Atlantic Filmmaker Focus - Ashley McKenzie

The Atlantic Film Festival is a champion of Atlantic Canadian filmmakers. In keeping with this promise, every month we profile some of the most incredibly talented people in the filmmaking industry today. This month, we look at director/writer, Ashley McKenzie.
Ashley’s most recent project, a short film titled, STRAY, screened at this year’s Atlantic Film Festival and Festival du Nouveau Cinéma, in Montreal. 

Ashley McKenzie

DOB: October 20, 1984
From: New Waterford, Nova Scotia
Currently Residing: New Waterford, Nova Scotia
Working On: Writing her first feature, TRAIN WHISTLE DOES NOT BLOW, which is about a vagrant, methadone-dependent couple that goes door to door in their town with a lawn mower, begging to cut people’s grass for quick cash.

AFF: What first got you interested in film?
AM: My interest in film grew out of being bored as a young teen. I wanted to experience new and different things, but felt very isolated in my small town, so I started schooling myself in cinema. This opened my world up and made it feel big and boundary-less. I would go alone to the theatre to see films. Or I would go with friends but break away from the group to see a more obscure film by myself. Cinema shaped who I was during these formative years and became the language through which I understood the world.

AFF: When did you first decide filmmaking would be a career path for you?
AM: It was mostly an implicit decision I made in those early years. I recall writing down “film director” as my future occupation on forms I had to fill out in junior high school. I reiterated this to my guidance counselor in high school. I never seriously considered charting any other career path.
AFF: What in your opinion makes a good film?
AM: I get excited when a film captures something of life that is so true and honest that it feels like a secret I’d been harboring inside is suddenly flashing across the screen. A good film can remind me of the many different parts of myself in this way. It can penetrate the surface of the everyday to get at incisive truths. When a film does this– be it fantastical, grim, convoluted, or mundane– it always leaves me smiling or feeling affirmed as a human.
AFF: Is there any local talent that you haven’t worked with that you would like to?
AM: I’m looking forward to working with Jason Buxton on my first feature. He’s a producer on the project. As for actors, I’m hoping to work largely with undiscovered local talent. Collaborating with nonprofessional actors is an important part of my cinematic style and storytelling.
AFF: What advice would you give an aspiring filmmaker?
AM: I would pass on advice voiced by Robert Bresson - “Make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen.” On a more practical level, I would say to work with people who understand your vision. Never compromise, because there is enough compromise already inherent in the filmmaking process. Be bold and free in your cinema.

AFF: How did you go about casting your young lead for STRAY?
AM: I knew I wanted to cast a local, nonprofessional actor in the lead, so my producer, Nelson MacDonald and I went scouting for talent throughout elementary schools in Cape Breton. We held 5-minute interviews with around 125 girls in the age range of our character, Savannah. This allowed us to get a quick sense of each girl’s look, innate character, and capacity to role-play.
We shortlisted about 15 girls and did workshops with them which entailed participating in acting exercises and playing a scene from the film. We filmed these workshops and then narrowed it down to 3 girls, who we auditioned further. I did camera tests with these girls and took them outside to get a sense of how naturally they carry themselves.  It was difficult making the final casting choice but it came down to Brooklyn Campbell having the right balance of authenticity, maturity, and her ability to respond to my direction.

AFF: What was the inspiration for the story?
AM: STRAY draws on the textures of my childhood and what it was like growing up amongst the industrial landscape of Cape Breton. Being a hypersensitive kid, I was quick to cry and often obsessing over the welfare of feral cats. These soft emotions felt at odds with the landscape around me. The character of Savannah was developed as a specimen of this sort of sensibility. I tried to approach the story as a conceptual study of her movements and repose within a harsh environment.
AFF: STRAY was shot using film instead of digitally. What made you decide to go that route?
AM: All my shorts have been shot on film. It is the medium that best lends itself to the tone and grittiness of the stories I choose to tell. It helps encapsulate my cinematic universe, binding it with a lived-in texture and timelessness. STRAY would feel dramatically different if it was shot on a digital medium using a RED, Alexa, or a DSLR. By shooting on Super 16mm, I think STRAY evokes a feeling that it could have been filmed in the 70s, then buried in the ground somewhere, only to be exhumed and experienced now.

