We were lucky to catch the film, Walter, and talk to director Anna Mastro and lead Andrew J. West. Be sure to check out the film in theaters now and on VOD.
Usvsfilm: What was it like adapting a short film to a feature length? Were there any obvious things that you wanted to change, or things that you wanted to add on from the short film?
Anna: I didn’t see the short film. It was made long before I met these guys. When I became aware of the project, I just got the script. I didn’t end up seeing the short film until much, much, later. It was actually really great to see some of the creative choices that Andy had made with the character of Walter, and he just sort of built from there. It was a very cool process really.
Usvsfilm: Andrew, was there anything that you wanted to build on? It’s not everyday where you get a second chance to revisit a character that you portrayed early on.
Andrew: No. Definitely not. Who knows? It may never happen again. When we made the short, I didn’t expect for there to be anything more necessarily. I thought that we’d just make this cool little short film. A few people would see it. It would be something that maybe lived online or whatever. Years later Brenden Hill, the producer, and Paul developed it into a feature. They asked me to come back onboard which was amazing. It was like, yeah, absolutely. I loved the short. Because there was such a long period of time, the character definitely evolved.
The feature script is very different from the short. There are certainly some things that mirror each other, but it became a very different world, a different journey. That affected who the character was also. There were some things that I had to change a little bit. The short is it’s own thing and the film is something completely different. I think that we all tried to just … We didn’t use the short as a reference point really. We wanted the feature to be its own thing and we wanted to approach it that way. It is interesting to go back and look at the short and see how things changed and who this character became, but it wasn’t real conscious decisions which is the passage of time, I think, more than anything. Different material.
Usvsfilm: Can you get into your character on what it was like being put in shoes out of his comfort zone? That must have been fun to play!
Andrew: Yeah. Oh, my God. It was so fun to play. It’s also terrifying to play too because you’re right. This guy is always out of his element. He’s never comfortable. That was something that I thought a lot about going into it. It’s not comfortable to put yourself into a mindset where you’re always uncomfortable. It shouldn’t be. It should be uncomfortable if that’s how your character feels. The weird byproduct of that, I think, is the physicality of this character. I watch the film and sometimes I watch it and I’m thinking what the hell was I doing? I look like just a weirdo.
I think that the reason for that is because it’s like when this guy steps out of his little sanctuary of his bedroom, it’s like he’s constantly on guard. There’s always a sense of it’s almost like he doesn’t want to draw attention to himself. He’s tense all the time. That starts to manifest itself physically. A lot of those physical things weren’t really planned. It was just being in that mindset. I felt myself carrying myself that way.
What’s cool about the movie though is that you see him more tense in certain situations than others. With his mother he’s very tense. Around Kendall he’s obviously kind of a mess. What’s cool though, and it’s really in the script too, is that with Greg you see him him loosen up a little bit. Even though he’s not welcoming this presence into his life, you see a side that’s almost more comfortable in a way, kind of opening up in a certain way and communicating with Greg in a way that he would never communicate with his mother, with Kendall.
You start to see that a little bit with the psychiatrist too, with William H. Macy’s character. You see him let go a little bit of that tension that he has. It’s a different kind of tension, but it’s not that tense like I just need to not draw attention to myself and do my job. I don’t know how to talk to you. I don’t want to talk to you. It’s a different thing, which I think is cool. It was challenging. It was very hard.
Anna: Greg was really the catalyst that pushes him right out of his comfort zone, challenges him to talk to the girl, to freak him out, to change his routine, to do all these things that pull him out of this bubble he’s created. It leads him to the therapist and all these things, and to ultimately realize that he just needed to deal with losing his dad instead of creating all this other stuff to not deal with that.
Andrew: Right. Right, and how could anybody else because I am “special.” That’s Walter’s idea of himself. No one could understand this. Greg, having the nature that he has, you’re absolutely right. He’s right there. It’s like he has that access to it. At a very deep subconscious level, Walter is able to open up to him and communicate with him in a way that he couldn’t with any other person. Yeah. Absolutely.
Usvsfilm: Religion can be a touchy subject in film. I like that there’s no direct statement on being pro or anti religion. Were there any concerns that came up though during pre-production or production?
