A feature directing debut from screenwriter Jessica Ellis, gives us heart, compassion, friendship, and honesty from an unlikely friendship between two young women, equally finding their path in life. I had the pleasure of speaking with Jessica about her journey shooting her film in her hometown in Sonoma County, the amount of work she put into crowdfunding and the unique experience of directing two young actresses that also happen to be her nieces.
What Lies West is a contemporary coming-of-age drama set in the midst of a lush northern California summer. New grad Nicolette is desperate for work, so she takes a summer job "babysitting" a sixteen-year-old charge who's suffocating under her mother's over-protective rules. Together, they set out on their biggest adventure yet: a four-day hike from the backwoods of Sonoma County to the shores of the Pacific Ocean.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: This is your feature writing and directing debut. Can you tell us about that journey?
Jessica Ellis: Yeah, my husband and I, who was also an AFI DP, the same year as me, kind of worked in the industry for like six or seven years, and we're like, “Alright, we're still not getting to make anything, we're still not getting anything.” So, we made a very spontaneous decision to throw all of our savings and do a bunch of crowdfunding into finally putting out something that was ours - this was early 2017. And it just felt like kind of a do or die moment. And because we were putting it together so fast and because we knew we wanted to cast the two central actors that we cast, who I have relationships with personally, it still made the most sense for me to direct rather than to try to hand this off to somebody that was outside of our little bubble of tight personal relationships. So that's how I kind of wandered into directing it as well. [laughs]
Sadie: Has directing always been something you've wanted to do?
Jessica: No, it hasn't at all. I was always very terrified to direct because I had been on set with a lot of very young directors. And in a lot of bad sets, a lot of very aggressive, not collaborative directing, and that was my model, and I didn't want to become that. So, I was always afraid I would hit set and become a monster. [laughs] Luckily, I realized you don't need to do that. That part is optional.
Sadie: And then going into the screenplay. First and foremost, I think you totally hit the voice of the annoyed teenager. What did you tap into to find that voice for Chloe?
Jessica: My favorite thing about Chloe the person is that when she was very young, like not grow at all, but she had a very intense and passionate defensive streak about her that I loved. She was so passionate about things and the things she didn't like, and if you messed with the things she liked, you would rather be dead. She was amazing, but I loved that about 9-year-old Chloe, so I just thought, ‘Well, what if she hadn't kind of course corrected into being a very friendly person, what would 16-year-old defensive Chloe look like?’ And I certainly remember that feeling. I mean, if you're 16, and you're getting a babysitter imposed on you, it's lucky that anyone comes out of that situation alive. That's a huge imposition of control on you at that age.
Sadie: Both of these actresses you've known them for a while then?
Jessica: Yeah, they're both my nieces. It gave us a great advantage because they are such different people that I've watched them interact their whole life and I know they're just a riot together. So, I was really excited. I saw that as an edge I could give this film is that I've had actresses that already had a really unusual chemistry.
Sadie: Okay, that's really cool. Because there is definitely that bond that is on screen. It felt natural to a certain degree.
Jessica: I mean, they're also great actors. But it definitely helped, especially since they're both theater actresses, this was their first experience in film. So, I thought that having a prior relationship would let us cut through a lot of the initial getting to know you BS and be more authentic and more vulnerable with each other on-screen faster. It made scenes that are really emotional, super easy to shoot because they already have that intimacy.
I was trying to make a movie in three months, so I was taking every possible shortcut that I could. [laughs]
Sadie: Take note, everyone. I mean, not everyone lucks out having that talent in their family. But again, in the spirit of indie filmmaking.
Jessica: Yeah, I mean, you patch it together out of what you have in your garage. And that's also what makes independent films such a way to showcase who you are as a filmmaker is because you're pulling from your life, you're integrating your life into what you're making. And that's great.
Sadie: What was the inspiration for this story?
Jessica: I really wanted to tell something that was set in the locale that I had grown up in. Sonoma County in California is a really popular location. Hitchcock shot there. Coppola shot out there, everybody shoots there, no locals have really shot there often. I wanted to see something on screen that really looked like the trails and hills that I had run around. It was partly that and it was partly I knew I had these two actresses. And so, I just wanted to find a compelling story about female friendship that I could build around them because we don't have many movies about that. I think that's to all of our detriment. We don't have a great canon of films about that.
Sadie: Yeah, totally. And I and I like the exploration with just the story. It's subtle, Chloe is the rebel for this day and age of teenagers, my backyard is my love. That's where I want to be. Whereas Nicolette, she's so attached to her phone and can't see the bigger picture. As you said, it's just something we don't see in these kinds of relationships and that honesty. Was that something you're trying to hit on, everyone put down your phone and go enjoy the sunshine?
Jessica: To some extent. I’m in my late 30s, I think I got my first cell phone when I was 18. So, we had this unique experience of sort of the 80s childhood of roaming around, but also sort of the 2000s teenagehood of now you've got your phone or your whatever, and you're online and you have Facebook, and I just wanted to look at that divide in a way. There's gotta be some kids that still prefer the outside to their phones. There has to be. I have to believe that and if there isn't, maybe this will inspire a few to try. [laughs]
Sadie: I hope so. I think that definitely spoke home to me. I grew up wandering the streets and my backyard. Checking in at home was finding the nearest payphone and calling collect, and we had like a secret word that you're okay. It's just so innocent, I guess. A lot of people just kind of forget that.
