Posted on Wednesday, May 8, 2024

Twitch, Transformation, and Triumph: Exploring Collaborative Filmmaking and Storytelling with Miss Ash Productions

For over a decade, Ashleigh Coffelt and Courtney Birk have been the visionary duo behind Miss Ash Productions, a Maryland-born venture now thriving in the vibrant landscape of Los Angeles. Their journey is one of evolution, marked by a steadfast commitment to the craft of filmmaking and an unwavering dedication to authenticity. From humble beginnings, where resources were scarce but dreams were abundant, they honed their skills in the art of cinematic storytelling.

What sets Miss Ash Productions apart is their unique approach - crafting narratives around minimal characters, minimal locations, and small crews, yet yielding maximum impact. It's a testament to their prowess in the industry, mastering every facet of production to deliver films that resonate deeply with audiences. Their transition from character-driven, relationship films to psychological horror was met with critical acclaim, earning them accolades such as two Best Acting awards and a prestigious Grand Jury award.

But their journey didn't stop there; in 2017, a pivotal move to Los Angeles ushered in a new era of discovery and innovation. Amidst the challenges of survival in a competitive landscape, they unearthed a game-changing opportunity - Twitch. Since 2018, they've cultivated a dedicated community, empowering them to fund their projects and fuel their creative endeavors. With a sandbox approach to collaboration, they inspire their team to dream big and embrace their inner quirks, resulting in truly original and captivating storytelling. With over 150 films under their belt, spanning genres from documentaries to comedies, Miss Ash Productions stands as a beacon of boundless imagination and unwavering passion.

Their secret weapon? Imagination, passion, and an unapologetic embrace of their own uniqueness. In this exclusive interview, they invaluable insights on building a team for indie projects and discovering one's narrative voice in the competitive realm of independent cinema.

PH: Can you tell us about your latest film that's currently in post-production? What inspired the story, and what can audiences expect from it?

Our latest post-production short film is called “Leap Year.” It’s a whimsical, surrealist dark comedy about Death throwing herself a birthday party on Leap Day while welcoming new souls into the afterlife. We are deeply inspired by “Everything Everywhere All At Once” and aimed to develop a concept around 2024, a leap year. Initially, it was meant to be a rom-com, but as we explored the message we were looking to say, we jumped at the opportunity to explore a more surrealist take on the afterlife. Audiences can expect dynamic performances, witty dialogue, and the true synergy of our fantastic cast and crew.

PH: With over 100 films under your belt, you've covered a wide range of genres. How do you approach each project differently, and do you have a favorite genre to work within?

Our catalog is truly as expansive as it is because when we made films earlier in our career, we used each film to learn a new skill and tested it in real-time in a timed challenge, such as a 48-hour film festival. With each project, we explore what message we hope to tell and the skillset we hope to achieve. From there, we can best develop our screenplay and our team of collaborators for that particular story. While we have commonalities in the themes we explore, we try to diversify our skills in each film. While we’ve only started to explore the genre, we love absurdism and dark comedy.

PH: As co-owner of Miss Ash Productions, what have been some of the most rewarding aspects of collaborating, and what challenges have you faced as business partners?

One of the most rewarding aspects of collaborating is the opportunity to create art together. As we co-own a production company and a Twitch channel, all our opportunities exist with each other. We can travel to different cities and countries to promote our work. We’ve built our lives and careers trusting each other. It’s an honor to be fellow women fighting alongside each other, celebrating our wins together.

No one prepares you for the challenges of owning your own business. We didn’t get into filmmaking to own a business. One of the biggest hurdles we face is the time we have to spend maintaining the business part of our company just to be able to make art. Learning all the nuances of owning a business and a production company has been an adventure, but we’re thankful to have each other to help navigate the waters.

PH: Budget-friendly filmmaking is a skill many aspiring filmmakers aim to master. What are some of your top tips for maximizing resources and minimizing costs without sacrificing quality?

A mistake filmmakers make is focusing too much on the gear (particularly cameras) when you should be focused on lighting. Don’t finance your films on credit cards. Borrow as much gear as you can - you’d be surprised how much you can borrow from local libraries with a library card. Challenge yourself to write a 3-5 page script with two characters in one location to get started. Identify influences for your films, and plan as much as you can before getting on set. Get insurance. Finally, don’t go broke submitting to every festival you can find on FilmFreeway.

