Danny Peary Talks to ‘Magnolia & Clementine’ Director-Star Ashley Shelton

Trying to write in "Magnolia & Clementine"
Trying to write, Courtesy Ashley Shelton

Shorts always get short shrift, so I want to alert you the first annual All Voices Film Festival that will be streaming on Amazon Prime Video from June 3–24. Don’t miss it because the digital short film festival, which is celebrating diversity and underrepresented communities, will have a very strong, eclectic lineup. You can see it through this link: amazon.com/allvoices

I can personally recommend Magnolia & Clementine by Ashley Shelton, the rare personal film with universal appeal. For us film critics and historians, it is truly exciting to discover talented actors in little-seen, low-budget independent films, and in 2015, I was captivated by Shelton, an actress I hadn’t seen before, in Paul Harrill’s off-the-radar Something, Anything. Shelton gave a bold, subtle, totally immersive performance as a deeply-troubled young woman who impulsively skips out on her failed marriage and embarks on a literal and spiritual journey, during which she finds both herself and a better man—sensitively played by Linds Edwards (Rectify, Lethal Weapon), now Shelton’s husband.

Since then I’ve kept track of Shelton, waiting for another wise director to give her such a good lead role. Evidently, she grew as impatient as me because she finally got herself the lead she wanted by writing Magnolia & Clementine. It is her debut as a scriptwriter and director. Drawing on her own vulnerabilities as an artist, she plays an aspiring writer who hasn’t the confidence or will to write the fantasy story that is in her head about Magnolia (a female) and Clementine (her dog). Her frustration and anxiety escalate when her husband (played by Edwards) takes a discarded version of her story from the wastebasket, reworks it, and sells it to a magazine under his name.

The film’s logline: “A story about a stolen story.” Shelton adds, “We see a woman confronting her past and making peace with her expectations of the future; we see a woman consciously stepping out of her own way and into her destiny.”

No doubt artists of all kinds will relate to Shelton’s struggling writer in Magnolia & Clementine. But what impresses me is that while Shelton so much wanted to connect with everyone who sees her movie, she kept it personal throughout, revealing herself layer by layer. It is exactly the film she wanted—and needed—to make.

For four years, I had hoped to interview Ashley Shelton (who lives in Tennessee and like me is passionate about Dolly Parton). So I was delighted to do the following Q&A with her last month about her new movie, in anticipation of the All Voices Film Festival that begins today (Monday, June 3).

Ashley Shelton with cinematographer Steven Wesley Miller (in cap) and AC/Grip/Cameraman Matt Caldwell filming "Magnolia & Clementine"
Ashley Shelton with cinematographer Steven Wesley Miller (in cap) and Cameraman Matt Caldwell, Courtesy Ashley Shelton

Danny Peary: Are the people who know you well surprised that you wrote and directed a film or is it something you’ve talked about doing for a long time?

Ashley Shelton: I don’t think others were surprised. But I was. I knew I would write a movie someday, but I never thought I would direct, although I have always thought about movies with the vision of a director. I have always thought about and seen life in movie scenes. I just had to be awakened to that notion. And I was.

DP: Making it as an actress is hard enough to accomplish, so did you think about putting off writing and directing until sometime in the future?

AS: Honestly, no. Whenever I set out to do something I jump in head first and freak out later. I see the writing and directing as natural progressions toward expanding my art.

DP: Did you do any writing as a kid?

AS: A little. I was the weird kid who enjoyed English and writing essays. I didn’t feel confident doing many things while growing up, but I felt confident in that. Also, I always was writing in my journal. And I felt I could communicate better writing people letters than talking face to face.

DP: Some actors, including one you’ve posted about, Brit Marling, get frustrated waiting to be cast in good roles and decide to create projects for themselves, like Marling’s Netflix series, The O.A. Is that a reason you made your short, or did you need to turn down a thousand great starring roles to have the time to do this?

AS: I definitely think that was part of it for me, too. Yeah, I have taken “cute blonde” roles to pay my rent, but those aren’t where my heart wants to be. My heart is with the weird, cool, meaningful, lame, messy brilliance that is real life as portrayed through cinema. I want to feel a role and be able to filter it through my own personal experiences and touch someone else. So I’ve laid to rest the ‘hot girl’ and ‘cute blonde’ roles and want to very much trailblaze like Ms. Marling. She is someone I very much look up to.

DP: Why did you decide to make this film at this point in your career?

AS: I think my life decided for me. I felt stuck in a situation and the only way out was to write about it and to hopefully make something beautiful out of pain.

DP: So for your first film you chose to make something extremely personal.

Magnolia (also played by Ashley Shelton) and Clementine
Magnolia (also played by Ashley Shelton) and Clementine, Courtesy Ashley Shelton

AS: I wanted everything to be deeply personal to me because that is where I thrive as an artist. I work out my own feelings through being connected to deeply personal subject matters. I knew also that many people in the arts and other careers feel the same things that the characters feel in this movie. I knew many married couples, especially those in creative endeavors, will relate to this story. So I had a duty to myself and the audience to keep things at a deep level.

