If Matt Spicer hadn’t just written a film about having a love/hate relationship with social media, actually making “Ingrid Goes West” might’ve sealed the deal.
Inspired by the notion of “Who’s the worst possible person Instagram could happen to?” Spicer and co-writer David Branson Smith tore through an initial draft of the script as if they had joined their lead Ingrid Thorburn on one of her 3 a.m. online benders, filling the film about the lonely young woman who finds purpose in the wake of her mother’s passing in the feed of a social media celebrity with their most dangerous ideas, the ones they had dared not put in before for fear of alienating potential producers. What started out as a funny thought turned into a wickedly clever take on obsession, following Ingrid into Los Angeles as she inches her way up the follower list and into the picture perfect life of Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), only to discover that Taylor’s snapshots of avocado toast and sauntering along the beach reflect a world that’s ultimately about as weighty as the pixels its transmitted with.
For Spicer, who felt as if he’d been spinning his wheels after working on a number of scripts that got held up at various levels of production since producing the 2010 Max Winkler comedy “Ceremony,” the writing had been rewarding on its own, but proved to be tangibly so when it near-instantaneously found its way into the hands of Aubrey Plaza, who wanted to play the Instagram stalker. Fittingly, she helped cast her co-star O’Shea Jackson Jr. through her own social media savvy. (When Spicer feared there would be no way to get through to Jackson’s agents when sending the script around when “Straight Outta Compton” was blowing up in the late summer of 2015, Plaza shrugged it off, saying “I’ll just DM him, he follows me.”) However, what the internet giveth, it taketh away as Spicer would come to learn on set, when the director’s decision to practically shoot all of the film’s social media action as it unfolded in real time was stymied somewhat by Instagram updating their format every four seconds, resulting in continuity issues that had to be fixed in post later.
Still, whatever headaches there might’ve been were worth it and for as immediate “Ingrid Goes West” may feel now, one suspects the devilish good time will continue to linger well past its initial release, thanks to not only the edge Spicer, Smith and a gifted cast bring to the black comedy of it but how incisive it is as an updated tale of an infatuation gone too far, working as a two-way mirror in which two bubbles of delusion are pierced with Ingrid’s illusions of Taylor’s life that are shattered upon arrival in Los Angeles, but so too are those of the Angelenos who lose sight of themselves in a culture where perception is too often confused for reality. That Spicer sees these characters so clearly for who they are, and has empathy for them no matter how venal they can be, is the mark of a filmmaker who was ready for the opportunity when it finally came to direct, and shortly before “Ingrid Goes West” hits theaters, he spoke about making the transition to helming a feature, not being precious with storylines that didn’t work and how the film made such extensive use of social media.
It was always the goal. I came out here [to Los Angeles] because I wanted to direct and fell into this writing career, which was great because it kept me from going to get a real job, but it was always feeling like the more writing I did, the more directing fell by the wayside. Once we did “Ceremony,” I came off of that saying, “That was a great learning experience and really fun, but I really want to focus more on directing now.” So I started writing this other script called “Stockholm” that I was trying to get made and I did a short film [“It’s Not You, It’s Me”] that played at South By, and that’s really where the directing thing started to come back into focus. It’s funny because that was seven years ago when we finished that and this is finally coming out, so it’s been a long road getting here, but it all happens in the right way.
It may be coincidence, but I couldn’t help but think you were working on this at around the same time as “Flower,” which you wrote with Max Winkler and he directed, and also deals with a deeply damaged young woman. Was there any throughline there?
“Flower” was a Black List script that already existed that Max and I were just huge fans of, written by this guy Alex McAulay. We came across that three or four years ago and it was a script where people were like, “I love this, but we’ll never make it” and I just thought it was such an interesting role and an interesting world and so we were just involved in that in terms of how do we help get this made? Max wanted to direct it, so it was one of those things that came together, fell apart, came together, fell apart, and finally, it ended up shooting at the exact same time as “Ingrid.” But “Ingrid” was a much shorter journey.
