Actor and director Tara Westwood joins us on Close-Up Culture to talk about her powerful directorial debut, Triggered, and the importance of gun violence protection.
Triggered is the story of a US Senator who faces her greatest challenge when a home invasion takes a shocking turn. You can see Triggered as part of the Tribeca Film Festival – Triggered | 2022 Tribeca Festival | Tribeca (tribecafilm.com)
You are well-known for your terrific work as an actor (The Grudge, Hudson Falls and the upcoming Gerard Butler film The Plane), but now you’ve decided to get behind the camera as well. What led you to get into directing?
Years ago a friend of mine suggested that I get into production, noting that being behind the camera could actually allow me to play parts that I might not be usually considered for, since I’d be one of the people in charge of casting. Sometimes as actors we complain that we are not given the opportunities that we want; I think we have to take the initiative to change that for ourselves.
I started producing in 2016 with a feature film called Detours that I also starred in. Then in 2021 I produced a pilot called Hudson Falls that I played opposite Richard Kind in. Then yes, I made my directorial debut with Triggered because it was a story that I was very passionate about. At first I knew I wanted to produce and star in it. I had a very clear vision for the project, and knew that I wanted Isiah Whitlock Jr., Caitlin Mehner and Robert Burke in the cast as well as Edd Lukas to be our cinematographer, Galia Moors to be our editor and the incredible Newton Brothers to compose our music.
As I was trying to figure out who I should ask to direct it, I met with my Co-Producer Marie Therese Guirgis. She listened to my pitch over lunch one day and after specifically outlining everyone I wanted involved in the film and mentioning that I even knew where I wanted to shoot it, she said, “You know you have to direct this right? You already are.”
Can you tell us about the story and the inspiration behind it?
Triggered (written by Thomas C.Dunn), was a one act play I did here in NYC. I say that it’s about ‘A US Senator faces her greatest challenge when a home invasion takes a shocking turn.’, but it also is a deeply moving story about people who have lost loved ones to gun violence and the ramifications and real world consequences that inaction can have in people’s everyday lives. I grew up in Canada on a farm and pretty much everyone I knew had a gun, but we don’t have the gun violence there as the US does. It has always been bewildering to me and a subject matter that I wanted to try to understand and address.
A few days ago in Texas, an 18-year-old young man walked into a school and killed 19 elementary students and their teacher. He wasn’t old enough to buy a beer, but he was legally allowed to buy an AR-15. After school mass shootings there are some politicians that say “Now is not the time to politicize this”, but if not now, then when? I want as many people as possible to see Triggered for just that reason.
You’ve said that you hope Triggered will galvanise the national conversation on gun violence prevention. Can you talk more about this subject, and how you hope this film will spark meaningful conversations around it?
There is more gun violence in America than any other country and because of that unfortunately people have become numb. I recently mentioned to someone the 2018 Santa Fe High School shooting where 8 students and 2 teachers were killed and they said to me: “I don’t think I ever heard about that one, I definitely don’t remember it” and I’m sure it is a mixture of how many mass shootings there are in this country that makes people incapable of remembering the facts of any specific one, but I also think that it’s too much emotionally for some people to deal with, so they don’t spend much time reading about it or watching the news anymore when it’s on. Seeing a real parent who has lost their child to gun violence discuss their devastating loss, is perhaps something everyone should have to watch, but it’s understandable if some people don’t want to.
The reality is though, I fear that if we as a country can’t come together and have empathy for the families who have lost loved ones, nothing will change. So perhaps if someone can watch Triggered, feel detached enough because they can subconsciously tell themselves ‘it’s just a movie’ and allow themselves to experience it and feel empathy for the two people in the film who have lost family members to gun violence, then maybe once it’s done, a conversation can be had.
At one point I was going to end the movie with a pixilated map of the United States that would start to show where every mass shooting in the past year had been and I quickly decided to not do that because if there is a gun owner in the audience who has felt something for those characters and I throw in their face the horrific realities, they will likely become defensive. They don’t want to lose their Second Amendment rights and that is not what my goal with Triggered is.
