This Q&A includes spoilers for Ingrid Goes West.
Ingrid Goes West, out Friday, is a savage satire of the Instagram generation, starring Aubrey Plaza as a disturbed young woman who can’t stop scrolling. Plaza’s Ingrid has just lost her mother, maced a friend in the middle of a wedding, and been released from a mental institution, in short order, and she finds solace (who among us has not?) in the Valencia-filtered snapshots of total strangers. When she stumbles upon the profile of Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), a beautiful, California-based “influencer” whose feed overflows with avocado toasts and #blessings, Ingrid stuffs her $60,000 inheritance into a checkered backpack and moves to Venice Beach to both imitate and infiltrate Taylor’s life (#SingleWhiteFemaleVibes).
Ostensibly a dark comedy, Ingrid Goes West can be difficult to watch for its painfully recognizable parody of social-media striving and the lies we tell ourselves and our Instagram followers. That excruciating accuracy landed director Matt Spicer and co-writer David Branson Smith the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at last year’s Sundance, a feat even more impressive considering Ingrid marks the debut feature for both. We caught up with Spicer and Smith at a New York City Vulture Insiders’ screening of Ingrid Goes West to talk about Plaza’s deranged performance, the cast’s various crushes on one another, and, of course, that Catwoman sex scene.
Where did the germ of this idea come from? Are Ingrid and Taylor based on real people you know?
Matt Spicer: We didn’t base it on anyone in particular. Dave and I were having lunch one day in L.A., just talking about our own experiences with social media, Instagram in particular. We love it, but it draws out our dark side, too, and makes us feel like we’re not cool enough, or we’re not going on enough cool vacations, or we’re not dressed cool, or whatever. It just brings up these feelings of insecurity. I think it maybe started as, “Wouldn’t it be funny/cool to do Single White Female or a Talented Mr. Ripley, but with social media?” And it sort of grew into something different.
How did you get Aubrey Plaza and Elizabeth Olsen for your first feature?
MS: I honestly wish I knew. I wish I had a better answer. But we just kind of treated it like any other script that we had written, and had just sent it to our agents. A few days after we sent it in, we heard Aubrey had read it and wanted to meet. I knew her socially — she and my girlfriend know each other a little bit — so there was a little bit of familiarity in there, but it wasn’t like we wrote it for her and sent it to her. We just sort of went through the normal channels and it just sort of happened to work out that way.
So, you stalked her?
MS: [Laughs.] A little bit. I was playing the long game.
Aubrey really commits to this part. We’re used to her playing “weird,” but I feel like she’s particularly off the wall here. How much of that intensity did you coach out of her, and how much did she just bring to the table?
MS: Our first meeting, we talked about — we were totally on the same page about this — she said, “I don’t want to treat this as a comedy, necessarily.” She said, “I think it’s funny on the page, but I think we need to approach it almost like we’re shooting a drama.” Those were the right instincts, and I was happy to hear that, because that was my only nervousness going into it — I was like, I don’t want this to turn into a broad, silly comedy, even though there are moments of comedy. Even just the way we wanted to shoot it, the lenses we wanted to use, we were always approaching it and shooting it like a dramatic film.
[Aubrey] really threw herself into it in a way that I didn’t know was possible. She’s pretty much in every scene of the film, so for an indie film, it’s really demanding. She would be running off to hair and makeup, changing clothes, and then running right back to set, so they were long, 14-hour, 15-hour days and she was just in every scene doing something. It was a marathon.
She’s also an executive producer. Ingrid has this really specific way of dressing, of speaking — how much of that specific character development came directly from her? Was any of it improvised?
MS: Well, I give her a lot of credit. We wrote the lines and the character, but what was great about her was that she really embodied it. She’s really good at improv, that’s sort of her background; she went to UCB. So every take would be different in some way — she would always find some little moment of comedy, even if it was just a look or something that wasn’t necessarily [in the script]. Once we got to the editing room, there would be different takes where she would play a little angrier or a little sadder or a little scarier, and we could shape her performance the way I felt we needed to.
The most fascinating thing to me about Elizabeth Olsen’s character is that it’s not really played as over the top. We all know people like Taylor. Obviously you’re spoofing L.A. culture, to an extent —
MS: Our intention here is not to satirize just to be mean, it was to kind of celebrate this culture of avocado toast, and whatever else we’re doing here in 2017 in Los Angeles. But her character is real to us, and we didn’t want to knock her down. We just wanted to embrace that hyperbolic nature of her, like [in the scene between Taylor and Ingrid] at the gas station, which is like, “You’re the best, you’re amazing, you’re the greatest person I’ve ever met.” That’s the lingua franca of all of our friends, so [the question was] what’s that, but applied to someone like Ingrid?