Movies were my everything growing up—my friends, my way to travel the world and meet all types of people, my remedy for my broken hearts—so I wanted my movie to be that for others. And it could do that only if I kept it real and personal. I made this movie because it is supposed to be in the world. Our friend, Steven Wesley Miller, who is an amazing director, had just moved back to Tennessee from New York and we all wanted to make something. I had this script and I prayed about how to make it and it fell into place.

DP: Since you wanted this film to be personal, were you reluctant to ask your actor husband Linds for advise? Did he feel that he had to play his part but otherwise step aside?

AS: I always ask his advice, I need it! And he is great about knowing when to lead and when to follow.

DP: Did you ask others for their help as well?

AS: Yes, I’m indebted to many, many people who gave their time to help me make this film happen.

DP: Are you proud that so many women are in your film’s credits?

AS: Yes! Almost 50% of our whole crew and people who made this film come to life are female. It makes me happy to do my part in balancing the scales. I think we need each other in art, male and female perspectives. And I also always want both in my work.

DP: Do you think your movie is more directed at female artists than male artists?

AS: No, it is directed at all people. And not just artists. Though artists, male and female, share similar struggles. I want everyone to gain a new perspective from my film. It is for anyone who feels lost and forgotten, and is searching for their power. Most of the time that power is found in your weaknesses.

DP: The married writers in your film are listed as Her and Him in the credits. This film is very personal to you, yet you didn’t name them Ashley and Linds. Is that because they aren’t enough like you two? Or are they nothing like you?

AS: I named them HER and HIM because I wanted anyone to be able to place themselves in their shoes. They are very much like Linds and me, and some of their dialogue was taken right out of real conversations we have had as a married couple. “Can you chew less?” are big fighting words in our household!

DP: What the husband does, taking her story idea from the wastebasket and sending his reworking of it to a magazine under his name, is obviously “thoughtless,” but do you think he put any real thought into doing it?

AS: I don’t think so. I don’t see it as a malicious act. It was senseless but in the story it had to happen to yank her out of her delusion of herself as a writer. I touch on my belief that for the most part art is just borrowed information we all take and make our own. It becomes an original idea and, then, a finished work through the process of filtering it through our own minds.

DP: I asked the last question because I’m curious if you detect a destructive competition between Him and Her. I know from your tweets and Facebook posts that you and Linds are each other’s greatest champions, but as actors, is the competitive instinct something you two must fight against, particularly when one of you is doing better than the other? If so, did that influence your film?

AS: Yes, what’s in the movie is all from our real-life experiences. They absolutely influenced the film. Being married to someone who does the same thing as you can be challenging and early in our relationship, Linds and I were super competitive with one another. Not so much today. He and I are different artists. We like different things and have different opinions, including about movies. But that we’re both actors is rewarding because we each have a built-in ally and champion. I realize it is a strength having him as a partner because he makes me a better artist. He is one of the few people I trust creatively with ideas and advice.

DP: Is the house where your couple lives and works the house where you and Linds live in Knoxville?

AS: It is the house where I lived from high school through college, before moving for a time to New York City to act. It is a house where I did some of my biggest dreaming, so it was amazing to be able to film my first movie as a writer and director there.

DP: My guess is that you didn’t think up the characters Magnolia and Clementine when you decided to make your movie. Is there a history there?

Conflict between Her and Him in "Magnolia & Clementine"
Conflict between Her and Him, Courtesy Ashley Shelton

AS: I wrote the original script many years ago. Those two characters were more involved in the story back then. My character would see them more often, but thought they were part of her mental illness. Those characters are her. There is a piece of her in everything she writes, and that is true for me as well.

DP: Your character is, I believe, trapped in her past, maybe even her childhood: she obsesses about those two fantasy characters, has a Wizard of Oz poster, and plays with silly toys. Is this you saying that you yourself have had trouble or fear of moving forward and, as she says “letting go”?

AS: Absolutely. The Wizard of Oz is one of the first movies I remember watching. It had a profound effect on me and played a big role in my becoming an actor. So, I subconsciously modeled Magnolia and Clementine after Dorothy and Toto. I think we are all trapped in our childhood, but it is not a bad thing. My career path is totally based on imagination and there is nothing more childlike than that. However, at a certain point you must make peace with growing up and that involves moving forward into the unknown. There is much less of an existing comfort zone for an adult artist than an imaginative child. Discovering that but still moving forward is the hardest part, along with letting go of expectations about where you thought you should be by a certain age.

DP: An important line in the film is your character lamenting, “I was supposed to be great.” It’s almost like Brando’s “I coulda been a contender.”

AS: Yes, I think everyone feels that way at a certain point. I know I have. That feeling when you think you are done, dried up, and have been put out to pasture. But it’s not true because the impact of life is what makes a great artist, actor, or filmmaker. In my opinion, all your experiences leading up to a career breakthrough make your art that much more rich and fruitful. My character realizes that at the end. She undergoes a transformation.

