Zoey Deutch Before I Fall
Cast: Halston Sage, Zoey Deutch, Jennifer Beals, Elena Kampouris
Director: Ry Russo-Young
Genre: Drama, Mystery
Synopsis: Sam seemed to have everything a teenage girl could want: popularity, a hot boyfriend, cool status, fun friends, loving family and seeming happiness. But beyond the superficial, Sam's life wasn't so charmed. She was one of a clique of high school mean girls who made life hellish for those different from them. When she's killed in a car accident, Sam is forced to relive her last day on Earth seven times in order to get things right. She attempts to make sense of what befell her and gain a better understanding of herself and others. In the process Sam evolves, learns to be a good person and comes to accept her fate. As narrated by Sam (Zoey Deutsch), this touching story, based on the 2010 young adult novel by Lauren Oliver, has a Groundhog Day structure, with a dramatic arc.
Before I Fall
Release Date: March 2nd, 2017
About The Production
The film, based on the popular YA novel of the same name by Lauren Oliver, attracted director Ry Russo-Young for its sense of youthful authenticity and intriguing repetitive structure. 'When I read the book I was struck by how powerful Sam's story was and what interesting questions were raised by the recurring day construct," said Ry Russo-Young. The emotional honesty of Sam's posthumous journey made a strong impression on her. 'Lauren Oliver's ability to balance the emotional and philosophical resonated with me on a personal level, as it reminded me of my friendships at that time in my life, how deep and all-encompassing they were, and the dramatic choices that I felt I was facing at the time," said Ry Russo-Young.
Ry Russo-Young was mindful of the intense feelings experienced during teen years. 'I think it's a time in one's life where we ask ourselves who we want to be in the most vivid manner," she said. 'And I believe that these are questions that are important to carry with us through all stages of life as well."
While there is romance and humour, this is a tale that delves deeper than most teen dramas. 'Part of what was exciting to me about making a movie that takes place at this particular age is that it's a time of intensity and drama," said Ry Russo-Young. 'It's a moment when your peer relationships can feel like life or death. And because of this, I think teens are often more connected to what it means to be alive than we are at other times in life."
The emotional touchstones also spoke to the young stars. The first person narrative keeps the focus trained on Samantha 'Sam" Kingston, played by young star-in-the-making Zoey Deutsch. Zoey Deutsch, the daughter of former teen actress Lea Thompson, was moved by the emotional elements of the story. ''Before I Fall' is thoughtful, painful and beautiful," said Zoey Deutsch. 'It sort of makes you feel a multitude of things. It also has some beautiful ideas that stick with you for a long time."
Her co-stars agree. 'It's relatable, dramatic and mysterious," said Kian Lawley, who plays Sam's love interest Rob. No typical teen story, Sam's trajectory is a complicated one. 'Sam begins the movie as a follower, a member of the herd who is doing what her social milieu demands: having all the right friends, going to all the right parties, picking on all the losers," said Ry Russo-Young. 'She's someone who disastrously plays by the rules of her group without any self-reflection. There's the idea that life will carry her along and that everything will work out for her without her having to live authentically." But the realization begins to dawns on Sam that there is more to life than the superficial existence she is living. 'Over the course of the story, she comes to realise who she wants to become, and that becoming is a permanent process," Ry Russo-Young says.
Who Do You Want To Be When You Die?
The story is set on Feb. 12, which, at the high school Sam attends, is known as Cupid Day. With her looks and popularity, Sam has never given much thought to others, especially those not as blessed with teenage good fortune. But on a fateful day, her last, she begins to figure things out.
Sam's best friends are: Lindsay, the ringleader, played by Halston Sage, and loyal followers Ally (Cynthia Wu) and Elody (Medalion Rahimi). The quartet of girls make life fairly miserable for classmates on the fringes, social misfits and anyone not in their elite social set. Their focus is trained on clothes, popularity, boys, partying and sex. Sam wakes up and goes to school, taking in stride the flowers and other tokens of admiration given her and the attention she has grown so used to. As the day goes on, problems arise, but she brushes them aside"until late at night when she leaves a party with her trio of gal pals.
A uniquely told story, much of it transpires post-mortem, though temporal issues are intentionally mysterious. 'In preparation for the movie I explored the idea of time and what I discovered was that time is a highly debated topic, which I found inspiring, ' said Ry Russo-Young. 'There have been two major perspectives on time"cyclical and linear- and in Before I Fall, Sam is trapped in cyclical time, with a day recurring for eternity. '
What intrigued Ry Russo-Young about being caught in that eternal time warp was that 'it forces a self-reflection on behalf of Sam, as she discovers in this paradigm that she can act however she would like to. That's interesting. Who does she really want to be? I think that this is a great question for all of us. And on set we talked about it with the phrase -Who do you want to be when you die'?"
