To make a movie this good-looking in 24 days is actually a modern miracle... It’s a confluence of a lot of things that we were able to achieve this. It’s not normal. I’m barely human.
An adaptation of Lauren Oliver’s wildly successful 2010 young-adult novel of the same name, Ry Russo-Young’s Before I Fall centers on a popular high school senior who dies in a car crash, only to wake up doomed to repeat the same 24 hours over and over again until she can right her wrongs.
The parable unfolds in a privileged, mountainous community where everyone seems to live in idyllic hilltop mansions. Sam (Zoey Deutch) wakes up expecting that this day, known as “Cupid Day” at her school, will be one to remember. She’s eagar to lose her virginity to her dopey jock boyfriend Rob (Kian Lawley) at a kegger. Sam does get off that night, fatally side-swept off the road, along with her mean-girl posse—vindictive bully Lindsay (Halston Sage), resident brainiac Ally (Cynthy Wu) and wild child Elody (Medalion Rahimi)—on their journey home. And presto! Sam wakes up trapped in a sadistic Sisyphean loop with the clock turned back to the previous morning. She tries in every which way to stop it. In one iteration, she’s extra nice to everyone, and in another, she goes full goth. The first few rotations are expectedly grim and it’s only after Sam learns a valuable life lesson that she’s able to step off this temporal treadmill. Before I Fall’s take on the Groundhog Day premise—lovingly aped by everything from Run Lola Run to Edge of Tomorrow, among other variants on the subgenre—is a surprisingly sharp articulation and a worthy message about the impact we have on other people, even if we’re not there to see it for ourselves.
Before I Fall opens everywhere on March 3.
Needless to say, this is a big week for you with the film hitting theaters. How does it feel?
I’m excited for people to finally get to see it because I’ve been living with it for so long. I’m nervous, but not about what people might think of the movie. I have faith in the movie and I think it plays really well. People have been emotionally affected by it. I’d never made a movie that’s this emotional for viewers. I want to make sure they get to see it in the best way possible [in theaters.]
Before I Fall is an adaptation of an immensely popular young-adult novel. There are giant billboards absolutely everywhere. The odds seem stacked in your favor.
It seems great, but I have no idea. Every time I see a billboard I’m like, “Yeah, that’s really cool, but there are billboards for all kinds of movies that don’t do well.” So, who knows, right? You never fucking know. I’m hoping for the best and trying not to obsess over it too much. I really do believe in this movie and I think it will find its audience. I just hope it’s sooner rather than later.
So this has been a long journey for you, as you were saying. When did it all begin?
It started, I guess, three years ago. My agent gave me this script when it was originally set up at a studio, to be developed as a studio movie. Then The Fault in Our Stars was so successful that the studio decided not to make [Before I Fall] and made Paper Towns instead. It was like, “Is this movie ever gonna get made? Who’s gonna finance it?” I had one meeting when it was at the studio and never heard back. I got a call from my agent, literally a year later: “Do you remember that script you really liked? Do you still like it? Are you interested in going on board?” They wanted to go the indie route, which means low-budget, basically. [Laughs] They wanted to shoot for a third of the money they would make it for at the studio. I said, “Yes,” and we made it six months later.
So “indie route” means low-budget, but does it also mean more creative control for you?
I think for the most part it does, yeah. In some ways, yeah. I did get a lot of creative control. The cut of the movie that you’re watching is my cut and it’s the cut that I wanted. I’m proud of the movie and I feel like it’s my movie. But it’s always compromises, for sure. Filmmaking is the art of compromise, especially within the context of budget. I mean, the movie looks big, but we really made it on a tiny budget with a challenging schedule. It was super fast and down and dirty.
The high production values surprised me, too. You shot this in just 24 days. Did you feel constantly rushed, like you were going way faster than you could manage?
Yes, absolutely. We literally cut things [from the script] while filming because we didn’t have time to shoot them. It was a fucking nightmare is the truth. It was a disaster in terms of shooting it because there was not enough time and they wouldn’t give me more days. It was really unrealistic. I sound like I’m bitching now and I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining but, at the same time, I’m worried that another producer will see what I was able to do in 24 days and expect that from another filmmaker. To make a movie this good-looking in 24 days is actually a modern miracle. We had a brilliant editor, a brilliant actress who I spent a lot of time with in advance to shooting, luck, and the fact that I had already made films for very little money—it’s a confluence of a lot of things that we were able to achieve this. It’s not normal. I’m barely human. [Laughs] It was really, really challenging to get it done at all. We were shooting 12-page days! It’s ridiculous.
Maria Maggenti, the screenwriter, seemed quite adamant about getting a female director to shoot. There’s a quote: “I can’t imagine a man doing this.” Did you guys talk about this?
Maria and I actually didn’t talk until later. I think she was pushing Jon [Shestack], the producer, and he was the one who ended up hiring me for the job. It’s one of those unconscious things. When I read the script, it reminded me of my own experiences being a teenage girl and I wanted to bring that authenticity—the intimacy of those female relationships, the high-stakes, and the sense that your friends are everything to you at that time in your life—because I identified with it. In retrospect, because the book was written by a female author, the script was adapted by a woman and the film directed by a woman, it’s very authentic to those female experiences. But Lauren [Oliver], Maria and I had very different high school experiences, too, as did Zoey [Deutch].
