Ashley Avis and Ed Winters – Director and Producer of Deserted

Hello guys, let us start off with your backgrounds?

Ashley – I started as a writer. From a very young age, I always knew that I’d go a literary route of some kind … novels, poetry. I was also a competitive equestrian, so for close to ten years, I was seriously debating following a career on that path.

When I was in my late teens, I decided to go to school in New York City, and amongst a variety of jobs (you have to do everything you can to survive in Manhattan) I was working as a journalist, as well as pursuing acting. Neither journalism or acting ever really felt like the perfect fit for me …but during that span of time, I was reading hundreds of screenplays.  It clicked nearly instantaneously. I loved that style of writing! It felt like poetry, and the ability to translate something into a visual medium was extremely exciting.  So I began learning that structure and writing screenplays.

I moved to Los Angeles in 2009 and produced my first spec pilot with about two thousand dollars.  Because that project was beyond low budget and tiny, I also didn’t have the funds to hire a director so that became my foray into directing. That pilot was seen by the founder of Lionsgate Entertainment, who financed three episodes. While the show never went anywhere, he went on to hire me to direct a classical music documentary, The Making of Opus X, which really cemented my desire to not just write …but direct. I fell in love with that feeling of conducting a visual symphony. I also taught myself to edit, so I edit nearly everything we produce.  Over the past five years, I’ve now directed over 70 projects, including international commercial campaigns, music videos, several pilots, and now this feature film.  I met my fiancé, Edward Winters two years ago on a project and he is now the brilliant producer behind our production company, Alchemy Pictures.

Ed – My background is in finance.  I went to school to study finance, I also played college golf.  In the States playing college golf is a little bit below professional level, so for awhile, like Ashley, that was something I came very close to pursuing.  After college, I was a financial analyst at Merrill Lynch and then I was a relationship manager at a firm called Folio Dynamix, the latter of which I worked at for a year living in New York.

I never had any interest in being in entertainment in any facet whatsoever but when I was laid off at twenty-two, I stumbled into modelling in that downtime. Modelling led to acting, which led to what I thought would be a temporary move to Los Angeles. It was then booked for a feature, which kept me in LA. Staying in LA for longer allowed me to be booked on a short film, which Ashley was directing. That is how we met and started dating. Before long we realized our mutual strengths, hers being the creative side and mine on the business/financial side, and we started working together.

This is your second trip to Cape Town. On your first trip, you got engaged. Firstly what do you think of South Africa and secondly tell us the engagement story?

Ed – It is certainly is very special to us. The decision to come here prompted my decision to propose. I initially had another idea for a few months down the road … my plan was to propose at La Jolla, the fashion film festival because we took our first trip together there, and that is where we become a couple.  The reason I decided to do it here in Cape Town was because a month before the trip, her family was visiting us in Los Angeles.  I didn’t know when I would get to see her father again, or have the opportunity to ask him for her hand, in person.  That was possibly the most nervous moment of my life, and so we flew to Cape Town, I had the ring in my travel bag, and I proposed on our first night there.

Ashley – It was unbelievably romantic!  Ed proposed at Sea Point at sunset. We had flown into Cape Town that the morning. We took a nap in the afternoon, and when we woke up sunset was just creeping in. Ed was really concerned and I didn’t know why.  He said that we should go and see the ocean.  I started getting ready … and he (very sweetly) kept saying, “You look great!  Let’s go!  You don’t need makeup … c’mon!”.

Ed – I thought we were going to miss it!

Ashley – As I learned quite quickly he had been planning to propose at sunset. Nobody was out there, at the Sea Point promenade. The waves were crashing, the wind was wild. Ed bent down on one knee and he asked.  I breathlessly said yes!  As he stood up and we kissed. This runner, who clearly saw everything, circled around us and yelled “Woo!”.

Ed – He is the only witness.

Ashley – He was the only witness to the whole thing, it was amazing, it was such a special moment.  So Cape Town is dear to us for that reason, as well as just being an incredible city.  Ed and I are fortunate to have travelled quite a bit but we just love it here, we love this city, we love South Africa. We are meeting with production companies while we are here as well, we want to shoot two films here.

