Interviewing the Award-Winning Filmmakers Behind SINGLE – American Film Institute

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Interviewing the Award-Winning Filmmakers Behind SINGLE

Produced through AFI’s Directing Workshop for Women, SINGLE is the brainchild of writer/director Ashley Eakin (DWW, Class of 2020). The sharp comedy follows a young woman (Delaney Feener) with a physical disability confronting unconscious biases – both others’ and her own – when she is set up on a blind date. Originally set to premiere at the 2020 SXSW Festival, the film received the SXSW Special Jury Recognition Prize and is currently available to mailchimp.com.

SINGLE features diverse representation not only onscreen, but also behind the scenes. While Eakin is from Nebraska, her producer Summer Yang (AFI Class of 2018) hails from China, cinematographer Sam Chatterjee (AFI Class of 2018) is from Australia-by-way-of-India and editor Charlie Carter (AFI Class of 2019) grew up in the UK. However, Eakin’s story united them, resonating with its defiant protagonist, humorous insight and refreshing honesty.

AFI spoke with the filmmakers about what inspired SINGLE, their efforts to represent a character with a physical disability in an authentic way and how they are coping with the film industry shutdown.

AFI: Thank you everyone for talking with us about your film, SINGLE. Ashley, what was the inspiration for SINGLE? 

Ashley: My life shifted in 2017 when I told my own personal story for the platform SoulPancake. I was born with a rare bone disease called Ollier disease and Maffucci syndrome. In the video, I talk about navigating social media and how my ultimate goal was to hide as much of my disease as possible. My whole life I’ve received the backhanded compliment “you have ‘such a pretty face.’” Social media was this place of solace where if I cropped strategically, I could appear beautiful as a whole — not the girl with the bone disease. But I was missing opportunities to connect with people who also felt self-conscious, dealt with insecurities or even had my own condition. In the video, I allowed myself to be vulnerable and expose my disease to the world.

The video instantly went viral with over 51 million views now. To this day, I still get messages from strangers telling me how my story affected them. Not only has this experience affected my personal growth, it was a clear message to me that stories hold power – they can change the world. When I started getting messages from other young girls and having it be the first time they saw someone who looked like them – for once in my life I felt proud to be a figure in my community and see my disease as strength, not something to be ashamed of. Seeing yourself represented on screen teaches self-love. People who have physical disabilities, like myself, are rarely represented on screen and are usually excluded from the diversity conversation all together. This began my personal mission to diversify the way we are represented onscreen, and ultimately create SINGLE.

AFI: Can all of you share a little bit about what it was like working with each other and the cast and crew? And any of your favorite moments from the production?

Summer: It was inspiring. Ashley is one of the strongest and nicest directors I have ever worked with. It is challenging for storytellers to tell stories so close to their heart. And Ashley has done a great job working with limited resources, finding the best cast and building up the comedic – yet dramatic –moments in the film.

Sam: We were all working with an extremely tight timeline and schedule and, like most short films with low budgets, having to juggle that alongside maximizing production value is always hard. We spent a long time in pre-production trying to create the look of the project and focus on creative ways to tell the story. We drew on a lot of inspiration from shows like EUPHORIA and INSECURE, as well as Benoit Debie’s work.

One of my favorite moments was the egg throwing shot. That was a great night. We had scheduled a few hours to pre-light and prep everything before bringing two cameras in to shoot the shot. We knew aiming the egg hitting her whilst she was walking would be hard, so I’m glad we scheduled that night well. One of our cameras ran at around 1000fps. Right after we shot each take, the entire cast and crew would gather around video village and the take would be played. The actor in the shot, Jessica Jade Andres, was an absolute champ, since I think we threw an egg at her hair over 12-15 times that night.

Charlie: Ashley had an amazing opportunity to be a director’s assistant during our post period, which meant we were working remotely – Ashley in Italy and Latvia, me in my dark edit bay in LA. Initially, there was apprehension about how best to approach the edit process as neither of us had ever worked that way. However, it actually allowed us to streamline our approach via email and phone conversations. We did have some time when Ashley flew back, and the “in person” edit days were great to converse more freely about certain decisions or try outside-the-box approaches. She respected my opinion and trusted me, something which can take time to build, but I think this speaks to Ashley’s respect for her collaborators.

Ashley: Having AFI collaborators was a great experience. Sam and I both really connected on how we were going to frame our shots and incorporate our lead character’s limb. We loved playing with the idea, that from certain angles or shots, you cannot tell that someone is disabled. It’s a huge metaphor for life and living with a disability. Sam also had a solid team of people he graciously brought on to our crew, which was amazing. He introduced me to our editor, Charlie – who is an absolute legend and artist of his own craft. Editing remotely was challenging, but Charlie has incredible taste, and I was very lucky to have him on the team. Summer was a great asset who introduced my main producer, Connie Jo Sechrist, to the world of AFI and gave me valuable production tips early on.

And working with casting director Suzanne Yavuz was another favorite moment of mine. We both knew finding actors with a disability was going to be a challenge. I originally wrote the part with Jordan in mind, but I had no idea if he could act. I only knew him through the limb-different community as a reality TV star and fashion designer/model. In the audition, he blew us away! Jordan was super collaborative and valuable on our journey to finding the right Kim. He helped us read with several other actors, and Delaney was the only actress who got the particular nuance and sassy bite of our lead character.

