For the past few weeks, Britni West has been back in her native Montana, which is an exciting prospect as anyone lucky enough to catch her feature debut “Tired Moonlight” would know. With a style of storytelling both as elusive and cool as the mountain breeze, the Brooklyn-based filmmaker’s impressionistic debut, which made stops at Slamdance and the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s New Directors/New Films before music rights held up a proper release in 2015, gently captured the routine and daily rituals for a quartet of characters living in the northern hinderlands of the state that accumulate into a weighty portrait of the joys and hardships of small-town life, a product of three years of observation and consideration before finding a shape for it. Now, she’s back at it.
“Yesterday I shot a scene with two girls I saw taking photos of one another in a glowing canola field, the day before that a sequence of my mom driving the lawn mower to opera music, and tomorrow a ten-year-old hip hop dancer, who I met a few weeks ago, dancing on a mountain top in the Montana sunset,” West said via e-mail, during a recent break from shooting. “I like to find strange/funny/sad moments in real life and am always excited when people are game to try new things.”
The filmmaker is in the midst of trying something new herself with “By Now I’ve Lived a Thousand Lives and None of Them Are Mine,” currently raising funds on Kickstarter before a July 20th deadline. As she learned on “Tired Moonlight,” you can’t plan for the type of movie she strives to make, but then again the inspiration for her latest came from a series of unexpected events in her own life. Craving a fresh start after the end of a long-term relationship, West began thinking of a movie to make sense of the uncertainty she was feeling having just entered her thirties with a sense that she didn’t have much to show for it, making a return home to Kalispell equal parts comforting and terrifying in its familiarity for someone who had planned to take on the world head-on.
“I really wanted this movie to drift along with the happenings of this year in my family’s lives. I have been reaching out to the newspapers and hanging up flyers and am trying to work in as many people from the community as I can,” says West. “I don’t really plan things out with them – I am allowing them to be themselves and let the scenes unfold naturally. What I am looking for in these scenes are themes of family, connection, and loss, and those tend to arise naturally very quickly, especially in Montana.”
It didn’t take long for West to find compelling threads back home, particularly upon learning her friend, the photographer Hillary Berg, had just relocated nearby to Bozeman. But even though the timing of West and Berg’s return to Montana couldn’t have been more convenient in terms of realizing a compelling narrative throughline could be built from the inherent parallel of this time of transition in their lives, the filmmaker didn’t anticipate a break from her full-time work in New York in which she could shoot the film, requiring her to set up production as quickly as possible. The need to shoot immediately also meant that instead of casting others to play their onscreen surrogates, West and Berg would appear as themselves onscreen.
“I was hoping to cast a friend in the [lead] role, but as we started talking more about shooting with my family – grandmas, uncles, aunts – it became clear that it made more sense if I were to join them,” says West, who will be making her acting debut in the film.
Armed with the experience of “Tired Moonlight,” West has abandoned the notion of a set shooting schedule in which there would be certain prompts that would lead to scenes in favor of setting certain parameters that would open the film up more to the spontaneity that made “Tired Moonlight” so refreshing. While West can allow herself the time for the distinct rhythm and sense of surprise to naturally come through in “By Now I’ve Lived a Thousand Lives and None of Them Are Mine” as they did in her previous film, other resources have been harder to come by, hence the film’s crowdsourcing campaign, which she hopes will extend the definition of community around the film beyond her family and friends, though they will all be playing a crucial part both onscreen and off.
“I like being able to learn about other people’s lives and the place where I am shooting, and working with people from the community helps me to accomplish that,” says West, who plans to be filming in Montana through January of next year. “It’s hard – I work with small budgets and do most of the work myself, so scheduling is really tough and things are always falling apart and then coming back together in an even better way and then falling apart again, but I usually think the end result is worth it.”
Although she plans to give audiences a true slice of life in the mountains with the film, West is offering up literal pieces of Montana she collects along the way right now as rewards, whether it be bundles of sage or gas station tchotkes, though there’s no doubt the real reward in return for Kickstarter backers will be the ability to support a genuinely unique voice, giving the filmmaker the room to fashion another unforgettable adventure.