Directed by Ethan Warren, West of Her tells the story of Dan (Ryan Caraway), a young man searching for purpose. Alone and adrift in life, he signs on with a mysterious organization, agreeing to travel the country with the enigmatic Jane (Kelsey Siepser) as they unveil mysterious and enigmatic street art in the middle of the night. While the basic plot outline stems from true events, Warren argues that the heart of the narrative grew from his own spiritual journey.
“The idea came from a couple of places. The plot comes from the unexplained phenomenon called ‘The Toynbee Tiles’, a mysterious street-art initiative that has been happening for many decades. That’s the project that the characters participate in. More of the story came from this feeling that I was having at the time when I wrote it in my mid-20s. I was feeling sort of lost in the universe and [was] looking for something bigger than myself that I could feel a part of. That’s what the protagonist Dan is a part of and a lot of the dialogue comes from me at that time in my life.”
Featuring unknown actors for the key leads is certainly no easy task, especially when the film features them in virtually every scene. Thankfully, Warren found two exceptional young talents in Siepser and Caraway, who bring a charisma to their roles that feels natural and honest. In order to find his leads, Warren argues that he was seeking actors that broke traditional stereotypes.
“I was really looking for strong, unusual personalities,” he begins. “When I put out the casting notice for Dan, I said something like ‘He’s not an alpha male but he’s also not withdrawing or afraid either’. It was a lot of what he’s not… So, that became kinda tough when you’re looking for people who lack certain qualities. It was because I think of him as kind of a unique figure. He’s not really aggressive and assertive but he’s also someone who’s not going to hang back and engage with a confrontation. When I was looking for Jane, it was again that she was kind of a strong-willed character. She needs to have a shield up a lot of the time but she also needs to show her vulnerability. It was really treading the line where a lot of films sort of fall one side or the other.”
What’s more, West of Her also features stunning cinematography as Dan and Jane travel across the United States together. Using broad landscapes which dwarf the leads in their scope, Warren states that this use of setting provided important visuals that emphasize the character’s emotional journeys.
“The movie takes place over 10 states and about 3000 miles… So, much of it takes place in these really wide open spaces and vistas where the actors look so small compared to this natural beauty around them,” he explains. “I think that really serves as an important image, showing how small they are compared to the environment around them. It works on a story level because they are these people who are participating in a project that requires them to live like ghosts and not engage in people around them but they’re also battling this loneliness. So, to show them in these giant settings felt like an evocative image for me.”
Interestingly, while the visuals and location remain essential to the film, there is an authenticity to the dialogue that helps to set the film apart from others of this genre. Although the script was completed beforehand, Warren points out that much of the dialogue came from the actors themselves.
“What’s so unique about the movie is that a good portion of the dialogue was actually written by the actors in that moment,” he claims. “It’s not a fully improvised film because I had a 90 day script but, starting early on, we did start doing a lot of improvising when we realized that we were going to be shooting in a lot of locations that we didn’t always have a scene for. After that, I really started letting the actors play a lot more fast and loose with their dialogue.”
Furthermore, Warren also notes that the dialogue evolved over the course of the shoot as the actors built up their own relationship with one another.
“We shot in sequence which is rare on most films but, in this case, because we were shooting a road movie, it made the most sense,” he remembers. “Only a couple of scenes were shot out of sequence. So, because of that, the actors were getting to know each other at the same rate that they are in the movie. For example, when they started in Chicago on Day One, that was the first day when they were together. Three days later, when we were in the Great Plains, the characters were three days later in their relationship.”
“On Day Three or Four, we got out of the car for a bathroom break at a rest stop that, in the back, had a recreation of a Civil War era village. We knew we had to shoot there. It was sunset. The place was empty. The owners said to go for it. I said to the actor that they should, get to know each other, walk around and not worry too much about staying in character. And that ended up being some of the most exciting stuff that we’d shot so far. From then on, I told the actors to sort of let the inspiration strike them and, if the dialogue felt sort of natural or if they wanted to play around a little bit, that that was more exciting for me. It helped bring the movie alive in many ways and made the characters a little more three dimensional than what I’d wrote.”
Through his use of natural visuals and fluid dialogue, it could be argued that West of Her echoes the work of Terrence Malick (Tree of Life, Song of Songs). When asked if Malick had been an influence, Warren confesses that the comparisons are intentional.
“Before we’d started, I’d read an interview with Malick,” he says. “When I’d first started to think about shooting this movie, it was when The Tree of Life happened and he had a line in some interview about how he seeks unrepeatable moments. That really stuck in my head while writing and through production. That was something I wanted to capture and that’s exactly what we did.”
With its emphasis on humanity’s quest for what is real, West of Her reveals itself to be a love letter to the millennial experience. This notion becomes particularly evident in the film’s interest in exploring what it means to be authentic, both as individuals and in our relationships with one another.
“Jane has a complicated relationship with ideas like [authenticity],” Warren states. “She spends much of the film putting up a shield and not allowing anybody to connect with her, as much as Dan wants to. On the other hand, while she is more closed off to the world, she seems more optimistic in many ways and more authentic in the way she views their work. She views it as something that’s bringing joy to the world and really acknowledging her inability to control things and her inability to know the what the meaning of her life is. She’s more sort of open to that confusion and fully engaging to that than Dan is. Then, the journey of the film is them bringing those perspectives together. So, if she views their work as something that is bringing joy into the work and is good for its own sake, then he is able to cause a change in her that you can feel that way but also engage with your work in a way that brings sincerity and meaning into your own life… I think of myself as someone who really looks for authenticity in the world. I try to bring that into my work. When I was feeling that sense of lost and confusion that led to the film, what I wanted was an authentic connection with the world. I think that creating this film has brought me to that.”
According to Warren, much of this search for authenticity stems from our culture’s current tendency towards isolation. As we are driven increasingly into our devices to maintain relationships, he also recognizes that it has caused this generation to question the very nature of belief as well.
“I think so much our lives are divided. You see so many people are working remotely or just working from home,” Warren enlightens. “We communicate with texting and keep in touch with so many of my friends but never hear their voices. When I was experiencing this sort of confusion that sort of motivated me to write the script, I was living a very similar, isolated lifestyle… As I said, that lead me into a real crisis of whether I’m just floating through the void and not engaging with the world in a meaningful way. When it comes to the element of faith and belief in something, what I wanted to explore was the real terror that comes when you don’t have anything to hold on to, whether it’s emotionally or spiritually and the way that we look to soothe that and comfort that.”
West of Her is available for rent or purchase on iTunes and Google Play.