8 Female Filmmakers: Meet Allyson West
This story is a two-part introduction to a series of interviews spotlighting eight local female filmmakers in collaboration with the Cindependent Film Festival. Learn more about Allyson’s vision for the festival in “8 Female Filmmakers: Allyson West on Creating the Cindependent Film Festival.”
Note that this interview contains some strong language and mature content.
On an oddly warm day in March, we ventured out to a little corner pub in Madisonville to meet Allyson West. Little did I know that she’d immediately become one of my favorite people: an unapologetic, authentic, instant friend who makes you feel like you could walk up to her on the street and pour out your heart and soul. We met the fiery filmmaker, actress, and founder of the brand new Cindependent Film Festival at her favorite neighborhood haunt, The Bramble Patch.
Allyson was 7 months pregnant when we met. I’d asked her if she wanted to do the interview before or after the baby came, and she’d eagerly said before. I asked why it was important to her, and she replied, “I can stay true to myself and continue developing my own work while I’m also growing a baby, and I want my daughter to see me continuing to be strong, no matter what my body looks like, no matter how I’m feeling.”
Baby Olive arrived just a few weeks later and has been inseparable from her mama ever since. Allyson and I touched base again in early June, and she told me, “I’m still scared shitless. But it’s awesome.” Sounds about right to me.
Give us the quick synopsis of you.
Well, I’m a Texan, and I grew up in a small town with like, no anything, no culture, no interaction with the outside world whatsoever. I went to the CCM [College-Conservatory of Music] acting program, which was my first time, at 18, being away from home in a city and doing something really, really hard.
When I got done with college, I moved to New York with Philip, who was my boyfriend then. We worked there, and then came back here. I’ve always wanted to be a performer, and I’ve always worked towards that, but I had a lot of problems here in the city finding work, which has pushed me to try a lot of new stuff. I’m just constantly looking for what else is there and what more something can be – and trying to do it well, because your work is your reputation. At the end of the day, it only counts if it matters to you, and I don’t like doing things half-assed, at all.
I love seeing what people say first when they answer the “tell me about yourself” question, and I’m fascinated that you led with, “I’m a Texan.” Why is that the first thing that comes to mind?
Texans have like, such an attitude problem. We really do. We have a lot of pride, and my dad, particularly, has this super huge personality, and I think that has to do with where he comes from and how a lot of the ideals in that area can shape people. And that has followed me everywhere I’ve gone: that I can be very brusque, big-minded, blunt. There’s good and bad in that, too, but I really identify with that wild western “do what I need to do to get things done” type of attitude.
How do you feel that attitude has fit here in Cincinnati?
It’s not so much the city as it is my development as a person. There’ve been times where I’ve tried to fit in more. I felt like I stood out too much, and that’s not necessarily a city’s fault. It’s my ability to be confident with who I am, really. And so, as I’ve developed and become more comfortable with who I am and found ways to interact with the world in ways that suit me, it has helped shape me into, I think, being a stronger, more present, aggressive-when-I-need-to-be, forward type of person. In this city, I am no longer as afraid of standing up for my ideas as I used to be.
I was listening to your interview on “Hollywood and Beyond.” You talked about how, when you did your first audition, you decided you didn’t need to be liked.
Yeah. Being a performer is super fun. There comes a point where it’s like, well, I don’t need to be pretty; this is what I look like, and I don’t need to be charming, because that’s kind of a lot of work, you know? And if you find ways to be who you are, you get it, or you don’t. People get you, or they don’t, and there’s really not that much you can do about it, and I think it’s important to get to that point where you’re like, “Well, I’m walking into this performance to have fun with it.”
Why are you a performer?
I love storytelling. I’ve just been a storyteller since I was a little girl. That’s just something that really excites me: talking to people, sharing stories, and then in terms of the performance aspect of it, I love being in front of people and being on stage. That’s like, the ego part of it, but it’s totally there for me. I love being the center of attention – when I wanna be. ’Cause it’s not always comfortable, and I love that. And I just love, like, when you perform, you’re just playing. It’s the best kind of work. You get to just run around in your imagination for a while? That’s awesome.
Tell us a little bit about your recent claim to fame, the 2016 short film “Texican.”
So, when I moved back to Cincinnati, I was having a hard time finding work that suited me. I was getting so, so frustrated. I would still write stuff. I would still work on things, and just didn’t know what to do with them.
I had this project that I thought I would turn into a short film and see what would happen. My sister had just graduated from Texas Tech, and she didn’t know what to do, and I said, “Why don’t you come to Cincinnati? You can work on this movie I’m doing.”
Everybody underestimates me. Everybody does. And shame on them.
And she was like, “Okay, I’ll do it.” And I was like, uhh, okay! [Laughing.] So I had to get my shit together really fast. We had two months to do the movie, ’cause the director of photography that I wanted to do it wasn’t available past a certain point. So we spent four weeks fundraising and then four weeks of pre-production. It was insane.
The movie itself is basically about this trashy white woman who lives with her really smart boyfriend, who has brown skin, in a trailer home in Texas. One morning, she’s getting ready for work and she’s giving herself this “whore’s bath” at the sink, like scrubbing herself off, and he’s like, “What are you doing?”
And she’s like, “I just don’t like your smell,” and he says, “What are you talking about?”
