Jessica Ellis on Telling a Different Kind of Story About Women in the Woods in “What Lies West”

Jessica Ellis is an award-winning screenwriter making her feature debut as a writer-director with “What Lies West.” She’s an AFI graduate, has won the Sloan Fellowship, the Black List/Women in Film Feature Fellowship, and twice won the Creative World Awards. With her writing partner Nick Sinnott, she is a Nicholl Top 50 finalist and an Imagine Impact/Netflix finalist.

“What Lies West” launches on all digital platforms and DVD May 11.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

JE: “What Lies West” is a coming-of-age adventure about a new college graduate, a little adrift, who takes a summer job babysitting the reserved teenage daughter of a very anxious single mother. Despite their wildly different personalities, the two begin to find common ground as they strive to make big changes in their future, culminating in taking a multi-day hike across Northern California to the coast.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

JE: I was drawn to this story by two things: the beauty of Sonoma County, where I grew up, and the lack of stories about female friendships and women in the outdoors. When I would pitch the film about two girls hiking, most people assumed it was a horror movie! I wanted to create a different paradigm of women’s relationships to the woods beyond being hunted by killers.

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?

JE: The theme of the film is capacity — how we all have the ability, at every age and every stage, to keep growing. I hope people watching this film will relate to areas where they feel they can expand, and even start looking to their friends and loved ones to help them grow. Growth is always easier with a buddy!

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

JE: Along with all the typical budgetary and locational and scheduling changes of any low-budget feature, we faced two existential challenges to completion: wildfires in Sonoma County, which affected many of our locations between our initial shoot and re-shoots, and I underwent an emergency open heart surgery that forced us to put a six-month gap between shooting the two segments of the film.

During the second half of the shoot, a complication of the surgery left me unable to lift my arms above elbow height, which makes pointing majestically into the distance very difficult! But all’s well that ends well, I fully recovered and we were able to work our shooting around the wildfire damage.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

JE: We were funded primarily by mine and my producers’ savings, with about 30 percent coming from two crowdfunding campaigns. For our crowdfunding, I took advantage of my existing platform on Twitter to rally support, engaging every day with new content, videos, giveaways, and talking about not just the story of the film, but why the film itself matters.

By making the themes and the purpose of the film truly evident in our marketing, we created a brand that people really wanted to invest in, and that was the most critical aspect to raising funds.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

JE: I drifted toward filmmaking first as a stage actor, then as a playwright, and finally started writing screenplays after taking a course in college.

With plays, rewriting is very nebulous because there is no set structure, length, or really any requirements that can serve as benchmarks to improvement. I love the structure of screenplays and the ways that structure plays in to developing an idea through multiple drafts. I consider stories the lifeblood of culture, and filmmaking is the most efficient and wide-reaching way to tell them.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

JE: The best advice I’ve ever received is to think of filmmaking as a collaboration, not a dictatorship. As a director, you are there to facilitate others into using their creative talents to the fullest extent while uniting everyone’s different abilities into one seamless production. You are not there to get across your vision while stomping on everyone else’s.

The worst advice I ever received was “screenwriters don’t make movies,” which continues to make me viscerally angry to this day.

W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors?

JE: The only thing you have to offer is yourself, so whatever is the most authentically you, the most personal, the most true to your life, is the right kind of story for you to be telling as you establish yourself. It’s hard in a money-driven world to remember that your job as an artist is to sell your perspective even when it feels like what you should be doing is selling your ability to conform.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

JE: I love love love “The Trouble With Angels” by Ida Lupino. Is it a Disney movie about pranksters at a convent? Yes. Does it star Hayley Mills? I cannot deny it. But what it also does is paint an intense, deep portrait of the life choices and struggles a group of women faced in becoming nuns, and why for each of them it was the path to the life they wanted. It’s a beautifully made film and, like all of Lupino’s work, hugely underappreciated.

W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how?

JE: For 2020, I was a creativity black hole. I focused on rewriting old projects and prepping “What Lies West” for distribution rather than trying to write anything new in a world I did not understand one bit. Now that there’s a bit of light at the end of the tunnel, I’m back at it with my writing partner: we’ve written two features since the beginning of the year and are out on the town with our Nicholl Top 50 script as well.

It’s important to remember that part of the job requirements of creativity are observing, absorbing, and processing the world around you, not just being a production machine. We wouldn’t be good artists if we didn’t occasionally take some time to catch up to the world and let our perspective develop – we are a part of the world, not separated from it, and periods of processing rather than writing or shooting are equally important to me.

W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make Hollywood and/or the doc world more inclusive?

JE: At the very low-budget indie level you’re often hiring creatives who you have long-term friendships or relationships with because you can’t afford to pay much, so it can be difficult to hire as diversely as you might like unless you already have a diverse pool of friends. So first of all, try to cultivate a diverse professional network as much as you can. And second, make it an active choice to include people of color, to support their work, to elevate their funding campaigns and projects with your platforms.

But as much as we can do on the grassroots level, the system will not change until we rid ourselves of the old boys’ network at the top who continue to hire, fund, and promote only people who look like them, think like them, and tell their stories. Topple that and we will finally get the Hollywood we deserve.

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