Press and Interviews
"Hour Speak" Show - Alia Azamat Ashkenazi on Writing vs. Directing, Discernment of Darkness and Netflix (interview excerpt)
A subtitled excerpt from RTVi's Interview show.
The full hour in Russian is available on RTVi SOD and across all platforms.
Alia Azamat Ashkenazi's Director Debut "Esther's Choice" is Hauntingly Beautiful - Review and Interview by IndieActivity
Uzbekistan-born and Russia-raised Screenwriter and Director Alia Azamat Ashkenazi just made a striking narrative directing debut with Esther’s Choice short film, hailed by audiences as “a tender but fraught journey,” “hauntingly beautiful,” and a “very special movie with a fantastic cast and superb director.”
Set in a nondescript big city, the film is centered on Esther (Emma Orelove), a film Composer going through a dry spell while her relationship with Michael (François Arnaud) gets to the next level, and they move in together. After a period of artistic frustration and “not hearing anything but silence,” Esther discovers Michael’s secret stash with the belongings of his ex-girlfriend (Mary Leest). The jealousy-fueled visions ironically turn The Ex into Esther’s new Muse, and by the end of the film, she discovers just how far she can go to maintain her creativity.
Soulfully scored, the film’s intimate and meaningful cinematography featuring some arrestingly innovative shots is driven by emotion and a sense of dark magic pertinent to the story of an Artist and their Love.
A masterclass in visual storytelling, the film is 80% silent, highlighting a career-shaping performance by Emma Orelove. Outstanding production values and a gut-punching ending of the film make it an entertaining and memorable romance thriller not to be missed.
indieactivity: What is your film about?
Alia Azamat Ashkenazi (AAA): A short drama with elements of magical realism, Esther’s Choice is a story about Esther, a film composer on a dry spell who finds inspiration in an unusual and possibly dangerous Muse.
Tell us about the festival run, marketing, and sales?
Alia Azamat Ashkenazi (AAA): Esther’s Choice had its World premiere simultaneously at two festivals (Chelsea Film Festival in NYC and LA FEMME Film Festival in Hollywood) on October 15, 2020. It was nominated for Petite Grand Prix at CFF, as well as for Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Actress. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, both festivals run virtually, and Esther’s Choice was viewed 293 times at CFF, making it No. 6 most-watched film among 130 films selected.
With a budget of nearly $50,000, the film was self-financed by the Writer-Director who also served as a Producer under Babai Films slate. Shot on digital and in color, it had its World and US Premiere in October 2020 and is still on a festival circuit. On the film’s Instagram, you can find behind-the-scenes photos and insightful advice from its creator.
Give the full Official Synopsis for your film?
AAA: A short drama with elements of magical realism, Esther’s Choice is a story about Esther, a film composer going through a dry spell. She moves in with her boyfriend Michael only to find out that he still keeps his Ex-girlfriend’s belongings in his closet. What follows is an emotional roller coaster of a film exploring the great lengths an Artist chooses to go to for the sake of inspiration.
Development & Financing?
AAA: I was a Script Supervisor on a feature starring Annabella Sciorra back in March 2019, and Guillermo Cameo, a brilliant Cinematographer I’ve worked with on a short film many years ago, was a Gaffer on that feature. He came up to me at lunch one day and said “write something, I wanna shoot for you.” I came home that day and started thinking, what kind of story I can tell in my apartment with a minimal cast (no-budget filmmaking 101!) I wrote the script on my phone traveling to and from the set on that film.
Two months passed and I ended up scripting a short film with my lead François Arnaud. At that point, I had a female lead in mind — Emma Orelove, who I basically wrote the script for, but only a shortlist of male actors to reach out to; François was one of them. Seeing him in action was better than any audition, so I held my breath, sent him the script at wrap, and he loved it! That’s when it all became serious. Having a name Actor attached and interested was very inspiring and kind of nudged me to start thinking of actually producing the piece. François was only available for a short period of time in August, so I had to act fast.
The film is self-financed. The initial production budget was $35,000, and we actually went under budget — my little Producer’s win! At the moment, after all post-production work and festival fees, we’re close to $50,000. I optioned out two scripts prior to that, so I could afford some production value and actually decently pay my crew of 30 people. I waited 5 years working alongside amazing Directors as a Script Supervisor, only to learn the craft deeper, and feel confident/experienced enough that I could direct a narrative film. Before that, I only made hybrid docs and directed theater in Russia, and then pivoted to Screenwriting upon moving to New York.
AAA: After François came on board, as luck would have it, my husband and I sold our apartment that I initially wrote the script for. We ended up finding a rental that fits even better in the world of Esther’s Choice, so here’s to happy accidents. I’ve rebuilt the entire place with my Production Designer Carlie Condemi, painted the walls according to my ideal color palette, bought new furniture, dressed the rooms, found pertinent artworks… Having access to the house of your character is such a big advantage. I found myself walking around the place and finding shots and frames that later became the key to the film’s aesthetic and themes.