Ry Russo-Young and Zoey Deutsch, who said she looked up to the director as a 'big sister," talked a great deal through the filming process.
'She's the kind of person who likes to know everything and dives deep," Ry Russo-Young said of Zoey Deutsch. 'So, at times, we had more thematic conversations. Often these talks weren't tied to a specific scene, but were more about the ideas behind the film as a whole." During these preparations, Ry Russo-Young said, 'we developed a shorthand by numbering and naming each day so that she could access Sam's psychological and emotional state with clarity and speed." For example, day four was 'angry day" and day five was 'perfect day." 'It was a way to begin to understand Sam's arc but also the variations of self she goes through in the film," explained the director.
Rehearsing For The Inevitable And The Practical
'I think most people feel a sense of unease about death, whether it's conscious or not," said Ry Russo-Young. 'We don't know how long we're going to be around and for me personally that's always created an urgency. Part of making movies is an effort to leave a visual, temporal record behind of a story, an event, or an idea. Making this film was self-referential; itself a way to articulate and share the idea that we only get one life and we should make it meaningful, and make it count."
In some ways, the film provided a therapeutic space for dealing with the subject so many fear. 'It was a way to describe a feeling (and anxiety) I've always had, and share it," says Ry Russo-Young. 'The story works on many levels and it was appealing to me that it could be both entertaining and tap into these fundamental human conditions."
The cast spent a lot of time rehearsing, which seemed to suit everyone involved. 'I think it's imperative for a movie like this that we spend the time to rehearse and to understand the scenes as best we can," Zoey Deutsch said. Adds Halston Sage, about the preparation process: 'We needed to rehearse to make it feel like a real high school movie and not the movie version of high school."
It was essential that Zoey Deutsch and Ry Russo-Young be in sync on her character, since it was the lynchpin to the story. 'Zoey Deutsch and I were in constant communication throughout the process," said Ry Russo-Young. 'She is extremely professional and wise beyond her years. But also fun." Some of that rehearsal involved improvisational exercises and other ideas. 'It took many forms, certainly beyond reading the scene and breaking down key idea and meaning," said Ry Russo-Young. 'Sometime we'd go out to dinner together. On one occasion I sent the girls out on the town without me."
Once the roles were cast, Ry Russo-Young would meet with the actors to have one-on-one wardrobe sessions, a process that carried more weight than simply fashion choices. 'In life, and certainly as a teenager, how you dress is a major communication aspect of who you are," said Ry Russo-Young. 'And I want each actor to be involved in the creative thinking going into their character, so we were trying on clothes (their own and stuff I bring), but it's really a longer discussion about the character and how she carries herself, or what kind of music he likes/how he sees the world etc."
Ry Russo-Young did this early in the process, allowing for the possibility of change. 'The character of Rob, for example, was written as a jock and that always seemed very cliché to me, so I cast Kian Lawley (who does not look like a jock) and then when I went over to his house, we talked about what we thought the contemporary cool kid in high school was like and created more texture together.
The Trickiness Of Adapting Well-Loved Books
It fell to screenwriter Maria Maggenti to convert the book into a screenplay. 'Maria Maggenti did extraordinary work adapting the book in terms of structure and character," said Ry Russo-Young.
When it came time to look to other inspirational sources, Ry Russo-Young looked to other films in the Groundhog Day canon. 'In terms of prep, I have a pretty intense process and watching other movies certainly is part of that," said Ry Russo-Young. 'I watched all the time loop movies to get familiar with the pitfalls of the genre and examine what works and why."
It was Ry Russo-Young's intent to externalise Sam's psychological journey. 'Sam is our eyes into the story," said Ry Russo-Young. 'Keeping the audience in her head was perhaps the most important factor for me in the making of this film. It's something a book can do quite effectively, but movies sometimes struggle with."
Adapting a book to the screen can be a challenging experience, as filmmakers are mindful of staying true to the spirit of the original work. 'I knew the film had to capture the emotional core of what book fans loved about the novel," said Ry Russo-Young. 'Sam's transformation, her relationship with her sister, the fact that she dies at peace having righted her wrongs. And it's what I loved about the novel as well, so it wasn't difficult to stay true to those seeds."
However, she points out that book and film formats are disparate, necessitating some substantive differences. 'At the end of the day, a book and a movie work in different ways because of the mediums," she said. ' The book charts inner monologues, but movies work with images and translate the characters' interior world in a different way. So, in making this film, all the choices (visual and otherwise) were made to support Sam's psychological journey. In this story it was especially true because the whole film exists in her mind."
Changes From Page To Screen
The first alteration from the book was geographic. 'The book was set in Connecticut with a New England look and feel," said Ry Russo-Young. 'I changed it to the Pacific Northwest, specifically a region called Cascadia which includes the Pacific Northwest and part of Canada and has a unique history. This area felt right to me because it captured the moody angst of the story with its fog, rain and dramatic mountains.' The lush Northwest seemed to suit the themes and mood of the tale. 'There is a beauty and a deathly danger to that region which captured Sam's between life and death struggle," said Ry Russo-Young.
