All any filmmaker can do is focus on creating something that has depth and resonance, and do whatever possible to get it seen by audiences and hope the word spreads.
– Megan Griffiths, American director, writer, and producer
As a child actor, who has appeared in such television shows as Sesame Street, Joey Ally pointedly noted, “I was not one of those kids who grew up with a camera in their hand – quite the contrary.” When the time came to attend college, however, the writer, director, actor, and producer opted not to go to a conservatory for acting. Instead, she attended Amherst College to study political science and French, with an eye toward entering law school later. “I wanted to work in the international criminal court,” she said. “I wanted to move to human rights law.” While at Amherst, Joey met a playwright who then wrote the lead part of his new play for her. As soon as she got back into acting, she realized how much she had missed it. “It got me back into acting,” Joey said, of the experience. “I just purely loved it so much, I realized I had to try to do this before I decide to go to law school. That changed my trajectory.”
She returned to New York City, where she was born and raised – she also spent part of her childhood in Connecticut – and acted for a couple of years. But, she confessed, “I didn’t really love the business side of it. I didn’t love auditioning. I didn’t love what I was auditioning for.” She also didn’t love a lot of the scripts she was reading, so she started writing for herself. Although Joey was trying to avoid moving to Los Angeles when her apartment lease was up, it became her temporary destination when her best friend relocated there. Another friend who was going to volunteer at the Sundance Film Festival convinced her to join her in Park City, Utah. “I’d never been exposed to indie films much before that,” Joey admitted. At Sundance, she saw the film The Off Hours (2011) and loved it. When writer and director Megan Griffiths spoke to the audience after her screening, Joey said, “She was inspiring to me. The things she said, I thought, ‘I feel that I understand that person. I feel the same way as that person. I think I’d like to do those things.'” At that moment, the notion of being a director opened up to her. “It was such a revolutionary thought at the time,” she recalled. The Off Hours was the kind of film that she wanted to work on from behind the camera.
She got her first 9-to-5 job as an assistant for Whitewater Films, which, she says, was “the best decision I ever made to that point.” She met Megan on the job and asked if she could be her assistant to get hands-on learning on the set. Joey then moved to Seattle where Megan is based to assist her on the film Lucky Them. While there, Megan recommended Joey to director Lynn Shelton, and she stayed in Seattle to assist on Laggies as well.
From ‘Minimum Wage’ to ‘Partners’
After that experience, Joey made her first film. “It was very fast once I found it (directing),” Joey said. She wrote the script for “Minimum Wage,” a short film about a cocktail waitress who, at the end of a bad day, is walking home after her car is towed and is solicited by a man who thinks she is a prostitute. The inspiration for the “mixed-morality” film came from an incident that happened right after college – a man solicited her while she was on her mobile phone in front of a grocery store. She wondered what she could have done differently in that situation and what would have happened had she taken the guy’s money without having to do anything for it. The incident occurred during the financial crisis, and many of her friends were losing or had lost their jobs. “The world felt really dark and unfair,” she said, of the time. “This whole story came out of thinking about what morality means, purposefully choosing to do right over wrong, when the world itself isn’t reflecting those values to you.”
Although Joey admitted that she hated the process of writing, she said, “I think certain stories need to be told – I want the stories that I want to be told, to be told. So I keep doing it.” She started writing to create roles and scripts for herself, but by the time she had worked under Megan and Lynn, and started making her first film, she realized she wanted to write and direct even independent of acting. Although she wrote “Minimum Wage” with the intention of playing the lead role of “Kit,” she ultimately decided to cast the role. “It was a life-changing experience to work with Sarah (Ramos), and to really be able to focus on directing exclusively,” she said.
One of the perks of directing is the ability to collaborate with others. An official selection of LUNAFEST this year, “Partners” was a collaboration between her and Jen Tullock and Hannah Pearl Utt, who both star in the short film. “I had been wanting to work with improv more heavily in my work,” Joey said, of the experience. They workshopped and rehearsed the script together, with filming and editing lasting two days. “Then we were done,” she said simply. “It really showed me that prep makes a difference.”
Both “Minimum Wage” and “Partners” are productions of SilverOx Pictures, a creative partnership between Joey and T.J. Williams, Jr., an award-winning cinematographer whom she was introduced to by Megan. The partnership allows them to create their own work but also to be involved in co-productions mostly brought to them by friends and their film community. While they won the 2014 MOFILM for Cannes Award for the first SilverOx commercial and won 2015 Video of the Year at WME|IMG, Joey noted that SilverOx Pictures is focused mostly on narratives.
Changing the world – and the industry – with invested stories
“When I gave up the idea of being a human rights attorney, I didn’t give up the idea of working in the human rights sector,” Joey pointed out. “It’s really important to me that my work reflects that, on some level, every time.” The points needn’t be made emphatically. “It can be as simple as changing the gender, sexuality, or the race of a character – and say nothing about it,” she said. “I want to push on those things.”
Although Joey has experienced gender discrimination as an actor, she insisted, “I’ve had a really strangely easy experience entering the industry as a director. Although I’ve been lucky, I know a lot of people who haven’t. I’ve been treated like a normal human being, and that should be the status quo for everybody.”
Her two apprenticeships with diverse crews under two strong, well-respected female directors contributed to her positive experiences. She learned from Megan and Lynn to “treat each other fairly” as a director. “It’s really important to treat everyone around you with not only respect but respect for their position because as much as you are the film, they are the film,” she said. Joey strives to create a “crewtopia” – coined by Megan and Lynn – within her own projects and hopes that culture is embraced in the Los Angeles filmmaking industry. Just as she’s learned from the two veteran filmmakers, Joey says she’d advise young directors: “Don’t just make it because you think it will do well; make it because you really care about it. Otherwise, why are you making stories?” she said. “That’s the first thing. And then work on it until it’s good. When it’s good for you, then you’ve made your piece of art. But make what you want to make, with integrity. And surround yourself with people with integrity.”
Note: You can see Joey’s short film at LUNAFEST East Bay’s screening on Saturday, March 18th, 7:30pm, at the El Cerrito High School’s Performing Arts Theater. For more information, click here.