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By Christopher Osterndorf · October 15, 2018
Social media. It’s a blessing or a curse for the screenwriter, depending on who you ask. On one hand, it’s an easy way to drive plot and reveal details about character. On the other, it can be a crutch and stands as yet another example of how our increased ability to communicate over-complicates stories. It’s hard to write a really good movie about social media, because it’s already in the background of so much contemporary fiction. Everything from Birdman to Love, Simon makes some kind of comment on social media or uses it as a story device.
Occasionally though, even in these social media-saturated times, a great film will come out on the subject. 2017’s Ingrid Goes West is such a film. Starring Aubrey Plaza as the titular heroine, the film follows an unstable woman who moves to California to literally follow an Instagram influencer she’s become obsessed with. Filled with great performances and a timely viewpoint, Ingrid Goes West won the prestigious Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award when it premiered at Sundance.
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The scene selected here is not only a hilarious encapsulation of the whole movie but the perfect example of what makes writers’ David Branson Smith and Matt Spicer’s award-winning script so good.
Los Angeles, California in the late 2000s is a very specific environment. LA has always had a strange character unto itself, but with the rise of the social media superstar, it sometimes feels as if all the rules have changed. Almost a cross between Single White Female and The King of Comedy, Ingrid Goes West updates the stalker/obsessed fan character for the Instagram generation. In the former film, Robert De Niro Rupert Pupkin idolizes Jerry Lewis’s Jerry Langford because he’s the talk show host Pupkin could seemingly never be, a comic and entertainer of isolating celebrity. In Ingrid Goes West, Elizabeth Olsen’s Taylor Sloane isn’t an actress or a singer, in fact, she possesses no discernible talent other than taking really good photos. Yet for Ingrid, she’s the ultimate aspirational figure.
Only five to ten years ago this would’ve been improbable. But Smith and Spicer’s script is so on the pulse of modern culture, they successfully captured this brave new world of the social media celebrity while it’s still in its infancy. In this scene, on a trip to Joshua Tree with Ingrid, we get a glimpse of Taylor’s meticulous cultivation of her own image. As she scrolls through photos, trying to find the perfect one to keep her army of followers salivating, Smith and Spicer peak behind the curtain at the kind of superstar which people like Ingrid are increasingly trying to emulate.
As this scene between Taylor and Ingrid and their mechanic plays out, things go from casual to unbearable in a span of less than a minute. What starts out as a small photo request becomes a high maintenance shoot as Taylor asks the mechanic to get lower, eventually forcing him to lie on the ground to get the perfect shot. It’s ridiculously awkward, but also completely hilarious.
In cinema, movies like Harold and Maude and Little Miss Sunshine have long made audiences laugh through their fingers with this approach. Ingrid Goes West may be painfully awkward at some points, but if you can take the squirminess, then you’ll also appreciate the humor. Not every movie can pull off this kind of uncomfortable comedy, and not every movie should try. But Smith and Spicer are such pros at the laug- while-you-cringe approach, this scene became not only one of the most memorable moments in the movie but a focal point which helped sell it in the trailer:
In screenwriting, we are always told that “active” characters are better. Characters who shape the plot and directly affect the story rather than waiting around for things to happen to them are traditionally thought to create more dynamic and entertaining movies. While this is certainly true, and while Ingrid is herself a very active character in Ingrid Goes West, it takes a truly skilled writer to build character through inaction.
This scene does just that, as Ingrid watches Taylor force the mechanic on the ground to take their picture. Rather than step in and suggest that’s not necessary, or that one of the pictures they’ve already got is fine, she chooses to do nothing. She remains passive and lets Taylor have all the control, yet in doing so, reveals a wealth of information about herself. Smith and Spicer have already shown us Ingrid is so desperate to be liked by Taylor she’ll do almost anything. But here, they also show us that she’ll do nothing if that’s what it takes to stay in her good graces. Again, it’s rare that “doing nothing” feels like a powerful character choice, but in this scene, Ingrid’s passivity is a key indicator of who she is.
Chris Osterndorf is a freelance writer from Milwaukee who studied cinema at DePaul University in Chicago. When he’s not watching movies, he’s writing them or writing about them. He’s especially partial to romantic comedies and crime films. He currently lives in Los Angeles.