PH: Being multi-hyphenates in the industry, how do you balance the various roles you take on during production? Do you find certain roles complement each other, or do you prefer to focus on one aspect at a time?

We’ve worked on so many films together that our workflow seems seamless. The dance of balancing each respective role, especially when we’re wearing multiple hats, comes from many conversations before we get on set. We spend days talking about each project so we can navigate the challenges separately and together. Ashleigh will write the script, and we’ll cast, location scout, and produce together. Courtney will act and sometimes AD, Ashleigh directs and does cinematography, and in the post, we both edit. Ashleigh fine cuts, sound designs, and composes while Courtney color grades and assistant edits. Personally, I (Ashleigh) love directing and cinematography. I can see the film I’ve imagined, adjust performances and angles quickly, and be in the middle of the magic.

I, Courtney, find that all roles complement each other in some way, shape, or form. As an actress, it’s so helpful to know the editing side of things, so I am better prepared for what Ashleigh is looking for. It makes me way more aware of my movements and surroundings. I find that it is so much better to know the “why” behind what you’re doing instead of just doing things. If you know the why, you can make better-informed decisions about how you carry yourself and have a more profound respect for your fellow collaborators. Being Ashleigh’s AC also helps develop that language. It allows us to play as opposed to just trying to hit marks.

PH: Your involvement in live broadcasting on Twitch is intriguing. How has this platform influenced your filmmaking process, and how do you integrate your artistic endeavors into your live broadcasts?

Live broadcasting on Twitch has been one of the best undertakings we’ve ever had. Through live broadcasting music, we’ve connected with thousands of people worldwide. For the last six years, we’ve been able to share our story as best friends, filmmakers, and musicians. Our community, The Ohana, has elevated us to create opportunities for ourselves by funding our films, financing our film gear, and supporting our livelihood as artists. We can share our films in every production stage and get honest feedback. We wouldn’t be where we are today without The Ohana.

We integrate our artistic endeavors into our live broadcasts in every way. We test new lighting techniques. We design all our channel branding, art, and quirky video overlays. We play our films during breaks on our stream and introduce anyone new to our world of filmmaking. We spend whole streams explaining techniques or discussing current events in filmmaking. Most importantly, streaming has given us a place to gain confidence in public speaking and a chance to perfect pitching ourselves and our projects.

PH: Can you share a memorable experience from one of your projects that epitomizes the essence of Miss Ash Productions' creative vision?

One of the most memorable experiences from a Miss Ash Productions film was from our film, First You, Then I. We participated in a 48-hour film challenge and worked with several new collaborators. Everything Everywhere All At Once had just come out, and so many of us were deeply inspired by the film. Courtney and I stayed up all night writing the film, and when we got on set Saturday morning, we felt such synergy between the cast and crew. So many things went wrong, but everyone stayed positive and focused on telling this profoundly personal and beautiful story of a broken relationship. It felt like a sandbox approach to creativity, with everyone offering suggestions on improving the film and everyone being all hands on deck to help in any way they could. In edit, while I (Ashleigh) was editing, Courtney was color grading, and our producer/ sound mixer/sound designer Zach Lambe was building a wicked sound design. For 8 hours, we kept bouncing revisions to each other, making a film we couldn’t believe we created. That film is pivotal in our film career, from visuals to storytelling to the precedent it set for on-set culture for us moving forward. Since First You, Then I, we’ve been able to identify our style of collaboration as a sandbox approach.

PH: In your opinion, what are some common misconceptions about independent filmmaking, and how do you strive to challenge or debunk them through your work?

The most common misconception about indie filmmaking is that it isn’t as great as studio films and, therefore, novice. Some of the most original concepts can be found in indie films, particularly in smaller film festivals. The world is yearning for original content, and indie films are full of unique ideas and bravery for the filmmakers telling these stories with limited resources.

Another misconception about indie filmmaking is that being a jack of all trades makes you a master of none. However, the quote continues, “but oftentimes better than a master of one." By understanding multiple jobs in filmmaking, we work with an all-star team and make better films.

We strive to break down barriers to indie filmmaking by actively mentoring young filmmakers, donating our time on sets for fellow collaborators, and creating educational content about indie filmmaking.

