Heads spinning with Aisha Tyler's directorial debut feature: Axis
Aisha Tyler, the actress most well know for the animated series Archer, Criminal Minds and Friends, talks to us about her work as a writer, producer and director on debut feature Axis, honing her craft by visiting the sets Penny Dreadful and Vikings over in Ireland, and the out-of-body experience when screening her work to an audience for the first time.
It was at the Heroes & Villains Fan Fest I had the chance to meet Aisha Tyler. She was in London to meet with excited Archer fans and no doubt hear the words 'danger zone' on more than one occasion. What many of those fans would not have known, is that the magnificently bearded Irishman alongside her was Emmett Hughes, the writer and star of the independent feature film and her directorial debut Axis.
Ambitious yet low-key in its storytelling, the action of Axis takes place entirely within the confines of a car and one man's commute from one side of LA to another. That man is Tristan Blake, a bad boy Hollywood star and former addict, whose sobriety is threatened by a series of devastating events and phone conversations that force him to confront his rocky past.
A few weeks after the fest, Aisha and I also catch up on the phone to talk more about the making of the film and the significant challenges of creating a compelling story within such a restricted visual landscape. However, my first question must reference a bold claim on the film's Kickstarter campaign page that Aisha 'knows all the words to The Terminator'. She laughs.
"If I am watching The Terminator, I can confidently recite, I would say, about 85% of the dialogue. It came into my life at such a seminal time when I was a kid. I remember so vividly being so energised it, which I know is a weird movie to be excited by. I've always loved science fiction. It was one of the first sci-fi movies I saw as a kid that was just utterly cool. I was obsessed with computers and technology, so it touched me in a way that a movie like Alien didn't. Yes, I am a big fan of that movie."
I note that in terms of storytelling, there are similarities between The Terminator and Axis, with both stories being told over a condensed period of time - one in a single night, and the other in one afternoon.
"It's funny that you pointed that out. I hadn't really thought about it until now. Yes. I love that urgency, honestly. I do love compressed stories, and I also love seeing ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Those are some of my favourite films. In the first Terminator movie, Sarah Connor was just an ordinary woman confronting a very extraordinary set of circumstances. It was also again (along with Alien) one of the first movies that I ever saw with a female heroine. Of course, Reese shows up and makes pipe bombs, but she's really the centre of the story. I think I was really affected by that as well."
At the centre of this story is a man who never leaves his car. It's a common tool of independent filmmakers to limit the scale of a low-budget feature. Keeping the story to a limited number of locations with a small number of actors helps keeps logistics and costs to a more manageable level, but to be so deliberately limited in this way must have presented many challenges for Aisha as a director. What made her choose this method to tell the story?
"Well, it was written that way [laughs]. It was written that way when it came to me. I really loved it. With first films and with independent films, it can be very smart to keep everything confined to a single location. It just helps you manage variables. Once we put it in the car, then it really became an act of discipline because when you have a movie where you can move people around, move things around, change scenery, you're just giving yourself a bunch of opportunities to divert the attention of the audience or dazzle them with fripperies rather than focusing on the story and the characters.
In fact, when we went into production, right before we started shooting, my DP Lowell A. Meyer and I actually signed a dogma document for the film. One of the rules was that we absolutely could not leave the car. We had to solve our problems within the confines this space.
That was an artistic discipline that we applied to the film. You get out of the car and all of a sudden you've got movement, you've got other stuff, and then the construct starts to break down. The creative discipline was to stay in the car. In fact, every frame of the movie, with the exception of the first one and the last one, has some part of Tristan in frame. He never leaves frame, and that was purposeful. It was to create a connection because you are spending all your time with this guy, so it's important to feel connected to him. That choice allowed us to really force the connection with the audience and really make them feel connected to him throughout the film, during the times when he was behaving delightfully and the times when he was behaving un-likable.
Art is a set of boundaries that the artists sets themselves. Once you set the parameters of your equation, then it's up to you to solve the equation within those parameters. The broader that you make those parameters, the more problems you create for yourself to solve. We were like, "These are our boundaries. Now, how do we make this movie dynamic and exciting within these boundaries?"
One of the ways that we did that was by shooting the movie during the day so that we had this one contained set which was the car. We had a secondary, larger and more dynamic ever-changing set, which was the city in Los Angeles. That was really how we got our dynamism in this film."
What primarily keeps the pace and drama of the film ticking along is front man Emmett Hughes, carrying an the entire film on his shoulders. He's supported by the voice performances of many great actors who call Tristan in his car (including Oscar-winner Sam Rockwell and Jerry Ferrara playing themselves, as well as Ciarán Hinds, Emily Bett Rickards, Thomas Gibson and Aisha herself), but it's Hughes' engagement and reactions to these conversations - in real life responding to a reader hidden on the back seat - the drives the film literally and figuratively.
