Trends and Enemies: The Obsessions of Matt Spicer’s “Ingrid Goes West”

The director of the Aubrey Plaza–led Internet thriller talks Instagram, mental health, and Los Angeles.

It takes a lot of obsessing to make a movie.

Given the years it takes, the incessant hunt for resources, the armies of people needed, the countless unforeseen obstacles to either solve or throw yourself on top of, and the necessary single-minded, life-consuming fixation on the tiniest minutiae from a word choice on the page to a lamp shade on the set, you’d have to be insane—er, insanely passionate—to see even a single film through to completion, especially on an independent level.

For writer-director Matt Spicer, the subject that warranted the obsessive journey of his debut feature film was right under his nose—or more specifically, on his phone.

“My co-writer Dave Smith and I wound up on the topic of social media and Instagram. I love it, memes and all,” says Spicer. “But it has this dark side to it, and it brings a dark side out of us. When we see other people go on vacation, or hang out with cool people, it makes us feel bad about ourselves. I think Dave might have thrown out this idea: Wouldn’t it be funny if there was a Single White Female for the social media age? We sort of laughed about it, but when I left the meeting I couldn’t stop thinking it.” Spoken like a true obsessive.

Single White Female is, of course, one of the jewels in the crown of the erotic-thriller boom of the mid ’80s through the early ’90s, in which Jennifer Jason Leigh plays an imbalanced woman who becomes so infatuated with her roommate that she kills to maintain closeness to her. The story Spicer and Smith cracked together became the pitch-black comedy Ingrid Goes West, about a lonely and delusional woman who’s a little too influenced by a glamorous Instagram influencer. Though it doesn’t go for Female’s titillating extremes (no body count here, gorehounds; only dreams get gruesome deaths in Ingrid’s LA), they had a long history of films about obsession to pull from.

“We talked a lot about The King of Comedy, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Chuck & Buckall great movies with an antihero lead who goes down this dark path and is obsessed with something or someone. We wanted to make one of those, but for our generation.” By cleverly swapping out the white male–dominated realm of late-night talk shows for the female-led landscape of lifestyle blogging, Ingrid Goes West both updates and inverts The King of Comedy, Martin Scorsese’s 1982 satire of celebrity culture. After all, thanks to 2017’s social media playgrounds, anyone can be a celebrity…perhaps even Ingrid, played with raw and startling smolder by Aubrey Plaza.

“You can sympathize with Rupert Pupkin,” Spicer elaborates, referring to the wannabe Robert De Niro portrays in Comedy,even though you know he’s a flawed person and you don’t agree with his method. And that’s what we were aiming for with Ingrid, too. Obviously we’re not condoning anything she does in the film, but hopefully you understand by the end of the film why she’s doing this, why she has this hole inside of herself she feels like she needs to fill with ‘likes.’ With understanding and empathy comes the overlap between you and the main character.”

“Hopefully you understand by the end of the film why she’s doing this, why she has this hole inside of herself she feels like she needs to fill with ‘likes.’”

Ingrid spontaneously moves to Los Angeles to invade the life of the person behind her favorite Instagram account, Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen, playing with a forced, false namasté facade familiar to anyone who’s even passed through Los Angeles). There, she finds an unlikely ally: her landlord Dan (O’Shea Jackson Jr., effortlessly stealing the show), an aspiring screenwriter whose obsession with Batman becomes the best running joke of the film and mirrors more of Spicer’s cultural fixations. “Yeah, getting that shot of the Batman Forever soundtrack was a big deal,” he laughs. “It’s a great, underrated soundtrack! And it was such an important movie for me. I think I had my first kiss during Batman Forever.” It’s a telling admission, considering the Batman-themed sex scene midway through Ingrid; obsession is a love language in which these characters are masterfully fluent.

After Spicer and Smith spent many months hashing out drafts of Ingrid, Spicer’s agent sent the script to Plaza, who responded with instant favor fitting for a story about online culture. With Plaza attached as both the lead and a producer, Spicer launched into following his vision through, down to every obsessive detail. “The challenge in trying to do something about technology today is it’s always shifting under your feet,” he says. “But while we were shooting I made a big deal out of actually using Instagram, down to building real profiles for all the characters. I hate when I’m watching a movie and they’re very clearly using Instagram but it’s some fake thing they made up. We all know what it’s supposed to be! That was a big victory—I fought really hard for that. And if we were at a studio, that would cause too many issues on the corporate level. But to do it independently gave us a lot more freedom. We had a little bit of that rebel spirit—‘Screw the system, man! We’re gonna do Instagram, and we’re gonna do Batman!’”

Spicer, like his antihero, originally comes from Pennsylvania, “so I always sort of had an outsider’s perspective on Los Angeles,” he says. “But I’ve also lived here now for almost fifteen years, so it is my home, and I love it. Part of me wanted to preserve that feeling from when I first moved here, how intimidating and scary and strange it felt, but also that feeling of infinite possibility. It’s this place where everybody comes from all over the world and try to become the person they always wanted to be. I do think there’s a dark side to LA, and there can be a desperation to it as well that I didn’t want to ignore. But it’s also beautiful. Everyone who lives in LA should be able to laugh at themselves too. You can have it both ways.”

Elizabeth Olsen and Aubrey Plaza in Ingrid Goes West / image courtesy of Neon

As Ingrid’s cash runs low, her compulsions run rampant, and her plan to become Taylor’s BFF runs afoul of real life, Ingrid Goes West also becomes a worthy addition to the canon of films about Los Angeles’s peculiarities. Ingrid and company explore the gentrified geography of East LA, from the brunchlands of Echo Park to the oft-Insta-filtered wastelands of Joshua Tree, always with a tongue-in-cheek observation about the artifice that flows throughout these deserts.

Ingrid presents LA as paradise and asylum, depicting social media as both aspirational and delusional, a force that can improve or destroy your life—sometimes both in a single day. Considering the odds you’re reading this on your phone, there’s a good chance you’ll find the film’s satire hits close enough to home to set off phantom vibrations in your pocket. Early scenes show Ingrid filling the void created by her mother’s death, her lack of social life, and her own failing mental health by scrolling through Instagram’s endless feed for days at a time, falling asleep with her phone in her hand.

Anyone who agonizes over their emoji options as much as their job applications can see themselves reflected in the screens throughout; though Spicer loves social media, he finds relatable moments where “checking in” goes unchecked and draws potent parallels between the infinity of the Internet and self-imposed purgatory. The hashtag within the film, “#IAmIngrid,” takes on poignant meanings as the story descends into disturbance: It’s at once a territorial flag in the sand, a cry for help, and a resigned concession that we’re all in a grid, whether we “like” it or not.  FL

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