Every artist is familiar with the reflection syndrome. How our personal themes appear like mirrors in the real world, daring us to match and manifest. The process is clumsy and vulnerable at worst and best, at the same time. Ashley Nardone isn't limited to filmmaking, but she loves the form. She thinks in wide scopes, in 3d, and loves getting her toes wet on the border of 4d. In this interview, Ashley tells us about the process of making her first feature documentary, Jojo's Circus.
[see Trailer below]
First question, where do you live, and what is your morning routine?
I live in sunny South Florida in a quirky little town called Lake Worth Beach. There is a small yet warm downtown that is three blocks from my doorstep and I’m less than a mile from the beach. My husband and I reside in a live/work community built by our city specifically for artists. Located on the main thoroughfare through downtown, my studio is on the first floor and we live on the second floor. It’s an inspiring space to create in.
My morning routine is fairly simple - catch up on some news while I eat breakfast (typically a slice of my homemade bread that I make with freshly milled grains alongside a pot of black tea). The goal each day is to get to working before 8:30 am.
What is your background?
My early education was through homeschooling from kindergarten to high school graduation. The homeschool environment I had was extremely formative and instilled a deep love for learning. Education was far more hands-on for me than for my peers who were in public school and I benefited greatly from that. Creatively, I didn’t have many outlets except for taking piano lessons. Because I was passionate about music, I began my undergrad studies as a piano performance major. I enjoyed my music studies, though I was curious about other art forms, specifically photography. Adding a darkroom photography class to my music studies in my second semester, I was captivated. Having critiques and growing in my photo hobby inspired something in me. One year later, I switched my major to photography and graphic design and graduated with BFAs in both. But it was during an art class outside of my concentration that I found my biggest passion yet - installation art.
I advocate strongly that anyone attend a school within their financial means ... As a result, I graduated with ZERO debt
When it comes to formal education, I advocate strongly that anyone attend a school within their financial means. At one point I had dreams of going to an illustrious out-of-state school. I even received acceptance to my top two. But without scholarships, I would have had to take out loans like so many do. Instead, I stayed in-state where I had scholarships and I could pay for my classes each semester for equal quality education. As a result, I graduated with ZERO debt. That kind of financial freedom is a total game-changer.
How did you find filmmaking?
I feel as if the camera has been wooing me for quite some time. I first flirted with the camera as a distraction from my focus on music studies. Then when I began my career as an installation artist, the camera and I had an on-again-off-again relationship. Small video projects would pop up here and there that provided a steadiness of work through the years. This helped when I started my installation art company to fill in gaps when work was dry. I became serious about filmmaking when I was approached by a client who asked me to edit together a story of her family’s sailing journey.
Filmmaking is incredibly intriguing to me because it is one of those unique art practices that encapsulates many different art forms
For the next two and a half years, I put my career as an installation artist somewhat on pause to create the documentary film, Jojo’s Circus. Never had I made a film over 9 minutes in length nor had I expelled efforts into story development, but leaned into it. The feature-length film stretched me; as a storyteller, as an interviewer, and as a newly skilled illustrator and animator. The film also allowed me to engage with my musical background through editing together the soundtrack. I’ve felt more like a musician these past years than I have in over a decade. Filmmaking is incredibly intriguing to me because it is one of those unique art practices that encapsulates many different art forms. Together, it makes something even greater than its individual parts. It is framing, movement, sound and music, acting, timing, costuming, and light. Very few art forms share this aggregated trait. One other example is the art of dance which involves choreography, music, light, and costuming. This is also a favorite of mine. There is something quite special about an entity that brings great things together; filmmaking excels at this.
Where does your passion for creating stuff come from?
I consider myself an observer. I analyze and I love to solve puzzles. For me, creativity stems from this practice. Simply defined, I see creativity as uniquely solving a problem. I might not feel creatively inspired every day in my role as an artist. Despite that, I still need to practice my craft and produce work with or without that spark of creativity. I’ve learned to force myself to produce something, even if it’s uninspired. Later I can evaluate it constructively and assess its success objectively. Once there is structure, I find it easy to insert creativity. My mantra is; practice your craft every day. This is how you hone your skills. And for those days when creativity hits me hard, it’s pure magic.
What was the experience of making the film? How long, how was the filming period for you, and in what way was it challenging?