Most of the film was shot in Vancouver, some of it in the more rural region of Squamish, B.C. 'Squamish had the tall trees and deep dark forest," said Ry Russo-Young. 'This is one of the big changes from the book, which had an east coast setting. But I had filmed in and around Vancouver and knew it would suit the book. Setting the story in the Northwest gave a sense of awe to all the locations: big mountains, big trees, and a dark and foreboding landscape where people are small and dwarfed by the natural landscape, which reinforce aspects of the story for me. It suited the material well."
As for similarities to the book, much of the voiceover narration stayed close to the original in the book. For example -Maybe for you there's a tomorrow' is a book line," said Ry Russo-Young. 'Other times the text was modified. The fact that so many lines made it into the movie untouched is really a tribute to the book and the strength of Lauren's writing." Indeed, swathes of dialogue remained intact. 'There are some direct lines from the book that we put in the movie, which I always think is fun because I love when you read the book and you see the movie and it's really true to it,' said Sage, who plays Lindsay, Sam's friend and ringleader of a little group of bullies.
Another cast member devoured the book as soon as she learned she had gotten the part. 'I had heard about it before, but I had never read it," said Elena Kampouris, who plays Juliet, a troubled girl treated badly by Lindsay and Sam's other pals. 'Once I got the news, I was in that bookstores getting that book and I was caught up in it." Elena Kampouris quickly became a fan. 'I was left feeling very moved after reading it," said Elena Kampouris. 'I even was a little emotional at the end"reading the part where Sam is kind of looking at her family for the last time. Tears were coming and it was very powerful. It's about how we treat people and what goes around comes around and how everything you do matters." The takeaway, for Elena Kampouris: 'If somebody is struggling and if you see somebody who is very quiet and isolated, it's important to make a connection and help others." Her co-star Logan Miller, who plays Kent is another fan of the book: 'It's got a really deep connecting message.
The Story's Structural Challenges
Filming ala Groundhog Day structure, Russo-Young had to ensure that the repetitive passages advanced the movie and didn't feel rehashed. 'The risk of shooting a repeated story is that it will feel repetitive and therefore boring to an audience," said Ry Russo-Young. 'So part of the challenge was to make each day both psychologically and visually distinct form the others. The script was a strong guide in that Sam was in a different emotional place on each day. The fun part for me was to adapt our camera language over the days to see the same spaces but from her new perspective."
The film's tone was key. 'One of my favourite aspects of the film is its dramatic irony," Ry Russo-Young said. 'The audience shares a secret with Sam from the very beginning of the movie. Sam changes and evolves throughout the film, but everyone else stays the same and reacts to her evolving self, which is the fun for the audience." So some logistical adjustments had to be made. 'In terms of shooting, it made the most sense to block shoot most of the films," Ry Russo-Young said. 'So, for example, we shot all the morning wake up scenes on the same day, sometimes with repeating set-ups for different days. It was quite challenging for Zoey Deutch as an actress to have to flip between such varying states often with very little time in between takes."
Zoey Deutsch definitely found the unusual shooting structure something to contend with. 'The way we were shooting it was kind of mind-boggling," she sad. 'Sometimes at the end of the day I could hardly think straight at all." Discussion was essential. 'It helped us that Zoey Deutch and I spent a lot of time in advance of the shoot understanding exactly where her character is at in each scene, so that when it came time to shoot we could work very quickly," Russo-Young said.
Sisters Doing It For Themselves
'I think it's awesome so many women were involved," says Zoey Deutsch. 'The book was written by a woman, the script was written by a women, the film is directed by a woman and it's primarily a female cast. There's something really special and cool about that. I'm super proud of that element."
For Ry Russo-Young, that weighty realization came later. 'I actually didn't think about it until we were finished with the movie," she said. 'Our producer Jon Shestack pointed it out to me during the editing process. But, in retrospect, it all kind of makes sense. The material always felt very authentic in its rendering of the girls' relationships and of Sam's journey. The perspective never felt voyeuristic or objectifying, which is not always the case with stories about young women."
Ry Russo-Young felt strongly about avoiding even the vaguest whiff of teen exploitation. 'I deliberately didn't want to show bodies without faces, or focus on skin in ways that too often become objectifying tropes common in movies about young girls," said Russo-Young. 'How many high school movies have a slow motion shot of a girl half naked and wet?" Her goal was to make Sam's a hero's journey. 'Sam's call to action is like that of any hero and I think everyone behind the scenes was drawn to the universality and power of her story," said Ry Russo-Young. 'It just happened that there were a lot of women behind this one and I think the result speaks to everyone.
