Producer, writer, and director Joe Russo tells us about the challenges of directing his first feature film.
Joe Russo is a writer and director who has been featured on the BloodList three times, and has also served as a producer on the “Post Mortem with Mick Garris” podcast and the horror anthology Nightmare Cinema. (Yes, he shares a name with another director. No, there's no relation.)
His newest project is called The Au Pair Nightmare, which was co-written by Russo and Chris LaMont.
The film follows Taylor (Brytnee Ratledge), who has recently lost her fiancé. She accepts a job with mysterious couple Allesandra (Annie Heise) and John (Tristan Thomas) to become their daughter's au pair. In the family's lavish desert home, Taylor learns the husband and wife are hiding dangerous secrets, and her life might be in peril.
The low-budget indie was shot in 14 days after a two-and-a-half week prep. It is Russo's feature directorial debut and was a sort of trial-by-fire experience, according to his stories from set. He found himself juggling tight shooting schedules, difficult locations, and last-minute changes, among other challenges.
But all of this became valuable experience for the first-time director, and he was kind enough to share what he learned with No Film School.
Keeping creative control
During production of Nightmare Cinema, Russo was approached by fellow producer Nancy Leopardi about finding a feature for him to direct.
"She said, 'Come to us with a female-driven thriller,'" Russo said. The idea had to be something that could be shot in two weeks.
The Au Pair co-producer, Amitabh Klemm, pitched Russo an idea about a nanny thriller, celebrity, and obsession that ultimately became the inspiration for the project. It was the infatuation angle that intrigued Russo the most.
"I really wanted to try to find a story that we can cut a little deeper than just your average, 'Crazy woman stalks someone, or crazy man stalks woman, or kidnaps child'," he said.
He was also interested in subverting "nanny movie" tropes, which normally feature a crazed nanny (The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, anyone?) and instead, Russo wanted to see a nanny trapped in a situation with overbearing employers.
"To me, that felt so much more relatable, because not everyone can relate to having a nanny or an au pair in their lives," Russo said. "I didn't grow up with one. But I think everyone can relate to having crazy bosses."
"It was definitely nerve-wracking. I had to trust my gut that this was the right decision."
The independently produced movie was acquired by Lifetime, and financiers paid for the script. After the first draft, however, the financiers gave a note that would have changed the story to a kidnapping thriller. Russo said he knew he wasn't comfortable with the change.
"I actually wrote an impassioned letter saying, 'No, this is why this obsession storyline is important,'" Russo said. "We really tried to make sure that Taylor, our protagonist, her story was mirrored in the villain's story."
Russo sent the letter with their revisions and the support of his producers, Leopardi and Ross Kohn. He didn't hear anything for about four weeks. He admits he and his writing partner were nervous about asserting themselves.
"It was definitely nerve-wracking," he said. "I had to trust my gut that this was the right decision. That four weeks of silence sure made me second-guess that."
However, the second draft was approved, and they moved into production.
"I get a call, and they're like, 'You need to be in New Mexico in a week and a half. You start shooting in less than a month,'" Russo said with a laugh.
Coping with stressful setbacks
Making a movie is a difficult undertaking, and any production is going to have issues.
Many of the setbacks Russo faced forced him to change his plans and make adjustments on the fly, which are of course valuable skills to have as a filmmaker. For example, Russo expected to shoot in Los Angeles with an established team, but the production got moved to New Mexico, and he had to gather a crew that was new to him. He had one camera, an ARRI ALEXA Mini, for most of the shoot.
Locations were also a challenge. With a compressed prep time, Russo and his team needed to find a home location with as many creative elements from the script as possible.
The home that they used ultimately photographs beautifully in the movie, but Russo learned just before starting that they would not be allowed to shoot past 11 p.m. every day. This limited their night shoots to just two hours.
"We ended up having to redo the entire movie's shooting schedule."
"We ended up having to redo the entire movie's shooting schedule to try to accommodate this, two days before production," Russo said.
When they couldn't shoot nights, they had to tent the house with a limited grip and electric crew. The film's finale, an eight-page sequence that requires an outdoor pool, was shot in two-hour blocks over two nights.
