Q&A with Ashley York
Ashley York, who received an MFA from USC's Interactive Media & Games Division in 2006, co-directed and produced Tig, a Netflix Original and an Official Selection of the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. Ashley is a filmmaker interested in documentaries, feminist media, and emerging modes of storytelling. She has worked on Academy Award® nominated teams and as a producer on projects that have premiered at the Sundance, Berlin, and SXSW film festivals as well as on Oprah Winfrey’s Network, A&E, HBO, and the Sundance Channel. Ashley received her MFA from the USC's School of Cinematic Arts, where she is a part-time lecturer in the Division of Media Arts + Practice.
When did you know that you wanted to be in the film and television business?
During my undergraduate studies at the University of Kentucky, I watched Barbara Kopple's Academy-Award winning film Harlan County USA (1976) in a sociology class. That film moved me deeply. It tells the story of a coal miners' strike in southeast Kentucky and portrays its subjects with complexity, dignity, and grace. The film is as journalistic as it is cinematic. It's a personal, political, and emotional film which demonstrates social issue filmmaking at its finest. Seeing that film was an 'aha' moment, as it was the first time I saw the people of eastern Kentucky portrayed in a nuanced and complex way, unlike the many negative and hateful portrayals of rural people I saw on television growing up. That film invigorated my desire to make powerful, impactful, and meaningful documentary films for mass audiences.
Tell us about the beginning of your career.
I moved to Los Angeles to pursue an MFA in the USC School of Cinematic Arts. I had just completed my undergraduate studies at the University of Kentucky where I studied journalism with an emphasis on race, class, and sexuality. During my second semester at USC, I started working as an intern at World of Wonder Productions and was offered a full time position six weeks later on a feature length documentary that was being produced by Brian Grazer and HBO. I was fortunate to be given the opportunity to work alongside the directors of the film, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato; their producers
Mona Card and Thairin Smothers; and Imagine Entertainment's executive producer for the film Kim Roth. From those folks, I learned so very much. I was promoted to associate producer and became so immersed in the production that I took two semesters off from USC to work full time on the project. During that time I deepened my commitment to the production company and produced the first ever Sundance Channel Original series, Transgeneration, which profiled transgender college students at colleges across the country. I learned so much from my experience at World of Wonder and credit them with teaching me the fundamentals of documentary filmmaking.
How did you get into the documentary world?
I was on the path for a long time to make documentaries. As an undergraduate I studied journalism and worked as a newspaper reporter and editor, talk show host, and television news editor. I became interested in visual storytelling and telling stories about marginalized and vulnerable people and communities. I became inspired by Appalachian filmmakers Anne Lewis who made Fast Food Women (1991) and Elizabeth Barret who made Coal Mining Women (1982). Their work motivated me to make socially provocative and feminist films and to pursue a career making films where I could build on the long history of non-fiction work that addresses significant social challenges of our time. Documentaries allowed me to continue pursuing my passion of telling stories and USC gave me a space and the resources and support to find my voice as a filmmaker, experiment with form, and explore storytelling as a cinematic art.
How did "Tig" come about?
I saw Tig tell her famous Taylor Dayne story as part of a This American Life special that was beamed into movie theaters across the country in May 2012. That was my first time experiencing her storytelling, which was so unique and unlike any comedy performance I had ever experienced. Several months later I remember reading that Tig was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a double mastectomy and shortly thereafter I received a Facebook message from Kristina Goolsby, a producer I met working on the documentary series Intervention. She and I had been talking about collaborating on another project and she asked if I was interested in making a documentary about Tig, who was a friend of hers unbeknownst to me. Without hesitation I said, yes, of course.
How did you transition from working on shows like "Intervention" to directing a feature doc?
I have been fortunate to work on a lot of projects over the years and find myself being drawn to stories about marginalized and vulnerable people and communities. I think those stories can take many forms, from documentaries and television series to experimental cinema as well as emerging modes of storytelling that crosses traditional media platforms, such as video games, social networks, and apps. To me, cinema, movies, and media art are grounded in the emotional and ideological and it's about listening to the needs of the story and its subject (or subjects) and letting those voices guide the direction and production of the storytelling. I find that I learn something from every job and every platform and approach each opportunity as one that is unique and one that allows me to refine my practice.
Tell us a little about your role in co-directing Tig. What did that entail?
I was invited to join the project by my directing partner Kristina Goolsby, who has known Tig for nearly 20 years. Kristina knew what was happening to Tig and asked if she'd be interested in being the subject of a film. Tig said yes. Kristina then sent me a Facebook message asking if I knew about Tig's story and if I wanted to make a film about her. I said yes. From there it all happened very fast. We had our first production meeting with Tig on a Saturday in early 2013 to talk about making the film. We decided to dive right in and began shooting two days later at a photoshoot she had scheduled with Elle magazine. I reached out to Huy Truong, who I had collaborated with for many years, and invited him to come on board as our director of photography and co-producer. He said yes. From that point forward, we were shooting multiple days a week with Tig as she bounced all around Los Angeles working on various productions and developing new stand-up material. At the same time, we were submitting applications for grants and meeting with financiers. The first year was invigorating and so intense and challenging because we were capturing the story of the film without any money while doing all the work that was required to secure financing. Once we formalized the partnership with Beachside, things got much easier because the resources were there to execute the film the way we envisioned. The film was made in record time for a documentary. It premiered almost two years from the day we had the first meeting with Tig.