I hope that people can watch it and never want another person to have to go through the trauma of what Isiah Whitlock Jr. and Caitlin Mehner’s characters have gone through. I hope that the conversation can be had about simple changes that sadly will not save every life, but will save many. I am an actor and a director, so I won’t even begin to pretend that I have the solutions, however I feel that things like better background checks, National Red Flag Laws and raising the age of when anyone can buy a gun to 21 years old, will make a difference. Then yes, obviously we need to also address mental illness, but we cannot blame solely that.
This is an amazing cast and crew. Can you tell us about working with this team?
I felt so blessed that everyone said yes! My cast, Isiah Whitlock Jr, Caitlin Mehner and Robert Burke are all so incredible. I’d worked with Bobby and Caitlin before and will forever hope to again because they’re so talented. Isiah is a dear friend who has the biggest soul of anyone you’ll ever meet, plus he’s such a great actor and I knew he had to play the part of Ohio because of it those two things. Since I was going to be starring in it and directing, and the fact that it’s such an emotionally driven piece, I had promised them that I would not have a stand in and be behind the camera for their coverage.
That said, it required a lot of conversations before filming and my stopping in the middle of a scene to give a bit of direction and then continue on. I had also known from the very beginning that I literally couldn’t make this film without our cinematographer Edd Lukas and he came to New York so that we could spend many days ahead of time going over everything which was priceless. The fact that John Leguizamo came on as our executive producer (because he cares very much about the subject matter), was incredibly helpful. Our entire crew were such hard workers and were so inspiring. Nick Goldfarb and Elias Plagianos produced it with me and are amazing filmmakers to have in your corner.
Right before Triggered, I had acted in a short film and worked with Mariah Bergeron, who ended up coming on as our production manager. I saw the many hats that she was capable of wearing and how hard she works and that’s the mentality you need when you’re making independent films. Over my character’s shoulder in the film, there is an American flag painting and it’s the perfect flag specifically because it looks a little sad, and defeated. That was given to me by the wonderful painter John Alexander to use and I again was blown away by how generous and passionate everyone involved was. I have learned so much throughout this whole experience and surrounding myself with people who are at the top of their field was the smartest choice I made as a first time director. Right down to our poster (by Percival & Associates), which I think perfectly encompasses the message of the film.
What are your hopes for Triggered at Tribeca Film Festival and beyond?
I am so incredibly honored to be a part of Tribeca Film Festival! Only days after we got the wonderful news from Sharon Badal that we would be screening at Tribeca, there was a mass shooting in a Brooklyn subway. So my hopes for Triggered is everything that I’ve answered already as far as getting it seen as much as possible so we can hopefully open people’s hearts and get the conversation about gun violence prevention happening. For everyone involved, I also obviously hope that work begets work, because every single cast and crew member was amazing and any production would be lucky to have them.
What type of stories would you love to tell in the future?
I had someone ask me what I wanted to direct next and when I said it was a feature about assisted suicide (which is another topic I think is very important), they wisely told me that that will not be easy to raise funds for. I have been reading different scripts to try to find the right project to make my first feature as a Director with. I recently read a rom-com that I absolutely loved and yes that is about as opposite as you can get from what I initially said I wanted to do, but for me it’s all about a character driven story that’s impeccably written, like Triggered was. Those are the films I’m interested in directing.
What are your hopes and ambitions for the future?
I am beyond lucky that I have people in my life that I love so much, so my hopes include them all staying healthy and creating as many memories as we can together. That said, I love my work! Acting is still my priority and I hope to do that as much a possible, but as soon as I can direct as well, I’ll be exactly where I want to be. Another goal is to become a better surfer! Thank you for this interview, it’s been so much fun.
See Triggered at the Tribeca Film Festival – Triggered | 2022 Tribeca Festival | Tribeca (tribecafilm.com)
Keep up with Tara’s work – https://www.tarawestwood.com/
Follow Tara on Instagram – Tara Westwood (@tara_westwood) • Instagram photos and videos