Aisha Tyler Talks About Her Directorial Debut, ‘Axis,’ And The Rewards Of Ambiguous Filmmaking

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Between playing Dr. Tara Lewis on Criminal Minds, hosting Whose Line Is It Anyway?, and voicing Lana Kane on Archer, Aisha Tyler is a well-known and versatile presence in front of the camera. Recently, she added the role of director with her debut film Axis. Funded through Kickstarter and shot for $200,000 over the course of seven days, the film is set almost entirely during a single car ride through the city of Los Angeles. The film’s star, Emmett Hughes (who also wrote the screenplay), is the only actor who appears on camera, with off-screen performances delivered by a host of actors, including Ciarán Hinds, Sam Rockwell, and Tyler herself. The film is currently making the rounds on the festival circuit and being shown in small screenings across the country. We spoke to Tyler about her first feature, as well as the unique challenges that presented themselves.

What was the inspiration for you to get into the director’s chair in the first place?

God, it’s such a long story. I’m gonna to try to give you the short version so I don’t bore the shit out of you. When I was on Talk Soup, I started as a stand-up, and then I was a staff writer. When I left that show I just wanted to write more than just jokes, you know? So, I started writing some long-form pieces. One ended up being my first book [Swerve: Reckless Observations of a Postmodern Girl], and then one ended up being the script that got optioned to be produced by John Woo.

When we were working on that script, they were like, “Look, your vision for this movie is so completely crystal clear. It’s so obvious that you’re more than a writer, more than a performer. You should direct this movie.” At the time that movie was like a $10 million movie and I didn’t want to helm it as a first film and then ruin it. [And] I thought it would be pretty hard for me to get my first film funded at that level.

I ended up visiting other shows and shadowing the director, which is really the process of [wondering] did I want to be director? [That] led to doing a bunch of music videos for Clutch and Silversun Pickups, and an action short that is a benefit film for Wounded Warriors. Then I went to Ireland to shadow on Vikings, where I met Emmett Hughes, who was a writer [and] performer, and was like, “Hey, do you want to do a short film together?” And then he wrote a short film for me called “Ar Scáth le Chéile,” which is “The Shadow of Our Togetherness in 2014.” That was my first narrative short. That was the one that really made me think, “Okay, I really wanna be a feature director.” So it was a really long process.

But it was just such a great experience that I thought, “Okay, I’m ready to leap into a feature.” And I didn’t really know what that feature was going to be. I was writing some stuff, but Emmett had that script, and I read it, and it was just a great first feature for so many reasons. Including the fact that I felt like I could make it quickly, because I was on four series at the time, [and] I really could only get about a week to ten days off.

Also, it was a good first script because it was so unusual. I felt like I could really make a little bit of noise with it. There’s just so many films out there, period. You kind of want your first film to be something that’s sticking out and that has a different approach. It was more, for me, an expansion of my creative life. I’ve done so many other things and I’m always trying to challenge myself. Creative aggression is, for me, is really important. The more aggressive you are, the more you realize what you’re capable of.

Did this kind of script help you in that regard, being set almost entirely in one car?