Directing is a fascinating phenomenon really. It means so many things, from showing up to do the work to surrounding yourself with people who share and can execute the vision of the piece to making decisions to knowing how to treat people and trusting your instincts to being mindful of the fact that it's just a movie. I am fortunate to have been invited to work on the film. I learned so much and am grateful for that.
How did you know you had a good subject/subject matter on your hands?
From our first conversation with Tig about the possibility of making a documentary, we knew something very special was about to happen. We knew going in that the film would tell the story of a four-month period in 2012 when Tig experienced a catastrophic series of personal events. She was diagnosed with bi-lateral stage II breast cancer. A day after she was informed it was stage II, Tig was inspired to deliver a legendary performance at Largo Theatre in Los Angeles where she stepped out on stage and said, "Good evening, hello, I have cancer.” Not knowing if this would be the last performance of her life, she spent a half-hour talking about her recent diagnosis and the series of personal tragedies that preceded it: pneumonia, followed by a serious intestinal disease, followed by the unexpected death of her mother.
Once we started filming, we let the story guide us. Tig lives an incredibly rich and varied life, and we were completely enamored by both her professional and personal life. We wanted to spend as much time documenting her journey as possible and had a unique opportunity to be with someone who had just gone through some of the most devastating events that can happen in a person's life and in a short period of time of only four months. Tig opened her life to us and allowed us to document and work alongside her while she navigated a number of difficult, personal, and unpredictable life events. Her openness to the process coupled with all of the unknowns she faced kept us engaged and certain that we had a world class film on our hands.Maeve Kerrigan, Jennifer Arnold (writer), Stephanie Allynne, Tig Notaro (executive producer), Kristina Goolsby (co-director/producer), Ashley York (co-director/producer) at the Outfest opening night gala. Tig was the opening night movie at the festival.
What are some of the challenges of directing a documentary?
Making documentaries is as rewarding, invigorating, and inspiring as it is slow, frustrating, and isolating. The biggest challenge may be having the patience it requires to build a career as a filmmaker. Certainly learning how to make it all work financially is a challenge as well as negotiating multiple projects at the same time and learning how to work and overcome the unique challenges that come with each individual project.
Learning to make films is a process indeed. The process is truly its own art form. It requires patience, persistence, and confidence. My best advice is to surround yourself with a team of capable and kind folks to help you make it happen as gracefully as possible.
How about financing? This film was financed by Beachside Films, but how about your other projects? How do you go about making a film without a financier on board?
With Tig, we were in a fortunate position to meet with a number of financiers and producers early on in our development who were as intrigued by Tig’s story as we were and who wanted to partner with us in making the film. We ultimately formalized a deal with Beachside Films, an independent film production company and the West Coast affiliate of Big Beach Films (Little Miss Sunshine, Our Idiot Brother, Safety Not Guaranteed), who came on as financier and producing partner. We were delighted to team up with a talented, capable, smart, and kind group of producers to work alongside to execute our vision. Along the way, we also talked with so many fellow filmmakers who offered their guidance and expertise as we navigated the process of financing our very first feature documentary. We were also fortunate and so grateful to receive a Catapult Film Fund grant early on in our development. This grant provides development funding to documentary filmmakers who have a compelling story to tell, have secured access to their story, and are ready to shoot and edit a piece for production fundraising purposes. This fund was vital to us because it enabled us to develop our reel and treatment to a point where we could talk seriously with financiers.
I am exploring various ways of fundraising now, ranging from meetings with private financiers to meetings with television broadcasters and financiers, and still very actively pursuing funding from various organizations ranging from the National Endowment for Humanities to ITVS to state-based humanities councils. There are also some funds out there specifically for women filmmakers, including a finishing fund from Women and Film and Chicken and Egg Pictures. Every film is different and requires its own financing plan and strategy. Ultimately you have to keep developing the project, ask for feedback and apply it, and use every deadline as an opportunity to take a step forward with your projects.
What important lessons have you learned in the business?
I have been blessed to work with and learn from some of the most talented, skilled, and kind people in the business. Among them are Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering (The Hunting Ground, The Invisible War) who I worked alongside as an associate producer on Outrage. They showed me the meaning of producing with intention, patience, and persistence. I have consulted with Judith Helfand on many projects and am deeply inspired by her unique sensibility. Her film, Blue Vinyl, demonstrated to me that we must keep an open mind and have a light heart when producing our work. Watching a documentary that was as funny as it was political was a powerful moment for me when I was studying documentary filmmaking as a graduate student at USC. Her work taught me that we must remain fluid in our approach. Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey, who hired me as an intern more than a decade ago and who I have produced alongside on a number of projects, including Inside Deep Throat, Becoming Chaz, and the Sundance Channel original series Transgeneration taught me so much about producing, including that “no” is the beginning of “yes” and that it’s our responsibility to tell stories about marginalized and vulnerable people and communities. They also taught me the importance of caring for your crew and creating an environment where people feel cared for.
