Exclusive Interview: Director Aaron Harvey Talks New Revenge-Thriller Into The Ashes

Writer-Director Aaron Harvey‘s new revenge-thriller Into the Ashes will be hitting select theaters and On Demand this Friday, July 19th via RLJE Films and it’s definitely an intense watch that you should put on your radar. The filmmaker took a time out to let me ask him some questions about his latest movie and his experience filming it right here in my home town. Into the Ashes follows Nick, an ex-con adjusting to a normal life in rural Alabama with a new job and a new wife. When some former associates track him down looking for retribution, he is forced back into the desperate and violent life he thought he left behind.

Alien Bee – The story for Into the Ashes is an intense one and the movie ended up being a really good watch. It’s a thriller that features elements of revenge and heartache in it. How did you come up with a story like this? What was your inspiration?

Aaron Harvey – Well, the story started from my wanting to make a film in the vein of a lot of films that I love.  Specifically, these sort of archetypal lonely-man genre films of the later 70’s. Films that deal heavily with thematic ideas, but place those ideas in a  great revenge or redemption package. I also love regional settings, so that was important to me. Films like ROLLING THUNDER or CHARLEY VARRICK or COOL HAND LUKE – where the film isn’t so much about the movement of the plot per say, but more about a broader idea or thematic implication.  Rectification, brotherhood…whatever it is, it’s trying to say more than just what it’s (for the most part) simple plot is. THE WILD BUNCH is a good example, as it’s really a film about male bonding and brotherhood as much as it is about this group of guys looking for a big score. Know what I mean?  The actual plot or the idea of this heist, was much less important than who the characters were and what their interactions were with each other – and in turn how that impacted the theme(s) of the film.  So I wanted to make a film in that sort of canon of films and this is what I came up with. A relatively straight-forward revenge film that’s really about two men rectifying their relationship with each other over a shared, mutual tragedy.

Alien Bee – You write, produce and direct. Which one do you find most challenging?

Aaron Harvey – Probably the producing to be honest, not because it’s the hardest, but because it’s the most frustrating.  Having to deal with people and interfacing with a system that generally doesn’t have your agenda in mind or doesn’t really have any interest in creating something interesting is always challenging.  For the most part, Hollywood doesn’t care about actually creating good work, it cares about the bottom line – so it’s hard to find people who you can align with creatively and financially to really pull these projects together.  You’re always swimming upstream when you’re trying to make a film, so that’s always difficult.  Dealing with the egos and balancing the business of a film is tricky, but it’s always worth it when the film gets made, so I can’t really complain about it too much.  Also, my two producing partners, Rob Barnum and Eric Binns, both pretty much align philosophically with what it is we want to do in film and the films we want to make, so I’m very fortunate to have them both in my corner and all of us working towards the same agenda and kind of film… Second to that, writing is definitely the second most challenging part.  Creating a story out of thin air is always tricky, as there’s really endless possibilities. So focusing in on what the story is that you’re telling and actually writing out that story in a way that gets other people excited about it is pretty tough.  But again – there’s such a high that comes from seeing the film come to fruition that I look at these as relatively minor challenges in the overall landscape of making a film.

Alien Bee – What made you decide to direct Into the Ashes since it’s also based on your story?

Aaron Harvey – Well, the intent was to always direct it.  I don’t really write for hire – for the most part I only write scripts that ultimately I want to make and more importantly, I think have a decent shot at actually getting made.  As I mentioned earlier, it’s such a mentally laborious task to write a script, that if I’m going to put that energy into something, I generally want it to be something I’m going to personally invest in creatively and something that ultimately I want to do.  I only even started writing initially in order to make films that I’d want to see or direct. So writing was always kind of a means to an end for me.

Alien Bee – The movie has a fantastic cast in it. Frank Grillo is one of my favorite actors and he looks like one of the few Hollywood actors who could back up what he’s saying. How was it working with the cast and Mr. Grillo? Any intimidation factor or is he pretty cool to work with?

Aaron Harvey – Thank you – I agree that we got a pretty stellar cast, considering the tight budget and overall scope of this film.  I was very happy with how the cast shook out and I thought everyone did an amazing job in the film. As for Frank specifically, we had a great time working together.  He came prepared, knew what he was doing and really delivered on what the role required. We hung out a lot before shooting, so we had a lot of time to chat about it all, which also made it easier when we got on set.  He’s definitely an intimidating guy if you don’t know him – in the sense that he’s really focused and involved in what he’s doing – but there’s a difference between someone who’s ‘difficult’ and someone who’s ‘intense’.  I think that gets misconstrued a lot and if you don’t have a lot of experience working with actors, it can be somewhat intimidating to find yourself in that situation. He doesn’t really mince his words and he takes the work seriously, which I totally admire in an actor.  He demands a measure of professionalism that I also appreciate, so we had a great experience making this film together. We saw eye to eye on pretty much everything and he’s someone who really respects you if he feels you know what you’re doing or are trying to honor the film the same way he is.  Shooting is never easy, so of course it’s always a bit chaotic or intense on set, but we got it done and he delivered, so I couldn’t ask for more. We really got along great. So much so that we’re talking about doing another film here together, which is the next project I’m trying to get off the ground.

