Meet VR Filmmaker, Director & Pioneer-In-Skirt Ashley Maria

Ashley Maria had it made. The recent film school grad was ready to take Hollywood by storm. But something strange happened along the way. She ran into wall after brick wall—obstacles that seemed to exist only for women in her industry. Now she’s exacting her revenge the only way she knows how: by making a movie about it. Ashley spoke to us recently about her life in LA and some dazzling new frontiers in filmmaking.

When did you first know you wanted to make films?

I actually grew up around a camera. My mom was always filming and, as early as the age of five, I was asking if I could use the camera. I remember loving to see the world through that little camera lens and every camera I’ve had since.

What did you learn in film school that you couldn't have figured out on your own?

I chose to pursue my Masters in Film from the University of Southern California because I wanted to learn more about the possibilities of a career—and a life—in film. I jumped in headfirst and moved to Los Angeles to attend one of the top film schools in the world. There, I found my voice as a storyteller. I had a professor who saw in me something I wasn’t quite embracing just yet: my sense of humor. He told me to embrace the “weird” and run with it. So I did—and I have.

Through the rigorous schedule of making several short films each semester, working with industry professionals as mentors and teachers, and experimenting with different genres and styles, I learned what a filmmaking career looked like and I learned what I could personally offer a movie-going audience.

Where did the idea for Pioneers in Skirts come from and how did it progress from mere idea all the way to the production stage? What motivated you to make this film?

When I first graduated from film school, I was ready to take my career by storm. I had won prestigious awards, made the right connections and had projects ready to pitch—but every time I was invited into a room, I was treated in a way I hadn’t anticipated. I was surprised to see that I was at times belittled, talked over or dismissed. When I walked in a room, I saw how difficult it was for people to view me as a director—someone who could take charge of a production and have their vision realized. At first, I thought it was something that I had done but I learned quickly it was because I was a woman and the industry just wasn’t ready for a woman to take on this kind of leadership role. I felt defeated and powerless. I dreamt of this career since I was a little girl, and now I couldn't see any light at the end of the tunnel.

 

What a horrible realization that must have been.

Yes it was. So what does a filmmaker do if she wants to overcome an issue she’s having within her industry? Well, she makes a movie about it. Pioneers in Skirts is a documentary feature film that follows my own journey of understanding the unique obstacles women face in their careers. I bring the data and the stories together in order to start real conversations about the setbacks women face, and how we all can help women like me reach their full potential in their careers. In the film, we explain that a pioneer is someone who is self-aware and takes charge of her own career—and, yes, sometimes she may wear a skirt!

 

True! Maybe even a—gasp!—dress.

Exactly. We simply use the word skirts as a metaphor for women who are career-driven. It was during a discussion with my mother, who experienced similar situations in her own career, that I decided, instead of figuring out how to deal with these issues, I want to figure out how to end them for good. We can’t have another generation of women entering their prospective fields and hitting a brick wall like I did. Something has got to change, so my team and I work day and night in hopes of this film starting that conversation.

Brilliant. Here’s hoping it does just that. So let’s shift gears: besides staying up all night working to get your own project off the ground, what other work do you do in the industry?

When I’m not chugging coffee, editing, and writing for my own films, I’m on set working to help other filmmakers realize their own projects. The filmmaker community is incredibly supportive and we all give as much as we get. I work as a production sound mixer and boom operator (I hold that huge microphone over the head of actors) on various projects ranging from web series to commercials to feature films. I have to say my favorite sound-mixing projects to work on are documentaries because I get a rare glimpse into someone’s story and get to experience their impactful moments first hand.

One of the coolest projects I worked on was a documentary following a young woman undergoing a groundbreaking surgery. She had a condition her entire life that made her sweat profusely from her hands and absolutely nothing could stop it. A half hour later, she was out of surgery and this debilitating condition was now gone. The camera operator and I were both crying with her when she first realized her life had changed forever. Her anxiety could be put to rest. It was amazing. 