DP: With that comes her recognition that she has blamed others—primarily Him—for her past failures. Of course, it’s a bad trait to blame others for one’s failures, but I believe her husband actually is partly to blame and needs to change if she can have successes.

AS: Agreed. He totally should have asked her before taking her story! But I don’t see her inability to write as fully either one’s fault. She has been blaming him for her unsuccessful career, but she comes to see that was just her need to project her insecurities onto someone else.

DP: It may not be what you intended, but I think your short is about a woman trying to find out who she is—as did your character in Something, Anything, she loses her own identity in her husband’s. In fact, her husband says dismissively and incorrectly, “My success is your success.”

AS: I think you nailed it! I say it is about a woman confronting her past and making peace with her expectations of the future; a woman consciously stepping out of her own way and into her destiny. And part of getting out of your own way is finding out who you are at the very root of yourself.

DP: I think it’s about another thing as well: fear of rejection. Most people fear rejection when applying for work based on their degree of skill and experience. But those in the artistic community fear they will be judged not only on talent but also on who they have revealed themselves to be as an actor or writer or painter or musician. Is that something you thought about when writing a movie that you have said is “the first thing that is truly mine?”

AS: Yes! Acting makes me feel very vulnerable, but this experience of writing and directing along with acting heightened that significantly. It is all me: my ideas, my vision, my own color palette, how I see this world, how I see these characters, how I see everything. So, I had some anxiety filled days wondering how people will receive it. But I kept reminding myself that I was doing this for me and the people who need this story. No one else. I also kept reminding myself that art is subjective, which is the beautiful thing about it.

DP: Some people so fear success that they don’t adequately pursue it. Does your character feel that way? And has that been an issue with you?

AS: I think subconsciously I have had that fear. The fear that you don’t really deserve success; and the fear of really showing the world your best because you expect some people won’t appreciate it as much as you do. That is what the conversation in the film on the bench touches on: maybe her leaving her story about Magnolia and Clementine in the trash was an act of self-sabotage. We artists are good at sabotaging ourselves because of the pressure we put on each other. Artists, filmmakers, or actors aren’t given room to fail. We are expected to play in the major leagues right off the bat. That’s unfortunate because trial and error teaches us the most about ourselves and what we NEED as artists to do our best work.

DP: You have leapfrogged forward in your career—and your life–by daring to make your own movie. Could your original-idea-challenged character at the beginning of your short write the equivalent? What about at the end?

Him hopes to make amends in "Magnolia & Clementine"
Him hopes to make amends, Courtesy Ashley Shelton

AS: She is highly capable of doing so but is in her own way. She is way too concerned with things that don’t matter and that impacts her art. She is putting so much pressure on herself by only accepting perfection that it inhibits the flow. That was me at a certain time and still me on occasion. Eventually she realizes that she has had a good story in her all along and sits down to write it.

DP: Putting this film out into the world has, you say, made you feel “more vulnerable than anything I’ve ever done before.” I sense that you didn’t just find yourself at some point as being vulnerable but deliberately set out to be vulnerable. I sense that a brave goal of yours when you started the project was to allow yourself to do away with all your defenses.

AS: Yes! I had to let a lot of insecurities go in order to put this film out there. I knew that the best things happen when you are vulnerable and open.

DP: It’s a personal film but you stated earlier that you think many other people will relate to it.

AS: I think so. It has some universal ideas about marriage, life, and creating art. I think anybody can relate to it.

DP: You say you learned a lot about yourself making this film, good and bad. What was your big reveal to yourself? And is my guess right that you found more good things than bad and have since repeatedly patted yourself on the back?

AS: My perfectionism and the pressure I put on myself was my big reveal. Somewhere I read that perfectionism is just procrastination in heels. I agree because fear makes you believe you aren’t ready to release yourself into the wild. I had many days crying because something wasn’t going right in post-production and I worried I might never let it out into the world. I realized how hard I was on myself and that perfection is an illusion. The messy is more attractive. I found many good things about myself and how I view the world. It gave me confidence in myself and my ideas. It validated my voice for myself. It validated my faith.

DP: Where do you think this film fits into your career, past and present?

AS: I think it fits into every facet of my past, present, and future. I always was these characters in the past; I am these characters now; and I will be these characters at some point in the future.

DP: How can people see Magnolia & Clementine?

AS: It is currently in its festival run. We were just accepted by the Covellite International Film Festival in Butte, Montana. And very significantly, it will be available to everyone in the first All Voices Film Festival, for three weeks beginning June 3. Then Amazon will narrow it to the top 10 submissions based on U.S. customer-engagement metrics, which includes, but is not limited to, how many people watch, how long they watch, and their ratings! So I hope your readers will take a look at my movie!

Watch via Amazon’s All Voices Film Festival: amazon.com/dp/B07RT2F2P8

Her and Him hug in "Magnolia & Clementine"
Her and Him, Courtesy Ashley Shelton

Danny Peary has published 25 books on film and sports, including Cult Movies,Jackie Robinson in Quotes, and his newest publication with Hana Ali, Ali on Ali: Why He Said What He Said When He Said It, about the origins of her father’s most famous quotes (Workman Publishing).


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