A Safe And Inclusive Film Set
'I loved our cast and there was an instant sense of warmth and ease with them, both between them and with me"a lack of ego," said Ry Russo-Young. 'The wonderful thing about everyone in our cast was that they were just down to work hard and have fun and go there, wherever -there' was. No red tape, not a lot of fear. I loved that. The fact that everyone was young and somewhat uninhibited was really refreshing as a director." Ry Russo-Young was intent on creating an environment in which the actors could feel safe and free to be playful and try things out. 'Film sets can be very stressful places with a lot of procedure; lights, tape, ladders, cable"all that can be antithetical to experimentation, intimacy and vulnerability," said Ry Russo-Young. 'The best moments often come from a risk the actor takes or an unplanned action, a striking moment of truth. Nothing safe or rehearsed about it. This is the gold Joe Landauer (our editor) finds in the cutting room. The on-set environment is a big aspect of helping them get there."
Director Ry Russo-Young had a way of bringing out the young actors' most authentic performances. 'Working with Ry Russo-Young has been absolutely wonderful," says Elena Kampouris. 'She really is approaching the story in a really raw, authentic, honest way and she wants to do justice to the story that the readers know. And she really wants to come from an honest place and, and portray school in a real way, not in like a glossy, contrived fashion. She wants to tell it the way it really is and not sugarcoat anything."
Logan Miller appreciated the level of easy communication. 'She is very open to suggestions and she's just really here to make a good film, a very deep and grounded film," he said. Adds Zoey Deutsch: 'My relationship with Ry Russo-Young is something I've never had before with a director," said Zooey Deutsch. 'I have like a sisterly relationship with her. She's like my big sis. I trust, and I love her. I'm so close with her, and I can ask her anything."
Themes Of Identity
The search for authentic identity is a critical element in the story. 'The movie is really about who you want to be before you die," says Ry Russo-Young. 'It's the idea of self-determination and that Sam's struggle is essentially the human struggle to become who you are. Zoey Deutsch took the film's themes to heart. 'I think the idea is a beautiful concept: What you do today matters. It matters now and kind of into infinity."
Co-star Logan Miller, who plays Sam's childhood friend Kent, also saw it as a search for one's true self. 'The main themes of Before I Fall have to deal with being comfortable in your own skin," said Logan Miller. 'It deals with treating others the way that you would want to be treated, and having a self realisation that the things in life that we think are super important-- like popularity and all that stuff, aren't. We're all just trying to get accepted in this rat race of life. It's a lot of themes that teenagers deal with on a day-to-day basis. And not just teenagers, but everybody." A simple way of putting it, according to Logan Miller is: 'Every second counts, so make it work."
Others in the cast interpreted the story as an allegory encouraging kindness and decency. 'It's kind of teaching everybody a lesson about karma," said Elena Kampouris. 'How you treat people is important and matters, and affects everything. It's important to treat people with love and respect. Your actions have repercussions. We learn this lesson of karma through this purgatory that Sam suffers in, by living the same day over and over."
Some of the actors spoke about its anti-bullying message. 'My character, Juliet, is basically a girl who is extremely troubled and disturbed because she's been severely bullied and ostracized in school to the point where she is suicidal," said Elena Kampouris. 'She's just been driven crazy by the torment she's gotten over the years in school." Logan Miller offers these thoughts for those who are suffering that torment: 'For those that are being bullied, I would say, it's a difficult situation because every situation is different," Logan Miller says. 'But if you could just find it in yourself to ignore what these people have to say because usually, when someone is bullying, they are also going through something hard as well. So, it helps just being able to see the outside perspective and know that it's not the end of the world. You are better than that person if that person is trying to bring you down,
But the saga is a more complicated story of personal identity, not a typical tale of nasty teen bullies and passive victims. 'To say that the movie is just about bullying is to do it a disservice," said Ry Russo-Young. 'Bullying is an aspect of the narrative, but it's just a small piece of the story. That said, I love that Before I Fall can exist on many levels at once. In the design, there are a lot of circles, that refer to time circling back on itself in infinite loops, that possibly all existence is recurring. There are also arrows that apply to people who don't adhere to this perspective and suggest linear time for those who believe time has an end."
The ultimate takeaway from the film is likely to differ depending on the viewer. 'With Sam's final moment the movie becomes a celebration of life, not death," said Ry Russo-Young. 'At the end of the film, Sam is her truest pure self, and it took a lot of struggle to get there. It's the struggle and the process that's beautiful and the heart of the film."
And how would she like viewers to approach this unusual story?
'My hope for the film has always been the same"that the audience will want to reach down and cling to the person's hand that they love, and appreciate the ephemeral nature of what they have," said Ry Russo-Young. 'It's about becoming who you really are by learning to appreciate who and what it is that you love.
Before I Fall
Release Date: March 16th, 2017