Ashley Avis is an American screenwriter and filmmaker. She was born in Chicago, Illinois to Richard Avis and Victoria Woods, and has one brother, Richard Avis. She is married to Edward Winters, who is her partner in their Los Angeles based production company, Winterstone Pictures.
Read our FILMMAKER Q&A with ASHLEY AVIS:
Why Do You Make Movies?
“I’ve always had a great love for a number of things that apply to my pursuits now in film: language, poetry, striking visuals and landscapes, the temperature of light, and human psychology - especially as related to love. Those are the elements that I think translate best to what I seek out to tell and photograph in the films that I’ve done, and the ones I hope to do.
“When I was a kid, I thought I would become a novelist. I was very shy when I was younger, reading a book a day, just consuming everything I could read. I loved the escapism of books, of faraway places, of transformation or swan stories. Getting to live multiple lives through those stories and characters. I think that is why I so deeply love what I do now - helping to create a translation from the written page to a visual experience for an audience, one that is visually beautiful and emotionally captivating.
“My influences range from e.e. cummings to Hemingway to Anne McCaffery’s science fiction novels (I would readily give a non-essential appendage to direct her Dragonriders of Pern series) to Terence Malick and Gus van Sant. I love anything nautical. I am drawn to landscapes, striking scenery, and intimate complex character relationships.
“I suppose the simplest answer to why I make films is because I love every aspect of the process - from development, to production, to post.”
What story do you want to tell?
The films that I want to tell are very visual (I’m drawn to stories set against striking landscapes or settings), and psychologically intimate. I am also very drawn to love stories - often unconventional ones.
I am currently developing a beautiful Lem Dobbs script, a tragic love story set in Hollywood in the 1980s called TRANCAS. That is a script I have been fighting to get going for the past several years. I’m also developing a project with Cary Granat (Chronicles of Narnia) entitled 800, based on the inspirational true story of two time Olympian Prince Mumba of Zambia. That film very much intertwines a love story too, In Prince’s life long search for the love of his life, a Muslim girl who was ripped away from him as a child due to their religious differences. I met Prince in an Uber about five years ago, we became friends, and I’ve been championing his story ever since. We are developing a feature, a documentary, and a book.
Another project, which is a bit different for me, is something I recently completed for producer Willie Kutner called FELONY AFFIAR - a psychological thriller that I set in Thousand Islands New York (I chose the location for both visuals and tax credits!) and that story is based on a wife’s manipulation of the felony murder rule. FELONY is very different from TRANCAS or 800 - it is a bit dark, highly intricate when it comes to the legal system (that research was challenging but very rewarding), and my goal with this script and story is that every character is fallible. What they do, even if their actions are wrong, is somehow understandable on a human level.
Lastly, while I cannot speak to the title of this yet as it hasn’t been announced, I am writing and directing a project for Constantin Films which should be announced very soon. What I can say is that the film is based on a classic novel and will incorporate two of my great loves - filmmaking, and my former life as an equestrian. I think this film, for Constantin, is very much a dream project for me. Visually, nautically, in story, and deeply in heart. A very defining film.
I can’t wait to announce it!
What’s your story?
I grew up always wanting to be a writer, to the point of reading books when my family and I would go to major league baseballs games, and carrying around a thick red Thesaurus everywhere I went (I was well beyond a bookworm). I loved words, and had my favorite synonyms typed out and pasted to my childhood bedroom wall. I thought I would become a novelist, as I loved poetry and science fiction fantasy. Anything nautical, anything escapist, anything Hemingway. Other worlds and transformation stories.
The very first novel I read with my father was Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. I think that is a good parallel to what made me fall in love with screenplays. Hemingway’s writing is so striking, but he uses words simply, to great effect. In a screenplay, and the writing of it, you have such limited real estate to create something beautiful and powerful and emotive. That is such an incredible challenge to writing that way, and one of the reasons why I love the screenplay medium.
I didn’t realize I wanted to become a director until I was twenty-two. I never thought it was something I’d ever want to do. But after my first project, everything changed. Here’s how it happened:
I was born in Chicago, grew up in St. Petersburg, Florida, and went to school in New York City. In college I double majored in international business and marketing at a small school in Riverdale, New York called Manhattan College. I didn’t really want the college experience, and kind of fought against it, as I had desperately wanted to study creative writing or journalism at one of the big schools - NYU, Columbia. But they were expensive, and Manhattan had offered me a scholarship. I graduated in less than three years with two degrees and no debt from Manhattan, which was a beautiful school. It was the best decision I could have possibly made (and a big thanks to my Dad for convincing me to take the scholarship).
While in college, I really wanted to get out into the real world and start working. My first semester as a freshman, I was eighteen, I took the real estate exam and got a job working for Corcoran / Citi Habitats so I could live in the city. I also ran a web design company, taught ballroom dancing to wedding couples (Nat King Cole’s L-O-V-E will never be the same for me), and worked as a journalist for Nielsen Media’s Backstage Magazine. Anything to stay afloat in Manhattan.
