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First Person: James Westby On How His Black Comedy “Rid of Me” Was Born Out of Pain

First Person: James Westby On How His Black Comedy "Rid of Me" Was Born Out of Pain

James Westby’s black comedy “Rid of Me” follows Meris (Katie O’Grady), a newlywed who moves to Portland with her husband. Rejected by his old high school clique, she goes into a radical personal evolution. The comedy world premiered at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival and won the Founder’s Prize for Best U.S. Fiction Film at the 2011 Traverse City Film Festival. Below writer-director Westby talks with Indiewire about making his black comedy.

[This First Person was originally published during the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival. “Rid of Me” hits select theaters this Friday, November 18 through Phase 4 Films.]

Responses courtesy of “Rid of Me” director James Westby.

Inspired by Cassavetes, raised in the Northwest…

I read “Cassavetes on Cassavetes” by Ray Carney when I was fifteen and that was just it for me. I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life…kidding!

I grew up in small towns in the Pacific Northwest and made 8mm movies with my stepbrother when I was a kid, but I was mostly into video games and skateboarding. The Shining was the first film that really made an impression on me, which I saw when I was eight, and Videodrome after that. I did not go to college but read a lot of fiction – Nathaniel West, James Agee, Flannery O’Connor, Shirley Jackson, Patricia Highsmith, J.G. Ballard.

I also worked in retail environments for about a decade. These jobs probably fueled my screenwriting more than anything; the people I came into contact with and the stories I would hear really inspired me to write the movies I write. You can learn a lot in retail! While working in video stores I watched everything – Bunuel, Tati, Mike Leigh, The Double Life of Veronique, Team America: World Police…you name it. I have been making low-budget feature films for about 18 years, first on 16mm, then DV and now HD.

Hating an ex’s friends turns into a film…

A lot of the script for “Rid of Me” came from painful memories of past relationships, really hating my ex’s friends, and also really hating how obsessive I would sometimes get about my ex’s previous relationships. Those things, combined with my own social awkwardness, helped shape a very personal story full of horribly embarrassing situations. But funny!

The whole thing kicked into a higher gear when I cast Katie O’Grady in the lead role. The character of Meris is like all of us in that she has contradictions, which Katie added to immeasurably. Meris is sweet, she’s stupid, she’s smart, she’s funny, she’s annoying, she does awful and wonderful things and never seems to know exactly how she feels about anything.

On making something like a scripted documentary…

Production-wise, “Rid of Me” was sort of approached as if we were making a documentary, only scripted and with a tripod. Then while editing, it became a little dreamier and more stylized, and now I don’t know exactly how to categorize it. It’s kind of a weird narrative home movie, but uplifting and sweet!

My previous film, “The Auteur,” was rigidly pre-planned and I drew out every shot. This was completely the opposite. I shot hundreds of hours of footage, and while the script was followed most of the time, we weren’t afraid to make things up and never quite knew what would happen each day. I loved it. Overall, I tried to make “Rid of Me” not look or feel like a regular movie. It’s kind of split into two parts. The first half is almost a horror film, as Meris is virtually unable to become part of her husband’s group of old high school friends. The second, as Meris starts to find herself, is looser, more playful and a little bit music video-like.

The challenge of editing…

For me the biggest challenge, and the most fun element, is always editing. I love to edit, and it is very much a continuation of the writing and directing. But while doing so – placing music cues, restructuring scenes, literally re-writing the script, shooting inserts in my office and cutting them in to the movie – it can be wearing on the ol’ patience (and the patience of loved ones).

Letting the movie find its way is very important. After a year of editing, I took a two-month hiatus, returned to it fresh and new, and had a ton more ideas. Knowing when a film is done is always tricky.

The “embarrassment” of indie filmmaking…

Theresa Russell has a small role in the film and every time we would cut and I’d move the camera, she’d ask if we were going to change lenses now. Being as we only had the lens that came with the camera, the Sony EX-1 (which doesn’t allow for interchangeable lenses anyway, without an adapter), I would say, “No, not just yet.” Derek (our script supervisor), Morgan (our sound recordist) and I would giggle to each other every time. After all, this is the woman who made so many films with Nicholas Roeg! Oddly, she didn’t say anything about the fact that there were no lights and only five people on the crew. I think maybe she felt sorry for us.

Up next…

The feature we’re shooting next is called “Hot in the Zipper.” It’s a screwball comedy following the bi-sexual adventures of three women in 1947 Manhattan. The whole thing is filmed in five 20-minute takes. The expression “hot in the zipper is hepcat slang for “really horny.” I’m also working on The Menage, a wife-swapping comedy, and The Basement, a horror movie about a disturbed special effects man in 1978 L.A.

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