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Rising Star Ashley Maria: “I want to influence minds to want to achieve gender parity in our world”

Over the past 4 years of filming Pioneers in Skirts across the U.S., I was able to meet people who had the kind of influence I’ve come to hope my films will have on an audience. I want my movies to have meaning and impact. Starting with Pioneers in Skirts — I want it to influence minds […]

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Over the past 4 years of filming Pioneers in Skirts across the U.S., I was able to meet people who had the kind of influence I’ve come to hope my films will have on an audience. I want my movies to have meaning and impact. Starting with Pioneers in Skirts — I want it to influence minds to want to achieve gender parity in our world. I want people to feel open to talk about these issues and to understand what they can do right now to change them. I want all of this because I see what the world would look like if we didn’t, and I try to show this in the documentary. If we don’t do something now, then these cultural issues that affect women and girls will perpetuate generation after generation. We ALL can and must do something now.


As a part of my series about pop culture’s rising stars, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Ashley Maria. Ashley is a filmmaker based in Los Angeles, CA. Winner of the coveted Directors Guild of America (DGA) award, she was also featured by the DGA Women’s Steering Committee as a director who represents The Future of Women in Film. When she’s not running her own production, she is a directing instructor at UCLA. Very recently, Ashley was selected as a North American delegate to attend the United Nation’s Commission on the Status of Women — the principal global policy-making body dedicated exclusively to gender equality and the advancement of women. Her first feature documentary, Pioneers in Skirts, is in post-production, set to be released in the Fall of 2019. The film follows her own journey to understand the bias and sexism women confront in their careers and what we ALL can do as a culture to evolve past it. If you can’t find Ashley on a film set or behind a computer screen, you can find her on the court playing competitive dodgeball! To learn more about Ashley, please visit www.ashley-maria.com.


Thank you so much for doing this with us Ashley! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

I was born to a single mom who raised me on her own until, when I was about 10, she married a man who became the Dad I love.

Some of my favorite memories as a young child were reading Goosebumps books in the back of a clothing store while my Mom worked her evening job just so she could afford to pay for childcare during her day job. It never felt like sacrifice. She made it feel normal. I learned that we must work hard for what we want. This was a great example for me at a time when — as a young ambitious girl — I was starting to think of what I wanted to be when I grew up. I was picturing myself in a business suit in the tallest corporate building.

Now I craft stories of those kinds of women from the comfort of my own home in jeans and a T-shirt.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

I have proof that I was grabbing my Mom’s camera at the age of 4! (this footage is in my documentary film “Pioneers in Skirts!). She was always filming our lives — and I was always borrowing her camera to film everything else.

I never really understood that filmmaking could actually be a career until I was in college. I stayed the course and, after obtaining my undergraduate degree in Communications from UNC-Chapel Hill, I decided to apply to one of the top film schools in the country — USC School of Cinematic Arts.

It was such an exciting day when I was notified of my acceptance! And, even though USC believed in me, I have to say that I truly wasn’t sure if I was a good storyteller because not everyone seemed to get my weird sense of humor. I cautiously stayed with my ‘weird’ and wrote and directed my first student film as a comedy-horror. “Friday Night Fright” went on to win the prestigious Directors Guild of America award, and from there, I had no doubts I could tell good stories and, in turn, jumped full force into directing.

Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

I’ve had a lot of “Little Ashley would be freaking out right now” moments just being in Hollywood. Meeting Tom Hanks and working for him was one of the best! I was an intern during the filming of his movie Larry Crowne and got to be in the production office as they finalized details for the shoot.

Tom was both directing and starring in this movie, so he had to make all kinds of decisions, including the kind of camera used for a scene. One day, the crew brought in a body camera to be used on Tom for a scene where his character breaks down emotionally. So, I watched as he got into character and all I could think was “I’m watching Tom Hanks act right now!” Then he walked around the room, stumbling, and stumbled into a chair. I was then motioned to become the person to “dolly” him around the small production office (pushing him back and forth). I played it cool, but was totally screaming on the inside. I was part of a (pretend) scene with Tom Hanks!! Definitely one of my coolest film moments!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

During the early months of making Pioneers in Skirts, I was often finding myself a one-woman show. When the U.S. IEEE engineering organization gave me last minute permission to interview its members at an event, I grabbed the equipment I owned at the time and set up multiple interviews around the conference. Everything was going well, until my rather cheap tripod decided to unlock one of its legs, taking my expensive camera to the ground with it. The camera went down lens first, shattering the filter into a million pieces. I just stood there in awe. It all happened so fast, and I felt so hopeless! But, surrounding me, the engineers went into MacGyver-mode! As I was picking up my camera, engineers were looking at my tripod to figure out what went wrong and what needed to be done to fix it. I mean, the top inventors of our time were fixing my low-budget production equipment. The $20 filter was a lost cause but, wow — I felt so well-taken care of.

So, the lesson here is — unless you’ll have a bunch of engineers around you all the time, buy the expensive and more-reliable tripod!

