Haley Finnegan’s debut short film, Westfalia, takes us on a road trip with a couple so desperate for Instagram fame that they start to lose sight of their surroundings – and each other.
Ahead of the film’s screening at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, Close-up Culture’s James Prestridge spoke to Haley to learn more about her beautifully shot and reflective directorial debut.
Q: ‘Westfalia’ speaks to the way many of us now live for perception rather than reality. How has Instagram and social media impacted your connection to those around you?
A: In one session of Instagram, the people I follow can make me feel motivated to work out and also like my body isn’t good enough. I can feel like I want to donate to a good cause and also like I am not making enough money.
I can feel inspired and also like a failure – why haven’t I had children yet? When was my last vacation? How am I going to buy those shoes? There are plenty of amazing reasons to use Instagram but there are just as many bad reasons. I struggle to find the balance. And I think a lot of people do.
Q: Brody (Brian Flynn) and Emelia (Haley Finnegan) are a couple who want to be insta-famous but struggle to pull in the likes. What interested you about having a couple that is so desperate to pursue online recognition even when it seems to isolate and frustrate them?
A: I wanted to explore the behind the scenes work of getting that shot. I know first hand that on a day I post about great news, I very well could have been having a bad day. And I also know that for every good photo of me, there are twenty where my scoliosis made me look weird, my chin gained a twin, and my stubborn hair was doing its thing instead of mine.
The photos we see are just one, perfect, unrealistic instant pulled from a real imperfect world of chaos. And that chaotic world, the world where Brody and Emelia live is funny. That’s the world I wanted to explore.
Q: I really love an observation you made in your director’s statement, it reads : ‘The star on Instagram is not like the movie star. There is no mystery – only secrets.’ I wondered if you could expand on this and why you wanted to explore it in the film?
A: An influencer seemingly shares all with you. How they start their day, which exotic location they are working from now, how they feel about the day, how you should feel about yours, etc… We are constantly updated in “real” time on their every move.
A movie star is stalked and stories are fabricated about them – who is Brad Pitt in love with now? Just because he was seen with someone. The influencer is doing their own fabrication – they are keeping the things they don’t want you to know secret. So while both are in the limelight, the influencer has essentially become their own personal paparazzi. The paparazzi never give us the real or full story.
Q: You’ve said you encouraged improvised dialogue. Why did you feel comfortable doing that on your directorial debut?
A: I learned a lot from the directors I have worked with who have asked me to improv. I try to be a fly on the wall when directors are working on scenes I’m not in. It’s exciting, it’s unpredictable and the results are all the more satisfying. I didn’t think twice about it really.
Q: Can you talk about working with Brian Flynn, Laura Lawson Visconti, Ryland West and the rest of the crew? What was the atmosphere like during this road trip shoot?
A: We filmed Westfalia in four days. The cast and crew piled into Paul Heran’s (our DP) condo in Truckee, CA for the weekend. It felt like a family. It still does. Brian Flynn and I are on an LA based improv team, Chased By Bear. Because we have been improv-ing together for years, the work we did on camera was second nature to us.
He always has my back. What he does when he is not talking is what I think is impressive – deciding to blow a fly away while listening to Emelia’s outrageousness says more than I could have ever written.
Bryce Hymans was and still is my right hand man. He is a problem solver— every movie needs Bryce. I hope never to do one with out him. Laura Lawson Visconti and Nick Visconti are naturals. This was their first short film and I threw a lot at them. Nothing they couldn’t handle.
Ryland West would sneak around set taking gorgeous shots while we were filming and sometimes his eye would influence where we would shoot next. He scouted my favorite shot in the film. The shot of Brody and Emelia on the dock surrounded by fog. He captured the tone perfectly. We all would wake up early and get to work. The days were long and finished with a big meal and great talks. I hope to get this same crew together for a reunion shoot.
I also want to mention working with my editor, Montana Loran. We went to college together and were always dreaming of doing this one day. It took longer than we thought! I messaged her the other day and asked if she would ever do this with me again— it was a lot of work editing this film. I was knocking on her door every day for over a month with coffee and bagels in hand with new cuts and ideas. She was so patient. Her response to my question was: “In a heartbeat.”
Q: The film captures some beautiful backdrops – even if our lead characters are almost completely unappreciative of it. Can you talk about working with DOP Paul Heran on this project?
A: Paul Heran has talent and it’s no secret – put a camera in his hands and he will make this beautiful world look better than you’ve ever seen it. It makes me wonder what else I am missing when I look around. He was always coming up with a shot when we didn’t know it.
A lot of the B-Roll I used in the film was Paul just filming from the back seat on the way to locations.
Q: Do you have a favourite road trip movie?
A: I get what I call the juke box jitters. I am not good at knowing my favorite anything. Probably Little Miss Sunshine. That’s got to be on everyone’s list.
Q: What do you hope couples who watch the film together leave talking about?
A: I hope couples who watch Westfalia laugh. I hope they look up more. I hope they look at each other more. And I hope they know that all they want is right in front of them.
Q: What is next for you? Are you interested in directing again?
A: I am putting my finishing touches on the feature length version of Westfalia and I have some other scripts in the works. I will definitely be directing and writing again. This was the most liberating experience of my creative life. I’m hooked.