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Interview: Haley Finnegan Talks “Westfalia”, Influencers, and the Impact of Social Media

By: Kirstin Bews

Actress and filmmaker, Haley Finnegan made her Tribeca Film Festival debut with her the short film, “Westfalia” on April 26th, which she not only stars in but directed, wrote and produced.

The comedy follows couple, Emelia (Finnegan) and Brody (Bryan Flynn) who aspire to be Insta-famous, which according to Emelia but not Brody, an engagement post will do just that. Nevertheless, they pack their camping gear….and best camera equipment, for a road trip in a 1984 Westfalia Vanagon, to find those perfect Instgramable moments and grow their following. However it doesn’t even come close to their nemesis / couple rivals, Instagram star, Laura Lawson Visconti, and former pro-snowboarder, Nick Visconti, (both playing versions of themselves) whose following somehow organically doubled overnight. From there, Emelia and Brody devise a master plan to sneak onto Nick’s and Laura’s Instagram Stories and steal their followers.

The film showcases the hard work and countless takes put into curating that perfect likable post and feed and how important social media has become in society whether you are using it to boost your profile in a “traditional” career path or as an influencer to impressing your friends. The dialogue is also mostly improvised in Haley’s film directorial debut.

In our new interview, we talk to Finnegan about the making of “Westfalia”, influencers, and more!

You wrote, directed, produced and starred in Westfalia. What was your most challenging role in this creation?

There are a lot of challenges. It is difficult to choose! I had a hard time making cuts in the editing room. We had to keep the running time down. Traditionally, shorter shorts do well at festivals. This was really frustrating for me. I didn’t like being within that time frame. It felt limiting. We lost a whole storyline that I am still heartbroken over. If only you guys could have seen how funny it was! And then telling the actors, my friends, that they weren’t in it anymore. I hate being cut. How could I be doing this to them? It didn’t feel good.

Are the characters based on anyone or any situations from real life?

Emelia and Brody are based off of my morning imaginings. When I scroll through Instagram and find that perfectly centered shot of a guy on a mountain top with his arms spread wide, I think to myself, “I would love to see the outtakes.” And then, Nick and Laura are heightened versions of themselves. Laura Lawson Visconti is an influencer and friend of mine. I wanted to have her and Nick be a nice juxtaposition to our “heroes.” I wanted them to have a balance in their life that Emelia and Brody were lacking. And I wanted them to be good examples of the influencer.

Have you found the role of ‘influencer’ attractive to your own life?

I think their portrayed lifestyles are attractive – the parts we see. I would love to be traveling the world, hiking a new mountain in a completely new outfit daily, and eating nothing but pretty donuts. But that really isn’t their life. Their lifestyle is a business. They need to hashtag, negotiate collaborations, and edit photos. I do have respect for the influencer who has done well. I love telling stories. I want my work to be in film.

“You live in a world that you built yourself” is a line that plays in the soundtrack,what are the good and bad parts of a concept like this in Westfalia?

Isn’t that a good line? That’s my good friend, Kyle McCammon’s, song. I’m not sure we had the same intentions with its meaning. I think a good part of building your own world might be that you’re taking charge of your life – building your own business, following your dream. But the bad part, I think, is when your job is to post perfect photos and not show the hard parts of your life. Why? Because there are people who are scrolling through and affected by it- it’s called advertising. Photos of girls with abs make me feel like I need to work out. Photos of actresses on set make me feel like I’m never going to make it. Photos of extravagant vacations make me feel like I need to work harder. But I love when you find a special Instagram account where someone is doing it differently. Where they are telling you about the hard work that got them where they are and how they built their world themselves. That is inspiring to me.

When you were playing the role of Emelia, did you feel as if you were playing two roles? Her character, and her social media character?

I think she may even have more sides than that. The girl she is when she wants something from Brody. The girl she is when she wants influence. The girl she is when she finally meets Nick & Laura. She has a lot of sides to her and I think that’s what makes her fun to play. She isn’t one dimensional.

Do you pity or envy Emelia and Brodie in any way? How do you think audiences will react to these ‘fictional’ influencers?

Not really, I think they are relatable. I think we all struggle to take a good photo of ourselves. I think we are all checking to see how many “likes” we get. I think we all want to “be engaged” in some way – we just don’t all know what it means until we get there.

How do you think the ‘real life’ influencers will react to Westfalia?

Well Nick and Laura are real life influencers and they think it’s funny. We were all watching it together recently and Laura started laughing at how she has done some of the things we poke fun at in the movie. She mentioned having snuck onto someone’s property to take a photo with in front of their house. I think we all can laugh at ourselves. I am guilty of a lot of what I am making fun of. Scroll through my photos and you’ll see that at ton of them are of myself.

In what ways do you think that Westfalia will impact ‘real life’ influencers?

I’m not sure yet. I hope they engage with it and maybe take more time for themselves instead of for us- the audience. I also hope they make fun of the film. This is comedy – a level playing field for making a statement in a light-hearted way.

Is there anything you find unsettling about the premise of Westfalia and the impact of social media influencers?

There is no going back. You either use social or you get left behind. The world today is not the same world I grew up in. And my world as a teenager is not as my parent’s world was, etc… I have a photo in my head that Stanley Kubrick took in the 40’s. It’s of a jam-packed subway car in NYC. All the passengers are reading the newspaper. I look at that photo and feel nostalgic. Newspapers. The feel. The smell. The prestige of news before the internet. And then I think about what that photo would look like if he took it today. A car full of people on their phones. In ways, it’s not much different. But we know it is never going to be that way again.

The work of a social media influencer is pretty ambiguous. Do you think Westfalia will give people a greater understanding of the amount of work that a social media influencer does and why they do it?

I hope so! It’s a ton of work. That is a huge point of what I am trying to say. Don’t get down if your photo isn’t perfect. It is the influencer’s job to make it look great. It’s a full-time job. And maybe this goes back to what you had asked earlier. If anything, I hope influencers are complimented by the film. I hope they say, “Yep. See? It’s not easy.”

Does Westfalia act as a warning or encouragement for social media use within our society?

I just want to encourage balance.

What should be the main take away from Westfalia for the audience?

Things aren’t always as they seem.

After playing the role of a social media influencer… do you have one piece of advice or insight into that life that you would like to share?

Yes, I do. Be yourself. No one on earth can do that better than you can.


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