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?

Absolutely. There were some big challenges with this film, but they were really interesting challenges to me. The primary one, regardless of the price tag of the movie, is how do I make a movie about a guy in a car interesting? How do I make that movie really compelling and dynamic? And I think that was an interesting question to ask myself and it was an interesting problem to solve. What were the challenges? How do I solve these problems? How do I figure out how to make this compelling, and entrancing, and dynamic, and not boring? How do I take people on a journey? And how I connect them to a character who, frankly, isn’t very likable.

I’m sure that another director would have a completely different approach, but might not find those particular problems interesting ones to solve. But for me, the challenges were what made the project something that I wanted to do. I think that also the combination of not have a lot of money or a lot of time, and biting off a very big chunk, was what was the most interesting for me.

I’m a little bit of a masochist when it comes to my work. I really like to push myself. There’s a certain kind of terror that engenders a really vigorous, creative response in me. I love the idea of being scared because I just feels like that’s what makes you rise above your current skill set.

It wasn’t that I didn’t think I could do it, it was just how am I going to do it? The project itself was really exciting to me. And also, there weren’t a lot of films like this out there. There are some other single setting films, but it was important to make sure I differentiated my film from that film, and worked really hard to make specific choices. I’m just one of those people who runs headlong into a fire, screaming “Icky!” I’m actually a little bit of a weirdo in that way.

Well, there’s something to be said for the creativity in limitation, too.

Yes. Yes. And if I’ve got to sweep 99 % of my options off of the table because of time and money, how do I really elevate the things that are left there? I think you know when you see this big sprawling $100 million movies that they throw every single dollar they can on the screen. And it doesn’t work because when every option is available to you, you use every option. But I think there’s something about leanness, and about exploiting the few choices that you have in your hand, the few gems that you have in your hand, that can be really transporting.

And that’s not there aren’t big budget movies that are great, but, for the most part, they have this flashy, orgiastic vulgarity to them, because they can have everything explode. When everything explodes, who cares what the characters are meaningful or if the relationships matter?

Where there moments where you thought, “What have I gotten myself into,” or you doubted whether or not you’d be able to pull it off in the end?

Oh, definitely. I mean, never to a panicked state because I assembled a really talented crew and my director of photography was just this magical angel who… maybe not an angel, he was like a magical general. He could just execute, and I had these really ambitious shots that I wanted to get. He just never said it couldn’t be done. So I just felt like I had this consigliere, [and] with him I could do anything. I had an incredible crew.

But yeah, were there are a lot of moments of despair and panic? Absolutely. On the very first day they were going to kick us out of our location and we didn’t have our last shot. My second assistant director was begging them, my first assistant director was begging them, my producer was begging them. They kept saying no, and I literally went over there and was like, “I’m about to get down on my knees and beg you in front of all these people to give us an extra half hour.” And I think that just shamed them.

Because there’s no studio, I can’t go back and ask for more money or another deal. This is it. And if I don’t get this shot, I don’t have my movie. On the second day, we started so late we lost our light and I had to throw out all the footage that we shot that day. I think on another film and with a different workflow approach, that would’ve been a fatal blow to the film. But because we shot the entire film all the way through every day, we were able to throw out a whole day’s worth of work and not compromise the film. That was pretty extraordinary.

Then we had a day when our car battery died and we had already rigged it for the day, and we had to pull over and spend an hour re-rigging it. We had a lot of days like that. I think filmmaking generally and directing specifically, it’s constantly pivoting and having a clarity of vision. I think some people have this rigidity, like this is the way the movie has to be, and we’re not going to compromise my vision. And if it doesn’t go my way, you guys will fuck yourselves. I actually think it’s more about having such a clarity of vision that you can pivot around it constantly.

It allows you to incorporate new things that happen during photography that you didn’t think of. As well as letting go of things that you were married to, that when you get to the actual making of the film you realize aren’t going to work. So you have to be really nimble as a director. I think when people panic and flip tables, that’s when things fall apart.

If you can constantly be like, “Okay, that didn’t work, but we could do this. That didn’t work. That worked better than what I had in my head. Great, let’s go with that.” And that was my approach. I constantly was pivoting, and pivoting, and pivoting. And my team was pivoting with me. So, we never really had a breakdown.

Did your history with voicing Lana on Archer help with the fact that all the supporting characters are simply voices on a speakerphone?

Yeah, I think so. I had a real comfort in the booth that I might not have had if I hadn’t done that for eight years at that point. There’s an ease in there. We had people recording here in LA, we had people recording Atlanta. Sam Rockwell called in by a phone while he was making Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Ciarán Hinds called in while he was on Broadway doing The Crucible with Saoirse Ronan. We record remotely for Archer, [so] my lack of fear about working remotely in a sound booth kept me calm during all that stuff.

It was an accelerated process. We recorded all that stuff before we made the movie. We were kind of racing to get it all done so that Emmett would at least know how those conversations felt. Because he was there recording, but he didn’t get to actually act across those people in the car. So it was important to get all that work done so at least he remembered what it felt like to have those conversations when we record them.

You’ve talked about how you want this movie to be the kind of experience that warrants getting pie afterward. You present a fairly linear story, but there’s a lot of ambiguity, particularly with how it ends. Has your personal interpretation changed after taking this around and hearing how audiences react to it?

Oh yeah. When I was making it, I had a definitive sense in my mind, just because I was focused on execution. But I will say absolutely that my take on the end of this film has completely both expanded and changed during every conversation that I’ve had with the audience as they’ve watched the movie.

It was in six festivals this year and then opened in LA [and] we always had that conversation at the end of the movie with the audience. And it’s amazing how many different takes people have the film. But people, their interpretations have been so varied, which was really gratifying to me. I think as an artist, it’s so much more interesting to know that people are interpreting your work in various ways, because it means your work is complex. If everybody gets the same answer, then it probably wasn’t that compelling, and that’s not to beat up on a movie or a narrative that has the definitive start and end.

To me, it’s just so interesting that we had so many different takes on the film. God, it [was] maybe in Sarasota or Nashville, we had a guy raise his hand in a row with like 300 people and goes, “Look. We’re two couples finishing the movie together. We all have a different take on the end of the movie and I want you guys to tell me that I’m right.” And I was like, “You’re all right. I mean, you’re all right.”

That was our goal for this film was for people to really talk about it. It’s been a thrill that people have had such different takes on the movie. My take on the end of the movie has got much more nuanced, I think. Which is interesting, because it’s my art, mine and Emmett’s art, but I think it’s been thrilling because I can’t tell you [that] you’re wrong, you see what you see. It’s been really cool. And the responses have been even more varied and more layered than I would’ve expected.