In this week’s Staff Pick Premiere, “West by God,” Vimeo Best of the Year recipient Scott Lazer details an intimate power struggle — aka a first date — between Dane, a low-level drug dealer, and Nelly, a seemingly disaffected high schooler.
After locking eyes at the local water park, the two meet up for a date at the local Dairy Queen. Dane, who’s used to being in charge, pays for the meal, dictates where they go, what they do, and what they listen to. While Dane might have started out in charge, Nelly’s presence and the brilliant use of a 2000’s rap anthem create a vulnerability in Dane that starts to break his machismo armor. Lazer brings this small town tale to life through a keen attention to detail via setting, situations and characters.
The specificity of the film is essential to create and then break both the strong male and submissive female archetypes “West by God” explores. The two actors, Kyle Riggs and Aphrodite Armstrong are the stars of the show, even winning a special jury prize for Outstanding Performances at this year’s SXSW Film Festival.
Ahead of the release, we reached out to director Scott Lazer about how the film came together, challenges along the way, and what’s next.
On the film’s inspiration:
“I’d been looking to film something in West Virginia – where I was born and spent a lot of my childhood – for a long time. One of my favorite things to do there is bring friends who’ve never been and see it through their eyes for the first time, which I thought I could do through film. When writer Juli Blachowiak and I first discussed collaborating on this together, she originally set it in Hawaii – where she was born and raised, but I saw it fitting perfectly in West Virginia with specific locations in mind. I started sharing photos from there with her – some I’d taken, some from Google. This helped us shape the scenes, tailoring the story to a world I knew intimately.”
On crafting characters:
“Nelly and Dane sort of straddle the two ends of young adulthood. Nelly is eager to become an adult, and Dane laments getting there as quickly as he did. I know so many Nellys and Danes from growing up who inspired these characters, and a big part of how we brought them to life was through their wardrobe styling, which Juli and I did ourselves.”
On the actors:
“My friend Cat was finishing her MFA at University of North Carolina School of the Arts, which is about three hours from where I wanted to film in West Virginia. I asked her if she was tapped into the acting program at the school, which I know is a prestigious conservatory. Cat has always had a great eye for performance, and when I sent her the script, she replied that she ‘knew’ Nelly, one of our leads. ‘I’ll get a tape from her,’ she said.
A couple weeks later, she sent Aphrodite’s audition, which absolutely floored me. Michael (Fiona) also came from UNCSA, and Kyle (Dane) is an actor Cat knew from the North Carolina acting community. I felt so fortunate to get to work with these incredible actors, and I was thrilled for Aphrodite and Kyle to win a Special Jury Recognition for Outstanding Performances at SXSW earlier this year.”
On casting Aphrodite:
“I didn’t know she was trans when she auditioned. I just knew she was mega talented and right for the role. But once I learned she was a proud trans woman, I did take a beat to consider the optics of me (cis white man) directing her. Aphrodite and I spoke about it. I asked a few others about it. I did some research, and I found an article that quoted a trans actor named Harrison Knights who said “It is not until [trans actors] are being cast in major cis roles because we are the best actors for the role, rather than because we tick a box, that we will have truly arrived.”
Cis actors have played trans characters since forever, why is the opposite so rarely the case? I obviously ultimately decided to cast Aphrodite, which was not only the right creative decision, but helped give the film some purpose. As she put it to me after we filmed, just the presence of her body rendered something unique for the character.”
On writing and performing the final line, “I know.”
“There’s a power dynamic between Nelly and Dane, which is the central tension of the film. They go where he wants, he’s paying, he’s in control. But when he reveals a vulnerable side of himself to Nelly that she didn’t expect, she realizes the power she wields in being a sympathetic ear to him – something she could potentially even exploit. With that last line, she affirms that shift between them. It’s happened, and they’re both aware.”
What is your best piece of advice to aspiring filmmakers?
“Even if you don’t intend to be an editor, learn how to edit, so you can communicate with editors. Editing is where a film comes together or falls apart, so it’s an essential part of the process to understand thoroughly.”
On playing a song for someone you care about:
“Early in my relationship with my girlfriend, I played her a Melody Gardot song called ‘Our Love is Easy’ which I thought summed up how I felt about our budding romance. We were so compatible, I thought, that being together felt effortless ‘like water rushing over stone,’ as Gardot sings. The song didn’t go over how I hoped. ‘Easy?’ she asked me incredulously. ‘So if things get difficult, are you gonna lose interest?’ I didn’t lose interest. And it’s still easy.”
What’s next? Any upcoming projects?
“We’re not done exploring ‘West by God.’ I think we still have a lot more to uncover in that world. Other than that, I have a couple other shorts I’m making in addition to the commission work I do in advertising and music.”