Tyler has made a name for herself in several different fields, first rising to prominence in 1996, she went on to host E TV’s Talk Soup, make dozens of Television appearances and most notably become a household name on CBS’s The Talk. While the path from comic to TV host is one that has famously been paved, going behind the lens and calling the shots is a whole different story.
We talked with Tyler and got the inside story on taking a vision and making it a reality before her recent Axis movie screening and Q and A at the Alamo Drafthouse with soulciti Blogger and Austin Stand Up Comic Jasmine Ellis.
Jasmine: [discussing the practice of cutting jokes from your standup act] It’s a little bit of ego because you’re like, “This is my baby, this is what I thought of.”
Aisha: And it’s still working, so why give it up? But you will eventually, and it’s okay. You do a comedy special, you’ve got to throw those jokes away and write new ones. It’s that first time that you give your material up is the hardest, but it gets easier.
One question I usually like to end with, but I feel like works into what we’re saying – you’ve been an actor, writer, you’ve been on podcasts, you’ve worked on so many different creative things…early on, early into your career, was there ever a moment where you were like, “Okay, I’m gonna stop doing everything.”
Like cut down to doing just one thing or stop altogether?
I guess if you ever felt like you had to narrow down to just one thing. I really think it’s amazing how many things you do. What inspires you to take on entertainment from so many directions?
I think it’s two things. I think the first thing is like a creative curiosity, I want to, like, be the better artist, more comprehensive artist, a stronger artist, and that means challenging yourself. And so when you master something, you can get bored. You get bored with, “Oh I can do this very well.”
What can I do? What am I capable of?
Not that you think you’re perfect at anything, but I think you start to feel like you’re not growing. So probably a part of it is just inherent creative curiosity, like “What can I do? What am I capable of?” and then challenging yourself.
And then I think the other thing is more practical, which is this business likes to limit people, and limit women, and limit women of color, and so the more things I’m good at, the less likely it is that anybody’s gonna be able to put me in a box. And that might be the primary reason for why I’ve done it. It’s just to create, and capture, and strengthen options for myself so people can’t tell me what I’m capable of.
As a filmmaker, what were the biggest challenges for Axis?
I mean getting it made…every filmmaker will tell you that getting a movie made is just impossible. And in this particular case, I’d been wanting to make a feature for a long time, and I think a lot of people were saying, “We can see that you’re capable of that conceptually, but it’s just a very risk-averse business, no one really wants to take a shot on somebody for the first time.
I made this movie very quickly, so I guess in terms of process it actually went very smoothly, but it’s because I crowdfunded this movie. If I’d tried to get it financed traditionally it would’ve taken me a very long time to put together. I blew off the traditional pathway because I didn’t want to mess with it. You know what I mean? I’m not interested in going down that path – it’s circuitous, they’re gonna tell me I’m not ready, they’re gonna tell me I need a famous person in my movie, they’re gonna change the script. I just wanted to make the movie I wanted to make, that’s why I crowdfunded it. And so as a filmmaking exercise, it actually went very fast. I read the script in the fall of 2015, and I made it in the spring of 2016. And that was because I raised the money on Kickstarter, and didn’t try to go to a traditional funding source.
For this to be your first film, what about that script drew you in and made you think, “This has to be made.” Without giving too much away about the film.
I think the first thing is that I’d already made a film with the actor who is the lead in this movie, and we’d had a really great creative experience together. And then he brought me this script. I’d already had other projects I wanted to make, but when I read this script, it was a perfect first film.
Everybody’s looking for, y’know, a first film that’s going to be interesting and compelling and eye-catching, and also can be made. If you’re trying to make a first movie, it’s gotta be something you can be made for a price, and you can get a million famous people in, and can be made quickly.
no one tells white men what kinds of stories they can and can’t tell.
And this was just a perfect storm, because it was a good first film, and it was also an eye-catching first film. I don’t think that when you think of me, or maybe an African American female director, you think of a movie about a drug-addicted Irish expatriate trying to turn his life around in Los Angeles.
