Izzy Ashurst, aged nearly 13 and one of our Centre graduates, has the leading role in a short film that has been written and directed by her mum, Gillian Ashurst. 'The Meek' is an apocalyptic drama in which humanity is shown to be on the brink of extinction due to a virus. The film explores the journey of its lead character, who happens to be a young girl with Down syndrome. Ironically, the film was written and shot prior to the current worldwide crisis.
Izzy’s mum, Gillian Ashurst, has been an integral part of the New Zealand film industry since the late 1990’s and has a feature film called 'Snakeskin', four short films (including 'The Meek') and at least four documentaries under her belt. She is the recipient of a number of film and television awards and her projects have received invitations from a plethora of film festivals across the globe.
A couple of weeks ago, I poured a cuppa and had a great chat to Izzy and Gillian via video link. We chatted about lots of things that Izzy had been up to but also her involvement in the film.
What were the reasons behind casting Izzy as the lead?
Due to Gillian’s work, Izzy has grown up around cameras and film sets, so this kind of visual story telling has always been quite normal for her, and she’s always had a love of performing. ‘Having Izzy in my life inspired me to the write the script for The Meek, and I basically wrote it with her in mind from the start. I knew what she’s capable of, and of course how to get the best performances from her,’ says Gillian.
‘One of the most important qualities that Izzy brought to the set was her sense of openness and honesty. Izzy responded absolutely sincerely to whatever was going on in the scene, and whatever the other actor was bringing to her.’
‘We didn’t rehearse too much with her, we just let her be herself within the context of each scene, and that worked really well. The adult actors sculptured their performances around her in order to help guide her toward the performance we needed. But this also meant that sometimes her reactions were unexpected, and often that was quite magical,’ says Gillian.
How did Izzy find the experience?
‘Overall Izzy had a great time. Like all kids, she likes attention and she certainly got a lot of that on set, with makeup and wardrobe fussing over her. But she did have to work hard and it was tiring at times’.
The main shoot was six half days spread over eight weeks. Breaking up the film shoots definitely made it easier on Izzy, and also suited the time progression of the film across changing seasons. However, Gillian says it wasn’t always easy working with Izzy (as with any pre-teenager).
‘The honesty that makes her performances so good can also be problematic. She doesn’t really care that there’s a schedule or how many people are standing around waiting to finish the day. If she doesn’t feel like doing something in a particular moment, she’ll let you know!’
They had a few things in place to help with this and support Izzy. Actress, Tandi Wright, who plays Izzy’s Mum in the film, stayed on beyond her shoot days to be an acting coach in some of the later scenes. Gillian was aware that Izzy wouldn’t always want to do what Mum tells her, but having Tandi there as an intermediary really helped.
What did Izzy specifically like about being in the film?
‘I liked the people. I liked Tim from High Five; he was fun’. (Tim McInnes was the directing intern who had a passing resemblance to Tim from Hi 5, and was happy to play along with that for Izzy). Izzy says, ‘I liked Uncle Frank and Tandi. We played a lot of games’.
John was the director of photography and camera operator. Tandi is Tandi Wright who played her Mum. Uncle Frank is Paul Glover. (The cast and crew all called Paul ‘Uncle Frank’ throughout the shoot, as Izzy had issues separating character names from actor names).
However Izzy, ‘didn’t like it when it rained and we still had to work. And once I got scared because a dog barked.’
Izzy got paid for her role and Gillian devised ‘a little bribery’ around that. She really wanted an iPhone, so Gillian paid her a little cash at the end of each shoot day and this went into her savings jar. They timed it so that at the end of the shoot she had enough money for the phone.
‘She definitely learned what it means to do a day’s work, earn your own money and save for something!’ says Gillian.
Izzy has big ambitions, as she says, ‘next time I want to make a story that I write and I want John and his big camera to film it.’
What were Izzy’s favourite moments of being on set?
Izzy definitely enjoyed the process more and more as the shoot went on and she got to know all the other actors and crew and became comfortable with the process. She loved working with the other actors, Paul Glover and Tandi Wright, who put a lot of effort into keeping her occupied between takes. Off camera, Paul’s magic tricks were a definite highlight.
On one of the shoot days she was also joined by another Champion Centre graduate, Riley Dench, who also had a role in the film. Having Riley join her on set was a lot of fun. Izzy was also particularly fond of lunchtimes, and the fish ‘n chips that she was promised at the end of some shoot days.
The film was shot at a number of places in North Canterbury, where the Ashurst family also live. These include places like Okuku and Loburn that boast gorgeous rural landscapes. Filming also took place at the beautiful Amberley Beach and the small-town Hawarden.
‘The Meek’ is currently in post-production, with sound design and music being completed. It will then be submitted to international film festivals before having local screenings later in 2020.
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