How has your USC education played a role in your career?
The decision to move my life from Kentucky to Los Angeles transformed my life. I am so grateful for the opportunity I was given to pursue an MFA at USC. I had the great fortune to take classes taught by Michael Renov and Amanda Pope where I learned the history, methods, and practices of documentary filmmaking. Renov is professor of critical studies and vice dean for academic affairs and Pope is professor of cinematic arts. Renov taught me to think expansively about the form and curated a class that illustrated the rich and varied world of documentaries. I am so grateful to him for introducing me to the films of Agnès Varda, Frederick Wiseman, and Su Friedrich. Pope's documentary planning class challenged me to dive into developing my very own documentary project. She always signs her emails "onward and upward," which is such a fitting expression for life and documentary filmmaking. I have so much respect and gratitude for Steve Anderson, associate professor of the practice of cinematic arts in Media Arts + Practice Division, who mentored me throughout my MFA studies and served as an adviser on my thesis project. Anderson encouraged radical thinking and experimentation and guided me to use media as a tool for social action and change. He is truly one of the most rad human beings and professors ever.
During my last year of graduate studies, I worked as a teaching assistant for the Institute for Multimedia Literacy, which is now the Division of Media Arts + Practice where I am currently a part-time lecturer. The faculty in the department are world class in every respect. Among them are Holly Willis, the chair of Media Arts + Practice; Elizabeth Ramsey, associate chair of Media Arts + Practice; and Vicki Callahan and Virginia Kuhn, associate professors of Media Arts + Practice Division. These women inspire me to think deeply about the theory and practice of making media and to always take a critically conscious approach to making, engaging, and consuming media.
What career achievement/s have you been most proud of?
Making Tig is definitely one of my most proud accomplishments. Seeing the film expand from an idea to a bona fide documentary that had full financing and an incredible team of producers behind it that enabled it to premiere at Sundance and be sold to Netflix has been a dream come true. Being invited to open the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival and Outfest were also highlights of life. The programming teams at all of the festivals have been so gracious and welcoming and have made my experience as a first-time director so memorable and wonderful.
Getting the call from Sundance was a dream come true. It happened one afternoon while I was driving in Los Angeles and I got that call from one of the programmers inviting us to premiere our movie at the festival. He asked if we'd be interested and I was like, yes of course! It turns out, I was one of nine women debuting a feature film at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.
I am also proud that I've continued to pursue making the documentary So Help You God, a cross-platform documentary about six people from my hometown in eastern Kentucky who are in prison for murder. I have been working on this film for more than ten years and it's been a challenging production for a lot of reasons. I do believe the film is very close and am so grateful to have gained the support of so many amazing partners along the way, including A&E Indie Films, the Pacific Pioneer Fund, The Fledgling Fund, and the Tania Trepanier Award.
What advice would you give to any aspiring documentary directors out there?
Be kind. Choose your producing partners wisely. Know that people can only work the way they know how to work. Say yes. Don't be afraid to say no. Remember that it's a delicate balance of holding on and letting go. Trust your instincts. Be persistent. Be expansive in your thinking. Keep your heart open to the unimaginable. Have confidence in yourself. Know your intention. Make media that matters. Have a good lawyer and an even better therapist.
What can be done to increase the representation of women in key creative roles -- and as protagonists in documentary and fiction projects?
Right now is an exciting time in the field of media making and creation. It's truly a renaissance period for documentary storytelling, distribution, and media making in general. As exciting as that is, there is clearly systematic sexism facing women filmmakers and their careers, seen most recently in the ACLU Women’s Rights Project’s investigation of the film industry for its lack of hiring women directors. A damning study concerning gender inequity was revealed as well by Stacy Smith, an associate professor in the Annenberg School for Communication, in her research commissioned by the Sundance Institute and Women in Film.
We know that it is critical that we take an active role in supporting women filmmakers and their visions. I am deeply moved by Jill Soloway's remarks earlier this year to the outgoing and incoming students of the AFI Convervatory Directing Workshop for Women. She said: "I tell people to shoot from their pussies." I love Jill Soloway for saying this and I don't think it's possible for me to say it better. I think we really have to trust that we are our best selves when we fully embrace who we are, as women, as creators, as human beings. We have to believe that. We have to embrace that, support feminism, encourage feminist thinking in our work and on our sets and among our colleagues, move across boundaries. Be patient. Have confidence in ourselves. And perhaps most importantly, when we see sexism, we have to stop it.
What projects are next for you?
I am developing a mix of fiction, non-fiction, and hybrid projects. In addition to So Help You God, I'm also developing a feature length documentary that examines a cultural history of the iconic American hillbilly image in film, television, and literature. I’m thinking about content that highlights the culture and traditions of Appalachia and Appalachian American people as well as social issue media projects that go beyond traditional screens. I’m intrigued by the interactive documentary movement as well and exploring the relationship of audience as co-creator and collaborator.