We started that two years ago and a connection with “Flower” wasn’t even on my mind, because we’ve written a ton of scripts over the years with males as the lead that didn’t move forward, so maybe it was just where the industry is right now. The industry really dictates what gets made and what doesn’t. You send stuff out and it either gets made or it doesn’t get made, so I think it just happened that maybe the industry was hungry for female-driven stories right now and that helped us move these projects forward at a quicker pace than some of the other things we’ve written. But it isn’t like I’m obsessed with dark, fucked up women. [laughs] I’m interested by interesting characters.
You’ve said you actually cast Ingrid’s sister and brother-in-law, but had to cut them out of the film when it felt like they were impediments to Ingrid’s journey. Since that seems like a big decision, was it easy to make?
It was for me. It’s funny. The version that we submitted for Sundance still had the sister character in it and we ended up getting in, but when we hadn’t heard back, we had done the reshoots and completely changed the opening and I remember being like, “Can we resubmit the film?” [laughs] We wanted them to see the better beginning because once we figured that out, I couldn’t even watch the other version. It felt so wrong to me. It wasn’t because of anyone’s performance, but from a conceptual standpoint, it was the wrong approach to the movie.
It wasn’t a ton of stuff that we redid. We did all of the reshoots in one day – it was in one house and one location and a little bit goes a long way. We were bending over backwards to try and get the audience into the movie and have you understand all this backstory for Ingrid, which is that she had this person in her life who was really important and is no longer there, so she’s feeling this giant void and looking for a way to fill that with Taylor. That obviously is never going to lead to a happy ending, and that was just a simpler, cleaner version [without involving her extended family]. I think it helps people get in the movie in the right way and just enjoy the journey instead of being like, what’s the backstory with the sister? There were just too many things going on.
This is a film that literally gets darker aesthetically as Ingrid’s story gets more intense. How did you figure out how you’d light this or use color?
It’s something that the DP and I Bryce definitely talked about in how we wanted to shoot the film and one film that we looked at a lot as a touchstone was “Greenberg,” the Noah Baumbach movie that was shot by Harris Savides, who was one of the most talented DPs that ever lived. The way he lights is so underexposed and so dark, I had never seen L.A. shot like that before. Usually, you see it and it’s super poppy, like Michael Bay almost and there’s the color-filtered sky. I’m also a huge fan of P.T. Anderson and the way he shoots L.A., so we definitely talked about how it would look [where] it starts in a dark place and then it becomes kind of poppier and lighter and then gradually there’s more and more night scenes towards the end. We intentionally lit it in a way that wouldn’t feel like a typical L.A. movie and we shot with these lenses from the ‘60s and ‘70s [with] some little imperfections in them that warp the image a little bit that give it this sense that make it feel a little bit more timeless.
You also shot all the social media action practically, meaning there had to be someone actually coordinating all those Facebook and Instagram posts to appear in a shot. What was it like to create that entire ecosystem?
It was a nightmare. [laughs] Right off the bat, I wanted to shoot it as practically as possible and not have it be all CG and done in post. Then we wanted it to be Instagram and to make sure we got it right, I was like let’s have it be actual [posts by real people]. So every comment that you see in the film, we had to get permission from everybody to use their Instagram handle and all these accounts had to be totally real. I basically [said to] one of our executive producers, Allan Mandelbaum, you’re responsible for all the Instagram stuff in the movie, so he created this whole spreadsheet [with] every scene that has an Instagram in it and he really broke it down and made it so much easier. I was like, “This is all on you. I’m going to trust that I’m going to show up and do a scene and the post is going to be there and it’s going to be ready to shoot.” But yeah, it was really tough.
Was directing what you thought it would be? From what you’ve said, it sounded like you enjoyed the collaborative aspect of it more than you might’ve expected.
I love collaborating. To me, making a film is so fun because you get to hang out with all these really incredibly talented people. You have your production designer who’s an incredible artist and your costume designer who has incredible taste in clothes. Then the fun part is taking all these incredible talented people and putting them under one umbrella. It’s almost like you’re starting a circus and you’re picking all these acts that, on their own, are totally talented and then everyone’s working in unison to create this one thing, and that’s what’s exciting. They’re bringing this thing that you wrote to life and having produced a film, that’s obviously very rewarding, but it’s a different set of skills as a director. And I think it’s more fun to be the director, to be honest. [laughs] To just be the guy who’s making all the decisions and saying I need this and I need that and watching it all come together.