"I think he did a great job. I think what you can't tell when you're watching the film is that he was in this Mercedes Benz jeep in 90-degree Los Angeles heat with no air-conditioning for hours with the windows rolled up. He was just absolutely melting. The windows would fog up because we couldn't run the air and you couldn't roll the windows down. He's a extraordinarily hard-working actor.
We'd stop and then he'd get out a chamois cloth and he'd wipe the windows down to make sure they matched because with the time for a crew member to get inside the car and wipe the window down and get back out was slowing the day down too much. He was just doing everything in there, doing the lines, maintaining continuity, making sure he wasn't sweaty. He had makeup in there and he'd touched himself up because it would've taken too long for makeup to come in and touch him up. He was hot and uncomfortable, never complained. He had a reader in the back. I'll speak from my own experience as an actor, we often have readers on set at Criminal Minds and we all joke about how hard it is not to look at the reader [chuckles] whose voice was supposed to be out through the phone. It's just a natural human instinct to look at the person who is speaking. They're in the corner when really they're supposed to be coming through a speakerphone. He did a wonderful job of making all of that real under really challenging circumstances.
He was physically just wildly uncomfortable for those six days. He got a terrible sunburn on the first day of production because he put sunscreen on in the morning and then was doing the whole scene in a car with the top down and just sweated throughout the day, and never complained, never asked for shade and then just had a terrible sunburn on day two that we had to cover with makeup. He was just a champion and never once said, "Hey, guys. I'm uncomfortable."
As a redhead with Irish heritage, I wince and sympathise throughout this tale. What a trooper. All that burning would prove to be worth it, however.
Another interesting aspect to production was that the entire film was shot on practically every day of filming. This meant that any opportunities missed or conceived during filming could simply be captured on another day - not a luxury many filmmakers have.
"Yes, we shot the film every day, all the way through. We finished the first 15 pages by about 1pm or 2pm on the first day, plus one big dynamic shot that we shot in the afternoon. Then, the rest of the film, the next 65-70 pages, we shot all the way through every day and just changed camera angles each day. Then the very last scene we shot on the very last day. That allowed us to get a lot of movie very quickly. We had three cameras rolling at all times. By about day three, we actually had a movie in the can. Maybe it wasn't all of the movie that I wanted, but we had a movie at that point. When we only had seven days to make a film, urgency was really important. Aggression was really important, and how much movie can we acquire in a really short space.
I think filmmakers understand that. I know actors understand this, that typically you walk out of a location and you think, "Damn it, I wish I had one more shot at that scene," but you're out of that location and you're never going back. You're done with that scene. Every single day, we got to do the movie all the way through over again. We got to rethink choices we've made previously, and the actor got to come at the performance from a different perspective. We had so many takes and so many angles. It was really aggressive and difficult to handle with a lot of material to do, but it also was really liberating. By day four, I was saying to Emmett, "Look, you can just play it out, be uninhibited. We've shot this movie. Really melt into these moments now because you don't have to worry about whether we have it. We have it." It was great for him, it was great for me. I would make a movie like that again in a heartbeat, 100%."
Axis may have been Aisha's feature debut, but it was not her first time directing nor collaborating with Emmett Hughes. The pair met in Ireland while Aisha was visiting various TV sets, and they later created the short film Ar Scáth le Chéile, again directed by Tyler and written by and starring Hughes.
"I was over in Ireland shadowing, which is a very fancy term for just hanging out on someone else's set. I was getting ready to direct a feature. I didn't know what it was going to be yet. I had been invited over by a friend, John Logan, who created Penny Dreadful. I hung out there and then I ended up hanging out on another set for a show called Vikings that shoots out of Dublin, and just spent the week in Ireland. That's how I met Emmett. Emmett's a writer/actor, another friend of ours is an actor/composer, they wanted to make a film together and pitched it to me and said, "Hey, you want to come to make a movie in Ireland?" I was like, "You had me at Ireland."
Emmett wrote that piece specifically for me to direct. It was called Ar Scáth le Chéile (The Shadow Of Our Togetherness). It was just a beautiful little movie about two brothers who were separated as children and come back together as adults. It's almost a silent film, honestly. Most of it takes place without dialogue. It was really just elegant and interesting and I had a great time. We shot that movie in two and a half days in Galway. It was my first narrative short. I had done a bunch of music piece shorts. Then, another piece that was essentially silent. That was an action short. That was my first real narrative short even though there's very little dialogue in the movie. It was just a great, great experience and really beautiful to produce. Emmett produced it. I really just showed up for the last tech scout and then shot the film the next day."
So having had the opportunity to visit the set of Penny Dreadful, what were the lessons she took away from that experience and applied to her own filmmaking?
"Not anything specific. I will say with Penny Dreadful, when I was invited over they ended up not being in principal photography. That was a little frustrating. Mainly what I did was just hang out and look at the set. I took a lot away from that show as a fan and as an artist, because it's really was and remains one of my favorite television shows of all time. It was just really elegant and transcendent. For people who don't know the show, it's a re-envisioning of these classic horror tales.
