Actress. Comedienne. Podcaster. And now, feature filmmaker. Aisha Tyler has proven her perpetual worth ethic over decades in television and movies in the industry. She passed a major milestone as a director Friday night when Axis, the feature-length directorial debut, world premiered at the Sarasota Film Festival. The charismatic filmmaker strolled the red carpet alongside actor Emmett Hughes, the star of the film, before promising an emotionally challenging experience to film-goers at the Regal Hollywood 20. “Be prepared,” she the audience for the screening. “It’s artsy.”
Axis tells the story of Tristan Blake, an actor who goes through the complete Hollywood adventure from obscurity to stardom to washed-up human being. But through an interesting smartphone-driven framing for the film, Hughes’ character is the only one audiences see. Shot inside his car (or whoever else’s car depending on the place in the film), the story gets told entirely through a series of phone calls Tristan takes or declines while sitting in the driver’s seat.
Tyler says the containment of the tale to scenes in the car created an unusual window into Tristan’s story—and also helped keep the budget contained in a microbudget film. Axis was filmed over seven days at a cost of just $200,000. In an interview with SRQ, Tyler noted the other location was the “larger set piece” of the City of Los Angeles.
Hughes, who also wrote the screenplay based on a story conceived with Stephen Morrissey, can be seen in every shot of the film, whether it’s snorting cocaine from a magazine with his picture on it or traveling to meetings and auditions while communicating with agents or loved ones. Audiences see Tristan struggle with his love life, work schedule, family and any other challenge the world has to offer. As the film skips through time, we see Tristan’s grip on forces around him seems almost inversely related to level of professional success he enjoys.
After seeing the story while she was working on a short film, Tyler fell in love with the screenplay. An accomplished comedienne whose always written her own sets and a director for a half dozen short films, Tyler long ket eyes on the chance to make her own full-length film. “I always thought my first feature would be something I wrote,” Tyler says, “but honestly, this was much more linear and streamlined that what I was writing.” So she found herself plotting the entire production during a three-week break this year, and found a new thrill finding contours and dimensions in this story.
Hughes himself admits feeling greater kinship to the character of Tristan than he’d like. The actor recalls when he first came to America in seek of success in Hollywood. “When you talk to your nice Irish mother, everything has to be great, but sometimes it isn’t,” he says. “It’s like two different worlds, on the phone to Ireland and in real life in Los Angeles.”
The only other parts in this show are voiceovers on the phone, which were all recorded before filming began. Tyler herself plays one of the roles, a sort of Lana-from-Archer crossed with an aggressive publicist. Credits reveal such names as Sam Rockwell and Kevin Pollack on the phone, for those trying to hear recognizable voices.
Tyler through her career, which covers everything from a recurring part of Friends to voice work in cult hit Archer and a role in the procedural Criminal Minds, developed a cult-like base of fans who would drive cross-country to see her work in person. A man from Detroit could be found by the rope line wearing a shirt promoting Tyler’s podcast Girl on Guy and who says he planned his spring break around the world premiere. In the theater, SFF creative director Michael Dunaway promised an exciting Q&A with the filmmaker, and Tyler said she’d be willing take questions on everything from the film to whether Ross or Joey was the better kisser.
Sitting down with SRQ, she hopes people see in the story of a struggling actor her own philosophy on personal strength. “Something I believe in deeply is that all people are redeemable,” she says, “but people have to redeem themselves.”