“Like Reading a Diary You Wrote as a Teenager”: Britni West on Tired Moonlight
Since taking home the Grand Jury Prize at Slamdance, most reviews have charged Britni West’s naturalistic narrative Tired Moonlight with the “documentary-like” or “hybrid” stamp of approval, but more than anything else, the film seems to suggest that such classifications were meant to be broken. An interwoven portrait of the inhabitants and topography of Kalispell, Montana, West collapses the conventions of an ensemble driven film by allowing her characters to roam free, presenting a beautiful, like-minded series of vignettes that form a cohesive whole.
Recently back from Austin where she presented the film at RxSM (along with 7 Chinese Brothers at SXSW, on which she served as first AD), West spoke about how making her first film has led her to appreciate alternative approaches to the process. “I’ll read a review of my film where someone says it doesn’t make sense narratively,” she says, “but the point of filmmaking doesn’t have to be narrative, even if in their mind it does. It’s like buying shampoo: one person wants it to be organic, one person wants it to make their hair curl and one person wants more volume. ‘Good shampoo’ is different for everyone.”
Tired Moonlight has its New York premiere at New Directors/New Films tomorrow, and screens again at MoMA on Saturday.
Filmmaker: You shot this over two summers, yes?
Britni West: Yes. I went to Montana for a month and a half by myself to do pre-production and casting. After that, the crew and some of the cast flew in and we shot for three weeks. I had always wanted to shoot the fourth of July in this small town – it’s really wild and crazy. I think it’s probably one of the last places in our country where something like that exists, but we missed it the first summer, so I had always planned on going back for a second round.
Filmmaker: This was in summer of 2013?
West: It was the summer of 2012 and 2013.
Filmmaker: What were you looking for in the casting process? Did you have an idea for a loose ensemble, and that you would build out from the characters?
West: I went into it with the idea of this woman who lives alone, and ends up connecting with this four-year-old and sort of realizing that her life went a totally different direction than she had thought it would go. It was a very small story, and a very basic idea, but I think it’s something a lot of people deal with as they get older. I had also met Paul Dickinson who is the poet in the film a while back in Minnesota, and I really loved the way his poetry dealt with the feelings I wanted to convey in the film.
I think he’s really funny, but also hits on small moments that are striking but unsentimental, so I knew I wanted to cast him as well. I ended up writing a script based around those two things. I spent a lot of time wandering around my home town and taking notes and reading books and keeping lots of little ideas bouncing around.
Filmmaker: Was it a ‘traditional’ script or more of a treatment?
West: It was a traditional script. 80 pages of dialogue and all of that, but I knew that I would be casting non-actors, so I never really had it in mind that we would shoot word for word what was there.
I think in the end we ended up using the script in he way a lot of people would use an outline. We would have the scripted scene in mind, but then go to a location that I had set up beforehand, and when we arrived, we would look around to see what was happening, and then Adam and I would talk about how those things could fit into the ‘purpose’ or story of the film. So we would have our actors playing out the scripted scene, but in the background we would be capturing real life.
Filmmaker: The film obviously has a clear sense of place, before we meet any characters, we’re introduced to the surroundings. With Paul, did his poetry come into the film at the script stage?
West: I always wanted Paul’s poetry to be a part of the film. I don’t really see it as ‘voiceover’ in the traditional sense. I didn’t want to just throw poetry on top of nice images, which is something reviewers have tended to point out as being ‘Terrence Malick-y’, but I thought that it worked in the end because he was a poet in the film, driving through this town, and capturing things along the way.
Filmmaker: Well you also fuse his poetry with the narrative, by having him recite it to Dawn, so it’s a little more concrete than the ethereal way in which Malick goes about it.
West: Exactly. I think it’s very far from the way Terrence Malick works, and to me, is more purposeful/meaningful than Paul’s inner dialogue. I also wanted to do that with the other voiceover in the film. I wanted it to be strongly rooted in the characters’ personal lives.
Filmmaker: So you had this idea to have a sort of intergenerational connection between Dawn and the young girl, but I think that splinters into three planes of womanhood. There’s Dawn, there are the three young girls, and then there’s Sarah, the teenager whos dealing with her own somewhat hesitant relationships. How did she figure into it?
