Grand Haven Tribune: Making 'West Michigan'
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Making 'West Michigan'

Cora Hall • Jul 8, 2019 at 9:00 AM

Riley and Chloe Warmoth, who moved to Los Angeles a few years ago, have returned to their hometown to create their feature-length film, “West Michigan: A Movie.”

It’s hard to tell where real life ends and the screenplay begins for the siblings, since the movie was inspired by Riley’s experiences growing up in Grand Haven.

“When I first read the script, I was like, ‘Oh, I understand everything is a little reference from Riley’s whole life,’” said his sister and the lead actress, Chloe.

Riley and Chloe, who say they were always close, grew up in Grand Haven with their brother Will, who is the middle child in the family. At 14, Chloe moved to LA to pursue an acting career.

Now 18, Chloe has acted in several larger projects, such as playing Coco in “Fuller House,” a lead role in “Greatland” and Rachel in the ABC show “Speechless.” She’s also been featured in several advertisements.

Riley, who graduated from Spring Lake High School after the family moved there in 2014, studied acting at SUNY Purchase Conservatory in New York and then went on to study film at Loyola Marymount University in LA three years ago, when he was 19.

'Ultra low-budget' film

“West Michigan” was written by Riley and is the first feature-length film he has directed and produced. The indie film producer is working with a relatively small budget, but making the movie is still very expensive.

“The term used in Hollywood and on our paperwork is ‘ultra-low budget,’” Riley said, laughing. “Ultra-low budget has a very large range, and we are far on the lower end of the ultra-low budget. It is (still) super expensive to make a movie, and we’ve been putting a lot of personal funds into this and we’ve been having a lot of volunteer labor.”

For post-production, Riley said they will hire people for editing and many other finishing touches.

The low budget that forces the siblings to rely on cheaper labor and volunteer work, however, has made a stronger bond between the cast and crew.

“I’ve worked with a lot (of crews), but there’s never been a set with more fun, hardworking, positive people — and you just enjoy being here,” Chloe said. “Twelve-hour days don’t feel bad. ... So, I think everyone’s reaching to strive for their best, always, and you just see this creative vision from everyone form together and it’s really exciting to watch.”

The film is about a brother and sister who are traveling up the coast of Lake Michigan to the Upper Peninsula to visit their grandfather, who has been hospitalized. Riley described it as a “coming of age story” and a “love letter to the state of Michigan.”

“The protagonist is having a bit of a depressive episode, and I just hope to offer a beacon of light to those who are struggling, really,” Riley said. “That’s the end goal, to offer hope and just inspire others, especially with a budget this size, just to inspire other aspiring filmmakers to want to do the same thing.”

The crew has done shoots at the Sleeping Bear Dunes, Crystal Mountain and Frankfort beach, as well as several places in Grand Haven — the boardwalk and beach, Fortino’s, Morning Star Cafe, and the Once and Again thrift store.

The siblings shot a few scenes at Once and Again on July 2, where Riley said he often frequented growing up.

“It was just always full of neat stuff, and I thought it would work well as a cool and visually interesting location,” he said.

Pat Barker, who has been a manager at Once and Again for six years, said she was honored that the Warmothes chose the thrift store for a few scenes.

“It’s a good thing for Grand Haven, but it also shows that love for the area," Barker said. "You know, you can take those people out of the area, but they’re still drawn back to those fond memories of their childhood."

After the film is finished, the Warmothes intend to enter it in mid- to high-tier festivals, with their main focus on Slam Dance and the Traverse City Film Festival.

The big move

Pursuing your dreams is one thing; moving to the other side of the country at age 14 to start an acting career is something else.

Chloe was going into her freshman year of high school when she moved to Los Angeles to follow her dream of acting. After one year of online school, the self-described social butterfly decided to add another challenge of going to school while juggling auditions and shoots on the side.

“Sophomore year, on a whim, I was like, ‘I need human interaction, I need friends that aren’t 10 years old that I met,’” she said. “So, I decided to go to school and I fell in love with my school. It’s bigger in California. I guess because it was bigger it felt more like a college and it was an open campus. I met the best friends ever. I missed like 30 days, but I still maintained a 4.0 (grade point average) and I still graduated with my class, and it was probably the best high school experience I could have had.”

Trying to make it in the film industry has not been easy for Chloe, nor has it been for Riley, whose main focus is screenwriting. He said it’s all about making connections and friends wherever you go.

“It is difficult, but it is 100 percent about meeting people and making friends out there," Riley said. "The people you meet at events, at parties, at work ... there’s just a huge wealth of people working in entertainment out there. Odds are, you walk down the street, you’re passing several. Really, it’s just about meeting people that can lift you up and making friends who can help you get your projects off the ground.”

Chloe called acting in LA a “persistence game” that involves building relationships with casting directors and a lot of hard work.

“I think the hardest thing is … you will get rejected so many times before you get the one," she said. "I think my second year out there I was on hold for 14 life-changing projects and I didn’t get any of them. So, that was really disappointing and it makes you want to be embittered, and that’s probably the hardest thing for (me) is being almost there but never being the one who gets picked and all that rejection. But I think you just have to think of it as one step closer because, eventually, you’ll break that.”

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