Having hands-on experience in productions of all budgets, I knew how to write a compelling story for cheap, so it all just came down to wrangling everyone’s busy schedules and meticulously prepping. Guillermo and I are both prep-junkies, my Director’s book was 40 pages long, and his lookbook was about the same. We’ve spent a good 2 weeks just shot-listing and brainstorming composition and references, so on set we barely talked. We’d just lock eyes from time to time, and he immediately would know what I don’t like and would fix it. Finding that perfect teammate match who supports/enhances your vision is crucial. Guillermo is a genius of Light, and by merging my composition and his camera movement ideas, I think we were able to achieve a pretty unique visual language of the film that told the story on its own. I left many clues in the art on the walls and set design in the frames, and now many people after watching the film a couple of times, notice it and reach out to me with their theories about what it all means — I can’t imagine a greater compliment as a visual storyteller.
As far as editing, all was easy and fast. I wrote the script as an editor, with all the coverage “on page” in strategically placed action language. So my editor Michael Pizzano assembled it all by the script, and then I gave him notes on some cutaways or shots when I’d liked to stay longer on a character even though they’re not the one speaking, etc. As a Script Supervisor on set, you frequently fight for giving editorial more shots and options, but personally, I hate overshooting and giving the post too much coverage. I think it only muds the water and diffuses the initial vision of the Director, so there was actually not much to play within the edit (sorry Mikey!)
Unfortunately, to make our days, I had to entirely cut a storyline of hand inserts that would start each scene (transitions is what you must think of when you write the script, not when you’re in the post-room already!), so I found myself brainstorming the new transitions on set, it was stressful and with some of them I’m not completely satisfied, but that is something only my Editor and I would know. You must pick your fights, and I chose a more important thing over those inserts, the film still cuts well and I’m pleased with the pacing.
My work as a Union Script Supervisor exposed me to some of the industry’s giants, both on set and in post, so I was extremely fortunate to get Steven Bodner, who, among many others, colored True Detective, Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and the two latest Netflix hits Emily in Paris and The Queen’s Gambit, to color-grade my little film. We went through two quick passes with Esther’s Choice, and after the first one I actually came up with a concept, a color-trick that I didn’t think of during writing or developing the director’s vision. Steven liked the idea and it worked! From that experience I learned that not everything should/could be prepped, you have to open yourself to surprises and new inspiration up until the film is released, and maybe after. People with a sharp eye should notice the trick, but even just knowing that it’s there and it subconsciously might affect someone’s perception of the story is very exciting to me.
The music is extremely important for Esther’s Choice as the story is about a Composer who lost her inspiration. So I had the main theme piece (that Esther actually composes by the end of the film) written prior to shooting, by my amazing piano teacher Casey Mullen. It informed the mood and of course helped the acting. The hand double had enough time to practice, the Actress knew the emotional aspect of the piece, etc. .
The actual scoring with the film’s composer Mariam Khayretdinova took a while, as well as sound editing and design with a legend, Brian Aumueller, but that’s all because I’m a big proponent of quality sound in film. Music is the highest form of “Art” for me, so I was willing to spend money and time on making it as good as it could be. “Film” is not just a visual medium, you know!
Advice from the Filmmaker?
AAA: I’ve said this in interviews before, and I continue to stand by this advice I give to all aspiring filmmakers I meet: WAIT.
Wait, before you jump to direct that first feature film or even a short. Wait, before your script is in a good place and tells a compelling story, as no amount of superb acting or visuals can save a bad script.
So, wait. Work on as many film productions as you can, as a Script Supervisor, Cinematographer, or at least a Producer — that is a real film school that will give you a priceless experience and knowledge before you launch on your own Filmmaking journey.
You will make blunders, it will be frustrating, so do yourself a favor, and wait. Wait and watch other creatives fail, so you can try to avoid their mistakes. Watch them make creative breakthroughs, so you can steal some tricks. This industry is extremely competitive, and, just like in Eminem’s song, “you only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow.” The debut comes once in a lifetime. “Yo.”
Read the full interview here.
Pre-premiere Interview with LA FEMME Film Festival
Learn why you should watch Esther's Choice by Alia Azamat Ashkenazi
Writer-Director Alia Ashkenazi and the cast of Esther's Choice, Emma Orelove and Mary Leest join ABC / The Morning Show's Arron M. Sanchez and Ariana Sanchez for a pre-festival interview.