West: I’ve noticed hanging out with my sister and all of these younger women in Montana, that the defining elements of the ‘Montana’ culture, are not ‘western’ nor ‘cowboy’ in the traditional sense. I’ve noticed that the things they relate to are Pinterest and Facebook and those sentimental sayings like ‘if he didn’t realize what he had, then he doesn’t deserve a girl like you’ or whatever. So I wanted the Sarah character to have this voiceover dialogue that captured that as well, like reading a diary you wrote as a teenager.
I thought it was really interesting to explore the three planes of womanhood in this way that is not necessarily strictly defined. I think a lot of people view motherhood in a certain way – especially in Montana, and I think if you get down to it, it can’t really be defined in simple terms. I met a lot of women during the making of this film that seemed fine and acclimated to and happy with their lives, but then after knowing them for a while, I would uncover this profound sadness that they were alone.
It always seemed like they were affected more by the fact that they were never able (for whatever reason) to have kids than the fact that they had trouble finding a great romantic relationship.
Filmmaker: One of the many things I like about the film though is how it resists the notion of the small town woman who wants to get out and move on to bigger and better things. The melancholy is there, but the escapism isn’t.
West: I always thought that was an interesting thing myself. I think people there always view the outside world as something that exists on a television set – American Idol, Nascar, Good Morning America, whatever. And they define themselves by those standards, but those things are really an imaginary world in their lives. They don’t really aspire to be a part of those worlds because they really don’t exist. The race car stuff is a good example of that. It’s very exciting to watch. You feel like it is something bigger than it is. It could very well be a Nascar race, but people are very tied to Montana and the place they live. I think they dream of the outside world in this starry-eyed way, without having that sense of escapism, if that makes sense. It’s a complicated relationship.
Filmmaker: Personally, did you always feel like you had to leave the state?
West: No. I mean, I think I always dreamed of great things, but I love that place, so I am guilty of wanting to stay there as well. I’m glad I’ve left and I think it has allowed me to understand the people and place better, but I didn’t always want to escape. I spend a lot of time there still, but I am also not yearning to live there.
Filmmaker: What was the process of casting the Sarah character?
West: I had the Sarah character in mind while writing the script, but I had planned on casting someone from Montana for that. I had actually cast a woman and her four-year-old daughter, but it fell through right before we started shooting, so I talked to Hillary, who is an old friend from Minnesota. She wasn’t an actress, but she takes a lot of very natural photographs of people and women, so she has always had a great understanding of how to be natural in front of a camera. The timing ended up working out, and I luckily ended up finding this four-year old girl, Rainy, at the last minute. She and Hillary had this amazing connection, which I think is really palpable in the film.
Filmmaker: Did you shoot the different storylines over the course of the two summers, or would you knock them out one by one?
West: It was tough because everything was so intertwined, so we sort of shot most of it the first summer in bits and pieces, not necessarily one by one. Many of the characters were interacting with each other, so everyone just came for the whole three weeks, and we would shoot with them sometimes and sometimes they would just hang out.
The summer that we went back, I didn’t take Paul, Liz, or Hillary with me, who were the main characters of the film, but I did take Alex Karpovsky (who was not there the first summer).
He had always been interested in being a part of the film, but I kept telling him I didn’t think it was the right fit. I was never trying to trick the audience into thinking it was a doc, but it was very important to me that everything felt natural.
Filmmaker: What changed your mind?
West: So I told him no for the first year of making the film, but while we were there, we happened to meet this incredible Russian woman who was a poet and an old television personality. We shot the scenes with her and Hillary during that summer, but we had no way of translating with her. We basically mimed what we wanted, and she spoke very, very little broken English so we managed to get by.
I thought it would be incredible to flesh out her story a bit, because it was obvious through the photos of Russia she was showing us and images from her life there that she was the epitome of that feeling of being happy where you currently are and understanding the beauty of the place, but longing for your past and the things you had known.
Alex just happens to speak Russian, so I thought it would be really nice to have a different sort of mother relationship be a strong part of the film as well.
