Day 19: Memphis

And then, it was the last day. And the last day was a big one. But after three weeks of full-throttle figure-it-out-as-we-go, high-wire don’t-look-down filmmaking, why should the last day be any different?

Two major characters swing into the last few scenes of West of Her, and so for only the second time—after our night in Phoenix with Caitlin and her heroic boyfriend Cord—we had ringers coming in. One of them was Halli, the New York actress who’d been a runner-up for Jane and who'd impressed me enough to offer her a supporting role. I wanted Halli in that role so much, in fact, that I was happy to fly her in from New York for two nights to shoot her scenes, rather than finding an actress in Memphis. So I started the day off with a visit to her room—she’d arrived late the night before, and I gave her a quick rundown of the plan. Which was: we had no idea where we were shooting her scene, but we would definitely figure it out at some point in the next couple of hours. Right now, though, we needed to hustle off and meet our other day player.

There’s a crucial, game-changing role in West of Her. And casting it proved to be one of our biggest struggles. The role in question is a preteen boy, and I didn’t have many physical specifications for the role. I just needed a kid, any kid. I contacted a casting agency in Memphis, laid out the situation, and…it took a long, long time to find anyone. It turns out the parents of Memphis’ children were less than thrilled by the prospect of meeting a bunch of strangers in an alley, even with our friendly police escort along for another day.

Finally, in the absolute nick of time, they had found us Max. And when we met him in the alley, Max told us he'd brought a bouncy ball that he thought his character could use it in the scene. I agreed that it could be a fun added element, but as soon as we got rolling, we nixed the ball. It was barely visible onscreen, and it bounced wildly, making it look like Max might have a degenerative brain condition that caused him to race erratically down the street. Even then, I wanted to the ball work, but soon enough, a weird bounce took it over a locked fence, forcing us to call a halt while crew members hopped the fence to retrieve it. After that, we decided Max’s character shouldn’t have any props.

It felt strange to open our hermetic world like this after three weeks of living like ghosts, but like so much else about the experience, that feeling matched the vibe of the story. Just like Dan is when encountering the young boy, we were a little dazed and extremely amused as Max chilled between takes regaling us with trivia about The Muppet Movie (he studied the Muppets the way other cinephiles study Godard), or as his mom told us stories of Max’s days as an extra on Nashville. We felt like we were coming back from an expedition to another planet, struggling to remember how it felt to talk to other humans.

We wrapped on Max, and then it was time for Halli’s scenes. I had written Halli’s character as a hotel clerk but scouting a hotel location had slipped through the cracks—actually, it might be more appropriate to say that everyone had been telling me, Hey, there’s a crack over there, while I responded, I know, and we’ll figure it out.

So we had never found a hotel to use, and now we stood in our Memphis alley asking ourselves where Halli and Ryan should shoot their conversation. We came up blank until someone pointed and said, “Hey, how about over there?” So we shot it over there.

It may sound like an indifferent shrug of a decision, but the scene came out beautifully. Rather than meticulously staging something, we did one more “run and gun” maneuver, harnessing the jangly energy of the day in long, unbroken takes of Ryan and Halli having a loose, improvisatory version of my scripted encounter. As they played with the words in search of in-the-moment magic, we ran the scene several times, and we never running it the same way twice. It was a loose, joyful, day of discovery—a day of unrepeatable moments, everything I had wanted this movie to be but hadn’t known how to achieve before loosening my hold weeks ago.

And then we retired to our final location and spent a couple more hours shooting. We were quick and efficient, moving like the well-oiled machine we’d become. And as we set up the “martini shot”—the term for the last shot of the film, the moment you're meant to pour the celebratory martinis—my mind went happily numb. I could barely bring myself to speak as we finished, so Mario had to say those words that I had all too often wondered if we’d ever hear:

“That’s a wrap.”

I had tears in my eyes as we all exchanged long, tight hugs. We had done something we had no business trying to do. And we pulled it off better than we ever dared to hope. And now…it was over.

Cam and I found a quiet spot to sit and let our minds decompress. After a few minutes, he turned to me, and said, “Well, you can officially tell people you’re a filmmaker now. You’ve made a film. You earned the title.”

I still felt like I was playing pretend—surely I couldn’t call myself a filmmaker for that. Making movies is supposed to be so much more…impossible. You’re supposed to need permission. But, just for the sake of it, I practiced forcing myself to say it. “I’m a filmmaker. I’m a filmmaker. I’m a filmmaker.” And after a few spins, it felt right. It felt true.

We got ready to go out for a celebratory dinner of BBQ and champagne. Over dinner, the crew handed me a gift bag with a fountain pen inside. “Use this to write the next one,” Mario said. And I looked around, and I realized I really had found what I set out on this wild venture to find: a bunch of like-minded dreamers who wanted nothing more than adventure and creativity.

It felt like there should be more of a fade out, but after dinner, everything ended pretty abruptly. People started leaving for the airport that very night, back to their real lives. Endings always feel like they should be more momentous than they are, but there isn’t much in life that’s really an ending. You say your goodbye, then you turn and keep putting one foot in front of the other. Life is just a series of interlocking beginnings and endings that all add up to one long middle.

And so the next day, Devin and I woke up anc went to FedEx to ship back the camera equipment, and then we drove the RV and my car back to Chicago, where we got a hotel for the weekend, and waited to return the RV and lighting gear Monday morning. On Monday, we returned the RV, and after Devin took a long, nostalgic walk around—“You don’t know what I’ve been through with this thing!” he snapped when I agitated to start our long journey back to the east coast—we drove two more days home.

And finally, after all that, it really was over. I was a filmmaker.

Now, we just had to finish the damn thing,