Day 10: Leadville and Ouray

As a cinematographer, Cam didn’t have a long wish list when we started planning West of Her. For the most part, he was happy to follow the script I’d written and try to make it look as good as possible onscreen. But during preproduction, an issue cropped up. I’d written several very long dialogue scenes, and I’d set them all in the car as Dan and Jane drove. The way I figured it, you spend the majority of a road trip driving, and shooting the shit. It made sense to accurately reflect that. But in practice, both from a shooting and a viewing perspective, it was a nightmare, and once I stepped back just a bit, I realized that I would never want to watch ten minutes of two seated characters watching the road. And as we started brainstorming new locations to set these conversations, Cam revealed one deep desire: he wanted a bar.

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Day 9: The Mountains and Leadville

Early on the morning of July 16th, we stood twelve-thousand feet above sea level, rolling green slopes and snow-capped peaks all around us. The air was so thin it was hard not to gasp as we filmed Ryan and Kelsey exchanging three brief lines: “Does it make you feel small?” “More than small.” “I was joking.” I still don’t quite know what those lines mean, but I know they’re essential to the arc of West of Her.

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Days 7 & 8: Estes Park

Back in the spring, when we planned the schedule, I didn’t see why would ever need something as silly as days off. We would all be having the time of our lives! It would hardly feel like work at all! Why would anyone want to stop? That’s right: I was almost one of history’s greatest monsters.

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Day 4: From Mitchell to Rapid City

I scheduled the West of Her shoot to within an inch of our lives. There was no time for leisure and indecision. We had too many miles to drive, too many pages to shoot, and movies burn money faster than you’d ever imagine possible. But when I planned that schedule, I figured hey, it's a tightly scripted film, there's no need to leave room for experimentation. I knew what we needed.

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Day 3: Mitchell, SD

The full weight of this huge, risky enterprise hit me square in the chest during the empty day we spent in Mitchell, SD. We didn’t have much on the agenda before our second night of shooting at the Corn Palace, so we had plenty of time to sit around and realize, oh, we really are hours away from anything resembling a city. And we’re just getting started.

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Day 2: Mitchell, SD

I bit off more than anyone could chew when I planned the second day of production for West of Her. To begin with, we needed to cover more than 550 miles of travel, from Rockford, IL to Mitchell, SD, which would be a long day by any measure. But all those miles were just getting us to the main event: a night of shooting at the Corn Palace. The Corn Palace scene is long, the closest West of Her has to a thrilling set piece (Cam described it as the “James Bond opening” of the film), but even then, it was just a few minutes. How long could that take to shoot? Hell, at first I figured we could shoot the whole thing in one night, but Cam cautioned me to build in more time. Sure, I figured, can’t hurt, but it doesn’t seem necessary. That was before we arrived at the Corn Palace, and Adam casually said, “We’ll probably be here until sunrise.”

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Day 1: Chicago

It was a bright July morning, and I was standing on a crowded street in uptown Chicago, across the way from the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge. I’d never been there before, but three years earlier, looking for a distinctive sidewalk to place my character on in a short story, I’d looked the bar up and chosen it. Now, I was across from that spot, with that character standing down the street, waiting for me to call “Action” and summon him to walk into the scene I’d dreamed up. The street was crowded, and we were just a few people with a camera—we weren’t running sound, and most of the crew was elsewhere—so you could easily have missed what was happening, missed the dreamy grin on my face, walked right by the guy having one of the best days of his entire life.

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Day 0: Chicago

After two long days of driving, producer Dave, production assistant Devin, and I arrived in Chicago. It was July 6th, 2013, and the day after tomorrow, we would begin production on West of Her. The drive had been dominated by anxiety bordering on terror—I’d dreamed my whole life of this day, the day we started making my first feature film. And now here we were at the starting gate of production, where our crew would assemble from all over North America, and leave two days later for a three-week adventure across the United States, making what we hoped and believed would be great art. Or else, of course, making colossal mistakes that would end my career before it began. One or the other. There wasn’t much in between.

