Why a Filmmaker Turned The Camera on Her Family for Her Latest Narrative Feature
Director Britni West continues to push the doc/narrative hybrid form forward with the subject for her next feature: her family.
After winning the Narrative Grand Jury Award at the 2015 Slamdance Film Festival for her poetic and soft-spoken study in naturalism, Tired Moonlight, filmmaker Britni West, a former entrant on the 25 New Faces of Independent Film, is looking to continue her exploration of her home state of Montana and, more closely, the people in it.
Boldly titled By Now I've Lived A Thousand Lives and None of Them Are Mine, West's new feature, currently in production, is a narrative feature about a nonfiction parallel occurrence: the filmmaker and her friend both returned to two different hometowns in Big Sky Country—true stories which are fictionalized in the film. The project's logline may sum it up best: Britni is in the midst of returning back home to her parent's house after finding herself lost and alone in the world, and Hillary moves to Bozeman to try and carve out a new life for herself in a new place.
A fictional retelling of the creative team's own personal experience—yes, Britni is played by Britni West and Hillary is played by Tired Moonlight's Hillary Berg—the film features nonprofessional actors, including West's own family, playing in essence, her family. If Tired Moonlight, a film which almost unassumingly found a plot through its surprising strands of narrative and ethereal 16mm cinematography, was considered a nonfiction hybrid, West's latest feature sounds like the lines will be further blurred.
As the film is currently seeking additional funds to complete production via a Kickstarter campaign, No Film School spoke with West about the basis for this new project, working with non-professional actors, shooting on 16mm film, and setting production in real-life environments.
No Film School: Your first feature, Tired Moonlight, had a 2015 theatrical run at the Museum of Modern Art, where it previously screened as part of New Directors/New Films. What did the theatrical run (that came complete with a very positive New York Times review) do for your career as a filmmaker?
Britni West: Career-wise, not too much necessarily. In the way I want to approach working in film, I'm not looking to make giant movies. I would love to have more money, but I also want to have a lot of freedom. It's hard. I've been trying to use that [critical praise] to find money or do something bigger or different or whatever, but also, if I can't find money, I will make it work however I can.
This new project came about really quickly. I've been thinking about it for a while, but I wasn't planning to make it this summer. It started because I went home to Montana to film my uncle getting married, and then we were talking about selling our childhood house. I was like “Okay, I should just start doing this right now, however I can make it work.” That's why I've been running a Kickstarter campaign for the film. It's quite a lot of work to apply for grants, but yes, it was great to have great press for Tired Moonlight, as it's introduced me to a lot of people that I didn't know before. It was also really cool to show the film everywhere. It hasn't helped me on this latest one, in terms of finding money or anything.
"I had Open Call auditions where people read a poem or a story about their life. And then I ended up writing for everybody that came into the movie."
NFS: Already apparent with Tired Moonlight was your interesting in working with non-professional actors. What was that audition process like? What were you specifically looking for?
West: For that movie, I really wanted to cast the whole thing in the town that I grew up in. The only person I had in mind from the beginning was Paul Dickinson, the poet in Tired Moonlight, having met him in Minneapolis five years before and just randomly asking if he would ever want to be in a movie of mine. I got ahold of him asked if he would fly out to Montana, and then for the rest of the film, I wanted to cast from there. It was really difficult because of people's work schedules and everything; people can't just take off work for a month!
I ended up casting Hillary Berg, a friend that I know, as Sarah, and then my friend's mom from Minnesota, Liz Randall, playing the older woman, Dawn. For the rest of the film, I tried to cast as much as I could from our town. I hung up flyers in bars and wherever I could think about hanging things up and had Open Call auditions where people read a poem or a story about their life (or did whatever they wanted to do). And then I ended up writing for everybody that came into the movie.
NFS: Given the wandering narrative of Tired Moonlight, did you allow your cast to bring forth their own ideas and performance choices to their roles?
West: I did. It's difficult because I wrote the movie beforehand, and that version was more scripted, more organized, and more planned out than it seems. Maybe in the final product it was scripted, as I knew where we were going every day and who would be there. Remember the talent show scene in the film? I put on that talent show, but that was all scripted. We went and did shot/reverse shots and did applause scenes, and it was very much a scripted scene.
In terms of bringing their own ideas to their roles, I always wanted Paul's actual poetry to be a part of the film, and Hillary is my friend from art school, and she's a photographer and very good at acting. We talked a lot about the character that she'd play, and how it's different from herself in real life. With Liz, the other woman in the movie, she hadn't ever acted before and was mostly just playing a version of herself. It's hard to work like that, because people internalize the role that they're playing, and it was hard for her to distinguish [between the two]. Once it clicked in her head that she wasn't the person she was onscreen, it went much better for her. I think she felt a lot more comfortable being in the movie.
