Ashley Zahorian has always been creative. When she was ten years old she and her sister put together a magazine of short stories, poems, and drawings. In middle school Ashley and a friend used a camcorder to record their own newscasts. In college Ashley majored in media studies and music, but it wasn’t until she moved back to Hampton Roads and learned about Regent University’s film school that she fell in love with making movies.
All over the country young women are attending film school with the hopes of one day working in the industry, but the number of women in key behind-the-scenes positions of U.S. feature films is disappointing. Research conducted by San Diego State University revealed that women accounted for a mere 9 percent of directors of the top 250 U.S. films in 2012.
Here in Tidewater, young women in the film industry are working hard to change those statistics. Following are the stories of three local women who want to impact the world through the power of film.
FILM AND FAMILY
It was a gloomy, gray January morning when I met local director Ashley Zahorian at a small Ocean View diner, but the 31-year-old Norfolk resident has her sights set on a bright future. She wants to change American culture through film and seeks to tear down the walls that have been erected between family, work, and faith.
“I don’t think you should have to sacrifice time with your family or your morals to succeed in the business world,” Ashley explained. “By working together and spreading out the workload more evenly, people can earn a living and not give up their lives to do so.”
Family is very important to Ashley. She and her husband Raymond have been married for five years and have three children: four-year-old Clare, two-year-old Dominic, and tiny two-week-old Joseph, who accompanied his mom for her interview. As Ashley talked about balance among all aspects of her life, she illustrated the point by feeding her son and answering questions in between bites of her own breakfast.
Ashley was homeschooled by her mother and plans to do the same with her children. Her oldest, Clare, is already learning the ins and outs of filming. Clare and her father are going to be costars on a YouTube show called “Catholic Crafts with Clare” that is set to premiere near the end of this month.
“Clare is only four years old, and she is learning how to run a show and a business,” Ashley said. “Recently we painted a piece for the set, and she helped me do that. She learned a valuable lesson in that first attempts don’t always work out when I realized the color didn’t look right on screen and we had to repaint the piece.”
Family is also an important component of Ashley’s creativity. She has been sharing her thoughts and ideas at the family dinner table since she was a child, and that has had a tremendous impact on her work. She continues that family tradition with her own children by carving out time during the day to eat lunch with them and encourage their own creative streaks.
Ashley believes the creative process is all about refining. “Any project is like a block of marble,” she said. “You are chipping away at that block and refining a little bit more at every step of the process. It’s not about adding. It’s about taking away until you are left with one final story.”
Even though more women are attending film school to become directors, Ashley pointed to the startlingly low statistics for female directors as proof of discrimination within the industry. “The film business is completely relational,” she said. “What matters most is who you just went out for a beer with.” She added that many women also hesitate to take on the high levels of pressure that come with being a director.
Technology has brought tremendous changes to the industry and has helped to level the playing field by providing more opportunities for those who may have the knowledge but not the network. “The creative door has been blown open by technology,” Ashley said. “Nowadays people can use cell phones in the same way they used to use high-quality cameras. If you are willing to put time into your projects, you can get so much more for less money.”
Regardless of technological advances, the need for sharp skills and lots of planning still exists, and, make no mistake, film remains a powerful form of expression.
“Watching a film evokes a dreamlike environment,” said Ashley. “While people are watching, they put down their guards. They use movies as retreats and look to them for answers. A great film finds a way to challenge and inspire its audience.”
SMALL SCREEN, BIG AMBITIONS
Danielle M. Thompson, 27, felt the pull toward a career in film when she was a teenager shooting videos of her family around the house and on camping trips. Family had a huge impact on her career choice as both of her parents worked for television news networks. She has broadcasting in her blood.
“My parents worked for news stations in Georgia and Alabama, so I grew up around television,” Danielle said. “I became interested in writing, and I even did some theater when I was a teenager, but I knew acting wasn’t for me and that my true love was film.”
Danielle recently started a new job as features producer at the Christian Broadcasting Network. She is part of the team that creates short interview segments and reenactments about people whose lives have been changed by their faith. She also does freelance production work and editing.
