1. What do you think makes a good screenplay?
I grew up reading a good deal of poetry, which is part of the reason I became attracted to writing screenplays. There is a very limited space to pen beautiful description, dialogue, and poignant story. I’m sure everyone has their own opinion about what makes a screenplay good, but what I personally search for is striking language done elegantly, simply, and powerfully. Great dialogue, emotionally driven context. A story you can immediately visualize and sink into and hear the voices of, like a book.
2. Which screenwriter/s and filmmaker/s do you admire or inspired your work?
I’m a big fan of filmmakers likeTerrence Malick, Gus Van Sant, James Cameron, Robert Redford, Guillermo Del Toro, Denis Villeneuve.
Carol Ballard’s THE BLACK STALLION was one of my favorite movies growing up - the striking visuals complimented by scenes with little to no dialogue. Malick’s DAYS OF HEAVEN, shot at sunrise and sunset. The fantasy and romance contained in Del Toro’s work, his markedly unique style, color balance, contrast and camera movement. I’ve always been attracted to anything nautical or of the sea, and so relate to much of Cameron’s work and passion (TITANIC was a seminal film for me growing up as well). I also grew up reading a lot of science fiction fantasy, so films like Villeneuve’s ARRIVAL are particularly impactful for me. I remember sitting in the theater staring at the credits, immobile, after my first viewing of that film.
One of my favorite writers is Lem Dobbs (The Limey, The Company You Keep, Romancing the Stone) and I am fortunate to be working on developing a screenplay he wrote, a tragic love story called TRANCAS, which I will direct. Lem is a masterful writer, very visual, with amazing dialogue. I also think Taylor Sheridan is phenomenal (the delicate and simple intricacies, and his casting, even of the smallest characters in HELL OR HIGH WATER).
3. How did you come up with idea of Deserted and Adolescence?
Deserted was inspired by seeing photos of Death Valley. A cinematographer I had worked with years ago had shot something there, and showed me the salt flats, the sand dunes, the vistas. The incredible and variant topography was so striking to me. I wanted to set a story there. And so I began writing a project that could be done on a smaller budget, and the characters crawled out of the woodwork due to the setting. It took several years to get the film off the ground, but we got there!
Adolescence evolved out of a story loosely based on the life of actor Mickey River, who stars in the film and plays the character of Adam. A producer I was working with represented him, sent me the script, and I liked the story. My husband and producing partner Edward and I championed the project, and we were able to get it off the ground and into production. The film is a coming of age story that also stars India Eisley (One Day She’ll Darken), Tommy Flanagan (Sons of Anarchy), Elisabeth Rohm (American Hustle), Michael Milford (Deserted), and Jere Burns (Justified).
My goal with Adolescence was to create an intimate, visual film, with a color rollercoaster so to speak. As Adam, from a very blue collar family, goes to Venice Beach and meets an enigmatic teenage runaway in Alice; she opens up his world to color, parties, and eventually the rabbit hole of drug addiction. Adam’s world begins as almost colorless, very bland, very stagnant. Then it opens up into color, excitement, and Alice’s mystery. We sought those feelings and themes out in our camera movement, as well. The color blue in the film is associated only with Alice - I didn’t even want our extras if we could help it to wear the color blue. Alice’s apartment was painted a very specific blue-green called “Hemlock” to signify the purity of her inner self, but with an underlying sickness. As Adam and Alice spiral out of control together, the film’s colors bright colors regress into sickly greens and yellows, and eventually as Adam recovers and comes out into the light again - there is a newfound brightness.
I wanted to find the humanity and reality in Deserted - and the romance, even though it is very broken, in Adolescence.
Deserted is available to stream, and Adolescence will be going around the festival circuit soon starting at the end of 2018 through our distributor North of Two.
4. What is the biggest surprise that you experienced after directing your film Deserted and Adolescence?
One of the biggest surprises what being very glad I was also an editor. I started editing the smaller commercials I was directing or producing in my early twenties out of necessity - whether it was for time, for budget, for margin. I eventually really grew to love editing because I can spend hours controlling every frame, every nuance, every beat.
While I have not yet edited a full feature, nor do I know if I would want to - because having a fresh pair of eyes to collaborate with is important, I think - and editing a commercial is vastly different than a movie - having an editor’s brain has become incredibly valuable and I’m so grateful that I was essentially forced to learn how to do it a decade ago. Knowing the ins and outs of coverage, being able to cut a scene if it isn’t necessary, and truly being able to visualize the film not just from a writer/director’s perspective - but an editor’s - has been enormously helpful. It has definitely made me a better director.
