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Junkyard Theory: Directing emotions in film with Ashley Avis

By Kavishna Wijesinghe

Ashley Avis, the American screenwriter, director, and producer who is behind feature films such as Deserted (2016), Adolescence (2018), and recently Disney’s Black Beauty (2020) starring Mackenzie Foy and Kate Winslet, spoke to Junkyard Theory about her journey in the industry.

When questioned about her venture into film, Ashley revealed that it was her childhood aspiration to become a children’s book author, which guided her way into the film industry. She stated she was inspired by novels such as Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty and Walter Farley’s Black Stallion. Coming to New York and working as a journalist for Nielsen Media, Ashley realised that it wasn’t her cup of tea and later started interning at a film production company. There, she got to read many screenplays and started writing stuff of her own.

Ashley marked her baby steps with producing a spec pilot and it fell into the radar of the Lionsgate Studios Founder, which was the window into realising her love for directing, screenwriting, and producing.

 

Ashley Avis in conversation with Akash Sunethkumara

Making ‘Black Beauty’

Ashley claimed that even though independent filmmaking is intense, once initiated, there is an energy regardless of the possibilities. It might take a decade to become successful, but the motivation should not be terminated. “A filmmaker cannot let the timing be daunting; it’s important to embrace the challenges along the way.”

The story of Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty sculpted Ashley’s life, and the love for horses has given her the strength to raise awareness for a purposeful change. “Horses are treated disrespectfully even today,” she said. “The message given in the film is very much required in the present day as well.”

Ashley also mentioned that working with star Mackenzie Foy (Interstellar, The Nutcracker) was very exciting as she was “a beautiful, bright soul who has a very down-to-earth and sensible personality”. Mackenzie also became the Ambassador of their Wild Beauty Foundation to help the horses battling different forms of cancer.

Ashley also revealed that authenticity in filmmaking was extremely valuable to her and Mackenzie began training months prior to the filming, as she needed to have the physicality, and this resulted in her developing an amazing connection with the horses where they could capture the scenes very authentically.

When questioned on how she managed to keep the essence of the original story but adapt it into a more modern setting, Ashley stated that trying to find modern-day parallels and conducting lots of research helped in this task. Additionally, she revealed that she went through multiple drafts of the screenplay, incorporating advice from the studio time and again.

 

Working with animals

In the film industry, working with animals is usually considered a difficult task that should be avoided unless absolutely necessary. Ashley, being a horse person, was very excited to work with them, but she admitted that it was challenging at the same time. “The constant hyper-conscious attitude made it clear that all the animals and the crew were safe.”

She said they even formed a horse-safe path in South Africa where they shot Black Beauty, which has now become a hiking trail.

Additionally, Ashley wanted to edit the movie herself in order to preserve the originality of the movements of the horse’s body. She shared that she knew some segments from the opening scene would be left on the cutting room floor as it was originally way longer, but that she also understood why it had to be done. When questioned on the process of the film being acquired by Disney, she said the studio understood the movie and was supportive throughout the entire process, including marketing.

 

Ashley with Iain Glen, aka. Ser Jorah from ‘Game of Thrones’

Dealing with criticism

Ashley also stated that receiving feedback on a film could be very pressurising to filmmakers, and even emotional, but people have different opinions as they have different perspectives of life. She believes that creators should have the ability to get through those tumultuous days, taking criticism constructively and to keep pushing forward.

 

Advice for filmmakers

Ashley also believes that cash is not the base of everything when it comes to film. It’s time. “Using time as wisely as possible is the best investment. As filmmakers, problems may occur along the way, but what is important is the ability to resolve it calmly without panicking.”

Ashley also encourages young filmmakers to be fearless and to always spread a message through their creations. “These creations are going to live somewhere and change someone’s life. The power of storytelling is immense. Therefore, be fearless with your pursuits.”

 

The full conversation with Ashley Avis can be found on the Junkyard Theory YouTube channel.

 

Junkyard Theory is Sri Lanka’s first and only film education platform that brings on veteran filmmakers from Hollywood as guest speakers. Their webinars, hosted by Akash Sunethkumara, have been recognised on industry sites such as “No Film School”, and the team now runs film courses for upcoming filmmakers in the country.