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Aisha Tyler on directing her first feature film – ‘Axis’

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Aisha Tyler (right) in the director's role during filming of the Hot Machine feature film "Axis."   Aisha Tyler (right) in the director's role during filming of the Hot Machine feature film "Axis." (photo courtesy of Hot Machine/Christine Soloman)

With roles in four current television series (“Criminal Minds,” “The Talk,” “Whose Line is it Anyway,” “Archer”) and one of the most listened-to podcasts on the web (“Girl on Guy”), Aisha Tyler has plenty going on. 

And she has added a new moniker to her already-impressive CV – director. 

“Axis” is Tyler’s first feature-length film and it’s already generating buzz among festival-goers in Sarasota, Newport Beach, Nashville and Bentonville.

“I’d been shadowing directors for years, knowing that I wanted to direct but I wasn’t sure what it would be,” Tyler told me during an interview. “A few years ago, I was in Ireland, shadowing TV shows ‘Viking’ and ‘Penny Dreadful.’ I directed a short film in Galway, Ireland and that’s where I met (actor and writer) Emmett Hughes and he brought me this script.” 

Tyler admits wondering how she was going to get out of a potentially uncomfortable situation – until she read Hughes’s script.

“Sometimes when your friend brings you a script, you think ‘God, am I going to have to unfriend this person? How do I quietly sneak away here? It was just a great script and a great idea. I went out and cast the rest of the movie.” 

“Axis” is the story of Tristan Blake (played by Hughes) – an Irish actor with a charmed life. On the day Blake is set to star in a career-altering blockbuster, he is forced to survey the wreckage of his past by confronting the demons of addiction and self-abuse that are poised to destroy him.

Thrilled to make her feature directorial debut with such an engaging and richly-written script, Tyler says she blocked nine days to shoot the film last May but completed it in seven. 

“I knew I wanted to shoot it like a play so we actually shot the entire movie every day. Doing it that way, and changing camera angles, meant that we essentially had the whole movie in the can by day three or four,” Tyler says. “It was killer. I didn’t sleep. I was exhausted and everything hurt but it was a happy pain. It was hardest on Emmett because he had to do 65 pages of material every day. He memorized his script before we started.”

“Axis” was crowdfunded, according to Tyler. More than 2,000 backers generated nearly $200,000 – exceeding the project’s goal by $50,000. It allowed Tyler to make the movie she wanted to make without studio interference.

“I didn’t have to hear about what would test well or how changes needed to be made so it would work well overseas,” Tyler says of the liberty she felt in doing an indie film. “I didn’t have some guy in a suit telling me how to make my movie.”

“I brought my backers into the process as much as possible and shared with them what I could about the making of this movie. You want the people who backed you to be engaged and have fun.”

While Hughes is the primary onscreen character in “Axis,” seen confined to his car on a hazy, sun-drenched LA afternoon at rush hour, other characters appear in voice form, including Tyler, Emily Bett Rickards, Sam Rockwell, Paget Brewster, Amber Nash, Ciarán Hinds, Kevin Pollak and others.

Tyler wanted the other primary visual character in the film to be one that is central to the lives of its inhabitants – Los Angeles.

“I love movies and TV shows where a city is a real character,” Tyler explains. “I was thinking about a show that actually just ended its run – the HBO show “Girls.” Brooklyn and New York City in general are very much a part of the show. When you watch a show like that, you feel like you’re there. I really wanted to create that experience for people with “Axis” - to peel back the veil we place on fame every day.”

Tyler says she intentionally highlighted LA’s duality in “Axis” – the city’s superficiality and its edgy and uncompromising landscape.

“A big part of being in this business is the day to day slog of just trying to carve out a living for yourself but LA is also beautiful in a lot of ways that people don’t know because they just think of palm trees and the Kardashians and glitter and jewelry and just stuff. There’s a lot of LA that is gritty and urban and has its own kind of beauty and I wanted to share that with people too.”

The process of directing her first feature film was an exhilarating experience, according to Tyler.

“Before you start, you think ‘Can I do this? Will I be any good? Will I lose it in the middle and they’ll find me huddled in the corner in a pool of my own tears?’ It was energizing. I made some great relationships with my team and they are people I want to make movies with for the rest of my life. All I could think about while making this movie was how I can’t wait to make another one.”

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