The second biggest surprise I’ve experienced, which I found on my first feature length film Deserted, was how much I loved really allowing actors to improv and run with the dialogue. How much I liked to let them go, find organic blocking - would you sit on this rock, or this? Would you stand in your grief, or would you crumble? What would YOU do? I love the collaborative nature of working like that. I have my own thoughts on how a character I’ve written will act - but the actor brings his or her own thoughts, and you must listen to those instincts. At least I think so. They are encapsulating the character and living and breathing through it - so they might have a different opinion.
This has lead to my tendency for re-writing frequently to evolve into pretty much re-writing constantly; every day, on set. As I get to know the actors, their speech patterns and intonations, it changes how I approach the scenes. Sometimes very incrementally, sometimes something evolves which could influence a scene later, and the change is much bigger. Being willing to ebb and flow with the actors you have brought on and trusted to encapsulate their characters - or listening to the story opinion of one of your key collaborators, your cinematographer, your production designer - it’s such a joy to be able to trust each other and work like that.
5. What is your favorite line from one of your screenplays?
“We did this to ourselves, didn’t we.” The line is from Deserted, said by Dax (Michael Milford) before he lets himself fall over a cliff in a dramatic, incredibly beautiful wide shot on a mountain at dusk. Dax is the comedic relief in the film, the brunt of everyone’s jokes, possibly the cause of their stranding, but at his core he’s also probably the smartest. My husband and people who worked on the film quote this all the time. And, that line of dialogue was improv by Michael - credit where credit is due!
6. Of all the characters you have created, which is your favorite and why?
Of the films I’ve written that have been produced, probably still Dax from Deserted. He was the most fun to write. There’s a scene where he is lost and losing his mind - and he starts marching up a cliff singing “let’s go fly a kite”. I don’t know why I found that character singing that particular song so ironic, and so funny, and so tragic - but I did.
When we shot that scene in the film, Michael ended up finding this huge stick - which looked like a caveman’s club - in the brush. He ended up dragging it up the mountain as he sang, flinging it into the air and egging a sandstorm in the distance on. He made that choice and it was just brilliant.
Secondly, speaking strictly as a director, as I didn’t originally create the character of Alice in Adolescence - I really loved how actress India Eisley and I worked together to morph her character in the film into a very layered, quietly intelligent, broken soul. India and I talked a good deal about Alice’s psychology, to what degree she could love Adam, her relationship to the drug addiction. I loved building that character with India. Her performance jumps off the screen.
7. Do you write alone or in public?
Both. It really depends on the project. My re-writing is definitely very insular and private. I’ll write an entire first draft of a screenplay in public, sitting in a corner in a pub (I always look for corners, but I’ll never write smack in the middle of a place - only at the end of a bar, or in a nook, etc). If I’m re-writing, I’ll lock myself away at home with tea and coffee.
8. Do you ever get writer’s block? What do you do to get back on track?
I write quickly, but gestate for long periods of time about projects. I’ll do a lot of research, make a lot of notes. Getting into the head space and psychology of each project and its characters is important to me. For Black Beauty, for example, I drove up to several California based wild horse sanctuaries, sitting in the mountains with the wild herds, talking to horse whisperers and trainers. Having the opportunity to sit in the grass and for a little while chestnut mare to come up to me. The patience and trust it took, the time, for her to put her nose into my hand.
Before I begin, I have to feel as though both my heart and head are in the world before I sit down to write, and that allows me then to turn off my conscious mind, and just watch the characters evolve and begin to talk.
I sometimes joke with my husband - wow! I didn’t expect my characters to say or do that!
9. What’s the best advice you have ever received about writing?
From reading some of Hemingway’s rules of writing. One of which is to re-read everything you’ve written before you start again the next day - but, if that is too much to re-read in one sitting because you have come so far, to re-read a good portion. Everyone has their own process - but this “rule” really helps me to sink into the world again, and sometimes I won’t even get to new pages because I’m editing so much of what came before.
10. What book have you read that has most influence in your life?
Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. It was the first novel I ever ready by myself, with my father. It was a very special experience to have my dad, who’s always been a huge supporter of my work as a writer, to help me through that book when I was little. It also gave me a huge appreciation for that style of writing. The simple, delicate beauty of language and prose. I would love to adapt a Hemingway novel to the screen one day.
I was also impacted by the books of poetry I read growing up. Anything by e.e. cummings. “Somewhere I Have Never Traveled” I shot as a black and white short film a few years ago, a love story. Seamus Heaney’s “Oysters” is a particular favorite.
11. What was your favorite book as a kid and a teenager?
Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher. I’m still trying to convince the brilliant author Bruce Coville to let me make it into a movie! Also, The Black Stallion by Walter Farley.
