Jessica Ellis is an award-winning screenwriter, who made her debut as a writer and director with “What Lies West”. She is an AFI graduate, a Sloan Fellow, Black List / Women in Film Feature Fellowship, and twice Creative World Awards winner. With her writing partner Nick Sinnott, she reached the Nicholl Top 50 and Imagine Impact / Netflix Finals.
“What Lies West” is released on all digital platforms and on DVD on May 11th.
W&H: Describe the movie in your own words.
Jennifer: “What Lies West” is an upcoming adventure about a fresh, little runaway college graduate who takes a summer babysitting job as the teenage daughter reserved for a very anxious single mother. Despite their fiendishly different personalities, the two began to find common ground as they strive to make major changes in their futures, culminating in a multi-day hike across northern California to the coast.
W&H: What drew you to this story?
Jennifer: 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 and outdoor friendships and women. When I was showing a movie about two girls hanging out, most people assumed it was a horror movie! I wanted to create a different model of women’s relationships with the jungle other than chasing killers.
W&H: What do you want people to think about after seeing the movie?
Jennifer: The theme of the movie is the ability – how we all have the capacity, at every age and at every stage, to keep growing. I hope the people watching this movie relate to areas in which they feel they can expand and even begin to look for their friends and loved ones to help them grow. Growing up is always easier with friends!
W&H: What’s the biggest challenge in making a movie?
Jennifer: Besides all the typical budget, location and scheduling changes for any low-budget feature, we ran into two existential challenges to completion: the Sonoma County bushfires, which affected many of our locations between initial filming and re-photography, and I underwent an emergency open heart surgery that forced us to put a hiatus. Six-month period between filming the two clips.
During the second half of the filming, a complication of the surgery left me unable to raise my arm above elbow height, making it extremely difficult to direct my arms into the distance! But it all ended well, I made a full recovery and were able to work on my bushfire damage fire.
W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some ideas on how to make the movie.
Jennifer: We were funded primarily by my savings and the savings of the producers, with about 30 percent from two crowdfunding campaigns. As for our crowdfunding, I took advantage of my existing Twitter platform to mobilize support and participate daily in new content, videos, giveaways, and talk not only about the film’s story, but why the movie itself is so important.
By making the themes and purpose of the movie really clear in our marketing, we created a brand that people really wanted to invest in, and that was the most important aspect of raising money.
W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?
Jennifer: I drifted towards filmmaking first as a stage actor, then as a playwright, and finally started writing screenplays after taking college.
With plays, rewriting is very vague because there is no specific structure, length, or any requirements that can serve as criteria for improvement. I like the scenario architecture and the ways this architecture plays in developing an idea through multiple drafts. I consider stories the lifeblood of culture, and filmmaking is the most effective and widespread way to tell them.
W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?
Jennifer: The best advice I’ve had is to think of filmmaking as cooperation, not dictatorship. As a filmmaker, you are there to facilitate the use of their creative talents to the fullest extent for others while uniting the different capabilities of each person into one seamless production. You are not there to cross your vision while you trample on seeing others.
The worst advice I ever received was “Screenwriters Don’t Make Movies,” which continues to piss me off deeply to this day.
W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?
Jennifer: The only thing you have to offer is yourself, so whatever is most authentic you, the most personal, the most real in your life, is the right kind of story to tell as you establish yourself. In a world driven by money it’s hard to remember that your job as an artist is to sell your point of view even when you feel like what you should do is sell your ability to conform.
W&H: Name your favorite movie directed by women and why.
Jennifer: I love love the love “The Trouble with the Angels” by Ida Lupino. Is it a Disney movie about scammers in a convent? Yeah. Is she the star of Hayley Mills? I cannot deny that. But what she also does is paint an intense and profound picture of the life choices and struggles that a group of women faced in becoming nuns, and why for each of them this was the path to the life they wanted. It’s a beautifully made movie, and like all of Lupino’s work, it’s not much appreciated.
W&H: How do you adjust to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Do you maintain your creativity, and if so, how?
Jennifer: For 2020, you were a creative black hole. I focused on rewriting old projects and preparing “What Lies West” for distribution rather than trying to write anything new in a world that I didn’t understand a bit. Now that there was a little light at the end of the tunnel, I got back on it with my writing partner: We’ve written two features since the start of the year and are out in town with our Nicholl Top 50 script like we will.
It is important to remember that part of the job requirement for creativity is observing, assimilating, and manipulating the world around you, not just being a production machine. We wouldn’t be good artists if we sometimes don’t take the time to catch up with the world and let our perspective evolve – we’re part of the world, we’re not separated from it, and periods of manipulation rather than writing or photography are just as important to me.
W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color on screen and behind the scenes and reinforcing – and creating – negative stereotypes. What measures do you think should be taken to make Hollywood and / or the world of documents more inclusive?
Jennifer: On a very low budget level, you often hire creative people that you have long-term friendships or relationships with because you can’t afford to pay much, so it can be difficult for you to hire as diverse as you want unless you already have a diverse group of friends. So first and foremost, try to grow a professional network as diverse as you can. And second, make it an active option to include people of color, to support their work, to leverage their campaigns and projects with your platforms.
But as much as we can do at the grassroots level, the system will not change until we get rid of the network of big boys at the top who continue to hire, fund, and promote only people who look like them, think like them, and tell their stories. Install it on that and we’ll finally get the Hollywood we deserve.