'DO NOT give up' Love & Bananas: An Elephant Story director and LA actress Ashley Bell on filmmaking
Ashley Bell is an MTV and Independent Spirit Award-nominated actress and documentary filmmaker who has just directed her first feature-length documentary Love & Bananas: An Elephant Story which follows a team of elephant rescuers as they embark on a daring 48-hour mission across Thailand to rescue a 70-year old captive, blind Asian elephant and bring her to freedom. Here she shares her documentary filmmaking and acting journey with Mandy News.
Could you please introduce yourself, and tell us a little bit about how you got involved in the Film Industry?
I’m Ashley Bell and I’m primarily an actress - you’ve probably seen me covered in fake blood – but also I’m the writer, director and producer of Love & Bananas: An Elephant Story.
I was born in this business. My dad, Michael Bell, is the voice of everyone’s childhood. He has done voices on The Smurfs, The Rugrats, GI Joe, Transformers, The Snorks, etc. My mom, Victoria Carroll, was one of the founding members of the Groundlings in LA and a very successful on-camera actress. My grandparents were in vaudeville and my grandfather was head of publicity at 20th Century Fox.
My breakout role was in a film called The Last Exorcism, for which I was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award and an MTV Movie Award. The film was made for under $2 million (£1,434,400) and grossed $90 million (£64.5m) for Lionsgate.
What lead you to make the documentary? How did you come across the plight of the Asian Elephant?
A friend of mine, David Casselman, is the founder of the Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary. He invited me to see the release of the first two rescued Asian elephants onto that sanctuary. Watching these elephants take their first walk of freedom without chains changed my life. I learned about the plight of the Asian elephant and the loss of their environment as I was filming the rescue. And that’s what I want audiences, especially kids, to experience as they watch the film.
Please tell us about the process of making this film, the length of filming, the pre-production planning, etc...
We waited two and a half years to go on an elephant rescue because there are so few Asian elephants left in the world. That time was phenomenal for planning, planning, planning and pre-production! We launched an Indiegogo campaign to fundraise so we would be able to go at the drop of a hat.
When an Asian elephant is up for rescue, you only have a matter of days to get on site. We also have about eight different versions of the script because I’m not patient and I wanted to get back to Southeast Asia to film, no matter what. Ultimately, we waited for the elephant to be available for rescue, but we had that work in our back pocket.
We actually filmed the whole documentary in two weeks. From day one, I wanted to take audiences on an elephant rescue, so we were up for about three days straight documenting that journey. We wanted to be in and out of Cambodia and Thailand quickly due to the sensitive nature of what we were filming. We had to keep a backup of footage in an undisclosed place in case our footage was seized at the airport.
Change for Balance Productions was fantastic in determining the look of the film and what cameras we would use. In documentary, your B roll is your A roll, so we shot all the majestic shots of elephants in 5K on the RED Epic. We shot hours of interview content on a Canon 5DSL. GoPros were sporadically used to make audiences feel the immediacy of the journey.
How much did you shoot and what was the process of picking the right footage?
We shot 75 hours of footage and when I came home I had my first panic attack! I devoted two weeks to watching and logging every minute of footage to prepare myself for the edits. I then worked with Change for Balance Productions and documentary writer Fernanda Rossi. Fernanda guided us through a process of building the arc of the film through character and objective and then pulling footage that supported the characters and their objectives.
Within six months, we had our first cut, which is quite fast for documentaries. The film is a tight, action-packed 75 minutes.
What is new for you in 2018 and beyond?
As an actress, I have a film coming out called The Swerve that I shot in Virginia, and a short film called The Delta Girl that stars Isabelle Furman and Caitlin Carver and was directed by a great up-and-coming female director named Jaclyn Bethany. I also have an e-book called Shoot It, Sell It, Show It: How I Made an Independent Film with Grit and Google where I share everything I learned – tips and things to avoid – when making an indie documentary.
I am attached to several indies that I can’t talk about yet, shooting in the fall, and I’ve optioned a play I’m writing with Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer Lillian Groag.
What advice would you have for someone wanting to get into documentary making?
Read my book Shoot It, Sell It, Show It: How I Made an Independent Film with Grit and Google. It will save you time, heartbreak, help you avoid the traps and tell you how much power you possess for both filming and distribution. Also, DO NOT give up! If you have been hit with the calling in your bones to tell a story, fight to tell it. And don’t give up.
Love & Bananas: An Elephant Story is out now in the US – find screenings here.