Ashley Wren Collins is a director, producer, choreographer, actor, and writer. She received her BA in English and Theatre Arts from the University of Pennsylvania and her MFA from the American Repertory Theater/Moscow Art Theater School IATT at Harvard University. Ashley produced and acted in the feature film, Chasing Taste, “Best Comedy” winner of the 2013 Burbank International Film Festival and the 2014 Manhattan Film Festival. She directed and produced the award-winning short film, i only miss you when i’m breathing, which had its world premiere at the Nashville Film Festival. Directing Off-Broadway, NYC: The Bedbug and the world premieres of Gay Boy, I’m Mindful…of My Anxiety, and Flak House: The Musical. Ashley is the author of several books and short stories, as well as the recipient of a writing fellowship from the Edward F. Albee Foundation. She was a participant in the 2015 Directors Lab at Lincoln Center Theater. www.ashleywrencollins.com.
i only miss you when i’m breathing explores a plethora of detrimental emotions that coincide with heartbreaking grief. How did you approach creating a visual style for a story that primarily explores the emotions that are often invisible to the naked eye?
I was interested in what the passage of time feels like for the grieving couple at the heart of this story; the slowness, the heaviness, the endless stretch of days, the silence of an empty house and what goes unsaid between two people in great pain. I wanted to explore moments that stretch to the point of uncomfortable. I was also interested in the distinction between the world inside the home and their son’s bedroom that has remained untouched since his death, and the assault of the outside world – both people and nature/their environment, beckoning them to rejoin it, to participate, to take notice – whether it was the flowers in the yard, the sound of birds and insects or a lawnmower buzzing, a nosy neighbor, or the brightly lit aisle of a hardware store.
A majority of this film takes place within the walls of Nora and Warren’s home, showcasing how trauma and loss can quickly translate into a reclusive lifestyle. Were you part of scouting this location and creating the look and feel of the home’s interior?
The film was shot on location in Nashville, TN, Lori Fischer, who starred in the movie, wrote it, and helped produce it, offered her parents’ home as the location. We recreated the interior of Brandon’s bedroom and his closet in the attic at Phil Vassar’s home. Our production designer, Katherine Benson, did an incredible job making the home and Brandon’s bedroom feel lived in – you really felt that where they physically live was impacted by the death of Brandon. We also had real-life objects from Brandon Weller on set in Brandon’s bedroom. This movie was made for his parents, Freddy and Pippy Weller; though not all details are the same, the story is inspired by their experiences.
The framing in the film was beautiful; full of an array of meaningful stationary shots and thoughtful close ups. How did you and your cinematographer (P.J. Schenkel) draw inspiration for these creative choices?
Both PJ Schenkel and First Assistant Camera, Matt Huesmann, knew I wanted the camera to stay on the actors for a long time in each shot, so that I would have as many options for coverage in the edit as possible. They were instrumental in helping me bring this vision to life. I would let the camera roll for quite some time, well past what the scene may have called for, before saying “cut”. The sequence of events in the movie take place over the course of one day. The slow pan up to Nora as she wakes in the morning, and her long walk down the hall past Brandon’s bedroom and toward the kitchen – I wanted the audience to feel her struggle as she faces each new day without her son. I used the script, the talent of the actors and the freedom of what a camera can do with storytelling to show the journey of Nora and Warren on screen.
You have a deep-rooted history as an actor, having gained degrees in the artform from the University of Pennsylvania and the American Repertory Theater/Moscow Art Theater School Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University. When it comes to directing actors, what is your process?
I am thankful that I am also a producer, actor, choreographer, and author. Being a producer, I understand how budgets work and the importance of keeping morale high, hiring good people, and getting the most out of your cast and crew. Being a choreographer, I understand that scripts and movies have a musicality you can use and should pay attention to in terms of pace, feel, etc. – and choose the moments you want to play into it, and, conversely, the moments you want to go against that. If you close your eyes and listen to actors do a scene, you can hear the music. As an author, I understand that there are many ways to get into a character or a story, and you have to find the way that works for (in this case) this particular film. As an actor, I’m sensitive to the work that goes into discovering a character, so I’m always checking in with actors, asking, “How did that feel?” All actors have a different process to arrive at a performance, and you need to know how to give them feedback in a way that will support them in making bold choices and doing their best work.
How did your process translate to directing actors Lori Fischer and Phil Vassar?
I’ve worked with Lori on other projects before, so I know she needs the freedom, safe space and trust to give the performance she wants to give before you give her feedback for other things you might want to see in a take. I also know she, like me, wears multiple hats, so she always has her eyes and ears on the script and wants to make sure the choices are serving the character and the script. Both Lori and I have also worked with Phil before – he’s warm and delightful – so happy to be on set and just placing his heart and trust in you to tell him what you need. He’s a father to two daughters as well, so the heartbreak in the movie was a very palpable thing to him, which I think he channeled. We see him quite a bit before he ever says a word, and yet we feel what he is feeling. And as I said, I was just as – perhaps sometimes more – interested in what the characters were not saying to each other as what they were saying to each other.