"First of all, a good studio day would be three or four pages a day," he said. "And here we are trying to cram eight pages into a third of a day."
Russo credits the talent, writing, camera work, and editor Ian McClarren with making the sequence work. At one point, he had to trust an underwater camera operator's work blind, because the operator didn't have a cable tap to share the shot remotely. They had to shoot the underwater footage in about 30 minutes.
"Once again, I think that's another sequence that my editor just created," Russo said. "And it works. But boy, was that scary, not knowing what you're getting."
The issues with night shoots weren't the only thing he ran into on the property, however.
"The other fun thing was the homeowners decided to live at the house during production," Russo said with a laugh.
At one point, a production assistant approached him before a scene and revealed a child was in the home theater watching Pokémon, and they couldn't get him to leave. Russo learned to take their presence in stride.
Another day, Russo learned one of his locations was double-booked, and he had to race to get an outdoor shot done while a high school graduation was happening in a nearby auditorium. They had 90 minutes to avoid a thousand unexpected people on their set, and also had to get done before sunset.
Russo had to find a new place to shoot at the location and adapt his final shot from a jib-up-and-out, to a simpler fade out. He got the work done in an incredibly stressful situation.
"It was bananas," he said.
The most valuable lessons
Taking a step back from all these events and looking at the experience as a whole, Russo said he learned two major lessons from working on the production as a first-time feature director.
"The first is a very macro and broad sense, which is just, 'I could do it,'" he said.
The fear around first-time directors and the pressures they feel about scheduling and budget can lead to a lot of hesitation about their own abilities, Russo admitted. He said he greatly appreciated the producers taking a chance on him.
"Even if you believe that you can do it, I think until you've done it, and you've proven those naysayers wrong, there's always that glimmer of doubt hiding in the back of your mind," he said. "No matter how much you want to project the opposite. It's great to have producers who believe in you."
Russo was able to make his days and stay under budget, ending up with a project that was promoted from the Lifetime Movie Network to the main Lifetime network and became the Sunday night movie of the week.
The second lesson was flexibility on a production where crew, talent, and locations were always changing.
"You hear a lot of directors talk about, 'Oh, I had my shot list, but I got there on the day, and I changed things around and watched the actors,'" he said. "I started to see myself doing that. I was always like, 'That's crazy! I would never throw my shot list out.' But because the variables were constantly shifting, and because you can't really plan four, five, six days in advance, because you just don't know, I started listening to my own internal gut. And trusting that, instinctually, from a storytelling level, the decisions I was making were going to work."
Russo completed the production knowing that a director can't plan for everything, but with a certainty that he can handle similar problems in the future.
"To be able to take that information in, and say, 'Okay, this isn't going to be exactly what I planned for or wanted,' but in a pinch still come up with something that works and still tells the story—that, I think, was the thing that I walked away feeling the most proud of and confident about," Russo said.
"I can trust them. And I can trust them to tell me when I'm being an idiot."
Russo said his knowledgeable cast came prepared and "ready to play," which made his job much easier. He appreciated director of photography Andrew Russo (again, no relation), who helped keep things running smoothly and on schedule.
He was also grateful to be able to work with editor Ian McClarren and composer John Jesensky, longtime friends. That serves as a reminder to find the people you vibe with, who can be members of your creative team for years. They'll also give you the difficult notes.
"I can trust them," Russo said. "And I can trust them to tell me when I'm being an idiot. I think that's super important."
Working with Bruce Willis
Just before the pandemic hit, filming was completed on Russo's upcoming project, action thriller Open Source, which stars Bruce Willis and Jesse Metcalf. (It was written by Russo and LaMont.)
The movie was given the green light when Russo was in post-production on Au Pair. So he helped edit Au Pair during the day, then worked feverishly on Open Source rewrites during his free time to get it ready for sales during the Toronto International Film Festival.
The movie shot in January and is currently in post-production, to Russo's relief. He's excited about an early cut he saw recently.
"It was really cool to see Bruce Willis saying lines that we wrote," he said.
That's a heck of an understatement.
The Au Pair Nightmare premieres on Lifetime May 17 at 8 p.m. EST.