I also had captions and professional audio description files made for our film, thanks to Michele Spitz from “Women of Her Word” which awarded us a grant. Audio description helps those with low vision to hear what is happening when there is no dialogue. It’s an incredible element, and Charlie was always so supportive about coming into the bay for extra sessions to add those features.

AFI: What were some lessons or advice you received during your time at AFI help you during the production of SINGLE? 

Ashley: I feel like the AFI DWW was transformative for who I am as a filmmaker. To be honest, I can barely even remember the person I was before! Aside from learning so many technical elements to the craft, I think my biggest take-away is to lean into who you are as an artist and your instincts. Too often we unconsciously adopt this imposter syndrome. Knowing and truly believing my stories and perspective matters has changed my life. AFI did that.

Summer: AFI has prepared me for various production challenges as a producer, but most importantly given me the opportunity to meet people who are passionate about filmmaking. I learned that as long as you are with the right people who believes in the project and share the same passion, anything is possible.

Sam: AFI taught me that camera placement is key. It’s the one piece of advice I take to each project since my time at AFI. Being constantly aware of that really helped us narrow down our setups and focus on what was important. I don’t know how many times I’ve written down the following quote from Bill Dill, A.S.C from one of his classes at AFI – “How does the world look like to the character?” – but I try and take that approach to every project.

Charlie: I realized from my AFI training that every film will pose a unique set of challenges and that one of the most exciting aspects of my job was to meet them without fear, and the best way to overcome this was through genuine collaboration. Turn over every stone in your search and then, you might find something quite unexpected that enhances the director’s vision even more. I am truly thankful to AFI for giving me the opportunity. I’ve had the best two years of my educational life, getting to sit in a cold, dark edit room – true bliss.

AFI:  Can you share what the experience has been like with the cancellations of the DWW Showcase and SXSW, and how this new normal has changed how you are promoting your film? What can other AFI alumni and the public do to support your film at this time?

Ashley: Both cancellations were devastating at the time, but luckily there has been a silver lining in both situations that allowed everyone to watch SINGLE earlier than anticipated. I also feel fortunate to have been recognized by SXSW, which helped me land agents. It’s a strange time we’re in and we don’t really know the future or landscape of film moving forward, but I am hopeful. It’s amazing to still be having Zoom general meetings with studios and production companies who are interested in being a part of this movement to diversify what we see for disability representation.

Summer: The recognition for Ashley’s work is well-deserved. It will be great if people can watch SINGLE, take away something from the film and share the positive feedback on social media to spread the positivity during this time of uncertainty.

Sam: Winning a Special Jury award for us is a huge deal, and I was overjoyed, although it felt surreal, sitting in a room so far from Austin. SXSW has done an amazing job during all of this to try and get our films out there and shown to as many folks as possible, especially with the whole Amazon and Mailchimp partnerships. At this point, all I can really say is to go watch SINGLE and hopefully share it with your friends and family.

Charlie: It was sad that these events were cancelled, but it was for the best and in the interest of public health, which is paramount right now. I’m excited these events have found an online platform, and specifically how SXSW has been supporting all the filmmakers who worked so tirelessly on their projects. Having SINGLE selected for SXSW was an honor in itself and to receive the Special Jury Recognition Prize was an incredibly proud moment for us as filmmakers. The support AFI has shown us, especially on social media, has been immensely appreciated as it has given us filmmakers an opportunity to vocalize thoughts and feelings and to gauge how our film is received. It’s important to keep up a dialogue and for us all to keep talking to each other about what matters and, in this present moment, stories matter more than ever.

AFI: How have you been channeling your creative energy in the current climate? What other projects are you working on or do you hope to eventually work on that you’re excited to share?

Ashley: I’m pitching a TV show, which has a similar tone to SINGLE in the world of online/app dating. It’s fun and helps take my mind off the current state of our world.  But I think this time has also made me be bolder than ever. All the fear of how I will be perceived or what others will think disappears when faced with something like this virus. Ultimately, I just want to make an impact for our community, make some art and have a fun time doing it.

Summer: The quarantine has slowed down a lot of work, but it has also given me more time to focus on passion projects, including my documentary “UNQUALIFIED” MOTHERS, which depicts the stories of three unmarried women as they fight for their reproductive rights in China. I started filming last December before the quarantine in China, and now it is on pause, so I have time to apply for grants and sort through the footage. Also, the Tribeca Film Institute selected another project of mine – “Fly Girl” – to participate in the virtual 2020 TFI Network. The director is another AFI alum, Angela Chen (AFI Class of 2018), and we will be pitching our work to a bunch of industry professionals who care about storytellers, but we’ll be doing it over Zoom!

Sam: It’s been hard for sure. I flew home to Brisbane for a few months and was placed in government quarantine for two weeks and then home quarantine for another two weeks. I couldn’t leave the accommodation, not even to step outside and breathe fresh air, so I started a photo series. It’s hard to read scripts when you are not sure if sets will be up and running this year, but there are two features that I’ve read that I’m excited about. Here’s to hoping we can all get back to doing what we love most!

Charlie: I’ve been fortunate to have had the ability to keep working during this difficult time. I’m finishing up a feature called FERAL STATE with the talented director Jon Carlo and landed a job on a web series called MEET ME AT THE BARRE after the director saw SINGLE. I have also been developing a script that I began as part of a screenwriting module in my final year at the AFI. It’s important to stay creative at a time like this when one can become stagnant and stir crazy.

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