Aisha Tyler was named Artist of Distinction on the first day of the 2017 Newport Beach Film Festival’s. A week later, she proved the honor accurate by winning the festival’s award for outstanding achievement in filmmaking for her first feature film Axis, which premiered at the Orange County film festival.
The action-thriller, which takes place entirely within a car being driven across L.A. by an actor enduring a series of existential, emotional and addictive crises, was a highlight of the 18th annual NBFF. The film was one of 350 in the festival from 50 countries that screened over eight days to some 50,000 fans.
Tyler’s success as a director shouldn’t come as a surprise. Since entering the pop culture pantheon in 2001 by making fun of reality shows and other pre-social media memes as a host of Talk Soup, Tyler has been one of the busiest and successful creative artists in Hollywood.
She’s one of five co-hosts of The Talk, is a regular on Criminal Minds and Archer, hosts Whose Line Is It Anyway, has a popular Girl on Guy podcast, and is releasing a premium cocktail line soon. And she still finds time to volunteer her time and advocate for causes, including Family Violence Prevention Fund, International Rescue Committee, Wounded Warriors, the Trust for Public Land, and Planned Parenthood.
Beyond the Curtain caught up with the multi-talented Aisha Tyler prior to a screening of Axis in Newport Beach for an exclusive conversation. What emerged was that this incredibly talented and funny woman takes filmmaking very, very seriously.
Beyond the Curtain: Congratulations on being named Artist of Distinction at the Newport Beach Film Festival.
Aisha Tyler: Aw, that was such a sweet, sweet recognition. That was so lovely. It was a really fun festival for me.
BTC: And congratulations on being honored for outstanding achievement in filmmaking at the festival. How did you choose Axis as your first feature film?
AT: I think every director is looking for a big/little first film. Something that’s manageable and can be made for a decent price, but also feels like a big idea that’s going to make a splash. Axis had the right combination of those things. It’s a contained piece that’s set entirely in a car with action that occurs in a single day, other than the very beginning. So that felt small and manageable but brought with it a set of huge problems.
BTC: What sort of problems?
AT: How would we make a movie set in a car feel exciting, dynamic, interesting, and compelling over 90 minutes. There are a lot of layers to this film, and a lot of twists, and so it felt like something that was intriguing and it would be great to talk about.
BTC: You shot the entire film quickly. How was that experience?
AT: It was such a robust approach, which came out of the fact that we only had seven days to make movie. We had to make as much movie as we could in that amount of time, and that meant three cameras all rolling, all day, every day.
BTC: You must have planned every angle down to the second to get it done in seven days.
AT: Every director will tell you that it’s really important to prep really hard, but we had to prep to the nines for this movie, because we had no room for error. There’s nobody to go back to and say, “We need re-shoots.” Or, “We need another day.” But being that prepared allowed for a lot of flexibility in the field. We shot the entire script every day. We had three angles every day, and then two angles on the last day. So that was 17 angles. And because we shot that way, essentially by day three or day four, probably the end of day three, we had an entire movie in the can. That left us with four additional days to be really playful, to throw things out, to bring other things in. We played with angle, we played with perspective…
BTC: The results make for a fascinating film.
AT: I would shoot that way again. It was very hard on the actor (Emmett Hughes, the Irish actor who also wrote the screenplay), because he had 65 pages of script a day, all by himself in a hot car with no air conditioning. No air conditioning and no sympathy from his director. I was like, “I don’t give a crap how you feel about it—we’re losing light.” But we had so much movie at the end. It was extraordinary.
BTC: We’re big fans of films set in Southern California, where you feel like the filmmakers know and love the area. I got that from your film.
AT: I felt like we’ve got this one set, which is this car. And so we’re going be inside this car and we’re not going to leave until the end of the film. But there’s a second greater set, which is the city. And as much as I could I made L.A. a secondary character in the film. I really wanted to show as much of L.A. as I could, and I wanted to show the parts of L.A. that you don’t typically see in these movies. My character starts in downtown L.A. and the film is shot almost in real time, with him driving all the way out to the ocean. So you see a lot of Los Angeles.
BTC: The movie seems very Southern Californian.
AT: Well I mean I think the cool thing also about this movie is that we live in cars in Southern California. So it’s perfectly suited to telling a story here in L.A., where so many people do spend an hour every day, in one direction, driving, listening to music, talking to the families, thinking about their lives, adjusting, readjusting, considering, evaluating. It’s something you do, most of us, every day.
I really wanted to show as much of L.A. as I could, and I wanted to show the parts of L.A.that you don’t typically see in these movies.
BTC: Did you study other L.A.-set films, or ones with great scenes in cars, in your preparation?
AT: The movie that I referred to most was Drive. And also Heat, although they don’t spend most of the movie in cars, it’s very L.A. I also looked at Buried, Phone Booth and Lock, which is probably the only other movie that I thought of that’s entirely set in a car. I looked to see what other people had done so I could understand the language of telling a story in a contained setting. If I was making a gangster movie, I’d go back and look at the The Untouchables, or The Godfather.
BTC: Another fascinating thing about the film is that you raised funds to make it on Kickstarter, the online funding platform. The campaign raised nearly $200,000 in 30 days from some 2,000 backers, including Seth MacFarlane, Alfre Woodard, Sharon Osbourne and LeVar Burton. Why did you did you do it that way?
AT: I did it on Kickstarter because it’s fast. I had only one week off last year to make a movie. If I didn’t make my movie in that week, I wasn’t going to make it that year. With Kickstarter, there’s a rule of thumb that if it funds at 50 percent after the first week it’s probably going to fund fully. So after a week, I felt good about it. So I started hiring people right away. Plus, I wanted creative independence. This is a unique film. It’s not a traditional commercial film that a studio would fund. And that’s the other thing that Kickstarter gives you, is real creative liberties to make exactly the movie that you want to make.
BTC: So now we can add director to all your other accomplishments. Many of us know you best from television. Back when you were hosting Talk Soup, we could watch and feel caught up on whatever the pop culture of the day was, the memes, whatever it was that people were talking about. We could know about reality shows without having to watch them, basically. We don’t have a source for that now.
TC: There’s nothing like The Soup now. And there’ll never be again. Watch The Talk. And I check Twitter Moments. It’s always a good combination of hard news and junk.
BTC: On a much more serious subject: So many of the causes that you’re involved in so passionately are under attack. How does one not become discouraged and depressed by that?
AT: I refer back to people who were fighting for important causes 25, 75 or 100 years ago. I have the liberties, the successes, the access, the opportunities that I have because those people didn’t get jaded, those people didn’t give up. And I mean 100 years ago people were dying for my right to vote, to own property, to work, to get equal pay, to walk around without being in fear of my safety, or my life. So I don’t have any excuses, you know? Gotta keep going.