Andrew: No, because I never saw it as a religious movie. It deals with religious themes, but I never saw it that way. It doesn’t take a religious or political stance. It doesn’t tell people what to think or how to think or what to feel. It leaves it up to the audience to take what they will from it. It just uses that mythology surrounding the notions of heaven and hell as a backdrop.
Anna: It’s really imagination too. Walter thinks of movies as church. I think there’s a lot of thematic stuff like that in the movie whether it comes across or not. Just like that’s where people go to feel like they can lose themselves for a while or feel safe or be taken on an adventure. A lot of times he sees his old life with his dad as part of a movie, or who he’d like to be this girl, or other things. I think that’s his religion almost. It’s very much like not specific in terms of a religious movie, but like other things saving us or helping us or giving us hope. That’s where we were trying to go with it, or at least put out there for people.
Usvsfilm: With most films, we see big metropolitan cities. Often times when the setting isn’t, audiences don’t get to see any of the sights they normally wouldn’t be able to view. That was not the case with Walter. Can you talk about some of your locations?
Anna: Yeah. We really wanted Indianapolis, and Speedway especially, to be a character in the movie. Like this is his world. I went there and I just fell in love with it. This is the town that time forgot. It’s so pretty, and it’s like just not changed. It felt very cinematic to me. I was like, we have to come shoot here. Of course, we couldn’t because they have no tax incentive, there’s no crew there, so we shot here for seventeen days and then we went and did all the exteriors there for four days. Somehow got away with it.
Andrew: Just to touch on the background of the setting too, Brenden Hill, the producer on the film, is from Indianapolis. It was important to him, I think, to set the film in Indianapolis just as sort of like it was the hometown that he knew. I’m also from Indiana. I’m from the northern part of the state. The writer went to Indiana University. There were a lot of Indiana types. Jim Gaffigan is actually from Indiana also.
Anna: Our production designer, Michael Bricker, is based in Indiana.
Andrew: Yeah. That, coupled with what Anna was saying about it being a really cool-looking city that you don’t see on film a lot, just made it the perfect location, I think, for the film. We were lucky enough to have a few days to shoot exteriors there.
Anna: We were budget-challenged. We were not budgeted to go to Indiana. It was like a constant everyday like, no we’re going, no we’re going, no we’re going. Somehow we found a way to go. It was not easy. I would not give in. It’s such an important part of the movie, the way it looks, and the fact that it just doesn’t feel like here. It feels like Walter’s world, very Midwest and different. We used a lot of pieces of the city and weaved this route and past for him.
Usvsfilm: How did you get to Indiana?
Anna: We ended up finding an extra bit of money a couple days in. After people started to see our dailies, they decided to give us the money we needed to finish the film. I think a lot of times when you’re starting a film like this you don’t … The film doesn’t fit. I’m a first-time director. The film doesn’t fit into any sort of genre. It’s not the safe movie of horror movie to put money into or whatever. It’s just an original idea, I think, that people are scared. It doesn’t fit in a box financially for them. It was just this calling together of money constantly for like a year until we could be able to do it. Once people started to see the work we were putting out every day. We shot the cinema first here, an open cinema because we couldn’t afford to shut it down. They decided to give us the extra little bit of money we needed to go to Indiana to shoot.
Andrew: Yeah, and we did have to downsize a pretty good deal in terms of crew.
Anna: There was like ten of us. We brought a camera assistant, a DP, a wardrobe person, two actors, and-
Andrew: Sound and the rest of the crew which was pretty skeletal at that point. It felt a little guerrilla out there, but it was awesome. It worked out. We got great stuff.
Usvsfilm: Overall, what can audiences expect from the film and how do you think it will be received?
Andrew: There’s so much to like about this film. First off, I find it just a great piece of entertainment. It’s hilarious. It’s fun. On top of that, it’s got a universally relatable theme. It’s about dealing, or not dealing, with loss and grief, and what the consequences of dealing with, or not dealing with, those things can be. How human beings react to loss and grief. To have a heavier serious theme like that be laced with so much fun and entertaining humor is rare. This film has that.