David Branson Smith: Who takes everything literally, at face value.
MS: I think we’re satirizing ourselves too, a little bit. I definitely lived in Los Feliz, which is Silver Lake adjacent. You lived in Venice.
DBS: Right before the movie came out.
MS: People [are going to be] showing up at your house with pitchforks.
I’m curious how you make a character like Ingrid sympathetic. Because the audience does ultimately care about what happens to her, even though she’s doing these really awful things.
MS: Yeah, it was a challenge. Aubrey gets a lot of credit for that, too, because she just has a vulnerability to her that just makes you feel bad for her — and understand that, even though her intentions aren’t bad, she’s doing really bad things and it’s coming from a place of serious pain and loneliness. But that’s why Nicky [Taylor’s out-of-control brother, played by Billy Magnussen] had to be kind of a beast. She’s this imposter and he spotted her. But we still want the audience to side with her, so he has to be even worse than she is, in a way. That’s where a lot of his stuff came from. We were like, “He has to be the Joker — this person who is complete chaos and almost pure evil, so the audience doesn’t want to side with him and want him to expose her.”
Let’s talk about the most important scene in the film, the Catwoman sex scene. I want to know everything. Where did that idea come from? Was it all written, or was any of it improvised?
MS: [Laughs.] The dialogue was always the same. Aubrey came to me in preproduction and said, “I want to be wearing a mask. A Catwoman mask.” The claws were a last-minute addition, I think our costume designer Natalie O’Brien had some claws laying around. But it was a weird scene to shoot. It’s really awkward to shoot sex scenes — it’s a bunch of people crammed in this little, hot room. It was just weird. But Aubrey’s not afraid to let it all hang out and do crazy stuff for laughs. O’Shea [Jackson Jr., who plays Ingrid’s landlord and love interest, Dan Pinto] had a good time [laughs]. They weren’t supposed to kiss in the date scene as written, but they had amazing chemistry and I think they had crushes with each other, in a weird way. So I was just like, “You should just kiss on this next take.” O’Shea really liked that. He gave me props for that.
What are O’Shea’s actual feelings towards Batman?
DBS: Funny story. Casting him was Aubrey’s idea — we were racking our brains to think of somebody who could play this part, because it’s this larger-than-life part and we needed somebody that felt surprising and interesting and unique. Aubrey said, “Well, I just hung with O’Shea Jackson Jr. at this award show and he seemed really cool, what about him?” And I said, “Well, we’re never going to get him in this movie, he’s in Straight Outta Compton, it’s the biggest movie of the year.” She said, “He follows me, I’ll just DM him on Twitter.” So she DM’ed him in her Aubrey way, like, “Hey, want to do this movie with me?” And I think he was kind of intrigued, and so he was like, “Yeah.”
So a few days later, I get a text from Aubrey that’s a photo of her phone with a text from some random number, and it says, “Hey, it’s Batman.” And I’m like, “Oh my God, he wants to do it, that’s amazing.” So she went to meet with him and I think 45 minutes went by where they were just talking about other stuff, and he said something else about being Batman, and she was like, “Okay, this is the perfect segue, let’s talk about the script.” He’s like, “You never sent me the script.” It was this weird, confusing back and forth, until finally she realized that he just really loves Batman. So it’s this weird coincidence — he refers to himself as Batman [in real life]. That Arkham Asylum line [in the car scene] was completely off the cuff. I wish I could take credit for it.
MS: It was just this beautiful coincidence. And [like the character], he was studying screenwriting at USC when he got cast in Straight Outta Compton.
DBS: He kept saying we were making a biopic.
MS: Yeah, he’s like, “I love this documentary we’re making.”
Let’s talk about the ending. I think it can be read in a number of ways — she’s going back to square one, or she’s finally found her people — but what did you want the audience to take away from it?
MS: We intentionally wanted to start the film at the end of this story that you haven’t seen the beginning part of. Like in the Indiana Jones movie — he’s at the end of one adventure and then you go on another adventure, then you go on another adventure, and then maybe hint at another adventure at the end [laughs]. That’s kind of what we wanted to do. Indiana Jones had a big influence on this film.
It made the character feel more real to us, [the idea] that she had a life before the movie and a life after the movie. It wasn’t as important where she goes next, it was more about presenting her with these two options at the end of the film: She feels like she has Dan Pinto, which is somebody who gets what she needs and what she wants. She has this guy who actually cares about her and sees her for who she really is and doesn’t care that she’s messed up, and loves her anyway. Then she has all these strangers who are reaching out to her via social media, which is what she wanted the whole film. I think it’s a question of: Which is more important? This authentic guy, or these strangers who are just giving her love? That was always our intention.