12. Have you ever met your admirer from the business and how was the experience?
I haven’t actually met one my favorite directors or writers - besides of course Lem Dobbs - yet, no! I hope to meet Terence Malick one day, James Cameron, and Robert Redford. One day!
13. What do you currently do as a hobby?
Work! I joke that I don’t have any hobbies. I have tried to pick up tennis recently, so that I can run around for an hour, get some exercise, and then get back to work. It always comes back to work, but I love what I do.
I suppose that my favorite hobby would be to travel. Whether it’s a short road trip somewhere for a night, or when my husband and I are able to travel internationally. Luckily work has brought us to some amazing places, from London to Istanbul, Paris to Cape Town. Travel, exploring new cultures, experiencing new people and food - is my favorite thing to do. I also write well while we’re traveling, so there’s that again!
14. Congrats on getting to write and direct the film adaptation of Black Beauty, what drew you to this particular project?
Thank you! It is certainly a merger of two great passions. I grew up riding horses, and loving films like The Black Stallion. The project began as a conversation with myself and producer Jeremy Bolt. I was discussing my love of those types of films, and my equestrian background (I grew up riding horses in Florida). Jeremy and his partner Robert Kulzer of Constantin Film had always wanted to produce a reprisal of Black Beauty - the story of which of course I was intimately familiar with. I had a take on how to approach it, and it was one of those projects that comes together organically because it’s a combination of the right people, timing, and story.
I think the greatest thing about this movie is that we are not only telling a story of a beautiful relationship between a person and a horse, but we are doing what Anna Sewell hoped to do in writing the original novel: which was to illuminate issues that horses were going through during her time. Back then, it was showing people in the 1800s that fashionable “bearing reins” and other cruelties were really hurting horses. Now, in modern day, one of the greatest issues horses are facing is in the wild, out west. Mustangs that are running free on public land are now being rounded up by helicopter, trapped in holding pens by the hundreds, and separated from their families. By making Black Beauty a wild horse, while it is a change from the original origin of Beauty in the story: the purpose and message are still exactly the same. Beauty’s plight as a wild horse will hopefully help cast a floodlight on the wild mustang issue. And I think that is really amazing.
15. Have you already read Black Beauty and if so, what is your favorite part of the story that you’ll love to see on the big screen?
Oh yes, I’ve read the book many times! My favorite part of the story is Beauty’s relationship with Joe Green, who is a young male groom in the book. How Joe is inexperienced, and doesn’t know what to do - and it is through his haplessness that Beauty actually gets very sick, but they work together to make Beauty well again and form a very strong bond in the process. At the end, when Joe finds Beauty again - after all of the hardships, all those years later - it is incredibly emotional. They are soulmates, in a sense.
In our Black Beauty, Jo Green is a female teenager, who lost her parents in a car accident and is forced to come live with an uncle she doesn’t know at Birtwick Stables. Similarly to Joe Green in the book, she doesn’t know what to do, and forms an unlikely relationship and incredible bond with the wild Black Beauty - who also was taken from her herd, and everything she ever knew. They, too, are soulmates.
16. (Fill in the blank question): Someday, I want to__________?
Buy my parents a house by the sea, start a foundation for wild horses, and create important films that make people believe in the beauty of the world, and in love.
17. Have you ever consider writing a novella or novel in the future?
Yes! I always through growing up I would become an author and hope to become one, one day. I always thought I would write young adult fiction, or sci-fi fantasy. I loved Anne McCaffrey novels growing up, and would give a small non-essential appendage to direct the Dragon of Pern books as a movie (hi Warner Brothers).
I am currently working on a book based on the life of two-time Olympian Prince Mumba, who I met when he was driving an Uber while training for Rio. Prince’s story, growing up in extreme poverty in Zambia, to making it to America and competing in two Olympic Games - is phenomenal and inspirational. There is also a love story component to his story. Prince, a Christian, fell in love with a Muslim girl as a teenager - and her story, which intertwines with his for well over two decades - is unbelievable unto itself.
We are doing a feature film based on Prince’s story as well, with producer Cary Granat (Chronicles of Narnia). So the book will probably be released alongside the movie.
Secondly, I’m also beginning to work on a middle grade children’s book called GLORY.
18. If you have the skills of an Olympic athlete, what sport would you compete in?
Definitely as an equestrian, in show jumping.
19. Last question, you have to wear a t-shirt with one word on it for the rest of your life which word do you choose?
There's no doubt that this latest film adaptation of Black Beauty will be really good. You all should definitely put it on your radar. I greatly appreciate Mrs. Ashley Avis for getting off her busy schedule to answer my questions. To get more news about black beauty or to get to know more about Ms. Ashley Avis's work, just visit her website here: www.ashleyavis.com/news.html Thanks for visiting my blog and I hope you are having a great day. Take care.