Wow. To us outsiders, being an independent filmmaker sounds really glamorous. In what ways is—and isn't—it the 24/7 glitter-infused funfest we imagine it to be? 

When I get to dress up and celebrate a screening, it’s awesome. I wear pretty dresses, put on fancy make-up, and get my picture taken as I walk a red carpet. But getting to those days of celebration takes months, even years, of intense hard work and peanut butter & jelly sandwiches. And, of course, I love it! However, for me, it’s not about the glitz or fancy clothes. It’s all about the audience’s reaction to my projects—like a conversation we’re having together. The late nights, intense editing sessions and long days on set are all worth it so we can have that conversation together!

We would be remiss if we didn't ask you: what Hollywood A-listers have you met? Please include every super-private detail of your interactions. #NoShame

I’ve worked with several A-listers and am incredibly inspired by and respectful of their accomplishments and professionalism, which is why I will not share any stories. I want to keep working with them!

Booooo. OK, we grudgingly respect that. So here's where it gets really interesting. I understand you've been exploring Virtual Reality (VR) filmmaking. What exactly does that mean? 

VR is really exciting right now. Everyone is trying to figure out the possibilities of this new medium. Again, I love to have a conversation with my audience – and isn’t this just the coolest way to tell a story? There are two different ways to look at VR filmmaking: as 3D-360 or true VR. Both are considered immersive because of the full range of perspective but VR primarily refers to the ability to interact and walk throughout a space. There are some great games for this tech, but not much as far as films. So most filmmakers are in the 3D-360 space and use gaming engines to allow the viewer to interact with aspects of the story. My 360 films encourage the audience to also look around to catch the story elements. This is done through movement, sound effects, anything you can think of!

As you know, Lenovo just announced our 1st augmented reality (AR) smartphone. Team Lenovo is just as obsessed with VR and AR right now as our fans. With this new tech starting to take off, how do you think corresponding new ways of telling and digesting stories will respectively impact filmmakers and audiences?

You have asked an amazing question. My USC critical studies professor would be so proud! I feel this progressive technology will allow a filmmaker’s audience an evolved access to the filmmaker’s creation via that little device at their fingertips. They won’t simply watch—they will experience. And when I make a 360 video, I actively make the content knowing the audience will view it this way. VR/AR technologies will encourage us all to create, innovate and challenge how we as viewers and creators respond to content.

We will be able to consume the most immersive visual content from our own home and evolve with the storytelling as the tech evolves. I say enjoy it. Embrace the good and the bad because we are all experimenting with something that could very well change how we consume content all together. Sure, I hope you’ll go see my movies on the big screen with a huge bucket of popcorn, but will that big screen actually appear within your headset? That would be pretty cool!

It’s all mind-blowing and I can’t wait to see where it goes from here. Not to make any assumptions about the bro-dominated tech and film industries but, um, is a female VR filmmaker an incredibly rare bird? Are you a pioneer (in skirt)?

Luckily I have a large, supportive community of both women and men VR creators. Sure, there are a lot more men than women when I attend VR-oriented events but, as opposed to in the film industry, I see more opportunity to make my voice matter. I can already feel that I’m not only needed in the VR industry, I’m wanted. I suppose I do pioneer, too. There are a lot of tech experts in the field, but not many who are also story-telling creatives so I stand out in that way as well.  

I understand filmmaking isn't the only love of your life--tell me about your obsession (is that too strong a word?) with coffee.

I heart coffee. I’ve actually grown to like the flavor. My college-Ashley is just disgusted with this, I’m sure. But, oh gosh, I count down the days until Pumpkin Spice season. I kid you not, I had a nightmare a few nights ago that it was Pumpkin Spice season—muffins, bread, everything—but there was no Pumpkin Spice creamer to be found. It was a nightmare, I tell you!

Madness! Ashley, thanks for taking the time to chat today. We'll let you get back to your 24/7 red carpet now.

 

Gavin O'Hara is the Director of Lenovo's Brand Newsroom