PH: As best friends and creative partners, how do you navigate disagreements or creative differences during the filmmaking process?

We’re fortunate that we don’t have too many disagreements or creative differences. We spend so much time communicating and clarifying our intentions and what we are individually looking to gain from each project. We both can put aside any ego that could be there and focus on what’s best for the project. The secret is to walk away, not speak when angry, and never go to bed angry.

PH: Collaboration is key in the entertainment industry. What qualities do you look for in collaborators, and how do you foster a positive and productive working environment on set?

Collaboration makes filmmaking so much fun, but it can also sink the ship if you aren’t careful. We look for playfulness, the ability to think outside the box, and kindness in our collaborators. Most of our collaborators are also multi-hyphenates and can quickly jump in and help in other areas of production in the case of an emergency. We emphasize constant check-ins with our cast and crew to foster a positive and productive working environment. We communicate everything that is happening so everyone is on the same page. We make sure as a team that we have a game plan and plan ahead as much as possible to prepare for any problems that arise on set. Ultimately, our collaborative team remembers to have fun, as a day on set is one of the best places you could be.

PH: What's next for Miss Ash Productions? Are there any upcoming projects or goals you're excited to pursue shortly?

Our goal right now is to complete some of the films we have in post-production and look to package some of our shorts for distribution. We’re working closely with several production companies to allow first-time directors to find their voices through films. We’re wrapping up post-production for our latest short film, “Leap Year.” We’re also gearing up for a psychological thriller that will make our teen hearts proud, currently called “Better Not Tell You Now,” exploring grief, control, and power dynamics.

PH: How do you approach storytelling in your films, and do you have any particular themes or messages that you often explore in your work?

We approach storytelling with an understanding that every piece has to stand on its own. You have to be able to remove one part of the story, the score, the dialogue, etc., and still have the story come through. We don’t believe in fluff. Every part of the film, much like the expectations we have of ourselves, has to earn the right to be there. As far as themes, we really love to explore the human condition and identity. It’s one of the best ways to connect an entire room of people and walk away feeling something.

PH: As filmmakers and artists, what do you hope audiences take away from experiencing your films or live broadcasts?

As filmmakers and artists, we want to leave our audiences with hope and a desire to create themselves. We want to leave people better than when we found them. Through our films, we love to provide a different perspective on things to help audiences see the world from a different perspective. We enjoy making people laugh with absurdism through our art, especially lately with our pottery.

The world has a brutal way of teaching people they can’t live their dreams or maintain their childlike curiosity. We’ve had so much fun and fulfillment, helping reconnect individuals worldwide with their desires to make art, tell stories, and embrace themselves as artists.

PH: Can you share some insights into your creative process, from conceptualization to execution, and how it has evolved over the years?

One of our best qualities is being inspired by so many different things. All of our films start with the idea of exploring something deeper. For example, we’ll see a story online, experience something, and have conversations trying to make sense of the world. Oftentimes, we’ll find a nugget of creativity and explore the best art form to express that emotion. Especially over the last few years, we’ve been so fortunate to include other art forms like music, painting, woodburning, ceramics, and film.

Because we’ve done so much work within ourselves, our filmmaking process, in particular, has grown much simpler while yet much more complex because we’re collaborating with a larger team. We’ve been used to having an idea and being able to have the completed film within two weeks. Every project takes much longer to develop as we need complete pitch decks and breakdowns for department heads. We’ve also learned to slow down, really take time to create a story and have ample time on set to bring the story to life.

PH: Lastly, what advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers who are looking to carve their path in the industry, especially those interested in pursuing independent and DIY filmmaking?

In this day and age, aspiring filmmakers can find tutorials and articles everywhere. It can get overwhelming, but instead of watching every video, we encourage filmmakers to go make a film. So many of our films took what we had and where we were and told a story. We learned so much about ourselves as storytellers and filmmakers by making short films with our friends.

Expecting a cinema-grade film or forever accepting failure will be the biggest dream killer. Filmmaking is fun, and it’s supposed to be fun. You can’t find your voice if you get bogged down by all the gear and how-to’s out there. Go out and film something. Find your spark. Find your interests. You can explore what tools will help you develop your spark from there.

Keep up with Miss Ash Productions on Instagram, Twitch, and ProductionHUB.