It was during college that I dabbled in theater and discovered screenplays. At once and all of a sudden, that style of writing made sense to me. It was poetry and storytelling combined, in a different form. I struggled through Economics from that point in because all I wanted to do was work on trying my hand at my own screenplays.
In 2011 I graduated at twenty one and used my savings to move out to Los Angeles at twenty two. I moved to the Miracle Mile and lived in a house with three actresses, sleeping on a futon in their kitchen nook. It was here that I wrote my first spec pilot, based on my experiences with these unique, hilarious women - who among other things, sold their eggs to an in vitro clinic in Beverly Hills to pay for their acting pursuits and living expenses. How can you not write about that?
After I moved out and relocated to Venice Beach, I started flipping mid century modern furniture on Craigslist (a story for another day), and saved up a few thousand dollars to shoot a spec pilot I had written inspired by my first few months in LA. Because I couldn’t hire a producer or a director, I did both jobs myself. It was during that project that I realized that I wanted to direct. I loved working with actors, I was thrilled at the challenge of turning my words into the visuals I had in my head. We shot a twenty five minute pilot, and I ended up casting one of the actresses from that first house with the futon.
Through a series of very serendipitous events, including posting a teaser of the project to an international business form online (this was before IndieGoGo or Kickstarter were popular), the pilot got in front of Frank Giustra, the founder of Lionsgate.
Frank happened to think it was funny, and I was able to pitch it to him. He financed three episodes, and while the show never went, it changed everything.
From there, Frank hired me to direct and produce a classical music documentary called Opus X in 2012. I was starting to build a small portfolio of work. This lead to my first sizable commercial client - of whom is still my client today - The Cali Group. I’ve done 60+ spots for them, projects that have seen well over a billion impressions internationally in 15+ countries. That year I formed my own production company called Alchemy Pictures.
In 2013, which would prove to be a pivotal year, I was hired to write a screenplay adaptation based on a novel (about a female solider turned CIA operative) for Todd Labarowski of Dreambridge Films, which was my first big screenplay assignment. 2013 was also the year that, while ironically directing a spot for The Cali Group, I met my now husband and producing partner Edward Winters.
Ed came from the financial world in New York, and as we began dating he saw how much was on my plate. I was writing, directing, and producing all the work I was taking on and it was progressively overwhelming as the jobs got bigger. He began helping me, and that relationship turned into the perfect marriage (in both business and love), and Ed became my producing partner. We complement each other beautifully. I am a creative but also a producer - I love the business side, but hate the financials. Ed is firmly on the business and financial side, but he’s also very creative and gives excellent notes. He’s great with people.
In 2014 we got our first feature off the ground, which I wrote and directed and we produced together called DESERTED. The movie starred Mischa Barton, Jackson Davis, Winter Ave Zoli, Jake Busey, Michael Milford, Sebastian Bach, and Gerry Bednob. Mischa delivered an incredibly powerful performance, and I nearly fell out of my chair when Jake Busey accepted the offer of a cameo I had written for him.
This was a movie that I wrote initially to a place I wanted to shoot - Death Valley, with its striking sand dunes, salt flats, sweeping vistas and striking and variant topography. Shooting the movie in January, my quest to film most of the scenes at sunrise and sunset was more naturally accommodated by the shorter days we had in winter. Somehow Ed and I passionately convinced a wonderful editor, Douglas Crise (Birdman, Babel) to edit the film.
In 2016, I directed my second feature ADOLESCENCE. The film is a coming of age story that follows a teenager from an abusive household named Adam (Mickey River), who falls in love with a beautiful runaway on Venice Beach (India Eisley). Alice lures Adam into her lifestyle of parties, drugs, and eventually heroine. Adam’s best friend Keith (Romeo Miller) steps in to save him, with the help of Alice’s surrogate father, a former musician named Shepherd (Tommy Flanagan). The film also stars Elisabeth Rohm, Michael Milford, Jere Burns, and John Driskell Hopkins. The story is based on the life of Micky River and the screenplay was penned by Mickey, Cal Barnes, Chris Rossi, and myself.
With ADOLESCENCE, my DP Garrett O’Brien and I meticulously plotted out all instances of language in the film: from color (the story is also told through a color progression, from the stuck muted tones of Torrence to vivid colors of Venice Beach, nautical tones of Alice, to sickly colors during their descent into addiction), camera movement (sticks and stagnation in Torrence, handheld and steadicam in Venice), and through the choice of architecture, older vehicles, and production design (spearheaded by the brilliant Michael Paul Clausen). I wanted the film to have a nostalgic quality to it, even though it was set in present day. You’ll notice we show a cell phone screen only once.
