Ashley Avis is an independent filmmaker with her feature length film debut currently in release. She is co-founder of Winterstone Pictures, an award winning boutique feature film and commercial production company based in Los Angeles, CA with projects and clients worldwide. We recently had a chance to ask her about her new film and what it’s like working as an indie filmmaker.
Hello Miss Avis. Thanks so much for answering a few questions. Let’s begin with you. Who is Ashley Avis?
Hello there. I’m a feature film director and screenwriter, and the co-founder of a production company called Winterstone Pictures here in Los Angeles. I recently directed Deserted, as you know… I’m hugely inspired by very visual locations and complex character dynamics. I paint abstract art in my spare time and love to cook. What else? I’m a big fan of Malbec and international travel. My favorite cities include Istanbul and Cape Town.
Nice. How about a quick rundown of Deserted.
The film follows a young woman named Jae (Mischa Barton), who is released from prison and wants nothing more than to escape the rumors and whispers of her small town. She joins her brother Robin (Jackson Davis) on a road trip to a music festival in Death Valley, and they – along with several friends and a group of strangers they meet along the way – get impossibly lost in the 3.2 million acre park.
So I’ve got to start big and ask about inspiration. The film is clearly layered in symbolism. As both the writer and director, is there a story behind the story?
Deserted was initially inspired by the absolutely striking topography of Death Valley – the salt flats, the sand dunes, vistas. I was fascinated by how such a beautiful place could be so potentially dangerous to those who come out to see it. From there, I began developing the survival story that became the script and the characters began crawling out of the woodwork and introducing themselves, so to speak.
I appreciate that you see the symbolism interwoven in the film … which is present in the naming of the characters, as well. Jae and Robin are loosely based on my brother and I, and are bird names. Heather, Jasmine and Rosemary are flowers – Dax, Wade and Troy are water. The other characters are elements from the desert, Clay (a small part played by an actor I’ve admired for over a decade and wrote that role specifically for, Jake Busey), Calico, Hopper. I wanted to explore both an artistic approach to a survival story, while grounding it in the realism of how people would react in a situation like this. As one of our actors, Michael Milford (who plays Dax) said it best – how their own hubris could be their eventual undoing.
So I’m right to look carefully at the supporting characters in terms of what they might represent to Jae, as I tried to think about in my review?
You are. The characters represent different things for Jae, from a possible emotional escape for example with Troy, who initially is quite a gentleman – he sees Jae in a way she hasn’t thought of herself for some time – or with Dax, who offers the temptation of the psychedelic that causes them to become stranded. She wants to escape so badly – from her town, from her experience – that she ends up entrapping herself in a different way. If I was to say to look very deeply, I would say it is about Jae’s fight for rebirth and to shed those old demons, anxieties and ghosts (Rosemary) to escape them for good and to be able to fly.
It’s a great cast and I think Barton delivers her most impactful film performance since perhaps 2001’s Lost and Delirious. How did she come to be part of the project?
Mischa delivered a really outstanding performance. Her involvement came about when we were discussing potential actresses that were strong and grounded – I also didn’t want to cast teenagers, it was important to me to age up the cast to avoid the stereotype of young underdressed-things running around lost in the desert. The choice to shoot the film in the winter was intentional, as well. I wanted a woman who felt very real for the role of Jae.
When I first met with Mischa, she came over to our home in Venice and we connected immediately. She had great character thoughts, complex questions about Jae’s background and psyche – and once we decided to work together she flew into prepping for the role.
While we were in preproduction, I put Mischa in touch with an inspirational speaker named Jessica Rasdall, who is a former high school friend of mine that ended up in a terrible car accident when she was a teenager – and went to prison for several years during that stage in her life. Jessica very generously and honestly discussed her experiences with Mischa, especially about how she felt when she got out and began re-assimilating to the world, her family, her friends. How certain sounds, for example (like the jingling of keys – which I explored with Jasmine’s fingernails incessantly tapping her phone) would set her anxiety off. I think Mischa really portrayed Jae and both her inner and external struggle very realistically. She’s been receiving some strong reviews for her performance, and I’m absolutely delighted because she’s truly an excellent actress.
Let’s move on to the production. I found the slow pacing really effective and a strong choice for the film, which to many, when hearing that description, might think it a criticism. Here, it layers the characters in a sense of stillness and entrapment that captures the looming danger well. Talk about your style choices in telling this story.
I’m very much a fan of holding and lingering in moments. I sincerely appreciate that you liked the choice! And especially for Deserted, I wanted the pacing to mirror – at least to a degree – the feeling that you have when you’re out in the desert. When you’re walking, lost, for miles. We actually ended up getting lost during one of our scouting trips to the sand dunes, and that is how it felt. Interminable. But at the same time, you’re surrounded by so much beauty.
The cinematography by Garrett O’Brien, whom you’ve worked with before, really helps in giving the terrain a beautiful terror. It appears like much of the film was filmed on location. What was the experience like under these conditions?
