Ahead of SXSW 2022, director Ashley Eakin joins us to talk about Roommates.
The short film follows two college students, Izzy and Sophia, who get placed as dorm roommates because they’re both disabled. They reach common ground via a bottle of vodka and getting personal. What starts out as a fun night taking shots, quickly turns into a night of adventure, officially christening their year as college roommates.
How much of this film was drawn from your own experiences?
In college I was not paired with another disabled roommate, but a plot I like to play with is forcing disabled people together, (similar to my film SINGLE) and seeing what the two characters think of each other. I grew up with a lot of internalized ableism and used to not want anything to do with my disability – but now that I am on the other side of that, I realize community and caring about people in the community is what has now made me a disability advocate. Being able to love others and see their worth, helped me see my own as a disabled woman. It fascinates me that it worked that way.
On the other hand, alcohol and partying was a very big part of my college experience. I definitely lived it up and instantly bonded with my dorm mates after going to a wild party. But before I went to college, I never saw anyone like me having that experience, so there was a lot of fear as to what my life would be like. While I did experience some people judging me at times, a lot of it was just plain old university fun; making friends, all-night study sessions in the library and of course a lot of partying. I love showing that this side of life can and does exist for disabled people.
And, do you have any fun memories to share from being a college freshmen?
One of my favorite memories of my freshman year was finding my best friend, Isabella. I even named one of our characters after her. It was hilarious because when we first met, I didn’t like her because she was late as we were all trying to leave for our first ever frat party, but then somehow, after bonding over a few too many beers, we became best friends overnight. We are still best friends to this day.
Can you tell us about the film’s two lead actors and your collaboration with them?
Kelsey Johnson and Kiera Allen are incredible. I had been collaborating with Kelsey on a different idea for the Powderkeg Program and then a few months before production, I had this new idea that kept coming back to me. Kelsey has never done any professional acting and I wanted to pair her with a pro. I was already a fan of Kiera from her film RUN on Netflix (starring opposite Sarah Paulson). Kiera and I had a general zoom just to meet during the pandemic months prior, so I always had her in mind. When this new idea for Roommates developed, we reached out to her to see if she would be on board and she loved it!
Kiera and Kelsey are both based in New York so they got to get together and meet in-person prior to being on set together. From there, we did a lot of zoom sessions to rehearse. Then we got to shooting week here in LA and we all stayed in the same hotel, so we had the opportunity to do in-person rehearsals together which were invaluable! Kiera describes it as a big sleepover, which couldn’t be more accurate. I also told them a very very embarrassing story that gave them the giggles throughout the entire short. They couldn’t even look me in the eye without laughing. It was perfect.
What do you hope audiences take away from the film at SXSW?
I hope this film disrupts the narrative that we so often see with disability – that we are infantilized, cute and safe. I also hope it shows that you can have a complex relationship with your disability but still find common ground and connection. I also want people to know that disabled people should be allowed to check off those ‘rights of passage’ most young people get to experience. Mostly, I want disabled people to feel joy when they watch this.
What inspired you to get into filmmaking?
I started with a journalism major at San Diego State, but by the time I graduated I realized I wanted to work in TV and Film. I debated grad school, but would’ve had to take out loans so I decided against it. I immediately dove into the industry starting out as a logger, then a PA and eventually worked my way up to being an assistant. I spent almost 4 years assisting a few executives but around 2015, I started having these inklings of: I think I want to direct. But I was born with a rare bone disease, and I’m smaller, I’m a woman, and at this time I didn’t see someone like myself directing. So it was really scary to put it out there that I wanted to do it, but I figured the best way to know what it’s like to be a director was to work for someone actually doing it!
I spent about 5 months searching for a director’s assistant job – which are like gold in the assistant world and very hard to land. I interviewed for 5 months and eventually landed a job working for Jon M. Chu, where I got to be a part of the whole Crazy Rich Asians trajectory. That job fundamentally changed my life. I got to spend 5 months in Malaysia and Singapore working on the set and it was essentially my film school for directing. I was able to be a part of the whole trajectory of that film and started to really understand the power of representation, which directly inspired me to focus on representation for my own community of disabled people. After 2.5 years of working for Jon, I jumped ship (with his blessing) and dove into making my own content.
What do you value most as a filmmaker?
I love telling stories that change perceptions. Story is king for me. I also love collaboration. There are so many incredible craftsmen and women in this field and seeing their expertise brought to the table is so fun and exhilarating. That feeling of each person working together to make something great is unlike anything I’ve experienced.
Tell us three films you’d take with you to a desert island.
500 Days of Summer, A Hidden Life and Mrs. Doubtfire.
Real eclectic choices here, I know!
You’re working on so many exciting projects and have worked on shows for Netflix, Disney + and Apple. What are your hopes and ambitions for the future?
My hope for the future is for the way our society views and interacts with disabled people to improve. I want more rights for our community and more care. Representation and humanizing our stories is how we get there.
Find out more about Roommates at SXSW