And she says, “Mexicans – you guys just have this smell that I don’t like.” She’s just kind of offensive about the way she says it, and she doesn’t get it, why this is offensive to him. And this is the day that he’s just not gonna take it, so it starts this conversation between them where it just falls out of control. She doesn’t understand, and he’s being aggressive, and it scares her. As a couple, they’re on completely different planes, not talking about the same thing at all, and they get to a moment where they have to figure out like, how did they even get here? What do they want out of this moment? And that’s the film.
We were talking about things that were super relevant, you know? Racial bias, racism – how do you talk to people about that? I would get into so many conversations about race that I didn’t expect, that I also wasn’t prepared for, but by just falling headfirst into this, it gave me the opportunity to learn how to talk about them.
I started submitting it to film festivals, which is when I first started really getting involved in the film festival circuit. A lot of times, people who have short films, they either don’t do anything with them, or they don’t do well on the festival circuit, and the difference was that we did do really well. I spent all of last year traveling, and we won a bunch of awards, and I got tons of exposure to lots of different cities who do film festivals like this, and then would come back and just be like, “Cincinnati. Huh. Weird. We don’t have anything like this.” And we just didn’t.
We’ve totally all had those fights before – where you’re just not even arguing about the same thing. I’m struck by the power of an everyday moment in time.
One of the reasons why I love short film and why I love film festivals so much is that you have access to moments of uniqueness that are metaphors for those characters’ lives. You get more empathy and comprehension for who that person could be as a person, and that stuff is just frickin‘ awesome to do.
Art, of course, is influenced by a lot of stuff, and for me, it may not be exactly my life, but there are pieces of it that start something that become bigger and bigger. For example, as a Texan, we deal with this white and brown dynamic all the time, and my family has a lot of racial bias, and I’m not comfortable with that behavior. I’ve moved away and lived in a lot of different cities, and over time have developed my own response to how I would treat racial bias, so even though there’s racial bias that’s part of me, I choose not to partake in it.
There’s a lot of gray within like “not racist”/“racist.” There’s a lot in between there, and our society is struggling with how to have those conversations, the same way we’re struggling with it with sexuality, women’s rights. This movie ended up being a way for me to explore these things with a lot of people.
Why put it in the context of a romantic relationship?
So, I made this when we moved back to Cincinnati, and that was really hard for me because when I was in New York, I was doing so well as a performer. Philip wasn’t enjoying the city as much as I was, and I had seen him try really, really hard to do well there. It just didn’t suit him, and so he got a job opportunity here and moved back. I encouraged him to, ’cause I wanted him to be happy. And when he moved back, I realized that I loved him, and I was like, ahh. It was heartbreaking to realize that I loved him so much, because I was gonna have to make a choice. I had told myself my entire life that I was gonna do exactly what I had been doing when I was in New York, and when he left, I was just like, “Oh my god. Ah. Um.” And I just realized that it didn’t matter. I wanted him in my life.
So I moved back here, and it was hard. I’m not trying to shit-talk Cincinnati or anything, but there wasn’t an industry for me here. I couldn’t find people who thought the way I did, who worked the way I did. I didn’t have artistic community. I was just really low. I ended up working in an office so I could make some money, and it was just like, “Is this who I am now?”
So I was just having a lot of problems, and he and I were miscommunicating left and right, because we were coming from such different places. He was doing what he wanted, and I wasn’t. We would have these huge arguments, and I would be like, “Well, what happens now? Am I going to allow myself to be changed by this?” And I got to a point where I realized that I could love somebody so much and still be surprised by things I didn’t know about him. For us, I feel really lucky that we stayed the course, because it’s hard and it’s so super scary, but that is why things just kinda came together in this script between those large concepts.
Can you talk more about him and your relationship? I feel like there’s like this “I don’t need a man” movement sweeping across the world, and it’s cool to see a super strong woman who can also say that she needs her partner.
I need him, and I know that I do. I don’t understand it most of the time, but it’s there. … He is the only person I have ever loved. I’ve had lots of other people love me and I’ve been like, “Oh, I’m in love,” but I haven’t loved somebody back the way I love him. And that’s just kind of intangible, I think, and it makes figuring stuff out worth it. I’m happy to change and be flexible because there’s just so much goodness there that it’s worth it to change and grow and allow myself to be outside the boundaries of who I think I am.
And to Philip’s credit, he has supported me nonstop with this project. People always ask, “Where did it come from?” And I’m like, “Well, this gets real personal, real fast.” And he just sits there being like, “I love you.” [Laughing.] He’s awesome.
What’s your experience been like as a female filmmaker?
Everybody underestimates me. Everybody does. And shame on them. If you don’t see me walk through the door and go, “Oh, let’s figure out who that person is,” shame on you. That’s that big Texan in me coming out.
We had a lot of problems on the day of production for “Texican” where a crew member showed up unprepared, and he underestimated me. I called him out on it. I told him I’d paid him to do a professional job and that’s what I expected.
And it’s interesting: In “Texican,” my character, she changes at the beginning of the movie, and like, I have back rolls, and people would be like, “Oh my god, you’re so brave.” And I always ask them, like, “Is it because of what the characters are doing, or is it because I’m taking my clothes off?” And they’ll be like, “The clothes thing,” and I’m like, “Don’t even worry about that. I see this body all the time.”
Is there a female filmmaker that you look up to?
Yes. I have a friend named Jennifer Galvin. She is patient, smart; she’s just an incredible woman, and she made this documentary that took years of patience called “The Memory of Fish.” Her support for women at the forefront of film, and her attitude – patience, persistence, and courage – is hugely impressive. So I definitely look up to her and love, love, love interacting and engaging with her work.