You found a great accomplice in Zoey as your lead actress. I watched several interviews with the two of you paired-up and you can tell that you really enjoy each other’s company.
I adore Zoey. Accomplice is a really good word—I’m going to steal that. [Laughs] It was so important to find somebody who had the range to play Sam. I also needed someone who’s believable in high school, which was really challenging. You don’t always get to do it, but I really wanted to audition actors. I auditioned a bunch of really talented young actresses. When I saw Zoey, I felt like I was in the movie—not watching someone audition for a movie. To me, that’s the biggest compliment because I want to be sucked in as if I’m an audience member, too. Zoey got me lost in it and that was my “Holy shit, this person can do it” moment. Then I put my thinking cap back on to test her like, “She can do Sam on day one, but can she do Sam on day four?”
I’m assuming you shot out of sequence, knocking out every party scene for all of Sam’s different days back-to-back, for instance. How did you keep the various timelines in order?
It’s a real feat. It’s like a math problem, basically. I made a visual wall of the movie categorized by day—day one, two, three, four, five, six—before Zoey came on board. Then I did that for each location and scene under each day. I color-coded all the locations with tags. So you can see that on day one, two, three, four and six, she goes to school. But on day three, she goes to school later in the day. On day five, she doesn’t go to school at all. You can kind of make sense of the movie visually just by looking at it, which was a way to keep it straight in my head. Zoey and I did a similar thing together where we named each day with a certain emotional, psychological state.
I know there’s “Xanax day,” which is a great shorthand.
Day two is “Xanax day,” where she’s reliving the day, but basically in a floating haze. She’s not sure if it’s déjà vu or if it’s actually happening for real. We named each day so that Zoey could very quickly fall into the Sam she’s supposed to be. So day one wasn’t just day one, it was fast day or normal day or whatever it was. I actually can’t remember what we called day one. It was this collaboration that made it all possible. The fact that Zoey and I were so on the same page about where Sam was at any moment was really key because it’s all from her character’s perspective.
What was your visual approach to the film going in? It definitely has a very specific, downcast look to it. It immediately called to mind The Ring for me.
Oh yeah, I pulled stills from that. I have a really exhaustive research process. There’s nothing at all “by accident” in the movie, from what you see on the bedroom walls to the lenses we used. It’s a process of articulating how I want the movie to look, first for myself, and then it becomes a kind of bible for everybody else to look at. I pull hundreds upon hundreds of stills and distill those down to the images I want. There are literally images from The Ring that, I think, made it into my book. So, totally! Absolutely The Ring. [Laughs] Also, part of the process is asking, “What is the movie really about?” To me, the movie was always about, well, who do you want to be before you die? There’s a lot of drama and angst and pain with figuring that out, as well as a light at the end of the tunnel. As a teenager, you’re really questioning who you are and Sam is going through an immense journey of self-awareness. I wanted the movie to look like between life and death, and visualize all of that drama and pain with mist and fog, forest and jagged cliffs, and raindrops and darkness.
What are your thoughts on how young-adult material is generally received? You read reviews and realize just how repellent it is to certain audiences. But a lot of people embrace your film.
Oh my god, everybody says that about this movie, like, “I thought I would hate it, but I really liked it.” There’s the YA thing, but also, if it’s a YA movie about a guy, it’s potentially more universal. With a YA movie about a girl, the only people who will want to watch it are teenage girls, right?
Does something like that make you hyper-aware? Does it maybe inform your filmmaking decisions in wanting to make your take a different one? Is it even a concern at all?
That’s a really good and interesting question. I’ve watched a lot of movies in this genre or whatever is considered young-adult these days. That spans the gamut to include everything from The Outsiders to The Breakfast Club and Paper Towns to something like If I Stay, which I feel is a very similar movie in a lot of ways. You think, well, what’s expected with YA movies? What’s very popular in teen movies? What are we used to seeing all the time and what am I personally bored with? What is that, “Uh! Young-adult!” Where is that reaction coming from? And, to me, a lot of YA always felt like it talked down to the teenage experience. It’s afraid to go too dark, too deep, too heavy, or get too messy. That’s one of the things I really liked about this script—it’s really dark! It’s about death and about asking hard, philosophical questions about who you are. There’s real drama in this movie. I didn’t want it to be this pop, superficial, colorful, and fun teen movie. That’s not to say that it’s not fun, but I wanted to go deeper to dignify the teenage experience.
I was worried with day one, before the second rotation where Sam wakes up again, because it felt like everything you didn’t want that you just described. But that was entirely the point.