"The thing I like about shoot in real-life environments is that you never exactly know what will happen."
NFS: In your Kickstarter campaign for By Now I've Lived A Thousand Lives and None of Them Are Mine, you say that you "find nothing better than setting a movie in a real-life environment." What does that provide for you as a storyteller?
West: I think it provides the landscape and the props and the set dressing; really everything that's already involved in a particular place. I work in film and TV in New York (in the art department) and it's really set up and you work really hard to pick the right props. I always feel like it's somehow just a little bit more contrived than I would like it to be. It's just always a little bit too planned out for me.
The thing I like about shoot in real-life environments is that you never exactly know what will happen. We could show up with a plan and then something crazy would be happening, like a man in a neck brace throwing fireworks into the river (as featured in Tired Moonlight) and so we'd add that to our scene.
Instead of being a distraction that we needed to get rid of, I always just put it in the scene. It's really exciting when it works out. It's hard to work that way, of course, as you have to be patient to deliver and be able to go with the flow and let things other things happen that you hadn't planned for. You have to be able to be on your toes at all times, and so it's tough and mentally exhausting. It's also really exciting when you find different people.
NFS: And for this new feature, your cast is made up of your family and friends. What kind of challenges has that presented?
West: Something really challenging! I showed up and colleagues could come and help out and then they couldn't come and help out, as their work schedules conflicted with things. There have been times where it's just me shooting myself and my family. I'm filming the scenes with myself and them and that's been really hard. It's also difficult regarding everyone's feelings. I have to be really careful, as I know them so well and know the things I want to put in the movie, but maybe that's not what they want in the movie. It's just a strange dance, but today I'm finding what's comfortable for them and what's meaningful.
"I love shooting on 16mm and would love to do it for this latest film, but it's expensive and you have to be really careful about what you're filming. "
NFS: The beautiful photos you've taken of your family serve as a kind of unintentional lookbook for this project. Given the nature of the story, how have you found ways to communicate your intentions for this film through personal memorabilia?
West: One nice thing about working with my family is that I'm a hoarder of footage and photos. I've been taking photos of them and I always had cameras around, which is annoying, I'm sure, but, after all this time, they're used to it. I was doing a project for the last five years where I was shooting one-minute videos on my iPhone that were still-shots from all over the world, and that also included a lot of videos of my family. I have a lot of footage that I can add into this movie. I think it's going to add a lot of the "passage of time" to the movie, and I think that's important.
Also, there was a lot of time spent in the house that I grew up in, and so that's important to my family, especially since my dad built the house (he's a builder). I also collect so much little garbage and lots of little things. I have other tiny special things that I've been able to put into the movie, like my ex-boyfriend from high school. It's just a lot of family and life and death, and the passage of time, I guess.
NFS: You mentioned doing some of the shooting yourself, but how does the dynamic change when your DP and crew are amongst the real-life environments and the nonprofessional actors? Are the more intimate moments of just you with your family altered?
West: Surprisingly, it's not really any different. I'm always trying to be really careful about when I'm annoying everyone for having the camera around too much. The other day, I was talking to my brother, and I was like, “I'm really sorry, can I come to your work for just 20 minutes [for the film]? I'm sorry.” And then my little sister chimed in the background and said, “You don't even notice the camera anymore, so do whatever you want.” I think everyone's got to the point where they trust me enough to know that I'm not going to put anything in the movie that would hurt them or make them uncomfortable. I think they've all become unaware of the camera in a good way.
And the DP is a long-time friend of mine, so he's been around my family before. He's been really good at being in the "middle of the chaos." There's also a lot going on, a lot of kids and a lot of babies. There's a lot of stuff all the time. My mom's always cooking...Basically, everyone's working, and so it's not really hard to disappear into that.
NFS: Is this film also being shot on 16mm?
West: No, I wish. I didn't have the time. I didn't have the money to make that happen, but it's going to be okay.
NFS: I know that 16mm was your preferred method of shooting for past shorts and Tired Moonlight. For those previous films, what was it about 16mm that complimented your style? And how are you now viewing your style by working in a different format?
West: I love shooting on 16mm and would love to do it for this latest film, but it's expensive and you have to be really careful about what you're filming. On Tired Moonlight, I think we did one take of everything, maybe three if things weren't quite right, but we had to be very careful about what we were shooting; we used just about everything we shot for that movie.
For this latest movie, going into it, I knew that if I tried to shoot on film, I was going to have to be so careful. There would be no way I could just let the camera roll, and I really wanted the freedom to capture dialogue [on the fly]. The style of the one-minute movies that I made has drifted into this movie as well, where I want long drawn-out scenes that are on a tripod for a few minutes, and people's dialogue we used in-and-out of that. I knew it would be a lot harder to do that if I had been so worried about shooting on film all the time.