There’s a dizzying feeling you get upon entering Ethan Warren’s “West of Her,” not unlike the disorientation felt by the man (Ryan Caraway) you first see onscreen, receiving a late night phone call instructing him to meet a young woman (Kelsey Siepser) north of Chicago. He doesn’t get her name initially, nor do you hear his, but he soon finds himself at the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota in search of a Toynbee tile, one of the dozens of ceramic plaques that can be found around the country with statements that could be considered a jumble of words to some and profound pontification to another.
“Cameron [Bryson], my producing partner and director of photography, refers to that as our James Bond opening — how [it’ll] always drop you right into the middle of this action piece and then after five minutes we finally slow down to figure out what the story is,” says Warren. “[Since] this story is a mystery [in that] these people that don’t know each other, it seemed right to introduce the audience to this world in the same elliptical way.”
Eventually, the strangers who you come to know as Dan and Jane begin to reveal themselves to each other and you realize that while the fate of the world doesn’t rest on their shoulders as it would for 007, Warren creates an adventure every bit as big in scope – at least, emotionally – with his feature debut. While Warren finds the pair at a crossroads, they both have a north star, not only in their shared desire to track down every Toynbee tile they can find while putting off the rest of their lives, which haven’t been so kind to them thus far, but in their ideas about how to live, with Dan wanting to place meaning on everything he comes across while Jane resists that temptation. That proves difficult as their road trip takes them from one majestic locale to another, but makes it all the more rewarding when the two start seeing things the same way – not necessarily shedding their independence but suddenly feeling less alone in the world.
While the film boasts authenticity that can’t be faked from Warren’s craft decision to keep the crew to a van’s full of people to hop out and film around the country, giving impressive production value to the small, intimate drama, Siepser and Caraway ensure that the transformation that their characters undergo feels equally genuine. Following a festival run with even more stops than Dan and Jane had on their scavenger hunt, “West of Her” is now available everywhere digitally and to mark the occasion, Warren spoke about taking the road less traveled with his directorial debut, how the professional journey became a personal one for him and the perils of filming around national monuments.
A lot of the inspiration for the script very much came from some difficulties I was having in my inner life. In my mid-twenties, I was feeling a lot of the same feelings of confusion and not feeling connected to the world, like the protagonist Dan feels, and as I started exploring those, I was also learning about this unexplained phenomenon called the Toynbee Tiles. [Once] I wove the emotional concerns that I was feeling [with this] idea of getting out there and crossing the country to tell this story, I really got excited and we moved into gear to get this thing made.
Did you actually take this trip before writing or was it a case where you identified locations for certain scenes?
I had actually taken virtually this exact trip in 2010 with my girlfriend, who is now my wife, so it’s very eerie for her because these are real locations that we visited that I then used as a framework for my story. [laughs] When you’re planning a travelogue, it’s a lot easier to just write around real places that you’ve been because you can envision it easily. You know the distance between two points and what’s it’s like to travel that route, so the most natural thing to do to use that framework.
The camerawork of the film seems to loosen up over time. How did you and Cameron go about creating that visual language?
We definitely wanted the camera to be a factor in telling the story, [like] having things loosen up over time really reflect how the characters loosen up over time or even just the way we shot scenes in the car. At the beginning of the film, the car scenes are being shot from the backseat and you can hardly see Sophie’s face. Then the further we get into the film, the camera starts moving around the car and then into the front seat with them by the end, and a lot of that really came down to Cameron. He’s the one who’s trained in camerawork and photography and I really leaned on him a lot. We’d watch movies and talk about them, but he was definitely the strong driving force in figuring out how to use the camera to tell the story most effectively.
How’d you find two actors willing to go on this adventure with you?
That really is the key is how did we get them to go on this adventure. We did a search through Backstage.com in L.A. and New York and put out this listing and narrowed it down to a few people that we would then pair off and have a screen test with. We found Ryan in New York and Kelsey in L.A. and then once we had identified these two very talented actors that we wanted on board, we really needed to make sure, like “Now, you know, this is not going to be a typical movie. We’re not going to have a lot of the amenities that even indie movies often have because we were doing such a huge undertaking.” We couldn’t really afford luxury accommodations all the way across the country, so [we asked], “Are you okay sleeping in motel rooms and eating sandwiches on the side of the road?” Fortunately, they were very interested in the adventure aspect of it.
Did you have to reconfigure scenes once you arrived at any given locations?
That is the most exciting thing that happened as we filmed. We’d end up in these locations and the first one is the ghost town that we found ourselves at – 1880 Town that’s a recreation of a Civil War village that we just happened upon during a bathroom break off the highway – and we realized we really need to shoot some footage around here, but we don’t have any scene that could match this. So I just told Ryan and Kelsey that “You’ve known each other as long as the characters have, so just walk around and talk and get to know each other and we’ll just film it.” And that ended up being some of the best and most electrifying stuff that we captured up to that point and I wanted to do a lot more of that as we went along. So I started building more opportunities for that into the script. We had always been planning to visit Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon, so I had written dialogue for those locations, but then as we got closer, I thought it would be so much more interesting to turn them loose in these environments and have them create their own dialogue. The movie became a lot more naturalistic that way, where we would just arrive at a spot and say, “Okay, go where the moment takes you.”