I love working with Garrett, he’s very talented and understood the approach I wanted to take with the film which began with what inspired it, which was capturing these incredible visuals and juxtaposing them with the dire situation our characters are in. We have a very similar taste in what we like, our heroes and references, the use of light.
We primarily shot the film in Ridgecrest, California and it was certainly challenging! Some of our locations were hours away, and getting to them was no small feat. We had a grip truck get stuck on the sand dunes and crew members had to guard it into the night until a tow vehicle with the power to pull it out arrived. We had a PA get lost on the first day of shooting – which was at the first location where our characters end up in the movie, which is an ancient dry lake bed. He had three of our cast members in his car (Winter Ave Zoli, Kelly Brannigan and Dana Rosendorff) and was an hour late to set. Nobody could reach him because there isn’t any cell reception out there! We were so worried.
When he finally arrived, he dove out of the vehicle and sprinted to my producer, Edward and gave him a hug. The actresses thought the whole thing was hilarious, which evolved into a tagline for the production which was “Doing It Live”.
Another scenario we faced was on the very last day of filming (a pickup day, actually) we ended up driving through an actual sandstorm. It barreled down over the mountains and lasted for hours. Part of the sandstorm sequence in the movie is actually real footage. If you’ll notice, the final scene featuring Robin feels very hazy. That’s because the sandstorm was still lingering in the air, casting this film over the sky (which I was delighted by). I was also very fortunate to have a crew that was willing to drive through an actual sandstorm and to jump out of the safety of our production vehicles to capture it with me.
For all of the challenges, being out in the desert for several weeks was an amazing experience. The unbelievable sunrises and sunsets, the bonding – the actors really melded with their characters – it was very special.
Let’s talk about upcoming projects. You have a new film in the works called Adolescence, slated for release this year. Any details you can share with us.
We have a few! Adolescene is a coming of age story about Adam, a teenager from an abusive family household, who falls in love with a free spirited runaway named Alice (played impeccably by India Eisley) who introduces him to the world of parties, drugs and eventually heroine. His best friend Keith (a heartfelt performance actor/musician Romeo Miller) has to pull him out of it with the help of a mentor named Shepard (Sons of Anarchy’s Tommy Flanagan).
Other noted cast members include the lovely Elisabeth Rohm (American Hustle, Joy) and Jere Burns (Justified, Angie Tribeca). The movie is currently in post, being edited by Oscar nominated Douglas Crise (Birdman, Babel, Spring Breakers). I loved working with this cast, and India Eisley especially shines as the female lead. We’ll have updates about the release of the movie soon, and plan to debut it on the festival circuit. We have three films in development at the moment, and the one I can talk about is called 800, based on the incredible true story of an Olympic 800 meter runner named Prince Mumba. I wrote the script, and will direct.
800 is a visually rich, inspirational story about overcoming the most difficult of obstacles and circumstances. Prince Mumba was born into extreme poverty in Zambia, but he clung to this impossible dream that one day – he would make it to the Olympic Games. Everyone told him it was impossible, that he wasn’t special. Prince not only made it to the States, he competed in the Olympics twice and broke the national record for the 800 meters eight times. There is also a love story competent to his story, involving Prince and a Muslim girl who was ripped away from him as a child by her family due to their religious differences. He went back to Zambia many years later to search for her on foot. And he found her. The rest of their story, fifteen years later, now – is still unfolding. We should have some exciting updates on that film released over the next few weeks. We plan to shoot most of the movie in South Africa.
Looking forward to these and we’ll keep readers up-to-date on releases. So as an independent filmmaker, what do you like best about the process and what are some of the larger challenges you face?
I love the artistic freedom, first and foremost – and I love working with actors. I love re-writing characters for actor-as-character, discovering unique speech patterns and adapting dialogue for specific idiosyncrasies.
Our greatest challenge in independent filmmaking the same one everyone faces – which is finding the financing. I’m constantly exploring and researching every avenue when it comes to that space – from googling investors in oil companies to reaching out to individuals overseas for private equity. The biggest thing is finding someone to champion your vision as a filmmaker and the story you are passionate about.
Our site dedicates a lot of writing to moments in film that have significance and impact in cinema. Are there any moments – or movies in general – that have had great influence on you?
The first time I read The Old Man and the Sea, which was my very first novel as a youngster, I fell in love with language. When I first saw The Black Stallion, and later Titanic – I fell in love with cinema.
Terence Malick is a huge inspiration for me visually – Days of Heaven particularly for light, which was shot entirely at sunrise and sunset. When I referenced that to my producer on Deserted I thought he was going to have a heart attack! Other references would be e.e. cummings, Gus van Sant, and the aforementioned Malbec.
Thanks so much for taking this time. Best of luck to you and we look forward to seeing more of your work soon.
Thank you for the lovely interview and I’m so glad you enjoyed Deserted.