Director and actor Riley Warmoth joins us on Close-Up Culture to discuss his debut film, West Michigan.
It tells the story of Hannah, a seventeen-year-old girl who struggles to find her place in the world. Around the time that she gives up all hope of fitting in, her grandfather falls ill. She and her brother, Charlie, drive up the coast of West Michigan in order to visit him on his deathbed. However, their journey north takes a turn after their car breaks down in rural Michigan, and Hannah’s search for meaning grows more crucial than ever.
This is your first feature length film as a writer and director. It’s incredibly ambitious and artistically brave to make an independent movie. What gave you the inspiration, or confidence, to step out of short films and make West Michigan?
I would not have been able to take that leap if it weren’t for the support of my family. I showed my sister and parents the script for West Michigan shortly after I finished my first draft, and there was no question about it. This movie had to be made. I initially wrote it with the idea of starting development in the near future—I specifically wrote scenes around the resources that I knew we had at our disposal. However, without the support of my family and friends, there is no way it could have been accomplished so soon.
The film follows a brother and sister on an emotional journey, touching on some really deep subjects along the way. Why did you want to tell this story?
Growing up in Michigan, I saw a lot of young people (many with siblings and tight-knit families) who struggled with their mental health. It’s a topic that I seldom heard discussed in Western Michigan when I was young, and I feel that by opening a conversation about mental health, I could, hopefully, inspire people who need help to seek it out.
The film focuses on a brother-sister relationship. How much of your own sibling relationship with Chloe is present in the film?
Quite a bit! I think we had great natural chemistry that helped our banter feel authentic. The circumstances of the characters differ a little from Chloe and my real-life circumstances—so, consequently, Hannah and Charlie snap a little more at each other and have to sift through some tension to communicate. This is unlike Chloe and I in real life. Though we’re both known to bicker a little, we are much better collaborators than an audience might believe Hannah and Charlie to be. We get along very well—not unlike Hannah and Charlie by the end of the movie.
You star alongside your sister, Chloe Ray Warmoth, who also produced the film. How did it feel to collaborate with Chloe? What was the dynamic like between the two of you throughout the project?
We have a very efficient and productive dynamic as collaborators and a similarly productive dynamic as siblings. Chloe is great about giving criticism in a direct, yet, uncondescending manner. We can tell each other our thoughts on a scene or a shot honestly, and no hard feelings exist. Or if they do, not for very long.
Do you have any fun or notable stories to share from your experience working with Chloe on West Michigan?
One day, Chloe had terrible stomach pains and we cancelled the rest of the day so that I could drive her to the hospital. It was pretty serious and good that we got to the hospital when we did. The doctors gave Chloe some heavy painkillers and sent us on our way. We ended up shooting another scene that night to make up for lost time, but Chloe was so high on painkillers that she has no memory of filming it. She performs brilliantly in the scene! She just cannot remember it.
I’ve known Chloe is a terrific actor for a few years now, but it was great to see her range as Hannah. What qualities do you feel Chloe brings to the character and the film more generally?
The story tracks some very personal motifs and themes that Chloe was able to catch onto immediately. Not only do we have the advantage of being from the same titular region. There is no one whose life experience is as close to my own than hers. She has an understanding of the “Michigan love letter” elements as well as the mental health aspects of the story. She responds very well to direction, but needed very little because she knows me. She knew what I was going for with the story better than anybody.
I was also impressed by your performance. Clearly there’s an acting gene in the family! How did you find the experience of playing Charlie?
I loved playing Charlie. I really do enjoy acting and Chloe was a great scene partner. The dialogue played out very naturally between us and I had a lot of fun exploring Charlie’s more subtle character arc. I think he’s a character with a lot running through his head too, even though we stay with Hannah the entire film. Finding moments and nuances to show Charlie’s journey through the performance was my favorite part of playing the role.
You wrote, acted, directed and produced the film. I imagine it completely consumed your life for some time. How did you manage and balance all these roles?
By maintaining an unrelated recreational activity at all times. During pre-production, that was skateboarding around Burbank. After a long day, I would take my skateboard up and down Magnolia Blvd and spend a few hours decompressing from all of the hats I was wearing. Nowadays, I’ve been carving little figures out of wood.
What was your biggest lesson from making your first feature?
My biggest lesson from making my first feature is that putting pressure on myself for any part of the process is counterproductive. It’s important to remember (at the end of the day) that this is only a movie. Of course, I want it to be good, I want people to connect with it. However, taking that step back and recognizing how low the stakes actually are, I have learned, is the most important action that can be taken to stay sane through the gargantuan process.
Nature is a big part of West Michigan and there are so many beautiful locations in the film. Did you have any prior connection to these settings or were you exploring them as you went along?
I actually knew almost every setting in the film from my childhood on the west coast of Michigan. The river where Charlie finds Hannah, the bluff at the film’s climax, and the opening montage are all locations that I grew up visiting and falling in love with.
I remember listening to the Spotify playlist for the film a year or so ago and loving it. Can you talk about the music choices for West Michigan?
The music choices for West Michigan were a blast. I wanted the film to live in an ethereal space. I wanted the music to feel meditative, as the story follows Hannah’s search for meaning—and a search for meaning ultimately involves meditation in some shape or form. All of the artists are small, indie musicians, but their work is totally brilliant. If I didn’t love the song, then it wasn’t right for the movie. Then, there were also songs I loved that didn’t quite fit. But, the writing process started about the same time that I discovered Mutual Benefit. I heard his song “Advanced Falconry” on college radio in LA and fell in love with it. That song was kind of a jumping off point for me to write the script—and it’s influence carried over into the film! It’s the final song of West Michigan, closing out the film and rolling over the credits.
As well as yourself and Chloe, there are some wonderful young actors in the film. What was it like working with this young team?
Seth Lee, Berkley Bragg, and Sydney Agudong were such a joy to work with. They had great chemistry and each brought something to the table. We did a reading in Los Angeles a few months before we began shooting and they each read very well. They asked all the right questions, and executed their roles on set brilliantly. They are three very skilled young actors and I would work with each of them again in a heartbeat.
What impact do you hope West Michigan has on audiences?
I hope that it sparks a conversation about mental health in places where that conversation needs to be had. I also hope that those who struggle with depression can see the film and recognize the beauty that surrounds them (all of us!). I also hope to encourage those who need help to seek help—regardless of how they felt about the movie subjectively.
What do you think will be your lasting memory from making West Michigan?
My lasting memory from making the film will be the unbelievably fun “run and gun” style that we shot the film. We had a small crew and a lot of ground to cover, so we had to move fast. With a larger budget, the shooting style would have been dramatically different, but because we had limited resources, we had to move fast and creatively. It is a style of shooting that I will cherish and will always remember. The way I make films will likely develop and change into something new over the course of my career, so it is nice to have made a film of this size and type.