Can we still use Instagram? Can we go to Joshua Tree? Can we eat avocado toast? Or is it all too embarrassing now?
MS: I hope not. Avocado toast is great and I love Joshua Tree.
DBS: I just got married in Joshua Tree.
Congratulations. Did you Instagram it?
DBS: Sure. It’s a picture of me Instagramming with my wife.
What’s the caption?
DBS: I don’t even know. “Is this real?”
MS: What was your wedding hashtag?
And you guys actually created an Instagram for Taylor, which I found and I now follow in a very meta situation.
MS: Do they update it?
I’m not sure how often, but some of it is pulled directly from the movie. Walk me through creating that — the captions are so cringe-inducing.
MS: I think my girlfriend and [David’s] now-wife would send us stuff, recommend people. We were just consuming and following so many of these “influencers.” Some of them are really great and genuinely seem great, and some of them you feel are just marketing ploys, which are usually the best ones [to satirize]. That Ralph Waldo Emerson quote — that guy was real. Pretty much all the captions were real, we stole and curated the best of the best.
The photo of the Joan Didion book really killed me.
MS: You see a lot of Joan Didion stuff. It’s funny, actually, my girlfriend just sent me a post from Kate Bosworth, who posted something on the Fourth of July and it was literally like, “Baby, you’re a firework” with an American flag emoji. We didn’t even steal it, that was this year. Just little coincidences like that.
[At this point, the panel opened up to questions from the audience.]
Audience member: I know you got a lot of help from women in your lives, but how did you find the balance between putting the spotlight on [L.A. women] without seeming like you hate [them]?
MS: I hope it doesn’t [seem that way], because we don’t hate it. We’re not from L.A., but we’ve lived there for a long time and it’s our home, so it’s sort of like the way you make fun of your family members, you know? You tease them, but you still love them. And about the female thing — we just had a lot of help from Aubrey and Lizzie and our respective significant others, and tried to look for that human Venn diagram, with that overlap that’s universal and relatable to everybody. We just wanted to be honest about our own insecurities and feelings and hope that that would be relatable to men or women.
Audience member: It sounds like you [cast] Aubrey first. When you were looking for [Taylor], did you have them do chemistry scenes together? Because they were so good together.
MS: Weirdly, no. They’re just both pros, you know? I think in real life, Aubrey had a little bit of a crush on Lizzie, so it was helpful to use that. [Elizabeth] is this kind of beautiful, ethereal, effortless person in real life. She came on set, this ramshackle set, and she’s in Marvel movies, so she walks on and it’s like, everyone buttons up and everyone starts acting more professional. She carries herself in a way where you look up to her, and I think Aubrey did too, to a certain degree.
Lizzie does a lot of dramatic films, but she doesn’t do a lot of comedy, so I think she wanted to play with Aubrey. I remember when I first met with her, I asked her, “How do you like to work and what’s your process?” and she said, right off the bat, “I really don’t like doing improv.” I was like, “Oh shit,” because Aubrey does improv every take. So I didn’t say anything, but I was like, This will be interesting. I remember the first day when we had their [first] scene, I was like, “Improv some stuff to get us into this scene,” and Lizzie kind of looked at me like, What are you doing? But Aubrey is such a generous performer that right after the first take, she was like, “Okay, this person’s not going to let me fail, she’s not going to leave me hanging, so it’s okay to put myself out on a limb here and try some stuff because I know that this person will catch me.”
Audience member: That one scene where you used [K-Ci and JoJo’s] “All My Life” was perfect. When you were writing it, did you know you had the rights to the song, or did you [imagine] other songs that could have fit in the same way?
MS: This is like an IMDb trivia — good question. Originally, it was [Seal’s] “Kiss From a Rose,” because it was on the Batman Forever soundtrack. You don’t want to know how much that song costs. It was $300,000. That was our whole music budget. I was really upset because that song was so perfect and Batman Forever is really important to the film. I was asking everybody [what to do], and my sister was like, “Well my favorite song of all time is ‘All My Life,’ and I love that song too. I listened to it and the lyrics are just so perfect, and now I can’t imagine having anything else. It’s even better than “Kiss From a Rose.”
Vulture: One more question for you guys. Who’s the most embarrassing person that you’ve Instagram-stalked?
MS: Hard to choose. So many grandmothers. I think I’ve gone up someone’s family tree. You go down those weird rabbit holes where you’re just like, “Why am I looking at my ex-girlfriend’s best friend’s cousin’s Instagrams? How did I even get here? It’s three in the morning.” And then you just go to bed.
This interview has been edited and condensed.