A film lasting only a few minutes has the potential to impact viewers in a way that is tantamount to a feature, and that is certainly the case with “Young People,” which marks the directorial debut of Brooke Westphal, a student at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). It was made for the college’s 2023 Reel Loud festival, which features silent films with a running time of seven minutes or less, along with a live accompaniment of the score.
Westphal’s film explores the relationship between college students Jack (Preston Goodin) and Claire (Peyton Kennedy), whose bond is tested by a sudden tragedy. The festival’s jury of industry professionals unanimously voted for “Young People” to receive the Scott Wells Golden Reel Award, named after a deceased alumnus of the Film and Media department. Kennedy has already proven herself to be one of the most promising talents of her generation, particularly on Netflix’s criminally short-lived series, “Everything Sucks,” and her chemistry with Goodin anchors every frame of the picture.
I had the pleasure of recently speaking with Westphal via Zoom about her remarkable film, the epiphanies she had while making it and her plans for the future.
Was film always an interest of yours?
I’ve always been a very innately creative person. I love writing, I play a little piano, I write songs, I sing and I’ve dabbled in art, but I didn’t really know the world of film at all while growing up. My mom actually has the only tie to the industry—she was an actress back in the 80s and 90s. She did Ford commercials and was in a film called “Dreams for an Insomniac,” so being a member of SAG, she gets residuals of ten cents for her work from thirty years ago. As for me, I grew up playing competitive water polo and I swam for many years. I was recruited by UCSB for water polo, and I played freshman year, but right before I came into college, I had a freak accident where I broke my ankle, which kept me out of the pool.
While recovering during the summer of 2020, I watched as many movies as I could, but it wasn’t until I got a concussion, following two I previously had in high school, at the beginning of my sophomore year that I had the epiphany to change my major from Communications to Film and Media Studies. I became obsessed with getting on sets and talking to people who were in the film department. I joined the film fraternity on campus called DKA, Delta Kappa Alpha, which is a coed professional fraternity that is so much fun. I ran for the executive board and became the programming chair. That kickstarted so much of my entrance into the film world, and this year, I wrote my first screenplay and pitched it in my film fraternity. I picked a crew, we made the film, and it did very well at the festival, which was amazing.
I’m just very excited to now be in a place that feels so right for my passion because I love to write as well as observe and figure out all the pieces of the storytelling and how they work together. I worked closely with my composer, Brandon Yi, for weeks and sent him temp tracks. After the film premiered, I gave him a few extra weeks to work out any kinks, and though we tried adding a violin, we decided that the piano score added to the intimacy of the film.
Was there a certain film you saw that was a particular inspiration?
I would say, as a child growing up, my favorite film was “The Goonies,” but I don’t think that influenced my filmmaking. That was just my favorite go-to movie. I really like David Fincher, and find his way of going into the seedy side of the human experience really fascinating. I also was struck by the slice-of-life quality of Sean Baker’s “The Florida Project,” with its use of non-actors and the incredible realness of the young girl’s performance. That changed a lot of the ways that I viewed films because it was so different from a typical Hollywood blockbuster.
It illuminates the poetry of everyday life, which is also true of your film. It blew my mind when I found out that the rainbow shot in “The Florida Project” was captured on the fly, resulting from the filmmakers being open to whatever was happening in the moment.
That is so beautiful, and I think it resonated so much with me in a way that I didn’t even realize until now. As a filmmaker, I want to convey the poetry of everyday life. It doesn’t have to be about a hero’s journey arc or other conventional tropes. It can just follow a few weeks in the timespan of a young couple in college, or a few days in Florida where you get to experience the magic of Disneyland. I think that really influenced the films that I want to make, which are real and honest and just feel relatable to the human experience. As of now, that’s what I really gravitate towards.
What has your experience been like at film school?
UCSB is very theory-based in its classes—I think there are only two production classes—and so a lot of my onset experiences have come from my film fraternity. If you want to get onset, you write the script and find people who will help you make it. I’ve done small little odd jobs for a couple of my friends’ films. I really enjoy what we’re learning in classes, but there’s also a lot of educating going on outside of them with advisory from faculty. With that being said, there is one production class called 106 that has two teachers who advise it. There are two classes of about 18 or so people, and what happens is you write a script over the summer, and there’s one time slot where you can submit your film.