I think I remember taking away from that show and from John's writing, the value of creative ambition and of not underestimating the intelligence of your audience, of trusting them to make wreaths of logic on their and not telling them the answer to everything.
In Axis, there's a lot of intentional ambiguity. There are a lot of questions that are left unanswered at the end of the film. That's really important to Emmett as a writer. What's important to me as a director is to give the audience some work to do because modern filmmaking, especially Western modern filmmaking, Americans specifically, is very much about tying off every loose thread. Without giving it away, there are things that happen in Axis, and they're just unresolved because in real life things are just unresolved. Sometimes you miss a phone call, you don't open the door, you walked by someone on the street without realising it's them. That's just the nature of being alive. Films have the tendency to pay every character, pay every deed in a way that's really unnatural.
I think that maybe my experience shadowing on Penny Dreadful just reinforced my belief in the idea that you don't need to tell the audience the answer to everything. Let them draw up some of their own conclusions, and in that way engage them in the creation of art. With a painting, I see a car and you see a duck. We're both right. I think that's important in filmmaking as well."
While Aisha didn't take any specific lessons away with her from her time on Penny Dreadful, what pieces of advice does she have to offer filmmakers after her time making Axis.
"I'll give you two. The first one is something that every director will ever tell you, "Prep. Do your homework, prep, prep, prep, prepare." That's not about rigidity. That's just about trying to forecast all variables, which you can't do. You'll prep and something will happen that you couldn't have prepared for. At least you prepared for most of what you could've anticipated. It makes you more nimble. It’s not about a plan that you don't deviate from. It's really just about giving you flexibility, making you better able to deal with unexpected occurrences on set. This movie was really well prepped and a million things still went wrong.
The battery died on the jeep when the window was down and we had to pull over and de-rig all of the camera equipment so we could jump-start the car to get the window back up. We got stuck behind a jackknifed big rig one day. [chuckles] We couldn't park and we're just stuck on a hill for an hour and a half while they got this big rig going. We started so late on one day that none of the light matched on that day at all. We had to throw out a whole day's worth of work. Because of the way we prepared, we were just able to navigate around every single thing that went wrong. That's the first thing.
I think the second thing is something that I didn't do on this show because we were going so fast and there were so many things to do all day. Rest was really important to me that I actually didn't look at dailies. I scrubbed the dailies to make sure that I was getting footage, but I didn't do the traditional daily review. A big reason is that on a regular movie if you shot all day and you looked at your selects, maybe you have 12 minutes or 15 minutes of daily footage. You've shot three or four scenes. You've pulled three or four takes maybe each of those takes is one or two minutes long, so maybe you've got 30 minutes of dailies to look at the end of the day on a good day. You’ve got a team that's going to set the dailies up for you, and you go in the room and you screen the dailies, do your balm and you go to bed. Well, it wasn't like on that show. I was getting like nine hours of footage at the end of the day. There was just no way to review that stuff properly.
I really do wish that I had screened my dailies because they're just little tiny things I would have done differently every day, minuscule things meaning that no one would notice but lime and my editor when I was in the editing room. There's just little tweaks I would of made in my approach to the footage that would've given me more options in the edit room that I'll do on my next movie. They weren't catastrophic changes. I'm really OCD, so I see microscopic issues that probably a lot of people don't see. Well, maybe directors do see, and giving myself more connective tissue, more footage top and bottom in my takes that I'll do on the next movie. I do think that you trust the people around you and you just hope you have a movie at the end of the day."
And with that movie finished, it was time to show it to the world. The film premiered at the Sarasota Film Festival, then afterwards screened at the Newport Beach Film Festival. What was it like seeing the film with an audience for the first time?
"Such a good question. I don't think I watched it then. [laughs] I think that I went over to a bar and drank. I think that I introduced the movie and I made sure that the sound and picture were proper, and then I left and had a cocktail. The first time that I watched the movie all the way through with an audience was probably when I screened it for some peers, some artistic peers to get notes. That was during the editing process.
It’s funny. A lot of times with art, you start to have these out-of-body experiences where you can't really remember anything that happened when you were watching your movie other then you're watching the bodies of the people around you and how they're reacting. I will say that the first time that I watched it with an audience what I was most pleased about was that people were reacting the way that I wanted them to react in the places that I want them to react. They were feeling the emotions that I intended in the right places [chuckles]. Then people reacted in unexpected places in other parts of the movie. That was really interesting and exciting to me.
Every director will tell you that mainly what you feel when you're watching a movie for the first time with an audience is that you have to vomit. That feeling persists throughout the entire screening of the film, just overwhelming need to throw up accompanied by like teeth clenching and digging nails into your own flesh."
And just like Aisha, none of us would have it any other way.
You can follow Aisha on Twitter: @AishaTyler