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The Storm Before the Storm

The month before we began shooting West of Her was the most panicked of my life. Suddenly, everything I’d told myself we’d have time for later needed to be done right now. And every time I thought I knew everything that should be on the to-do list, something else cropped up, items multiplying like hydras’ heads. So let’s take it item-by-item:

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Here We IndieGoGo

One afternoon in May 2013, I sat down in my parents’ house, in front of my dad’s wall of books, and my girlfriend, Caitlin, said, “Action” and hit record on the camera. I began to describe the plot of West of Her, trying to pitch the film to IndieGoGo donors. I made it through 30 seconds, and then stumbled, put my hands on my face, and cursed. Eight takes later, I made it 18 seconds, then cursed again. “No!” Caitlin shouted from off-screen. “You were doing so well!” “No,” I told her, “I hitched!” “Aww,” she sighed. We’d been at it half an hour. By take 19, I made it 15 seconds, before stopping mid-sentence, clapping, and telling her, “Next one! Next one’ll be it.” Finally, on the 24th take, I made it through. It was only then that I noticed that onscreen, my dad’s copy of The Rape of Nanking was positioned right by my head, with only the word RAPE legible. In fact, it was the only legible word on the whole shelf. I didn’t reshoot. It would have to do.

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This Is A Test...

On an overcast afternoon in early May of 2013, I took an elevator up to the high-rise rehearsal space I’d booked for our screen-tests. I was early, but as I stepped out of the elevator, I saw that someone else was earlier. I recognized him from the headshots and videos I’d seen, but his hesitation reminded me he’d never seen my face. “Hi, Ryan?” I asked. Without quite relaxing, he shook my hand.

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Star Search

This is who we were looking for:

Dan: a likable young man. Not an alpha male, but he isn't an outcast either. Has emotional weaknesses, but when he displays strength the audience cheers for him. Internal there's a lot going on in his head, but it's often below the surface.

 Jane: Puts on a mature front, but it hides her youthfulness and insecurity. Her unique experiences have in some ways made her develop faster than others, while in other ways have left her emotionally raw and vulnerable. A captivating woman she draws you in.

I posted these listings on backstage.com, seeking actors in New York and LA, and got ready to wait. The results were instantaneous.

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Of Posters and Agents

In March 2013, I attended a Q&A with Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, who’d just won an Oscar for writing The Descendants. When I asked them how an indie filmmaker could get a script considered by recognizable actors, Rash (aka the dean on Community) told me, apologetically, that you really need to know someone who can circumvent the system and get it directly into their hands. That wasn’t an option for me, but as I drove home, I decided to be optimistic. Yet I also knew I had to be realistic, and reconciling those two impulses would drive much of my spring.

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Let's Talk Numbers

You know what’s really fun? Dreaming about making a movie. You know what’s really un-sexy? Figuring out how long it’s going to take and how much it’s going to cost. But with five months to go before cameras rolled, it was time for Cam, Dave, and me to roll up our sleeves and figure it out.

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Team Players

Cam and I spent the end of 2012 watching West of Her in our minds. I considered the films that had influenced my script, and watched other films to see how they could influence us going forward. We looked at frames from other films, we looked at photos of the places we’d be going, and we batted around actors we dreamed of offering the parts to. But as 2013 began, our thoughts turned to the nitty gritty details required in getting ourselves to Chicago with cast, crew, and equipment in six months. Though we’d decided not to seek help from big-time producers, it did seem like the right time to grow the team. And so, in those first few weeks of the new year, we added two key players to the West of Her family.

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Here's the Pitch

Cam and I began preproduction in early November, planning to shoot the following July. And with all of the challenges I knew lay ahead, my first thought was: We are definitely going to need an experienced producer. Cam had a few producers in mind, people who might be able to advise on and help navigate some of the trickier logistics involved, as well as providing contacts and opening doors, and I fiercely wanted one of those producers onboard. “Well,” Cam told me, “make a pitch package.” I responded, “What the hell is a pitch package?”

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Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.

When I finished the screenplay for West of Her, it represented more of my own hopes and fears than I’d ever explored in my work, and I knew right away that it was the strongest story I’d ever produced. And it seemed so easy to make—all you’d need was two actors, a car, and a camera. And so, after being out of touch for five years, I reached out to my old friend Cam, who was now working as a Director of Photography up in Toronto. “Hey,” I said out of the blue, “let’s make a movie!”

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What's the Question?

Before 2010, I was fairly sure that ideas for stories waltzed into a writer’s head as straightforward premises: it’s a story about…well, if I could finish that sentence succinctly, this would be a different post. I had a problem: I could never think of a story about anything. But as I was struck by, and began developing, the idea that became West of Her, I figured out two key lessons that enabled me to create a full-length screenplay. 

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