From that, twelve students are selected to pitch, and then four of those twelve pitches will get picked and get made over the course of about six months, culminating with the films premiering at the end of the class. I am now gearing up to pitch a film for that, and I would love the opportunity to have that class as a structure to make a second short film. But regardless, I still plan on making another short film this school year, fingers crossed.
Many filmmakers I’ve talked to are grateful for working under limitations and the creativity that it sparks.
There were definitely challenges on this film, but it was such a rewarding experience. The fall prior to making the film, I studied abroad in Paris, which served as an incredible boost for my creative confidence. That December, I wrote a script that was about 15 pages, and it had dialogue. My idea for the film began with its first scene of a couple lying in bed, and I wanted to explore it further. A friend of mine, Brady Berryhill, who was my cinematographer for the film, suggested that I submit the project for the Reel Loud festival, thereby requiring me to take out the dialogue and cut down the number of pages. In one sense, it was limiting, but it was also really exciting for me to figure out how I was going to convey what I wanted without saying anything. I had to rely on my actors, our shot list and the beauty of the vision that I wanted to create.
I cast Peyton Kennedy and Preston Goodin in the lead roles, and their chemistry together was just incredible. When I was holding auditions, I wrote dialogue for the actors to deliver, and the way they could just go back and forth was beautiful. We decided to shoot on 16mm film, and the scariest thing about that was the fact that we didn’t know until a week later what we got and what we didn’t get. We had a monitor for maybe sixty percent of the time, if that, so it was very old school filmmaking, but it allowed us the opportunity to rehearse for multiple days prior to shooting. It helped me get to know how to speak with the actors, how to get the emotion that you need out of them, how to make sure they are comfortable, and how to ensure they have a say in how their character is coming to the screen.
For our budget, we raised just over $2,000 on GoFundMe, and since shooting on film is expensive, my cinematographer and I had to go through each shot in the days leading up to filming. We only had about twelve people onset because there were multiple other Reel Loud productions being made simultaneously, so your pool of collaborators was small, but I picked them early. I really had to make sure that everyone was on the same page, my actors were happy and the crew was fed. It was an opportunity for us to revel in the joy of filmmaking and give the story the time, the energy and the pacing that it needed. We had to rely on our trust in one another throughout the process.
How aware were you of Peyton’s career before this?
Once I was ready to audition actors for the film, I sent an email out to the film and theatre departments, and Preston is in my film fraternity, so he auditioned along with a handful of other guys. I had previously met Peyton just in passing through a friend of mine. Afterward, I said, “She looks like an actress,” and my friend replied, “Oh, she is.” When Peyton got wind that I was making this film, she told me that she would love to audition for it, and it honesty hadn’t crossed my mind that she would be interested in the project.
There already been some women audition for the part who I liked, but as soon as Peyton auditioned, there was no doubt in my mind that she was who I was casting. We became fast friends, and I had her do chemistry readings with a couple of the guys. Preston was so willing to meet Peyton at her level, and I told them, “Bring what you feel works for this scene because you’re not going to have dialogue in the film itself.” They really got to experience the physicality of showing emotion with their bodies because I needed to see it visually conveyed.
I think knowing Peyton as Peyton and not actually having a lot of familiarity with her work enabled us to connect on an organic level. I love her as a person and as an actress. We’d go sit and chat between takes, and I’d be like, “Maybe we should have your makeup smudged a bit when you wake up in the morning,” and she’d be like, “Oh yeah, that’s a good idea.” She’s so humble and gracious and yearning to learn more. I wanted the film to be just as much about the girl’s experience as it was about the boy’s experience, and Peyton brought such life to her character.
Is it important for you to give your actors space prior to filming in order for them to prepare for the emotion of a given scene?
