moral of the story is not to "be a nice girl,” which a lot of stories about women are; the moral of the story is “be who you are." Everybody is this walking contradiction of themselves, this film explores so many versions of the same girl. She does things where maybe some people would go, "Oh, she would never do that." But people, women, are capable of good, bad, and everything in-between. I’ve found that in my life.
RRY: It's an interesting thought experiment to ask: "What would be Before I Fall with you as the lead character?" What are the multiple selves that you would explore along the way to finding your own true self? It's different for everybody, but for Sam, it's this one specific journey.
The plot structure of the film and the original novel uses this device of Sam experiencing the same day over and over again. How did you collaborate on grounding Sam as she goes day by day through the movie?
RRY: Maria Maggenti, who wrote the script, did an amazing job of tracking Sam's psychological journey. One of the things I loved about the script and the book by Lauren Oliver is that Groundhog Day conceit done to a more psychological, emotional end. Each day Sam is really a different person, and you see a different aspect to her character.
ZD: The thing I'm most grateful for was those couple weeks prior to shooting, [when] Ry and I delved as deep as we possibly could in terms of mapping out this character's journey. We created shorthands in the names for each day, or colours, down to the certain props that changed for certain days.
I was trained more in improv, and this was not a film where you could go off the cuff and play around. This was a detail-oriented and specific process. Each day, Sam could be looked at as a different character. Some people said that her journey felt like the different stages of grief as she goes through denial, anger, acceptance. Every day, Sam experiences a different version of the mourning process.
RRY: Part of what is so appealing about the story is that it operates on so many different levels. There are larger questions about time, philosophical questions, then the very fun movie construct that references all these vapid teen films and turns them on their head.
That's interesting, because Zoey is basically teen-movie royalty. Your mom Lea Thompson was in Some Kind of Wonderful, and your dad Howard Deutch directed that film and Pretty in Pink. How does Before I Fall fit into the continuum of teen movies?
RRY: I looked at a lot of the John Hughes movies, because I feel like they are evergreen. But I think we have a little bit of a label now, this "YA" label, which feels reductive to me. It doesn’t dignify the teenage experience. I wanted to make a movie that really talked about adolescence as the angsty, melodramatic, dark time that it is, but [one that] is ultimately a celebration of life. A teen movie that has more eternal themes. So that was the goal: to make a teen movie that is truly deep.
ZD: I'm very excited that the film is playing TIFF Next Wave and Sundance, but it’s important to note this is an independent film. We’re so lucky to get this giant platform to show Before I Fall to the world, but I want to reiterate that we did not make this film with the intention of commercial appeal. This film was made deeply from the heart, not with the notion of "how are we gonna make our money back?" We had no idea if it was gonna be rated PG-13 or R, that was not circulating during production. The blessing of being unaware of these factors is that the film ended up being very authentic, not belittling of the teenage experience. It's a testament to Ry that the film looks big, beautiful and grand, but it's a small independent film that we shot in Canada — in Squamish!
Ry, while Before I Fall was shot like an independent film, it feels like a movie that could push you as a director into the mainstream. There’s been a lot of discussion lately about why women aren't allowed to direct big Hollywood blockbusters, yet someone like Colin Trevorrow can make Safety Not Guaranteed, then Jurassic World. Why do you think that is, and how do you hope to navigate the next phase of your career?
RRY: What I see is that women aren't given a lot of opportunities out of the festival circuit to go on and make a bigger movie. They're just not given the budgets. Studio heads are very risk-averse, so they somehow don't feel as secure giving a woman a bigger budget because "they trust the man more," quote-unquote. When women are given the opportunity to make a studio film, they're given budgets that are a fourth the budgets that men are given. Selma was a $20 million movie, which is nothing in terms of a budget for a film that size which has Oscar-bait potential. With a male director, it would’ve been a $40 million budget. I feel very lucky that I was given this opportunity. I would love to go on and make bigger films, but also have a freedom of choice to make the kinds of films I want to make.
ZD: You just said, "I feel so lucky to be given this opportunity," but you really aren't lucky because you work your ass off! Men don't sit there and say, "I feel so lucky to be given the opportunity to direct a $3 million movie." When people say, "Ry's so talented," I always stop them to say, "Yes, but that's almost belittling how hard she works." She works her fucking ass off like nobody I've ever seen. When you ask her a question, she can answer it because she has done every single bit of work. There is nobody who is gonna catch her off her game. I understand it’s always important to be grateful but...
RRY: I mean "lucky" by comparison, because most women are not given even low-budget opportunities. When this project was a $12 million movie being made at a studio, it was not a job that I was going to get. Even though I'd made three independent films, two of which were at Sundance, the last one had distribution, blah blah blah — still, me as the director would’ve been too much of a risk. When it came time to go the indie route, making this movie was still sort of an impossible task. I mean, we had 12-page days on this script.
Women get the tough "there's no money, go try and do something with it” opportunities. They almost never get the "here's a lot of money and time, go work with an existing franchise" ones. I'm really committed to what I do, I love who I work with. The hope is to be the change that you want to see. I remember when I saw Kathryn Bigelow won the [Best Director] Oscar [for The Hurt Locker], it was everything to me — it made me go, "Oh, this is possible. Finally, they let someone in." For the women that are coming next, I just wanna say we can do this, even though it's really, really fucking hard.
As an actress you have some control, in that you can choose your projects. Zoey, are you trying to internationally collaborate with more female filmmakers?
ZD: I just produced a film that my mom directed, my sister wrote the script, starred in the movie, and did the score. I’m trying to be more proactive. I think as an actor, when you love what you do and you're at the mercy of other people's decisions, it can feel really confusing. To be able to make a film from the ground up with my mom and my sister was so inspiring. To watch my sister, who’s a young woman, write all on her own a frickin' great and funny script, star in the movie, then score it… it was extremely empowering.
RRY: I decided I wanted to make films when I was dabbling in acting, because I couldn’t handle how out of control I felt. I was like, “I'm in some guy's movie and he's telling me what to do? This is not fun!" No, I want to create the universe, I want to have control over this world. I want to tell people how women behave instead of having a man show you, because there’s been enough of that. For actors, it's really tough, something has to come down. Especially when you're being so emotionally vulnerable onscreen. There’s so much trust that you have to give the movie, right? Like, "here I am, trying it different ways. You're gonna cut it and do your own thing with it.” You never know when you're shooting something if it's gonna be good.
ZD: There's strength in vulnerability. The first time I see a movie I’m in, it's hard to watch. Because something that was once yours is now theirs. I mean "theirs" as in, it’s now in the universe. It's a very weird feeling. Like, "here's my diary, read it."
RRY: Your diary is at least a book, but this movie is you. You're amazing. You're just incredible.
ZD: You are! I trust you, though.
RRY: That is everything. I think that’s what is unique about us: we really found a way into each other. Like, "we can do this together, we can have these conversations, get to the point, not dance around each other."
ZD: We've never had a fight! We've cried in each other's arms.
RRY: We don’t fight, we debate and we discuss.
ZD: We’ve talked about this moment, it was day three of shooting where we were in the garage, both realizing the weight of this film. We were looking at each other crying, like, "We got this, this is important. Let's give it our all, even though it’s gonna be hard." The irony of making a movie about not having enough time is that we did not have enough time.
RRY: Zoey really pushed me to fight for the time we needed to make this movie good, because it's hard not to let production push you around a little bit. That pep talk in the garage was Zoey saying, “We need to have our heads in the right place. This isn't going well." We were both crying, there were grips coming in like, "uhhhh," changing equipment. It was a huge moment, a turning point for the whole film. That moment is how we got what we got.