You get to see the connection between women through the Sarah/Rainy/Dawn characters, and then you get to see the mother/son relationship through Gallina and Al.
Filmmaker: Did you find that you worked differently with Alex than with the non-actors?
West: Yeah. I mean, Alex is an incredibly talented filmmaker and such a smart person, so I think he is a bit more aware of the way people interact than other people that I was working with, but we are also good friends so it wasn’t a strict actor/director relationship. It was easy and fun. Alex has the capacity to do so many different things, but he often ends up playing a sort of cranky Brooklynite, and we just mainly focused on making sure that was not a part of his character
Filmmaker: Did you have to really develop the characters with the other actors, or did you just roll the camera and take it from there?
West: It was different with everyone. With Liz, who plays Dawn, there was a sense of having to make sure she knew that ‘Dawn’ was separate from ‘Liz’. We would talk about the things ‘Dawn’ would do in relation to the way Liz would do them. But at the same time, she is such an interesting woman, that I wanted her to be open to being herself on screen. I think in the end she really opened up to being in the film and I know she’s really proud of what her character became.
Hillary and I talked a lot about our personal lives, and I think she was very open to being herself and drawing things from her own life, which was totally different than working with Liz. I think a lot of things that were going on for both of us at that time came to color her character.
Charles, who is the guy in the phone booth, was an open book. That character completely came from his life and strange strange story (that would be one of the craziest films ever made if it were made).
Nick – Sarah’s boyfriend in the film – had to be coached a lot in being natural. I was putting him in crazy situations like the races for example, and forcing him to pretend to be natural doing something he had no idea how to do. That was hard because I was literally saying ‘go pretend to be working on your car next to my brother, and make it look like you’ve been doing this forever!’ which is hard for a non-actor! He ended up doing a great job and seeming very natural in the end.
Filmmaker: You also edited the film. Did you feel like the final product was an accurate reflection of the script, or were you sort of rearranging the threads as you went?
West: I remember being in Montana, and on the phone with Adam who was in NYC, saying, ‘This film could be a huge disaster. It is so epic! I want race cars, mountains, fireworks, forest fires, kids, trees, animals, girls, screaming, etc. etc. etc. I don’t know how we will tie all of this together!’ and then I went on to sort of tone that down a bit in the script. It was definitely more narrative at that point, but I think that came less from the idea that I wanted to make it narrative, and more from the idea that if we set out to make a story, we could lose/gain things along the way and still have some sense of a cohesive film. So it went from chaos, to very narrative, and then as we were shooting, it really opened up again. Adam and I would discuss what we had shot every night and talk about how that could influence the direction we were going in. And then as I started editing, I felt very free to let what we had shot and talked about during the shoot influence the way it unfolds.
Filmmaker: It feels like there are all of these unnecessary restrictions placed on narratives and documentaries in terms of how their story arcs should function.
West: Yes. People are constantly asking me why I shot it in a doc style, which is so confusing to me. These strict guidelines are not something I’m rebelling against at all. They just 100% don’t compute in my mind. I think the way we shot was really just me wanting to feel like I was a part of the world, but not be poetic about it. I wanted you to know there is wind in the trees and animals wandering around, but I didn’t want it to be beautiful just to be beautiful.
Filmmaker: Also, what is ‘doc style’? Are they referring to formal elements, because of looser compositions and handheld work? Or is it because the narrative is not a clear three act structure that hues closely to any particular protagonist?
West: Exactly – this doc style question gets me every time. I imagine they are talking about the handheld camera?
Filmmaker: Well, do you feel like this is definitively the way you like to make your movies, or it was best suited to this particular story you were telling?
West: I think for this story it made sense. It was also a huge learning experience for me, obviously, because I was doing something without having a basic manifesto to fall back on. It was really the best way that I knew how to wrap a viewer into this world at the time I was making it.
I am starting on another project at the moment, and I want to work in a similar way, but I also don’t feel like the films will strongly resemble each other. It will be shot differently, hopefully edited a bit differently. I don’t want voiceover. I want it to feel like a different world.