Award-winning filmmaker Wash Westmoreland, whose credits include Quinceanera, Still Alice and Colette, talksto Star of Tomorrow and fellow director Leanne Welham about the necessity of trusting your gut instincts
Leanne Welham: You’re from Leeds and you still have the accent. What has been your journey from Leeds to Los Angeles?
Wash Westmoreland: When I was a kid I started making Super-8 films with my dad’s home-moviecamera, but I never thought of it as something I could do as a career. After university, I went to America to travel around and ended up in New Orleans living with these really interesting characters.
I made a short film about them, then went to Los Angeles and started knocking on doors. Then I met someone who became my creative and life partner, Richard Glatzer, and we started writing scripts together.
LW: You have a pretty eclectic IMDb page.
WW: I do!
LW: How did you approach working in adult cinema? Did you see it as a way to develop your skills?
WW: Exactly that. When I arrived in LA with no film-school experience, who else was going to pay me to have a camera in my hand? I could practise all my filmmaking skills — writing, shooting, editing, directing, the works. I put a lot of effort into them and they led to me making my first independent film, The Fluffer.
LW: How did you and Richard approach co-directing?
WW: When we were writing we could be very honest about what the other person was producing and have our arguments there, thrashing it out in private. By the time the script was ready, we would have quite a good idea of the direction of a scene, the motivations of a character. We could see a larger version of the film than if we had been working individually.
LW: How did you find working with each other all day and then going home together?
WW: It’s funny because the times we got on best in our relationship, the golden times, were when we were in production. We were just so excited about everything, and so involved in every minute detail together. There is so much to process when you’ve had a day on the set that to have someone who is equally invested, who will be there with you, is a fantastic thing.
Some people find that relationship with a producer or a DoP; for us it was with each other. I miss Richard a great deal. He passed away two-and-a-half years ago, but he’s still there in my mind. When I direct now, I’m still co-directing.
LW: I was going to ask you how it was to be directing alone now, after co-directing with Richard for so many years.
WW: He always said, “I want you to keep making films.” Everything I learnt from him in all the years we worked together, I can now put into effect. It’s particularly worked out with Colette, which Richard wrote in 2001. After Still Alice won the Academy Award [best actress for Julianne Moore], we knew we would get a springboard into something bigger. I said, “What do you want to do?”, because we had a pile of scripts.
He was typing at that point with his toe, using an iPad. He typed “C-O-L-E-T-T-E”. I feel him a lot when I’m directing, because I am so familiar with his opinions. I even have arguments with him (laughs).
LW: Let’s rewind a little. You won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance with Quinceanera in 2006. How did that impact your career?
WW: It opened up opportunities to get other projects we had into more of a financed position. But around the time we were going to make our second film, in 2007, the financial crisis hit. So much money drained out of indie film that we struggled for seven years. It’s a good job there were two of us so we could keep each other going, both emotionally and financially. So we received some advancement from Sundance but not the golden ticket people imagine.
LW: I don’t know if that’s encouraging or not!
WW: It’s a funny business. Opportunities vary according to external factors, over which you have no control. At the same time, you can prepare yourself in a way that maximises your chances at any moment.
LW: My first feature was a micro-budget movie [Pili] shot in Tanzania with non-actors. My second, The Warning, is going to be a much bigger project, a thriller set during the Blitz. How did you navigate that step up?
WW: It’s the same elements that are going to make any film work. Is the story engaging? Are the characters interesting to an audience? Are the deeper themes coming through and connecting to the main narrative? It’s still about communicating an idea, about making the decisions on how you’re going to convey, with the -camera and actors, the crucial aspects of the story.
LW: Are you writing any new material?
WW: I love writing. It’s my favourite part. I’m in post-production on Colette right now in London, and I always catch the number 38 bus. I get the front seat right from Hackney Central and I write for an hour on the bus every morning.
LW: Maybe I should start getting the bus instead of cycling! I really enjoy writing but it’s slow for me. I agonise over every sentence.
WW Maybe find a co-writer? With Richard and me, one of us would go away and write something for a few hours, and it didn’t need to have every full stop in the right place because we could take it to each other to get very rough feedback. When I was developing Colette, in the last year I worked with Rebecca Lenkiewicz and we had a very open and honest relationship of feedback about each other’s pages.
LW: There were so many practical problems when I made my film in Tanzania. There were noises everywhere — cars, chickens, drunk men across the road who we had to pay to get drunk somewhere else. Working in Swahili, too. Perversely, I quite enjoyed the problems. If you can still pull it off even under pressure, there’s something quite addictive about it.
WW: When you’re making a super-low-budget film, you kind of repurpose all those problems into the film itself. Like, “This is a real rooster crowing — not a sound effect.” It just adds something to the texture. It’s real and people can feel it. That’s what we had on Quinceanera and I’m sure you have in Pili.
LW: Do you find yourself working on instinct a lot?
WW: You have to. You can plan and plan and plan and plan but it’s so important to see what’s happening in front of the camera, because often they are following your scheme but it’s not the thing you wanted. Then you have to reimagine it on the spot. That’s being an artist, going on gut instinct. Your last resource is your own creativity, and you have to go into the ping-pong room of your own brain to find out what the answer is.