You guys have been working on a film called Deserted…?

Ed – We have.  We got the first bit of financing for the film in August 2014, and it was small. In retrospect was too small, but it’s hard to get a movie off the ground and we decided that we were going and that if we had to make it for that we would figure out a way to do it. However, as soon as that first financing was in it just grew and grew and grew.  We had one main investor who came aboard and really transformed what we were able to do with the project.

It got to the point that we were able to attract some name talent like Mischa Barton, Winter Ave Zoli from Sons of Anarchy, Lance Henriksen who has been in Aliens and a million other movies like Terminator.  Jake Busey from Enemy of the State. Gerry Bednob who was in the 40-Year-Old Virgin.  Sebastian Bach who is a rockstar.

It just escalated, each step of the way.  We also shot the film quickly, in seventeen shooting days which for a feature is insane. I can very much testify to the fact that it was insane.  I think I speak for both of us in saying that although we had done fifty different spots together and Ashley having directed over seventy projects, this film was a whole different beast.  I think producing a feature is something that you don’t understand until you have done it. I don’t know how to say it other than that it is just simply the best learning experience you can have in filmmaking. You are doing it day in and day out and you are covering every aspect that could possibly be managed.  There are just so many different issues that arise when you are shooting that long, and you learn so much about the whole process.

Ashley – I developed the Deserted script over three and a half years, and it was inspired, initially, by Death Valley.  A cinematographer I worked with years ago showed me photos of the place and Death Valley has simply outstanding typography and it’s extremely varied. You have places that look like Dubai, with these sand dunes for miles and then you have the salt flats just white, crystalline floor as far as you can see.  Huge expanses of terrain, enormous mountains surrounding it all. The desert was very visually inspiring and the story and characters evolved from there. There were over 100 drafts of the script.

Over the course of the past five years as a director (when things really started going) I’ve learned so much, and have gotten to know my own style. My confidence has grown over the years and when Deserted was finally financed, I felt like it was finally time to tackle a feature. I felt ready. As Ed said, we shot the film in 17 days with about six months of pre-production. Edward was amazing, he was the producer of the film. Not only am I fortunate to be in love with the man I work with side by side, but I’m able to fully and explicitly trust my producer.  Ed encourages me creatively and shields me from some of the issues that arise on set so I can stay in my zone.

Working on a condensed shoot schedule was challenging with a small crew, smaller budget, in extreme conditions.  Before we shot people kept saying (with a look in their eye that meant that there is no way we’re going to pull that off) that our film was “highly ambitious”.  Initially, we didn’t have the budget to hire a location scout, so Ed and I made all of the trips to Death Valley and Ridgecrest to find our locations, along with the help of my aspiring filmmaker brother, Richard who’s twenty-three.  When you’re working on an independent film with a small budget you wear a million hats. But thanks to an amazing crew pulled it off.

Ed – Location scouting was fun.

Ashley – It was we had a couple of experiences.  A few months before we started filming where we were scouting the sand dunes, which are a big part of the storyline of the film.  We rented an SUV to drive out to them and the SUV got stuck in the sand. These sand dunes about a mile away from where we got stuck. We got out of the car and stared at them in the distance. I really wanted to go see them, I really wanted to stand on them and figure out everything from every angle…

Ed – …so we were now stuck in the sand, but we could see the sand dunes…

Ashley – …from two miles away.

Ed – I said if we wanted to see them up close we had to walk.

Ashley – I actually didn’t even say anything … I just hung my head a little bit, and Ed asked if I wanted to go stand on them.  I smiled, he sighed and nodded…

Ed – . . . so we started walking . . .

Ashley – . . . these were the sand dunes outside of Death Valley, and from a distance, we noticed there was primarily only this one massive dune.  From far away we were so disappointed it looked small. In Death Valley, they go on forever . . .

Ed – … hundreds and hundreds of them.

