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‘Ingrid Goes West’: How a First-Time Filmmaker Cracked the Sundance Code

Filmmaker Matt Spicer explains how a conversation about Instagram led to the idea for "Ingrid Goes West," his debut feature film as a director.

Billy Magnussen, Aubrey Plaza, director Matt Spicer, Elizabeth Olsen, O’Shea Jackson, Jr. and Pom Klementieff

Daniel Bergeron

Warning: What you’re about to read is something of a Cinderella story.

Matt Spicer had only a couple of shorts under his belt, but when he sent his “Ingrid Goes West” screenplay to his agent, he got a call saying Aubrey Plaza wanted to play the lead — and then, Plaza was such a fan that she helped wrangle co-stars Elizabeth Olsen and O’Shea Jackson Jr. Things went so smoothly, production began just eight months after Spicer sent his agent the script.

And that’s when the trouble started.

The filmmakers lost a full day of shooting after a Santa Clarita wildfire destroyed one of their sets, while a plumbing problem at another location turned a house into a biohazard. Spicer also accidentally walked through a glass door, miraculously escaping with just a single two-inch gash on his arm.

This story has a happy ending: Neon acquired “Ingrid Goes West” for a price in the mid-seven figures on Sunday, less than 48 hours after its Sundance Film Festival premiere. And of course, things are never as simple as they appear. While this is Spicer’s first feature, he and Max Winkler wrote a Blacklist script, “The Ornate Anatomy of Living Things.” (That’s what got him an agent.) He’s also producing Winkler’s new film, “Flower,” starring Zoey Deutch and Kathryn Hahn.

READ MORE: Michael Showalter’s Second Act: How the ‘The Big Sick’ Filmmaker Reinvented His Career — Sundance 2017

For his own debut, Spicer wanted to explore the world of social media obsessives. “Ingrid Goes West” is a dark dramatic comedy that follows Ingrid (Plaza), a troubled young woman who becomes obsessed with the Instagram account of a social media influencer named Taylor (Olsen). Ingrid moves across the country and manages to befriend Taylor, before subjecting to her to some disturbing and even dangerous behavior. The film also stars Wyatt Russell and Billy Magnussen.

Matt Spicer

Matt Spicer

Shutterstock

Spicer and co-writer David Branson Smith came up with the idea for the movie after sharing stories about people imitating and mimicking the style of individuals they follow on Instagram.

“It led to a larger conversation about Instagram and the effect it has had on our culture,” said Spicer. “I was really excited to write something current about what’s happening right now and being able to work through my feelings about it.”

Ingrid Goes West

“Ingrid Goes West”

Courtesy of Sundance

Rather than tell the story of the person being stalked, however, Spicer and Smith chose to write from the perspective of the stalker. “That’s honestly the perspective that I relate to most in terms of social media,” Spicer said. “We all have a little voyeurism in us, and the film sort of asks the question, ‘What if you take it too far?'”

The film also explores the larger topic of how so much socializing revolves around digital platforms. “It’s Ingrid’s way of interacting with the world, building a community and building friendships, but it’s made of nothing,” said Smith. “She’s the manifestation of our worst impulses on social media.”

Elizabeth Olsen and Aubrey Plaza

Elizabeth Olsen and Aubrey Plaza

Shutterstock

While “Ingrid” grapples with a particularly timely and somewhat controversial subject, Spicer and Smith made a conscious effort to not come off as preachy. “We really wanted to avoid making a didactic kind of movie that tells people to put away their phones,” Smith said. “The notion is just that you can’t form opinions or ideas about people based on a social media platform or something you read online.”

For producer Jared Goldman, who also produced Fox Searchlight’s “Wilson” that premiered Sunday at Sundance, “Ingrid” is the kind of dark comedy that can still tap into the empathy of viewers who feel consumed by the solitary process of using social media platforms. “There’s a loneliness in there for those of us that go and do deep dives into other people’s lives that we don’t know,” Goldman said.

A producer on several films made by first-time feature directors, including John Krokidas’s “Kill Your Darlings” and Ross Katz’s “Adult Beginners,” Goldman found Spicer to be as comfortable as any first-timer about his own lack of experience.

“A lot of first-time directors can get caught up in the fear that they’re being viewed disparagingly because they don’t know everything, so they try to somehow make up for that,” Goldman said. “Matt never had any issue like that. He knew he was working with people who had made lots of other movies, so he was really open and comfortable about asking people their opinion and then making his own decision.”

READ MORE: ‘Mudbound’ Is a Major Step For Dee Rees, But Underrepresented Storytellers Remain — Sundance 2017

Spicer said his hope is that audiences will be able to connect with a character like Ingrid, even if some of her behavior is disturbing. “Hopefully they’ll feel what Ingrid is feeling through the whole film,” he said, “and by the end of the movie they’re surprised by how much they care about these characters.”

“Ingrid Goes West” premiered in U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

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