With her hands wrapped around a mug of coffee, Danielle described the magic of the editing process. “I love going through all of the raw footage and then seeing the story emerge from it,” she said. “Some people may not think editing is a creative endeavor, but it is. A story should make you feel different emotions during different scenes, and one way of accomplishing that is by editing. For instance, a scene with a slower pace will create a much different emotion for the audience than a scene with a faster pace.”
Like Ashley, Danielle wants to work behind the camera to bring about social change. “I think there is a market for more faith-based comedies,” she explained. “There are viewers who want clean entertainment, but they don’t want to see the same story over and over again.” Her hope is that, with more viewers cutting ties with their cable companies, streaming services like Netflix will provide new opportunities for more independent shows and movies.
Danielle, a Chesapeake resident, earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in Cinema-TV Directing from Regent University in 2014. Every spring her alma mater hosts a student film showcase that invites students to submit short films for consideration. The public is invited to attend the event, and at the end of the evening Regent faculty select their choice for the best piece of student work.
“The event is great for student filmmakers and the community,” said Sarah Bonner, a recent Regent grad and past organizer for the student film showcase. “It gives students the chance to show their work, and it also allows community members to meet the next generation of filmmakers face to face.”
Giving back to her community and helping other filmmakers is a priority for Danielle, too. “I love answering questions and passing along knowledge and information,” she said. “It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are in your life. If you feel filmmaking is what you are called to do, you need to follow your passion.”
DEALING WITH DETAILS
In a world overflowing with electronic gadgets, Kate Cerri’s paper planner stands out. The 22-year-old is the only one in her circle of friends to keep track of her life on paper rather than on a screen. She has found that being able to see all of her appointments for the week with one glance helps her stay organized. And, for a script supervisor like Kate, nothing is more important than organization.
Most people have no idea what a script supervisor does, and sometimes Kate even has to educate others on set about her role. “The script supervisor is like the editor’s eyes on the set,” she explained, speaking over the phone from Atlanta, where she is helping some friends with a production. “I take lots of notes and use lots of checklists to keep track of scenes.”
Continuity is a vital part of Kate’s job description. For instance, if an actor is supposed to be wearing a wedding band but slips it off at lunch and forgets to put it back on when the cameras start rolling again, it’s Kate’s job to notice and remind him to put the ring back on.
Script supervising is one area in the film industry where women tend to outnumber men. “I think women are drawn to script supervising because of the need for such attention to detail,” said Kate. “I love taking notes and paying attention to a thousand tiny details, so it’s a perfect fit for my personality.”
On set Kate is often positioned next to the director and is able to hear every discussion, as well as the reason behind every decision made. “I really like directing, and I learn so much by watching and listening to the conversations the director has with the cast and crew,” Kate said.
Kate earned her associate’s degree from Regent University but decided to jump into the working world instead of pursuing a higher degree. “Script supervising is one of those jobs where you have to do it to learn it,” she said. “The woman who taught me made me promise to teach others, which I have done. The skills a person needs to be a script supervisor often aren’t taught in film schools, so if they’re not handed down, they might fade away.”
With so many checklists and reports, script supervising doesn’t seem like a creative pursuit, but in many ways it can be. Kate recounted an experience she had recently on the set of a short film: “This particular film took place over five days, and on the first day one of the characters got a gash on his head,” she said. “Every day I met with the makeup artist to talk about the healing process and how the appearance of the wound would change from one day to the next. It was a very unique way for me to make sure the film was authentic by keeping track of the details and expressing my creativity.”
Overseeing every aspect of a production usually requires long hours on set. It’s not unusual for Kate to spend twelve hours, six days a week, on a project. After working all day, she still has to fill out reports and paperwork and prep for the next day. Because she is a freelancer, she also has to spend time looking for her next gig to keep the money flowing in. It’s a juggling act for sure, but Kate can’t imagine a better career.
“It’s exhausting and challenging, but I would choose it over a traditional office job any day,” said Kate. “Even after a long, crazy day I come home with a smile on my face. It can be some of the hardest work, but no matter how my day goes, I love every second.”
For more information, visit:
Jamie McAllister is a freelance writer in Virginia Beach. She writes for businesses, nonprofits, and publications. For more information, visit www.mcallisterwe.com.