Jessica Ellis is a writer based in Los Angeles, mainly working with her writing partner Nick Sinnott. What Lies West is her feature film debut, a personal story based where she grew up in Sonoma County (Northern California) and starring her two nieces as a babysitter and her charge, who reluctantly decide they’re going on an adventure one summer. They overcome their anxieties, face challenges and butt heads but a friendship is formed along the way.
Let’s get started with the script. I know it was important to you that this be about two girls and for it be a hopeful story, so could you tell me about those initial ideas for the script?
I knew I wanted to work with these two actresses and I knew I wanted to set the script in Sonoma County (Northern California), where I had grown up and from there it became “what kind of story can I tell that shows off what this place looks like, that puts them outside a lot and takes advantage of what I view as their very different personalities?”. So it became clear very quickly that it was going to become a hiking movie and that the conflict was going to be “how do two people who think about the world very differently team up and go on adventures? What is the core similarity between them that makes them work as a friendship and what are the obstacles in their personalities that are going to cause conflict?” So, it grew very organically from the parameters of having the actresses in that particular location.
The location, as you say, is very personal to you. Do you think for a debut feature, in particular, it’s important to have a personal connection to what you’re writing?
I mean, if you’re lucky, yeah! I think most people will take their debut feature however they can get it. But for me, being able to set it in my hometown and being able to focus on something that was so personal definitely made the experience of making the film so much richer, which I think is something that a lot of people overlook. They think of the final end product as the art, but I think because I come from a theatre background, I also have a lot of love for the art of the process, of the actual doing of the thing. So getting to take my crew to all of these beautiful places which I had been running around as a kid and getting to think about what kind of scenes would be interesting there, that made it really special for me and I think that’s valuable too.
I know that our readers are definitely interested in how you get funding for a first feature and also how you manage to work within tight budgetary constraints…
We raised about a third of our funding through two rounds of crowdfunding, then the rest of it came from some small investments and our savings. But it was still a very tiny budget, everything was a balancing act: “of what is this worth? How important is this?” It’s really hard! But it makes you be more creative, you have to find ways to shoot things you want to shoot, without shooting them in the way you automatically envision them, which is probably very expensive. For example, the film opens up with a graduation scene, I couldn’t spend the money to hire 150 extras and spend $5000 a day on a school in LA to shoot a graduation scene. So, I shot it in the parking lot outside of a graduation, you can hear the band going on in the background and there are people running out in graduation robes to meet their families. But the budgetary constraints force you to think “how can I do this in a way that is unique and interesting and not a scene that we’ve seen thousands of times and is also much, much cheaper?”
This was very much a family affair. The two lead actresses are your nieces, the cinematographer is your husband. You’ve got lots of family and friends involved in your cast and crew, but that doesn’t necessarily make it easier though or always plain sailing, I’m guessing? So could you tell me a bit about working with people who are close to you and the advantages/disadvantages of doing that
It’s different for each person in that equation. With my nieces, it was easier for me, I had babysat both of them, so I already had an established relationship with them. For me, that was about giving myself training wheels, working with actors because I already had an existing relationship with them and I knew I wasn’t going to offend them. Because we already had a loving, fun relationship, I was less nervous working with them. Working with my husband as my DP, that’s a different story. You have a relationship as a husband and wife that doesn’t necessarily translate very well to one of you being technically in power over the other. You know, he’s a collaborator, but still there were times where I had to be like “no Sean, we can’t do that” so that one was a little trickier to navigate. But ultimately, my family love that this is a family production. It is now a very special part of our whole family dynamic, which has been affected by this movie. It makes me really happy to contribute to my family like that.
What gave you the confidence to follow through with your vision onset, despite it being your debut feature? Did having your family there help or was it your American Film Institute training?
It was seeing the work everyone else was putting in. Once you see a crew of people sweating to death in the August sun to make your movie, it stops being about ego and starts being about the responsibility you have to honor that work and make it worth it. When it’s just me, I’m lazier! The second others put themselves on the line, I am part of a team and the execution of a vision is my job. As for AFI, when you’re a writer at AFI, you have to be on the set, but because the writers aren’t given much power (and the directors tend to not want them to be on-set) you tend to get shoved into doing craft services. Which on a school set, is a very boring job, so I thought sets would be boring. Turns out, they’re FANTASTIC and the day flies by when you’re in charge.
You had a bigger challenge to overcome than most people making their first feature. Just remind me again which stage of production you were in when you had your major health issue?
It was about three weeks after we finished the first half, in August. We were scheduled to film our second half in LA in October. But instead, in the middle of September, I had emergency open-heart surgery, they found a genetic defect that needed to be repaired right away. So obviously we had to push the second half of our shoot. The really difficult part actually and I don’t think I’ve talked about this at all, the heart surgery was bad enough and I’d stayed at home and I’d had enough time to recover and was doing OK. Five months into my recovery, so right before we started shooting the second half, I developed a complication. The wires they use to tie your chest back together after heart surgery started hitting nerves and poking into my skin. So when we shot our second half, I was in agonising pain, I was mainlining Advil, I couldn’t pick anything up, I couldn’t lift my arms above shoulder level at all. So that made directing the second half a little more complicated.
Honestly, psychologically, I was most afraid of looking like a lazy-bones in front of my crew, because I couldn’t pick up anything, I couldn’t help move things. I had to spend a lot of time directing while sitting down because my energy levels were so low and I was in so much pain. But from the view of a couple of years away, I view it as something to be proud of. It was a challenge that I was able to meet, that maybe a year earlier, I wouldn’t think I was capable of meeting. So, I think it was a little badass, I will take a little credit on that one.
Would you say that the hardest stage has been since wrapping and locking, trying to find festivals and distribution for your film?
Yeah – the production, amazingly, went pretty smoothly. Our initial post, with editing and sound, took a while but mostly went smoothly. Distribution = nightmare. I have no idea how to do it, it’s new to my whole producing team too, it’s their first me trying to sell a feature. None of us have quite figured out the equation yet, to get it out there. We’re getting such great feedback and people seem to really like the movie, so we know we have a product worth selling, but it’s a very impenetrable part of the business that nobody really has a magic formula for getting through, so we’re learning as we go.
Well we at JUMPCUT wish you lots of luck with it. It is rare to see such a joyful, hopeful film about two young women who are extremely recognisable and relatable.
This interview originally featured in Issue #1 of our digital magazine which is still available to purchase. Our latest issue is now also available to buy.
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