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The director of Ingrid Goes West on taking inspiration from Instagram influencers and The Talented Mr. Ripley

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‘How do we define class and how do we define fame? It seems so fragmented now’

Photo: Neon

Matt Spicer’s new film Ingrid Goes West is the warmest, most interesting movie I’ve ever seen about a cellphone.

Aubrey Plaza stars as Ingrid, an unmoored young woman left with no friends or close family after her mother’s slow, painful death. She’s made a habit of turning to her phone for companionship and guidance. With a pile of life insurance money waiting to be spent, she decides the best way to find herself is to make the same dramatic life decision as generations of young Americans, and head west. The Gen-Y twist is that her manifest destiny isn’t just the beaches and palm trees. She’s desperate to form a friendship with her favorite Instagram influencer (Elizabeth Olsen), who she initially bewitches by stealing her dog, then “finding” and returning it.

(As if to emphasize just how eerily accurate the film is, Olsen recently gave an interview in which she said she joined Instagram just to capitalize on the “opportunity” for sponsored content and brand ambassadorship.)

It would have been all too easy for this movie to turn into a cheap parody of social media culture, and an unfair, unsympathetic portrait of a young woman with material obsessions and no moral code. But Ingrid Goes West evades that fate with on-the-nose detail (Joan Didion quotes, Edward Sharpe-inspired nuptials, “girl crushes,” fluttering-heart emoji, poached eggs) and a complicated antiheroine that puts Plaza at the top of her game. Plus, her charming, constantly vaping love interest (played by Straight Outta Compton’s O’Shea Jackson Jr.) is irrationally invested in Batman, giving the film space to lampoon boys’ pop culture obsessions right alongside its centralized, stereotypically feminine subject matter.

The film even dares to ask, and makes a few satisfying attempts to answer, the question of what we want and need from social media. Though Instagram feeds and iMessages appear on the screen often, and the story is a dark, down-the-rabbit-hole psychological thriller, it’s easy to feel a warmth and solidarity with Ingrid, and to find her longing for connection familiar and relatable.

Recently, I spoke to director and co-writer Matt Spicer about why and how he decided to tackle the tricky questions at the heart of Ingrid Goes West.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

How did you decide to make a movie about Instagram influencers?

It came out of a regular lunch between me and Dave [Branson Smith], the co-writer. We’d been friends for a while and we were just shooting the breeze and talking about Instagram. We both love it, but it had us feeling shit about ourselves sometimes. Feeling like we’re not cool enough, or not going on enough vacations. It can bring out the dark side of you, if you’re not careful.

I think it was Dave who said, “Well, wouldn’t it be funny if there was kind of a Talented Mr. Ripley or Single White Female with social media?” We kind of laughed about it, but then I couldn’t stop thinking about it over the next couple of days. I called him and I was like, “You know, I think we should do something like this.” We started brainstorming from there, and outlining.

Did you do any research? How did you decide which type of Instagram influencer this movie was going to be about?

My girlfriend and [Dave’s] wife are super active on social media because of their jobs, so I tangentially have a lot of exposure to that stuff, and so did he. We told them the idea and they were really helpful through the whole process — reading drafts and giving us guidance and notes and turning us on to specific people they thought would be funny references. When we initially settled in on doing something like this, I think, a) we’ve all already seen The Talented Mr. Ripley, and b) because the culture of Instagram and of society in general is different for women than it is for men, it made more sense if they were both women. Once we settled on that, we started thinking, “Okay, who are these women who make a living by putting their lives online, and going on vacation and wearing cool clothes?”

There are so many of them out there, and we went down a real rabbit hole with all these different Instagrammers. We were looking at what kind of stuff they post, what kind of captions they write, what emoji they use, how they talk. It was fascinating from an anthropological standpoint.

How did you discuss how you were going to physically present Instagram on-screen?

It was really important to me that we use Instagram and not create a fake “Pictogram” or something. I hate when I see something on TV and it’s clearly supposed to be Facebook or Instagram, but it’s not. We talked to our lawyers, and they advised us on what we could or couldn’t do. It’s a harder road to go down, and a more annoying one. For example, Instagram totally changed their interface while we were shooting. We shot all these insert shots of the phone with a certain interface, and then they didn’t match anymore. That was really frustrating. We had to fix some stuff in post-[production].

I just thought it made the film feel so much more real and relevant, by having it be Instagram and not some made-up thing. Familiarity with that app is such a part of our daily lives, I think for most people, as soon as you change it, it doesn’t feel right. Something feels off about it.

“Going west is a timeless symbol of personal reinvention in American literature and film. Is that related to her urge to model her life after an Instagram influencer’s?