Absolutely. I cannot emphasize enough how much I wanted them to have the time and breathing space to bring the performance that they wanted onscreen. We did about two takes for each shot. For their argument scene, I had them get into it a little bit before shooting in order to see how they were feeling in the moment. Then we’d have them run through the audition dialogue for about a minute, before hitting record and capturing another thirty to forty-five seconds. We rehearsed that a couple times before we actually started rolling in order to give them the opportunity to really dig deep into their characters’ emotion, and that’s the beauty of that scene. Peyton just lights up the whole screen and you can read her lips, while Preston is feeling the weight of everything coming down and hitting him in that moment. I could watch them argue for the whole six minutes of the film’s running time. [laughs]
I like how after Preston gets the news of a loved one’s death, through the mirror we see the light from the window hitting Peyton’s face, while he is staring into the dark.
I’m so happy those things are noticed. We shot the film in my room, and I had the “love” light put up above the bed. It’s on in the first bedroom scene and off in the next. We added to the wall art with pictures of Frank Ocean and various bands, as well as a collage of Peyton and her friends. Similar to the moment you mentioned in “The Florida Project,” we walked through how we wanted the room to be set up in terms of production design, and I kept that mirror. On the fly, we decided to add the shot where the characters are viewed through the mirror. It was a very spontaneous addition to the shot list that turned out to be kismet and adds so much to the scene.
There’s almost a technicolor glow in the party scene that made me think of when Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood spot one another from across the gymnasium in “West Side Story.”
I haven’t seen that film, but I really love the use of color in “La La Land” and “Euphoria,” where they will have just a spotlight on a particular character. It was funny for me to tell the lighting people, “Can we put a floppy up so it doesn’t get anybody else apart from Peyton and Preston?” That little laser you see in the center of the frame was actually not going to be in the shot. It was just something that the lighting team had, and I was like, “Wait, we should have it circling in on the couple as they come together.”
How did you conceive of the film’s story?
I initially wanted to explore the nuances of a college relationship, based on the experiences that my friends and I have had, in terms of what do I mean to you, what do you mean to me and how do these things work together in college when we’re so young? There was no sense of loss at the beginning, but as I began writing the script, it became a therapeutic experience for me. About three years ago, my cousin passed away. He was 18 and I was 18 at the time as well. It happened during the same summer when I was watching all of those films, and it was right before I came to college. Even as time has passed, it’s still something that lives very deeply within me, and this being my first screenplay and my first film, it was just something that unconsciously came out, this internal force of loss. It’s something that everybody on this planet deals with and will have to deal with.
Though I wasn’t in a relationship or in college when my cousin passed away, it felt natural to fuse those experiences with the realm of college and relationships that felt familiar to me. I didn’t want to label who it was that passes away in the film. The story just pieced itself together so beautifully that every time I was writing it, I was crying. It was such a deep experience, and it was only five pages. I had my playlist that I would listen to that helped me tap into these feelings, so many that I thought had been gone or processed or worked through, but came center stage for this. I feel very lucky that I was able to honor my cousin in this little way. I knew what it felt like to be strong for other people and I wondered what would happen if you didn’t have to be so strong and if you just cocooned without having to be there for anybody.
You could just go into yourself, but as Brad Pitt said in “Bullet Train,” which I literally watched last night, “Hurt people hurt people.” My longline for the film was, “Sometimes when you don’t have the tools to heal yourself, you end up hurting other people.” I could relate to both characters because I’ve also been in the position of Claire in how you may not be in the relationship that you want, but you are dealing with external things. As young people, we have so many things that we have to process in addition to the normal experiences of growing up.
What aspects of this experience would you like to apply to your next project?
I don’t know if I’ll shoot on film for the next one. I think it will be digital. I learned so much on this project—how to communicate with my actors and the different departments. I plan on taking all that I’ve learned and apply it creatively to my next project. The film that I’m working on right now is similar in the sense that it explores, through quiet moments, the human experience. It’s about the emotions of growing up and navigating unknowns. I’m very excited to remain in the role of a writer/director, which is something that I’ve wanted for so long, and it feels right. I had that epiphany onset as I was looking around me and feeling that this is where I need and want to be. I’m just excited to continue fulfilling that dream for as long as it is fulfilling.