Alien Bee – You filmed Into the Ashes right here in and around my hometown of Birmingham, Al. and parts of Bessemer and Lipscomb. What made you decide to film here?

Aaron Harvey – Oh awesome, that’s great you’re from the area – I loved Birmingham!  My brother lives there as well and I’d seriously considering moving down there I enjoyed the experience so much.  The town is fantastic and the people are wonderful… As for why we shot in Alabama, there was a number of factors actually.  We initially were looking at New Orleans to shoot the film in, but quickly realized that we weren’t really finding exactly what I was after in terms of locations and to get what we’d need we’d have to start really sacrificing financially to get it.  So as we were there scouting, someone told us we should check out Alabama, thinking they’d have what we were looking for. I’d honestly never really thought about it as a viable location, so me and my producing partner, Eric Binns, drove over to Birmingham and immediately could tell that it would work.  It just had the feeling and authenticity that I was after for the film. We connected with a couple of local guys and started running around with a location’s manager there, Eric Napier, who took me all over the countryside around Birmingham. We spent the next few weeks scouting heavily around the Bessemer and McCalla area’s until we found exactly what we wanted, and fortunately got all the locations that were our first picks – which is also a rarity.  It was wonderful as well because the city and the people were very amenable to us filming and would really bend over backwards to accommodate the shoot.  Everyone really embraced the film and we truly couldn’t have made the film we made without having done it in Birmingham. The intrinsic value of shooting there literally can’t be quantified.  Also, Alabama has a great film incentive, which made it work financially as well. I’d shoot a film in Birmingham again in a heartbeat.

Alien Bee – There are parts of the city that can get a little interesting at night and you filmed much of the movie after dark. How did everything go and did you ever have any kind of uncomfortable or awkward moments?

Aaron Harvey – Ha – by the time we were filming, no, because we’d worked out all the locations, vetted everything out and really knew what we were getting into when we were shooting…  But before hand, when I was rolling around with just myself and the locations manager, Eric, we definitely got into a few areas that I could see being ‘less than savory’ so to speak.  Even Eric, who’s lived around the area and knows it all like the back of his hand, would get a little nervous a couple times when I’d push him to drive into areas I thought could be interesting or had a particular feeling to them…  Not that we were overtly worried, but we definitely went into a few places that I can see being areas you don’t want to be hanging out after sundown so to speak. Ha. I also grew up in the south though in North Carolina, and I was more used to the really rural or somewhat rough and tumble areas, so it didn’t affect me as much.  But for sure we crossed a few places off our list specifically because it may have been too much of a liability to shoot there. We did have an instance at the motel location, where there were some people who actually lived in one of the rooms and weren’t out and out happy we were there shooting all night. Especially firing guns and whatnot, so they let us know in so many words they weren’t too thrilled about it.  But once they sort of realized we were cool and that the film was a real project, they hung out and it all worked out fine. But other than that, no real hiccups in terms of finding ourselves in anything too sketchy!

Alien Bee – What would you say was the most challenging thing about filming Into the Ashes?  What did you take away from it?  What was the most rewarding thing about it?

Aaron Harvey – Well, honestly the most challenging thing about making the film was actually getting the film into production.  You’re always climbing a mountain with every picture you try to set up, and this one was no different. The time and work it takes to get a movie going is literally astronomical, so the fact that it got made in the first place is both a win and also the most challenging part of it.  In terms of the shoot itself, it was pretty straight forward because we prepped and planned a lot before even showing up on day 1. If you put all the bullets in the chamber before you start rolling the camera, you’ve got a pretty good shot at knocking all the dominos down relatively fluidly… That’s not to say there’s not challenges along the way as making a film is literally just dealing with a series of creative obstacles, but for the most part on this film we never had any real curve balls thrown at us, so I’m very grateful for that.  Shooting is always tough because you’re up for many hours on end (generally at night) so you’re getting no sleep and you’re dealing with a million factors being thrown at you all at once – so mentally it’s pretty draining.  But it’s worth the endeavor, because at the end of the day – to see the film come to fruition – is more rewarding than any of the challenges you face along the way. That IS the most rewarding thing; being able to see the completed picture and have the satisfaction of knowing what really went into making something that at the end of the day looks so seamless, considering the challenges… That’s a pretty good feeling.

Alien Bee – I want to say thank you for filming your movie here in Alabama and allowing me to ask you some questions.

Aaron Harvey – Of course – anytime!  Always happy to share what I can from my own experiences and very happy to have shot down in Alabama.  If I make it back there for the next one, we’ll have to do this again for sure.

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