Ashley – It looked tiny from a distance but when we finally walked out to it, my gosh it was enormous. Sand dunes are just incredible, and surprisingly firm. So we walked up it and I slid down it. It was amazing. After taking some photos and talking about the scene we wanted to shoot there, Ed and I began walking back to the car. We lost our tracks. We lost the road, we got completely turned around.

Ed – But we were fine.

Ashley – Yes, we were fine.

Ed – There was another road a few miles away and a town a few miles after that. We were not in any real danger.

Ashley – The experience was interesting, though. We were lost for probably forty minutes. Even though we weren’t in grave danger, the feeling was so unnerving.  Everything looks the same out there. In the script, the characters try to climb to high points to get cell reception or to see something, and we went through exactly that. Ed had to walk up two hills before he saw our car and we were over a mile off in the wrong direction. Getting lost in the desert can really happen, and it isn’t hard to do.

In terms of being on set, it was amazing.  We had a very cool cast, and everyone was extremely supportive of one another nobody complained about the hot and the cold drastically varying temperatures, the long days and longer nights. The cast was also really open to playing and excellent at improv, so it was a blast getting to work with them.  The actors really became their characters. It was transformational.

I believe you guys now have the same editor who worked on Birdman working on Deserted?

Ed –  We do.  We are working with a class of talent that filmmakers dream of.  Douglas was nominated for an Academy Award for Babel, he worked on Oceans 11, 12, 13 and so many other films.

Bringing him aboard was about a month long process, he had to read the script, see footage and stills, and decide if it was something he was willing to put his name on. It was a stressful period wondering if he would accept the job. The last step was sitting down with him in person, which is a funny story.

We were supposed to meet with Douglas just before the Oscars, but the meeting got pushed and pushed and pushed.  Then the Oscars came and Birdman won the best film and we are thinking… shit. The film he just edited won Best Picture, he is probably not going to do our little film. We rescheduled the meeting for the Monday after the Oscars.  Ashley and I were driving up from Venice to North Hollywood and we are on time until a tire blows. We pull off to the side of the highway and are trying to figure out how we are going to get there. We called an Uber, which literally picked Ashley up on the side of the highway on the shoulder.  So Ashley goes to the meeting, and by the time I showed up, it had already been decided that he was going to be editing our film. We couldn’t wait to get out of there and go “YESSSSSS!!!”.  We are very lucky to have a name like that attached to the film.

Ashley – And even luckier to have someone of his talent and calibre!  It has been an amazing process working with Doug. He’s kind, creative, extremely collaborative.

What is Deserted about, director?

Ashley – Deserted is about a twenty-four-year-old woman recently released from prison, named Jae (Mischa Barton), who was incarcerated for killing her mother in defence of her father.  She’s released and goes home with her older brother Robin (Jackson Davis).

The last place she really wants to be is there, in her town, with everyone asking questions and eyeballing her so she agrees to go on a road trip to a music festival in Death Valley. She joins Robin’s girlfriend Rosemary (Winter Ave Zoli), and two friends Heather and Jasmine (Dana Rosendorff, Kelly Brannigan). Jae despises Rosemary for reasons revealed later in the film, which ties into the death of her mother.

On the way to the festival Rosemary’s car breaks down and the group is towed into town (by none other than the brilliant Jake Busey). At a bar waiting for a fix, they link up with three strangers who own an RV and offer them a ride (Trent Ford, Michael Milford, Tyler Sellers). Without spoiling anything, I’ll just say … they end up getting turned around and lost in Death Valley, which is a 3.2 million acre park.

The film is a psychological thriller, but firmly on the realistic side in terms of story.  The imagery is beautiful with huge dramatic wide shots of these amazing locations, juxtaposed with a very difficult story and situation for our characters.  We wanted to explore both the individual and group dynamics of how people would feel in a situation like this.

Ed – . . . and you don’t trust everyone.

Ashley – Exactly. The acting is excellent. We are very excited to show it. The cast and crew ended up becoming a family.  I can’t say it enough, it was just an amazing experience.  And while those shooting days are long and the job can be hard, we’re so passionate about what we do. We can’t wait to get right into the next one.

Deserted – September 2015 (USA)

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