My documentary film is about a sailing trip taken halfway around the world by a family. Initially, I was given a collection of home video trip footage from eight months of traveling. The mother of the family and I had multiple phone interviews to develop a brief overview of the stories from their journey. We began filming interviews with the kids immediately upon their return to capture their most vibrant memories. This was challenging for me because I hadn’t yet developed which direction the narrative was going. In a way, I was blindly capturing content that I had to make sense of later.
In the first year, I filmed the interviews while finishing large art installation projects I had scheduled. The next eight months or so were spent developing the storyline and editing together most of the film. Once the film was essentially together, I worked on illustrating and animating scenes for about 6 months. Audio mixing and color grading merged with creating the last few illustrated scenes in the remaining 4 months. The film was produced in two and a half years altogether.
The most surprising part of making the film happened during the interview process. I learned about the events of the trip from the mother’s perspective. It was from her viewpoint that I developed main plot points and created interview questions supporting those. I was surprised to find that quite a few of mom’s highlights fell completely flat when I asked the dad and kids. Sidestepping my momentary frustration of carefully planned interview questions, I found it curious; the variety of memories. Given one example, one family member would recall an event as terrifying, the other as hilarious, and yet another looked at me strangely because they didn’t remember, not sure why I was asking them about it. It just reminded me that history is more fluid than I thought. Our interpretations have such heavy influence over the tone of a story. I realized that even if the eyewitness accounts were different, the specific version I selected for the film will become the collective memory of that event. I deepened my understanding of how much power there is as a storyteller.
What was your narrative approach?
The narrative approach was primarily through first-hand accounts by the five family members. I let the interviews inform the direction of the film. Through deep analysis of the interview transcriptions, the narrative began to emerge.
Because my roots are first in music, it was natural for me to let the music drive many of my creative decisions as the film came together
I placed equal importance on the main sailing trip, the reasons for the trip, as well as developing an arc for each individual family member. After considering what I had gathered in the interviews, I developed a basic structure split into nine sections. Stylistically, I wanted the family’s stories to fuse and become one collected account. I would stitch together the threads of recollections by trading lines through the telling of a story. I let the narrative develop in freeform, at this stage, in conjunction with the music. Because my roots are first in music, it was natural for me to let the music drive many of my creative decisions as the film came together.
Where did the idea behind the film come from?
I was approached with the idea for this documentary film. I had met the family two months before they embarked on their journey halfway around the world. At that time, they were just this unique family setting out for an epic trip and I didn’t know anything about why they were leaving. Upon their return when I was asked to be a part of this project, I didn’t know what it would become or where it would lead. I recall asking the mother of the family if she was seeking a highlight reel of the trip or a story about where and why they went. When I posed the question, I was hoping for the latter and I was relieved to hear that was her intention. Thus we entered into a journey to crack open their experience and interfamily dynamics. Though they have a general instinct for privacy, the family gracefully let me probe into their lives. I was especially impressed by the boys at their ages of 12, 10, and 8 at the time. They were each patient during our interviews, providing insightful recollections and humorous highlights. While a sailing trip is the apparent concept of the film, the real story is the family. It is a story about the trust that deepened for each other, defined by the closeness they now have after the trip.
What are the next projects you're working on?
I am currently finalizing my next installation art project which is a mass of 400 hanging paper planes. The on-site installation will commence at a brand new Marriott hotel next week. This week I began the process of submitting my documentary film to festivals. Finally, the film is finished, promotional materials written, and a new website created. Looking to the future, I would like to create more artwork for films. I welcome opportunities to collaborate and create unique art for film projects.
If you'd wanted to know ONE THING before making a documentary, what would that be?
Honestly, there is nothing that I wish I would have known before making my documentary. I say that because I have ultimate respect for the journey. From the outset, I had that gut feeling that this film would be one of the hardest things I had yet to accomplish. Along the way, I felt that tug of discomfort when you’re doing something foreign, which makes you feel vulnerable. That feeling is uncomfortable, but I’ve learned to associate that sense with doing something meaningful. My growth happens when I commit and just do the thing. Without the stretching, the great adventure is void.
The reality is that you can learn along the way and make adjustments as you go. Being humble about the process is so important to me. It is true now that the project is complete that I would have preferred to approach a few things differently. The catch is that I would have never learned. I had to live it first.