Garrett and I did a number of lens tests before we decided on what we shot the film on. We always planned on shooting ARRI Alexa, and ended up falling in love with these vintage, anamorphic C-series lenses from Panavision, which were built in the 60s. Unfortunately for us, there were a finite amount of sets for these rare lenses, we were shooting hte film during pilot season (high demand) and - they were extremely expensive. Ed, who was the lead producer on this film, ended up calling Panavision five or six times to negotiate. Luckily for us, Panavision was incredibly supportive of our little film, and at the end of the day, we got those lenses! The film has a very specific look and landing these lenses really helped to drive this home.
ADOLESCENCE will be released by our wonderful distributor North of Two this year.
In the midst of all of this and up until now, Ed and I have been building up our production company. On the commercial side, we’ve grown - doing spots for bigger and bigger clients. I’ve now directed, and we have produced for, clients like Pfizer, Coca Cola, Mercedes-Benz, Footlocker, and more.
On the film side, we’re in development on several feature and will be producing a sci-fi thriller (also to be announced very soon) with Winkler Films (Rocky franchise, Goodfellas, Creed). We are simultaneously working on the films I mentioned earlier, in TRANCAS, 800, FELONY AFFAIR, and the classic I’m writing and directing that will soon be announced by Constantin. As a writer, I’m also developing several projects on the television side.
I spent about a decade building a base, a foundation, continuing to refine my craft (as I will continue to do for the rest of my life), and really… only now… do I truly feel like all that is happening is at the right time. After over ten years, I now feel very ready.
What do you want to achieve in your craft?
To make people feel. To fall in love, believe in love. Escape. Become empowered, become inspired.
I find mentoring younger people is very important. I get emails often from aspiring actors, or directors, or writers. I think it’s important to respond to every email and I do. I never had an industry mentor, and the progression of my career path has been a matter of learning and flying and crashing and falling on my own as I figured it out along the way. I’d like to help people learn from my journey, my mistakes, my successes and failures. The crazy situations I’ve experienced. One day I’ll definitely write a book.
What message were you trying to relay with Adolescence?
That love isn’t perfect, and comes in many forms. That sometimes letting go is the greatest thing you can do for another person. That something broken can be beautiful. That fighting for who you are and who you care about is important. That the meek can become the bold. That a person can transform.
What was your vision for Adolescence when you were making it?
To make a visually striking film with beautiful, intimate, emotive performances. Center framing, sunsets, vintage lenses, color language, musical choice and musical language, driving home a film that is a symphonic myriad of different languages.
We have a really beautiful cast in the film. It is Mickey River’s story, and he plays the lead. The big casting search was to find the perfect Alice. She is beautiful, but broken, strong, but her soul is tender. When India Eisley walked into the room, and she was the first to audition for Alice, that was just it. No contest. India read, and we went a second time through the sides. I guided her with my voice through a few additional sequences, giving her prompts for things I that wanted to see in the scene.
India and I worked together beautifully, and are developing other projects together, now.
What would you tell a young woman with aspirations to be a filmmaker?
Be fearless. Do the work. Create for yourself. Creating is learning. If you don’t have the money to make something, or to rent a camera, convince people of your vision or save it up. Flip furniture, build websites, do whatever it takes. Like any craft becoming good and having anyone want to trust you, or consider you, or give you any amount of money to make a piece of art with, you need to assure them that you are capable. Build your portfolio, and not just with one or two short films. You need to experience things, and try things, and find out WHY you make decisions. Why are you shooting on that camera? Why are you selecting those lenses? Why does it inform the image you are crafting and creating? What are you attracted to, what genres and style are unique to you and your voice.
Learn about every position, even if it’s just a little bit. Become a producer’s friend. Understand a budget and the constraints that the producers are facing. Work with them. Negotiate with them, get creative. I started editing about ten years ago out of necessity, and now edit almost all of the commercial work I direct. I even edited several sequences in the last feature I directed. Being an editor now hugely informs how I approach scenes, and allows me to trouble shoot. I’d tell anyone who is an aspiring director to learn how to edit. Even if it’s not to do so with your movies. Learn a little of the languages so you can speak them.
As a woman, we have more opportunities than ever before. I’d tell a young woman to take advantage of our time, but not as just a female filmmaker - you and your work must be good enough to stand alone, gender aside.
What has been your biggest struggle as a filmmaker?
Financing. I think that is every filmmaker’s biggest struggle unless you are hugely and independently wealthy! And for me, it was finding the right representation. I had been ‘going at it alone’ for so many years, building my own business while enduring the struggle of staying afloat while pursuing a craft. Only last year, after being represented by several people and companies who weren’t ever quite right, I finally found the person I feel like I was waiting nearly a decade for in my manager now, Jon Brown.
What do you see as the biggest struggle going forward?
Financing. Fighting for my small dramas, my passion projects. Convincing Ed to pursue shooting one of my scripts that takes place on a cross country road trip, and actually shooting it cross country (it is a complete logistical nightmare, but I am determined). Trying to find a single hobby besides my career!
Just kidding on that last one. There is absolutely nothing else, and no where else, I’d ever rather be.