There definitely were. We [generally] had a very, very smooth shoot. The weather always cooperated and when it didn’t cooperate in the way I expected it to, it ended up being even better, like the lightning storm at the Grand Canyon. But the biggest mishap we had was getting kicked out of Mount Rushmore National Park because it’s a national monument and I didn’t realize where the boundaries of this land began. I really thought it started at the visitor’s center for the actual monument, but when we pulled up on the side of the road to film that scene with Mount Rushmore in the distance over their shoulders, we were within park boundaries. We were in the middle of shooting when a ranger pulls over and says, “Hey, can I see your filming permit?” And I said, “You absolutely can…not.” [laughs] And he said, “Well, you’re going to have to get out of here then, right now. Here’s the number where you can get a retroactive permit in the future,” which is what we were able to do. And fortunately, we were just finishing as he arrived, so in the background of one of the shots in the film, you can see me and one of my producing partners out of focus talking to the park ranger, but apart from that, we tended to get pretty lucky.
Plus, the framing of that Mount Rushmore shot is great because you get the sense of atmosphere without overwhelming the characters.
Yeah, and that was the whole thing. I didn’t want it to just turn into a travel commercial, which is so easy to do when you’re just compiling this amazing landscape [footage]. It can end up looking like a commercial for jackets if you’re not very careful to be using the landscape as a support to tell the story and not as a crutch or a distraction because your story’s not strong enough.
It seemed like editing this must’ve been interesting, not only because of how elusive you have to be with the opening, but also when you flip through memories after Jane’s monologue towards the end. Was that an exciting part of the process for you?
Totally. Well, Jane’s monologue is an unbroken take. There’s no editing on that one, which was a very conscious choice on my part [because] I really wanted to take the audience on that journey with her, which I think you get without ever cutting away. But the biggest challenge was making sense of all this improvised footage that we had. In spots like the Grand Canyon or the Rockies or Monument Valley, we had hours of footage and so much of it was really good, you could cut that footage ten different ways and have beautiful montages. We had to really put it together wrong several times before we managed to find just the right juxtaposition of shots and lines to create an effect in a very poetic way with the help of our very, very talented editor Mark Cira that I wouldn’t have been able to do on my own.
Mark had such a sharp eye for how you take this line of dialogue or a throwaway remark that [the actors] might’ve made and have it have this greater meaning. There’s a moment in the Monument Valley sequence where Kelsey has picked up a piece of wire and is jokingly sculpting a little Etch-a-Sketch style version of Dan’s face. I just looked right by that, but Mark really identified that as a moment where she is creating her vision of him and it takes on this resonance. That was an exciting collaboration for sure.
The music, both in terms of the soundtrack and Ariel Marx’s score, really bring a cohesion to all these disparate locations. What was figuring that out like?
To talk about the soundtrack first, I knew that we needed some music just for diegetic purposes, to be playing on the radio in some scenes, so I went really in the direction of old country – I think I use the term antique country usually, that has this sense of history that I also tried to get through some of the place selections.
Then for the score, I really wanted something very melodic — something that you could get in your head and hum. Those are some of my favorite film scores, so we were talking a lot about “Beasts of the Southern Wild” all throughout the production and when we started seeking composers, that was something I put out and the listing was “Looking for a score along the lines of ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild.’” I had reached out to graduate programs in film scoring and that’s how Ariel Marx found me because I figured if you’re looking for people who can give you really extraordinary work on [the size of] small production as [we had], the best way to do it was find talented people who haven’t broken out yet. And she was really excited about the influences I was talking about – the Americana, classic roots instrumental arrangements with guitars, violins and horns. We found a few strong themes and then talked a lot about different ways of reorchestrating them to serve the different moments.
It also occurs to me that I was really inspired by a particular Josh Ritter album, “The Golden Age of Radio.” He’s really my favorite musician right now and the album had been a big inspiration as I wrote the script — I even had different songs attached to different scenes in my mind and [Ariel and I] really used those as jumping off points for conversations. For the Corn Palace sequence, I said “I have a certain song in mind and what I love about this is the energy and the driving rhythm of it and the strong melody – can we do something like that?” And then we ended up using one of Josh Ritter’s songs – we got permission for Ariel to cover the song “Roll On,” which is the song that initially led to the name “West of Her” for the movie, so it was nice to bring that all together in the end.
I love traveling, of course, which is why I made a travelogue movie. [laughs] I love getting out into different parts of the country and the festival circuit brought me back to some of the places we visited like Colorado and Tennessee and even some places way outside of [where] we visited like Hawaii. What was so cool was getting out there and seeing different audiences react to it [was that] we had screenings where [it was] people in their twenties and at some screenings, the average age was way up there in the sixties and seventies. But different people would come up to me after the movie and say, “This made me think about my life in such and such a way and this made me remember some old connection that I once had and I have a different perspective on what that meant to me,” and to realize that this was a movie that would really affect people in a personal way rather than just appreciating it and getting on with their life, even if it’s just for five minutes that it resonated with them, that meant a lot to me.
Does the film mean something different to you now than when you first started?
It really, really does because the changes in my life than have happened just in the course of making this, from the minute I set out to write about these feelings of disconnection from the world, that has all changed so dramatically. Making this movie really put me on a path to finding more engagement and fulfillment in the world. I started out writing it as a guy in his early twenties sitting around in an apartment and now I’m a guy sitting in his house with his amazing wife and child and it now stands as this project that both changed my life and really represents a snapshot of where I was at. I can look back on it now and use the distance between those to trace the shape of these last few years and that’s really exciting.