Day 15: Phoenix

Phoenix, AZ is not the world’s most thrilling city. But it had been over two weeks since we left Chicago. After that much time in the wide open spaces, Phoenix was as exciting and overwhelming as Manhattan.

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Day 14: The Arizona Desert

Any road trip gets tough sooner or later. Even on a vacation with your oldest friends, you get tense and touchy from spending all that time together. And the West of Her shoot was no vacation; this was a work trip with brand new friends. So it was inevitable we’d hit our breaking point eventually. And, of course, we had been a shockingly lucky crew so far—nothing had really gone wrong. So it was probably inevitable, too, that we’d hit a huge problem eventually. But then, on our second break from production, both those things happened at once on a hot and empty patch of roadside in the middle of the Arizona desert.

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Day 13: The Grand Canyon

Yesterday, we shot at Monument Valley. Today, we were shooting at the Grand goddamn Canyon. If you’re gonna make a sweeping, cross-country road trip epic, you might as well go all-out, right? But first, there was a tough choice to be made.

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Day 11: The Four Corners

In late July, the average temperate in Ouray, CO tends to be in the low 60s. Meanwhile, at Four Corners—the spot where Colorado meets Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico—it can easily get up to the mid 90s. That is a hell of an adjustment to make in the course of a morning, even when you’re not rushing around to shoot the climactic scene of a scrappy little independent film. But it was an adjustment we had to make. We didn't have time to complain.

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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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