All great directors tend to learn more about themselves after each project they create. What lessons from “i only miss you when i’m breathing” will you take with you into your next film?
I think the most important lesson that each project reinforces for me is that it takes a village to make art – it’s all about collaboration – and that if you dream it or think it or feel it, you can find a way to manifest it, in this case, on the screen, so don’t compromise on your vision. Find a way to unite your team behind you and bring out the best in them.
You co-produced this film alongside Lori Fischer while also juggling the responsibilities as the film’s director. How did you approach this effort of multi-tasking?
Independent filmmaking takes a lot of blood, sweat and tears. Each film is like a small child you raise from the embryonic stage to adulthood. Once you finish principal photography, you are maybe in the pre-pubescent/early teenager phase, and there is still much to do. Producing is done well when you have adequate time in pre-production to avoid any fires you may have to put out later. If you do the pre-production well, it’s a fairly good indication of how the film experience is going to be. It’s chipping away at a to do list and organizing and communicating your passion and vision to raise funds and convince the right cast and crew to join you for the ride. Good pre production under good producers means fewer fires to put out later. I worked with Lori and our associate producer, Jamie Watson, to ensure we were all set up to succeed so that once I was on set shooting, I could focus solely on directing.
Given that this was your film directing debut, what steps did you take to prepare for this new role? What were you most excited for, and most anxious about leading up to the production? How did those expectations pan out, in retrospect?
I had directed for the stage before, but not for film. I’d been on sets as an actor and producer, but not a director. I would say my biggest learning curve was familiarizing myself with the technology – the sound, understanding the coverage I needed to have the mix of cuts I would want to use in the edit, and the deliverables in an edit. Thankfully, I had a great team and we all really enjoyed working together!
Do you feel that having this experience as a director will impact the way you approach your work as an actor? Why or why not?
I think because I was an actor first, I am always sympathetic to the actor experience, so I try to keep this in mind, always, when working and communicating. There are some directors who don’t direct – they let the actors do whatever they feel inspired to do. It’s important to capture this, but there is so much more discovery and exploration to be done in a fruitful collaboration between actor and director and beyond that, among the actor, director, and screenwriter. When you push these boundaries, that’s when you get great, unexpected work – that’s what raises the hairs on the back of your neck and sends a thrill down your spine.
What advice would you give to future first-time directors, having gone through this experience?
Every first-time director should take an acting class to understand what goes into acting. And if they’ve done that, every first-time director should produce a project to see what is involved. And if they’ve done that, every first-time director should work with a screenwriter to develop a script, to see how it changes over time as you work on it and arrive at the best way to tell the story. The more hats you have worn, the better informed you will be, and the more you will realize the collaborative talents of your team and be able to maximize them.
Navigating the film festival circuit can be a daunting task, especially during COVID19. How has the pandemic affected your festival run?
We started our festival run with our world premiere at the Nashville Film Festival in October 2019. We went virtual for several festivals once was the pandemic started, and it was a bummer not to be able to screen with live audiences, but at the same time, I really admire the festivals that were so dedicated to continuing to give a platform to the filmmakers by sharing their work via virtual platforms. We were then in person again at the Fort Myers Film Festival last month, and it was thrilling to be back, screening among other great shorts and fielding thoughtful questions from engaged audience members.
Given the severity of the plot, how did you, your cast, and your crew find moments of levity with one another during the film’s production?
We were always aware of the sadness surrounding the story, but we were committed to honoring the couple and others like them, for whom this movie was made. Good artists know how to bring their best and their focus to their art, no matter what the subject, and then how to let it go and step away when the moment is right. We were passionate about what we were doing at all times, yet able to return to our lives when the cameras weren’t rolling.
What was your favorite memory of your time on set?
I don’t know if I have a favorite memory – Phil jamming on the piano with Lori on tambourine and Miles on drums in the flashback scene; seeing Brandon’s bedroom for the first time once Katherine finished her design; watching Lori do take after take in the kitchen, drinking down those beverages; sitting down with Pippy Weller to talk about the loss of her son, and touring his bedroom and the gravesite where he is buried; watching Phil give my 7-month old daughter (at the time) her first piano lesson in his home. It was such a great group of people and everything really aligned for us to be able to work together and enjoy our time together.
Are you currently working on any other film projects?
I am in development to produce and direct on Cyberkill, an action movie about an AI assassin, adapted from the book by Frank F. Fiore. I am also in development to produce and direct Festival Week, a screenplay written by Scottish playwright/screenwriter JD Stewart – it’s a romantic comedy about a successful NYC wedding planner to the rich and famous who returns home to his Scottish village when his father dies.