Filmmaker Jessica Ellis grew up surrounded by Sonoma County’s natural beauty. Now, she returns to those picturesque locales for her debut feature film, What Lies West, available to rent or purchase on several digital platforms and DVD.
“When I was a teenager, we moved right across the street from Howarth Park [in Santa Rosa], and I spent much of my youth running around the local parks, because that was just what you did,” Ellis says. “That was ingrained into who I was growing up, and formulated a lot of my outlook.”
Ellis went to college for playwriting, switched to screenwriting and graduated from the American Film Institute. She’s worked in the film industry since grad school, and What Lies West marks her feature film debut as a writer and director.
The film is a coming-of-age comedy featuring two strong lead actresses, Nicolette Ellis and Chloe Moore, who both happen to be Ellis’ nieces. Nicolette plays a new college graduate stuck in Santa Rosa for the summer with an ex-boyfriend on her mind and no money. She wants to go to Hollywood to act, but first, she takes a job babysitting 16-year-old Chloe, an introverted teen with an overbearing mother.
With little in common, Nicolette and Chloe take hikes around Spring Lake, forming an uneasy friendship. Then, the two plan for their biggest adventure yet: a four-day hiking trip from the backroads of Sonoma County all the way to the Pacific Ocean.
While What Lies West is not in any way biographical, Nicolette and Chloe’s natural chemistry imbues authenticity to their roles and fills the movie with relatable moments as well as recognizable locations.
The inspiration for What Lies West came about in April 2017, when Ellis and producer/director of photography Sean Carroll were visiting family in Sonoma County on a vacation. Reconnecting with the area, Ellis decided to make a film set in the North Bay, and she began casting and securing financing before the script was completed.
“There are so many films shot in Sonoma County, but very few are shot by locals and can take advantage of the local perspective,” Ellis says. “That was something I wanted to capture on screen. My goal was to make a story that could happen to a kid in Sonoma County and be recognizable to them.”
Shooting for What Lies West began in the summer of 2017, though production was delayed when Ellis discovered she had a congenital heart defect requiring immediate surgical intervention. A month after that medical emergency, the Tubbs fire halted production and forced many of the local cast and crew to evacuate.
Several filming locations, including Sugarloaf State Park and Spring Lake, were damaged in the fires. The following summer, the crew regrouped for a final week of shooting and found the landscape they’d shot the previous year devastatingly changed. From that moment on, the film also became a mission to remind Sonoma County residents of the beauty that still remains, and will be renewed.
“We are honored to get to put out this movie that shows how beautiful the County is, even in the wake of these devastating fires,” Ellis says.
What Lies West first premiered at the Twin Cities Film Festival, in October of 2019, and the Coven Film Festival, in San Francisco in 2020. Due to the pandemic, Ellis and the production team chose to distribute the film now rather than continue a festival run, and they partnered with Passion River Films to release What Lies West this month on-demand and on DVD.
“It’s nice to be putting this out right now,” Ellis says. “I hope it will be nice for people traumatized by the last year to see a pleasant and uplifting film about getting outside and stretching your capacity a little bit.”
“What Lies West” is available now to rent or purchase on several streaming platforms and on DVD. Whatlieswest.com.