Jessica: Yeah, but I didn't want to, I didn't want to make this a period piece. I didn't want to set it in 1997, and so I think actually the collision of that with somebody like Nicolette who is so online, so persona focused for her career but just also that's the environment, and I thought that was a fun conflict in a way. Not a super one that's incredibly discussed, but it's always in the background.
Sadie: Now going into the crowdfunding aspect of this, what was that like for you?
Jessica: That was a lot of work. They're not kidding when they tell you it becomes your full-time job. I was really the only person on our team who had a strong social media presence. So, it was me on Twitter every day putting out stupid little videos and mug giveaways and anything I could do, especially not just to say, “Oh, please give us money” but also to say, here's what we're trying to talk about, here's why this movie will be important to you. Like we're talking about social anxiety and anxiety disorders, and female friendship and all these things to make people understand that they were helping create something that they want that like that will matter and be important to them. And I found that to be a more effective strategy, to than just, “Please give me money!” The more specific you can be, you actually will create fans of the movie before the movie even exists.
Sadie: Yeah, absolutely. How much lead time did you give yourself in crowdfunding before going into pre-production?
Jessica: So, we ended up doing two rounds. We did the first round over about a month. And I think we launched that in May of 2017, so that was two or three months before we started shooting. And then because we had divided our shoot into two sections, we did a second 30-day round in September, just to see if we could get a little bit more and expand our budget. Because the project grew significantly the further we got into it, it started out to be a very micro-budget indie. And that kind of exploded to sort of triple our initial budget. So, crowdfunding was a huge help there.
Sadie: With the distribution process, how did that work out?
Jessica: It was the hardest aspect for us because none of our team really had experience in distribution at all. So, it took quite a while. And finally, I had a friend step in who had done distribution work and was like, “Why is your movie not out yet? It's been an absurd amount of time. What are you doing?” And she was able to introduce us to a couple of distributors and we got offers out of that. Sometimes that's what it takes, it takes someone from the outside to help you. It's so important. You just can't make a movie on your own no matter how much you’ve proven yourselves and how hard you work.
Sadie: Yeah, it’s a lot of work. But if you have the passion and drive to do it, you'll make it happen. Do you see yourself directing anything in the future that you're writing?
Jessica: Yeah, I wrote a script this year that I'm hoping will become my second film. The first one is like, “Can we make a movie?” And the second one is, “Can we get someone to give us money to make a movie?” [laughs] So that's kind of where we are. We would love to get paid. We would love not to sink the rest of our savings into another movie, but I loved directing. I wasn't really expecting to, and I absolutely adored getting to coordinate everyone's talents in the way that a director does. That was so exciting for me.
Sadie: With your writing background, how did that speak to your directing and connecting with your characters and your actors putting aside that they are your family members?
Jessica: Yeah, having been writing scripts consistently for about 10 years, definitely gave me the shorthand to know initially going into it, I can write a script in two months, and it will be fine, and that I'm not worried about. I can build character relationships; I can build a story that's coherent. In terms of directing what really helped was intimate knowledge of why I wrote everything I wrote, meant that I could be flexible on set. If someone's having trouble with the line, I am the one who absolutely can tell you, “Well, this is what it means. So let's find words that you can say easier that work for you.” And that is a is a huge gift. I imagine it's got to be a hell of a lot harder for directors that are not writers to take someone else's words and be like, “Well, I think this is what this word means.” I mean, you might know what the scene means. But you don't know what the writer was thinking when they wrote that so not having that flexibility to change on the spot and still get the intention across, that's a huge shortcut that I loved having.
Sadie: The two biggest speaking parts are those two roles, but did you do a table read with them and some of the smaller parts as well, like the mom?
Jessica: We were never able to do a table read. Because of the way we shot it, the first section was all the girls hiking in Santa Rosa. And then the second half, we shot mostly in LA and that's when we cast everyone around them. I did about four days of rehearsal with the two girls before we started shooting the first one, just so they could get comfortable with, and so they could understand and work with the camera in their face and we could have initial blocking. I trusted them to be ready and have done their work. But like, I mostly wanted to make them feel confident that they weren't unprepared with this professional crew when they had never worked in film before. I think that helped give them some confidence that just they worked through it with me for a couple of days first. We were lucky to get that time.
Sadie: I wouldn't have known that this is their first film, so kudos as a director.
Jessica: They’re brilliant. Chloe swears that she's not going to act as a career and I keep trying to drag her into more things. But Nicolette is a is an actor in New York. She's aiming for Broadway, so hopefully, this will help her on her path.
Sadie: Crossing fingers. Well, I hope Chloe does not stop.
Jessica: I know! I'm gonna require the internet to peer pressure her into acting more because she's great.
Sadie: Any general advice for filmmakers who are crowdfunding a film for the first time?
Jessica: I mean, I would honestly say, plan for it to be your day job for as long as you're crowdfunding like that's what you're doing. If you're not putting out content every day, you're not doing enough. And assume that you need three times as much money as you think you do and that you'll get half as much money as you're asking for. It's really, really difficult. I started with a pretty decent reach on social media. I think when we started, I had something around maybe 15,000 to 20,000 followers, and it worked out to about a 1% transfer of who's actually doing things. It's way harder than you think. But it's not undoable.
Sadie: That’s great advice. It's a full-time job, absolutely. It was so great chatting with you. I hope you direct more!
Jessica: Thanks so much!
What Lies West is now available on VOD and DVD.