"Hour Speak" Show - Alia Azamat Ashkenazi
“My personal life experience taught me to recognize the darkness, the evil and the bad in people quite fast, and I’m not afraid to explore it - both when I write screenplays and when I direct and work with actors. I think this darkness, these flaws, these vices of ours, they make us into people, they make us more human. If I’d have a super task as an artist, writer or director, that would be to portray those nuances, and to study those nuances. For this sake, I write. For the sake of discernment of the darkness, because only the awareness of the Dark gives us the sense of Light.”
An excerpt from an hour long interview for the biggest Russian channel in US RTVi.
The show aired on February 23rd 2021, and is available on SOD on RTVi platforms and app.
Alia Azamat, Once Upon A Time In New York
A short documentary following a Poet and Filmmaker Alia Azamat Ashkenazi
Aired October 19, 2019 on Voice of America and Current Times. Available across all platforms and on Smart TV.
Twin Shadow Podcast
TSP Ep 63 Part 1: Interview of Writer and Director Alia Azamat Ashkenazi
"In this first part of episode 63, Tom and Steve get to interview writer, director, and everything filmmaker, Alia Azamat Ashkenazi. We discuss her background, her life on set, and her newest film "Esther's Choice", which will have its east coast premiere at the Chelsea Film Festival and its west coast premiere at the LA Femme International Film Festival!
So come along with us as we learn a thing or two!"
SetPatrol Webinar 01:
Screenwriting for an Ultra-Low Budget with Alia Azamat Ashkenazi
Teaching European filmmakers How to Write a Screenplay for an Ultra-Low Budget film.
“SetPatrol is launching a series of FREE webinars with industry leaders on various topics. Come join us for the first one with director and writer Alia Azamat Ashkenazi. In this conversation with Alia, we will discuss what to keep in mind when writing a low-budget screenplay. What writers should focus on when engaging in a low-budget project, what to highlight or compromise? How to set yourself for success and make marketable and producible choices while keeping your story alive and the stakes high? Alia will be sharing with us her tips and experience and you will have an opportunity to ask questions.”
Alia Ashkenazi on air with RTVI channel.
Discussing the New York Film Festival's decision to run in 2020, possible formats (online vs. drive-in) and my opinion as a filmmaker on the best way to present your film.
Let's Just Talk About the Craft
Stop focusing on being a “female director” and start focusing on just being a director. A Conversation with Alia Ashkenazi.
Alia showed up on my discovery Instagram page about a month ago. Alia is a very fashionable human, and being a fashion enthusiast myself, I wanted to follow her. It was a pleasant surprise to find that she was also someone involved in the film industry.
Alia Azamat Ashkenazi wasn't always involved in the silver screen business. She is first and foremost a writer. Her first writing job in her mother country of Russia was at age 12 creating columns in a sports magazine. She remembers when she submitted a piece to her Editor, who barely changed a bit of the text. She was thrilled and when she received her check, she celebrated like any kid would; she bought three burgers, big thing of fries and a coke at McDonalds.
A bit later down the road she became a published poet. She had a fan base, and even had public readings on a few stages. In her poetry she found herself focusing on "what happened" and "what's the conflict" rather than going all William Butler Yeats on all her poetic work. Making her more of a storyteller. She entered the industry in 2008 as a writer-director for the United Nations in Moscow.
When she moved to the States in 2014, our Anna Akhmatova found herself wondering what she was going to do to earn a living in a country that she was just starting to master the language of. Enter Screenwriting. She saw it as an opportunity to still tell her stories, and get paid to do so.
A job Alia found herself in a lot, as well was Script Supervising. She loves it and has worked on many sets doing so. She believes it is the most under-appreciated position on film sets, the job receiving little respect from other crew members based off of them not know what a Script Supervisor does.
The word respect, this leads to what I reached out to talk with Alia about: sexism in the industry towards women. How she responded turned the article on its head and her reaction started a new conversation.
"I’ve never encountered misogyny or sexism myself, but I’m a lucky person. I’ve seen some filmmakers being dismissive towards women on set, but I think in those particular instances it came from them just being ungrateful assholes, not sexists. That doesn’t cancel other women in [the industry's] stories of course... all I wanna say that it’s always about balance. You have to surround yourself with people who believe in you, be that men or women. I was fortunate enough to work with men who always uplifted me, always supported me. Any filmmaker must find those people, and hold on to them. Just do your job well, the right people will appreciate that," Alia told me.
She then expressed to me that she believes people need to stop focusing on putting the "female" in front of all those jobs. Female director, female writer, female grip, and so forth and so on.
"Kathryn Bigelow is a filmmaker who tells stories few men have balls to tell. She makes the most honest and brave films, and the last thing I care about is her being a female. I wish the time will come, when we wouldn’t highlight a director being a woman, and judge them as a filmmaker first."
Read the full interview here.