Writer-director Jessica Ellis spoke with Solzy at the Movies over the phone about her feature debut film, What Lies West.
The film stars Nicolette Ellis and Chloe Moore. A fun fact about both stars is that this is their first film and they are also cousins.
What was the genesis behind the screenplay?
Jessica Ellis: I really wanted to tell a story that highlighted female friendships and that also took advantage of the outdoor setting of Sonoma County, which I had grown up in, and I really wanted to set a film there.
What do you love about films with female friendship?
Jessica Ellis: Well, there aren’t that many of them. It’s kind of a rare type of film. Most films that involve multiple women revolve around boyfriends or some kind of male relationships. I loved the ability to get to expand that canon a little bit in my way.
How did the cast come together?
Jessica Ellis: The two main roles, Chloe and Nicolette, were both cast with actresses I knew. They’re theater actresses—this is their first film but I knew them and they knew each other so they had a really unique chemistry together that I’d always enjoyed between the two of them. I thought it’d be really fun to build a movie around them. And then the rest of the cast, we just cast essentially to complement them and to really fit in to kind of fill out their backgrounds and different people to react against that we thought was an interesting contrast.
One thing I noticed is that What Lies West has an early1990s vibe going onto it. What films inspired the look?
Jessica Ellis: Visually with the look, we were inspired with by early indie cinematography in the 1990s. Obviously, Soderbergh and Sex, Lies, and Videotape was a reference even though content-wise was an extremely different story but we wanted a really naturalistic feel. We didn’t want you to feel the camera a lot. And then totally and in terms of stories, we were really influenced by movies like Now and Then, Stand by Me, and The Man in the Moon. They all focus on kind of summer coming-of-age adventure stories.
What was the most challenging part of the production?
Jessica Ellis: Well, there were a few. We were shooting in Sonoma County and in the midst of kind of our break from shooting, there were the wildfires of 2017 there, which devastated a lot of the areas that we were shooting in. When we came back for reshoots, it affected a lot of our locations that were somewhere. Everything behind us was just ash and we had to only shoot in one direction since so much had burned down. That was a really tremendous challenge just to make sure we were still kept capturing the landscape in an authentic way that really still showed off the beauty that’s still there.
How did you first get an interest in filmmaking?
Jessica Ellis: I came up initially as a singer and an actor. I went to college as a playwriting major to UCLA. While I was there, I had to just take a screenwriting course for credit and I fell in love with the form of screenwriting, specifically. I loved that it was more structured than playwriting. It made it easier to rewrite in because there was much more of a clear format. Plays can be anything and screenplays have to be much more specific so that was what drew me into doing it professionally.
But growing up, I mean, my dad just would stop at a video store every weekend and bring home two or three random things that he thought sounded interesting. I had a very unusual and a classic film background, just watching all sorts of foreign films, older films, and stuff from all over the place that I always love.
Is there a favorite genre or favorite film?
Jessica Ellis: I don’t know if I have a favorite genre. I never have been able to answer this question efficiently. I love big budget fantasy and always will. I would say something like The Princess Bride is definitely going to be in my top five forever.
Would you like the opportunity to adapt a big budget fantasy film if it presented itself?
Jessica Ellis: Oh, yeah. I mean, yeah—that is my dream come true would be to adopt big budget fantasy. So many properties are getting turned into shows now and I think that’s a really great way to explore fantasy worlds. There’s some standalone books that I would jump on if given the chance.
What did you make of your AFI experience?
Jessica Ellis: It was an interesting experience. I loved the teachers there. I loved the ability to work so closely with other writers. I’ve formed such tight bonds with so many of my writing fellows. We were in a writing group for, I don’t know, five or six years. Afterwards, there was a group of seven or eight of us. As a program as a whole when I was there, which was 10 years ago, it was difficult for screenwriters. They were limited in the amount of other roles they could learn about. Screenwriters weren’t allowed to direct. The directors were allowed to write. It was a little bit of an unbalanced system that I hope has improved since I was there.
How have you been keeping yourself busy during the pandemic?
Jessica Ellis: G-d, I don’t know if I have been. I’ve been getting very used to a life of loss and depression and living in my sweats all the time. I wasn’t able to write, really, for this whole of 2020. I was focused on rewriting projects and doing other things because I just had such a difficult time trying to create anything new in such an uncertain environment. But kind of as soon as the year turned over and we got to 2021, my writing partner and I sort of exploded with new ideas and have been back at work steadily ever since. That’s been a great revival. It’s great to know it comes back.
Yeah, I know that feeling. Being a writer myself—last year, I read all these studio mogul biographies, get an idea, and then—yeah, just left it alone for months.
Jessica Ellis: Yeah. I mean, I think that’s not a bad thing. I know there are the write everyday people. I am not somebody that supports that in like it works for you. Writers need to absorb the world in order to reflect it and if you’re constantly always writing, writing, writing, you’re never really stopping and absorbing what’s going on around you. I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I wish the circumstances were better in which we all sat around for a year but I don’t think it’s bad for writers.
It was definitely not good for depression on this end. That much is true.
Jessica Ellis: No, I’m sure.
What do you hope people take away from viewing the film?
Jessica Ellis: It’s a film really about expanding your capacity by challenging things you’re a little bit afraid of. I would hope, if anything, it challenges people to grab a friend and try something a little bit new. We can always push ourselves a little farther. We can always face a tiny bit more of our fears than w think we can. More than that, I hope it’s just a really pleasant watch for people and they come away from it feeling good going out into their day. I started it because I wanted to make something that made people feel better and I hope we accomplished that.