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I will soon be premiering my first feature documentary I directed, Pioneers in Skirts. Its story follows my own journey to understand the real and unique challenges women confront in their careers today. In the film, we discuss sexism, gender bias, stereotypes and so much more while also providing solutions we ALL can implement now to change things in our culture and the workplace. I’m very excited for this movie to premiere because I know it will help to advance the conversation about these issues. It has already proven to reach across aisles to move us along. After test screenings, men tell us they are relieved to not be portrayed as the perpetrator, and they have actually lined up to ask what they could do to help our film make an impact in the workplace, schools, and the community around them. I’m so excited to bring this movie out into the world!

We are very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?

I’m a huge proponent of diversity in the content that the entertainment industry creates. I have seen first hand how our culture itself is influenced by what we see on television or in movies. I’ve been affected myself and have even seen my own storytelling evolve as I’ve learned to analyze my own biases engrained in my thinking. I believe that diverse stories lead to more empathy toward others. Media has the power to influence positive change by showing us how other people experience the world around them. We can be much more similar than we realize. It’s important to normalize diversity as well and this can only happen when there are more and more stories told by diverse people about diverse people.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Be curious about all the moving parts. As a director, you should understand what everyone on your team is doing and what they need to be successful at their job. I have worn many hats on my projects and am proud of knowing how to do a lot of the technical and creative roles in making a film. Then, when you have the money to hire an expert, you’ll appreciate them even more (and I know they appreciate the love)!
  2. Understand people want to do a good job so you have to show up for them. We didn’t have much money to make Pioneers in Skirts, so most of our crew worked for free or at a severely discounted rate, and I felt awful always. I was very appreciative, but then paralyzed with fear if I ever had to give a critique. I really struggled with this until I talked to Dr. Hope Hills, a leadership psychologist. She told me that people have agreed to help and want to do a good job. They can only do a good job if I show up and do my job. This helped me so much in working through that fear. I will take this mentality to my next project but hopefully that one will be better funded!
  3. When on set, don’t assume production will have anything you need! Bring your own water, food, sunscreen, bandaids, bug spray, you name it. Take this seriously. It has helped me on numerous occasions to have a bag of nearly everything within my reach when on location in the middle of nowhere!
  4. Make time to fall in love with movies again. And appreciate those that make you forget you’re watching a movie! Once you’re in the nitty-gritty of making movies, the magic will feel like it’s gone. So, carve space for you to watch movies and get lost in them. That’s why you’re here after all!
  5. Take your safety seriously. When you start out in this industry, it’s easy to work constantly because you feel that means you are a team player. It doesn’t. You’ll only burn out and maybe hurt yourself! Demand a full night’s sleep. Demand a day of doing nothing. Demand better pay. And keep in mind, that the person you are demanding these of may just be yourself!

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

I would suggest understanding what burn out looks like for you. I don’t really think there’s a way to avoid burn out honestly. We’re all here because we have passion and are obsessed. None of us have normal schedules. None of us can create some normal routine that is consistent week after week. No way. It’s about listening to your body when it’s telling you something is wrong. Can you afford to get away for a week? Can you shut everything off for just a day? Or can you look at your to-do list one at a time instead of the dreaded multi-tasking? I think thriving is listening to what your body and mind needs every day. Oh, and drink lots of water.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Over the past 4 years of filming Pioneers in Skirts across the U.S., I was able to meet people who had the kind of influence I’ve come to hope my films will have on an audience. I want my movies to have meaning and impact. Starting with Pioneers in Skirts — I want it to influence minds to want to achieve gender parity in our world. I want people to feel open to talk about these issues and to understand what they can do right now to change them. I want all of this because I see what the world would look like if we didn’t, and I try to show this in the documentary. If we don’t do something now, then these cultural issues that affect women and girls will perpetuate generation after generation. We ALL can and must do something now.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My mother Lea-Ann! She is the producer on Pioneers in Skirts and a constant champion for me in my career. She put her career on hold to jump in to make Pioneers in Skirts because she saw the need for this film to be made (and she saw how I could not possibly make it on my own). She and I have been a team for years now in pre-production, production and now post-production on this documentary. When we started, I was the one who had the education and the experience. But today, my Mom has advanced from getting on-the-job training in filmmaking to being a full-on producer and driving the ship as we reach distribution!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Wes Craven, a mentor of mine before he passed away, told me that “Nothing is ever normal, and it’s always a fight” in reference to getting a movie made. Never will we be in a perfect situation. There will always be challenges, so we need to stop playing the victim and join the fight!

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Steve Martin! Ironically, The Jerk was the first DVD I ever owned, so I watched that on repeat. “Someone hates these cans!” My dad, Dave, introduced it to me. This is another reason I love movies. Our love for a certain movie may really have nothing to do with the movie itself, but have everything to do with the person who introduced it to us. So, that’s a double whammy for why I’d love to meet Steve Martin!

How can our readers follow you on social media?

This was very meaningful, thank you so much!

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