I’m not from LA. I’m from Pennsylvania, and I came out to LA to be a filmmaker when I was younger. For me, California and LA have always been where you go to realize your dreams and be the version of yourself you’ve always wanted to be. Obviously the reality of that is much more nuanced, and it’s not all bad, but it’s not all great, either. It’s challenging to navigate that and still maintain a shred of your own personality and self in a place where it’s really easy to get lost.

That definitely applies to her situation. This idea of building your personal brand and your image is so ingrained in the culture [of LA]. It just made sense that it was LA and not like, Austin, which is a cool city, but the social commentary isn’t quite as sharp. Even New York is not quite the same as LA in that regard.

Do you consider Ingrid an antihero or a true protagonist? There were times when I wasn’t sure whether the movie was sympathetic to her.

The films that inspired us were, again, The Talented Mr. Ripley, or Taxi Driver, for instance. They’re films where the main character is clearly not a role model. But they’re really interesting, complex people. There aren’t a ton of roles like that for women. It was really exciting to create a part like this that hopefully, in our wildest dreams, lives alongside those characters as a complicated… yeah, anti-hero, I guess, would be a good word for it. We’re not supposed to like everything she’s doing, and she’s definitely not a role model, but what’s interesting is the parts of her we do relate to. I think it’s interesting to have characters we can reference in order to recognize the darker parts of ourselves.

The Talented Mr. Ripley is about really obvious class striving and class barriers. Do you think that type of thing is re-created on Instagram?

Yeah, and in a way, it’s weird, because people don’t talk about class as much as they used to. Anyone can become a celebrity now. The usual pathways to fame have been broken down. Now all you need is a phone and an eye for photography, and anyone can build a brand and become famous. How do we define class, and how do we define fame? It seems so fragmented now.

In a way, it’s good. But in a way, it’s also… it can make you feel even worse about yourself. In the old days, there were celebrities and then there was everybody else. And so there wasn’t that much pressure on someone from Pittsburgh, or wherever. It was like, “I’ll go to the movies, and I’ll enjoy living that fantasy through [celebrities], and then I’ll go back to my normal life.” Now we’re all expected to live this glamorous life and put our best self online, and it’s just adding stress and anxiety to people’s lives.

With the death of Ingrid’s mother being the catalyst for the rest of the events of the film, I got the sense that what she was looking for on Instagram was mostly guidance on how to be a person. And some affection.

She references it in the film, but we talk about her mom having a drinking problem. I went to some Alcoholics Anonymous meetings while we were writing, to hear people talk about their experiences growing up in those kind of households. The one common refrain was that, for a lot of people who grew up in those environments, healthy relationships feel unhealthy, and vice versa. The way you are taught to ask for love and affection is very different than how it is for other people. Yeah, I don’t think Ingrid knows how to ask for what she needs in terms of validation or human affection, so she starts looking for it the only way she knows how: through her phone, because she’s alone. She doesn’t have anybody around her to tell her not to do something. To say, “Maybe it’s not a good idea to go all the way to California to become friends with someone you talked to on the internet one time.”

But that feels good to her. That’s definitely it. A lot of the things we do online, I think that’s the question: why are we doing this? What are we looking for here? Are we looking for validation from strangers, and why are we looking for that?

What audience do you think is going to respond most immediately and intimately to a movie like this?

I’m hoping young people go see it. They’re the ones I think are going to be most affected by social media. People say young people don’t go to the movies anymore, but I hope they make an exception in our case. I hope it provokes conversation in terms of looking at this thing they’ve probably had their whole lives, and saying, “Why do I post this, and what do I hope to get out of it?” But it’s funny, we screened it for very diverse audiences over the last six months, and older people have a really strong reaction to it as well.

Aubrey Plaza’s character is in her late 20s, which really feels like the prime age to me for this story. Teenagers have it figured out. I don’t think they’re the ones struggling with these questions.

I’m in my early 30s, and I feel like I’m in that middle generation where I remember what it was like before social media, but it’s such a part of my life now that it’s hard to remember. Then there are people like my parents, who are on Facebook, and they’re just so excited to share photos, but it’s a fun little hobby for them. It’s not their whole lives. Then there’s my sister, in the younger generation, for whom it’s just all-consuming, and they don’t even think about it. They don’t even know what it was like to not have Twitter or Instagram or instant messaging or every song available to you online whenever you want.

This movie still feels like an extreme, though. It’s almost a horror movie. It doesn’t seem like something that’s happening all the time. So that’s good.

Yeah, well, I hope it’s not happening to people.

Ingrid Goes West opens in limited release on August 11th.