Exactly. You’re completely setup. It’s a bit of a psych-out and that’s actually what happened to me when I first read the script because I didn’t know it had a Groundhog Day premise. After reading the first fifteen pages I was like, “This movie’s awful! These girls!” Then I saw the movie really changing. You really go through the journey with Sam as she goes through it. It’s intentional that we plant the idea that Sam is part of this herd, right? She’s a member of the group and sort of following along without really thinking about it. She’s not holding herself responsible for her actions. Lindsay says on the couch, “At least we did everything right. We made out with the hottest guys. We went to the sickest parties,” and there’s a sense that none of these girls are taking responsibility for themselves. Then Sam realizes that it’s not okay, she’s going to suffer, and there will be a reckoning. She starts to come into her own sense of moral self. She becomes who she is.
You have several acting credits to your name, much in the same way that your contemporaries like Alex Ross Perry and Joe Swanberg do on theirs. Are these opportunities born out of convenience in trying to help each other out or are they real acting ambitions?
It comes about because they ask me. Joe did this thing on Hannah Takes the Stairs where he cast Mark Duplass, Andrew Bukowski… Bujalski, not Bukowski. [Laughs] [Charles] Bukowski is dead! Anyways, Joe always had this really unconventional approach to casting, which I think inspired a lot of other filmmakers, myself included. When I made You Won’t Miss Me, I was sort of inspired by Joe’s hybridization of people because he’s so great at it. It’s also good to experience being in front of the camera because you have more empathy for actors, know what you’re asking them to do, how scared they are, and how intense it is to be putting yourself out there.
What were some of the bigger lessons for you as a filmmaker on Before I Fall?
There were a couple of things. For one, film is such a collaborative medium that I’m only as good as the people I work with. I’m so lucky to work with someone like Zoey or our editor, Joe Landauer. There are people behind the scenes who don’t get talked about or do press, like Joe, who’s incredible and brilliant and made this movie what it is in the same way that I did. It’s important to surround myself with people that I trust creatively and also, interestingly enough, people that I share political beliefs with. I say this because I really like people as people, too. I want to be friends with them forever. I feel like I’ve found more of those people that I want to continue to work with and to take wherever I go, or go wherever they go. Another thing is—this kind of relates to being a female director—to remember that you’re in charge of the set and it’s a position with a lot of responsibility. Prep is everything in terms of organization and really figuring out what the movie is before shooting it. If I do the appropriate homework, I don’t always have to know the answer and that’s okay. It’s sometimes important to take a minute to think about things.
You set me up for my next question about being a female filmmaker. It’s so important to talk about the disparity, actually, and relentlessly. A lot of people don’t want to talk about it.
I agree with you. I also used to have that knee-jerk reaction like, “Why do I always get asked about being a female filmmaker?” and I recently realized that, as part of my own evolution, it’s because, well, who else are they going to ask? It’s not like studio heads talk to people. Also, what a great opportunity to talk about it as a female director. It’s about diversity in general, right? We can talk about women, but we also want diversity on-screen to include all colors and all creeds.
I read that you consciously made the decision to not care about what other people thought while making Before I Fall. Was that in response to a bad experience you’d had?
It was in reaction to the film that I made before this called Nobody Walks where I felt like there were times when I would worry that some of the creative choices I had to make would inconvenience the people around me. On set, I felt like, if I had to ask for another take, they would be angry at me. I didn’t want to go overtime because I knew it would cost the producers money or because the crew had been working so hard or because I didn’t want to ask them to spend three more hours shooting when we’re all exhausted. I felt like they would think it was unnecessary or give me shit or think I didn’t know what I really wanted. So I was making decisions, sometimes, not based on what was best for the movie, but because I worried people would hate me or call me a flake or that I would inconvenience other people. And the truth is that none of that matters. All that matters, actually, is to make the movie good, but it’s sometimes hard to stand up for the movie.
I remember one time I said, “We need another take,” and I heard a crew member go, [Russo-Young lets out a most disgruntled sigh]. I was furious because, you know, this is my only job. More takes, no takes, a thousand takes—that’s the only thing a director, in a sense, has actual control over. I don’t go, “What? You’re going to put the light there?” I think women are trained to be liked and want to be liked, and it’s like, everybody wants to be liked already anyway. So from the beginning, I just made the decision to take that off the table and not care what anyone thought of me. I decided not to worry if I was inconveniencing that “lighting guy.” I think it really helped set me free to make choices that were good for the movie. The movie became my boss and nobody else.
I really appreciate how candid you are. Not everyone is this open, needless to say.
I talk to people sometimes and I don’t think they even saw the film. You doing your homework makes me want to do mine. I’ll tell you some fun facts about the movie. So the movie is about time and time has all these philosophical roots, right? Nietzsche, for example, was behind this doctrine called the eternal recurrence. Everyone’s like, “This is just like Groundhog Day!” No, it’s like Nietzsche, basically. It’s the idea of living the same day over and over again. He’s basically asking this age-old question: “Would you be able to live with your actions if you did the same thing over and over again, or would you hate yourself? How would you be able to handle it?” So the “become who you are” printout that you see in the film is actually a nod to Nietzsche, self-determination, and the philosophical idea behind cyclical time versus linear time. Cyclical time is represented by a circle and linear time by an arrow, so you see that in the movie. The scribbled circle on Sam’s phone tells you she’s in cyclical time whereas Rob, who’s in linear time, has an arrow on his hat.