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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I Didn't Go to Film School

I don’t hold any type of degree in film—not in film production, not in film theory, and not in screenwriting—yet I managed to write, direct, and produce an independent feature film. That meant that along the way, I had to put myself through a crash course in what it takes to make a movie, and the lessons came frequently and often the hard way. In this blog, I’m going to look back at the entire process, from conceiving the film to its completion, and reflect on those lessons, and this week, I’m going to kick things off with how I managed to even get to the starting line, despite having very little formal education in the world of film.

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