The incongruity of that was actually really appealing to me. Because I think people want to say, “Women can make movies about women, and directors of color can make stories about directors of color,” but no one tells white men what kinds of stories they can and can’t tell. So it was really important to me to pick a story that was, at least stereotypically, was way outside my personal wheelhouse.
Because they’re [white men] considered the norm, so whatever they want to do is considered normal.
Exactly, exactly, so I think it’s important to define yourself as broadly as possible. You’re telling human stories, and you’re capable of seeing an experience from a bunch of different perspectives, and then trying to make a movie that felt very, very different from what would be expected of you.
I was actually curious about it, because when I saw the trailer, it was very dark, very serious, and that wasn’t what I was expecting. It was like, “Aisha Tyler is making a movie…”
Right, and you expect it to be a comedy.
Did you have people surprised you weren’t making a comedy, or try to push you in that direction?
Oh, sure, yeah. I mean, people close to me know that I really love genre films, I love action, thrillers, this movie is a psychological thriller, and while it has a lot of darkness, it’s also very funny. It’s very darkly funny.
That’s the best humor, though.
Yeah. For me, it’s the stuff that’s the most grounded in reality. I think the people closest to me knew I wanted to do something edgy, so it didn’t surprise them. But yeah, I’m sure people thought I would make some kind of big, broad comedy. And I think maybe because of my prominence, because of the things I’ve been working on lately, maybe people were expecting something lighter, but what I will say is that when people see the movie, they can see that it is my film, that it expresses my sensibility. That it’s very human, the characters are very flawed, there’s lots and lots of comedy in it. And it is dark, and it is edgy, and I think could’ve made a hundred movies, but when you see this movie, you can see why I made this movie, and what of me is in this film.
I was curious about that, because from reading your book, it sounded like your entrance into entertainment was a little more wholesome than that.
You know, no drug-addled past.
No running down the street in my underpants with a gun or anything like that.
But I find darkness really interesting. Y’know what I mean? It’s not that I don’t like light stories as well, but I just…comedy for me, there’s that old adage that, y’know, tragedy plus comedy equals time. Most comedy is about telling the truth. And while I didn’t have a particularly laden or dark past, either creatively or with my family, I find darkness, and that kind of authenticity, interesting, and I do think as comedians, y’know, our primary job is to tell the truth.
Funny is important, but it’s not as important as honesty.
And that’s why so much pain is mined for comedy, because it’s the thing that bonds us all, being human, being fully human and telling the truth about our experiences and what we’ve gone through. Funny is important, but it’s not as important as honesty. I think the thing that strikes you the most deeply is when people tell the truth about themselves and the world. People haven’t been shocked in any grand way.
The movie is ultimately – although it’s a psychological drama, and there is a lot of excitement, a lot of drama – there are a lot of twists in it, and a lot of darkness, it’s at its core about a guy who’s a good guy who’s done bad things, and is trying to turn his life around. So it is an uplifting movie, or at least, it’s a movie about hope, and I think people can connect with it in that way. And it changes quite a bit in the duration of that movie. So it looks like one movie, and it turns into another one, which is really fun.
After the interview and the film screening Aisha answered questions along with scriptwriter and the films star Emmett Hughes. The film is as captivating as it is unconventional. It’s a full length film with only two sets and one actor seen on screen, while it boasts an impressive list of cameos such as Jerry Ferrara, Thomas Gibson and Sam Rockwell.
It’s the simplicity of it that will really hook you in as a viewer. Axis is the kind of film that requires a brilliant mind to visually keep the watcher engaged and wanting to discuss for hours. “I wanted to create a movie and a pie kind of film,” said Tyler. ‘Too often, we watch films and there’s no reason to get pie afterwards, there’s nothing to wonder about nothing to discuss. I wanted a film that left something out there.” Axis took only 7 days to film and will surely set the standard for a long career in filmmaking for both Hughes and Tyler.