AFF: You used IndieGoGo to raise funds for STRAY. Is that something you would do again and do you consider crowdsourcing to be a viable way for filmmakers to fund their projects?
AM: I won’t say that I’ll never do it but it’s unlikely. I prefer to see crowdfunding as a last resort. Next time, I’d more likely go out West and work in a camp for a few months, to raise the funds independently. 
I do think it’s great to have options like IndieGoGo. The more funding avenues the better because frankly we need them all. But I don’t see crowdfunding as viable in a comprehensive way . . . only in specialized cases, like when a filmmaker is raising a micro-budget or when they have a fan base connected to pop or celebrity culture. 
AFF: STRAY was shot in Cape Breton, even though it would have been more cost-effective to shoot elsewhere. Why did you feel such a drive to shoot there?
AM: It comes back to the Bresson quote from earlier and the desire to offer something of myself in my films.  I understand and am inspired by Cape Breton more than anything else in my life right now. So there is a huge drive to explore and mine that. If I were to shoot elsewhere because of cost-effectiveness then I’d be making completely different films that are less personal to me. Expressing myself as well as my interests, in the most honest way I can, is what filmmaking is all about for me. So I don’t second-guess where I shoot because it’s so inherent in what I’m doing.
AFF: What were the key themes or messages that you wanted to convey to the audience?
AM: I want to avoid over-defining my personal intentions, as I think it might actually limit what the work has to offer once it goes out into the world. To defer to a master again, Tarkovsky had this to say, “Never try to convey your idea to the audience. It is a thankless and senseless task. Show them life and they’ll find within themselves the means to assess and appreciate it.”  
I have organizing ideas and questions in mind that drive the creation of my work, but I think those are mostly things I need to crystallize for myself in order to craft a solid film. The audience is then free to engage with it on a bigger level. The feedback to STRAY I’ve received so far has been insightful and eloquent in ways that I would never want to restrict.

AFF: Were there any other pieces of work that you took inspiration from for the atmosphere and style of STRAY.
AM: The style of Lucrecia Martel’s THE HEADLESS WOMAN (2008) had a big impact on me when I watched it. Martel frames a lot of the film in close ups that deny the viewer a complete portrait of the scene. Situations and characters remain very mysterious which I found to be enthralling. It was a huge reminder that less really can be more. This was important to me at the time, because I was interested in exploring off-screen space in STRAY as well as minimalizing the narrative and constructing a slow burn atmosphere. So the experience of watching THE HEADLESS WOMAN really encouraged me to not shy away from pushing those stylistic choices as far as possible. 
AFF: What were your favorite scenes of the film? Was there a special moment during the making of the film that you will always remember?
AM: From the earliest conception of STRAY, I visualized using these slow creeping zooms. They were essential to the storytelling for me but also the thing I was challenged on most by my collaborators, who expressed concerns like, “I understand everything that you’re doing except for the zooms,” or “I don’t see how you’ll make them work.” I’d respond that they were my favorite part of the film! If I had done anything right, I thought for sure it had to be the zoom shots. By the time the film was complete, everybody was onboard. And they still are my favorite.  
The humor that Brooklyn Campbell, who plays Savannah, brought to set was the most special part of the shooting process. She had nicknames for all the crew and never missed an opportunity to exercise her razor-sharp humor. There was one time, late in the day, when two consecutive long takes that we thought we’d nailed, ended up having hairs in the gate. Brooklyn diffused all our stress by jokingly calling out our Gaffer for getting his “beard hairs in the gate every time!” 

AFF: It used to be the only place to see short films was at festivals. Now, there are additional ways to access that audience, such as DOWNLOAD and NSI’s Online Short Film Festival (where people can currently watch Rhonda’s Party). Do online distribution opportunities inform the content or the shooting style of your short films?
AM: Hell no.

AFF: When is the next opportunity people will have to watch STRAY?
AM: STRAY, screens this coming Monday, November 18th in Toronto at an event organized by Medium Density Fibreboard Films (MDFF). It plays at 8PM before the feature films FOGO and MA BELLE GOSSE at Double Double Land. STRAY also screens at Cinéma Excentris, in Montreal, on November 28th at 7PM. It plays in a program of Canadian short films, all of which are represented by La Distributrice de films. The next local opportunity I hope will be at the 2014 Halifax Independent Filmmakers Festival. 
Thanks so much for talking with us, Ashley!
You can also catch Ashley’s short film, WHEN YOU SLEEP on DOWNLOAD, here November 30th, 2013. DOWNLOAD, is presented by CBC and the Atlantic Film Festival.