Up to the Tusk: How Actor Ashley Bell Took On Her First Feature as a Director, Love & Bananas: An Elephant Story

I didn’t go to film school. I’d never written a feature. I was a working actress who knew the business from that side of the camera. During the five years I directed my documentary, I also starred in nine films and appeared on Broadway. Bluntly put, I had no fucking clue what I was getting into when I started down this road.

And yet…

I made a film. And sold it.

Making a movie is a miracle. It’s a miracle because you’ve whipped up a collective of people, each focused solely on their personal contribution to the greater good of the story. Well, what if you only have three people and 14 days to the make that miracle possible and you’re documenting a world-renowned Asian Elephant conservationist who’s taking a 70-year-old partially blind Asian Elephant 500 miles across Thailand on a truck to freedom? Welcome to Love & Bananas: An Elephant Story.

Ashley Bell and the crew of Love & Bananas: An Elephant Story shoot a scene on the railway at the bridge over the River Kwai. Photograph courtesy of Abramorama

I took three guys with cameras into the jungle and Love & Bananas is what came out of it. I am nothing without my team of three. In comparison to a narrative feature crew three might seem… small? Not for this story. Sure, we were documenting the biggest vegans on earth, but we needed to move with as light a foot as possible. We needed to get in and out of very tricky situations and to not overwhelm our stars, the elephants, many of whom had undergone severe psychological distress. I had partnered from inception with a production company called Change For Balance Productions, which was committed to using film to affect positive change in the world. My producer, John McCarthy from Change  For Balance, was also the film’s editor, co-writer and cinematographer; Roddy Tabatabai from CFBP was the director of photography and Max Ritter ran sound, also held a 5D and volunteered to take BTS photos… on film.

Elephant rescues are extremely rare, life threatening and unpredictable. World-Renowned Asian Elephant conservationist Lek Chailert and I had been communicating via Facebook for two and a half years. (Yes, international travel and coordination for this documentary was done over Facebook Messenger.) It took that long to locate an Asian elephant because there are so few elephants left on earth.

Within a week of getting the bing of a Facebook message, we were on a plane to Thailand.

I’d had two and a half  years to prepare, prepare, prepare for this moment. I say this because production itself? It’s chaos. With documentaries, shooting can be completely unpredictable. That two and a half years gave me the chance to be as dialed-in as possible so that on the day, we could catch lightening in a bottle.

I’d researched and written 15 versions of the story to be able to pivot if and when one of a million things went wrong. We were prepared with extra batteries and cards for being away from outlets for days on the rescue. We’d watched every animal documentary and knew our angle into this world and our audience. And we’d decided upon an aesthetic.

Our goal was to show the plight of the Asian elephant through an action-packed elephant rescue. I wanted to humanize the elephants as much as possible and capture what made them unique; their eyelashes, their elbows, their freckles, every little detail. To accomplish that John and Roddy filmed all the elephants on a RED Epic cinema camera, and treated them like humans. They were shot in slow motion, 60 frames per second, which we could leave as is or ramp up in the edit since they were in 5k. We used the beauty of the RED to lure the audience into the journey and into the majesty of these gray giants.

In documentaries, what would normally be considered B-Roll is your A-Roll. The RED B-roll was used to cover the interviews, and transport the audience to Thailand and make them fall in love with the elephants. We shot with Canon DSLRs (Digital Single Lens Reflexes) for hours of content interviews because it gave us good quality no matter what the circumstance.

Within a week of getting notification from Lek, we were in Thailand meeting our girl, Noi Na.

What happened on the rescue is a tough section to write, because I can’t break it down into ABC or give you tangible steps to follow. Whether you’re making a documentary or a narrative feature, you are dealing with big truths about humanity and things unfold at a rapid pace.

We were prepared to get the “content” we needed, but when you’re in the heat of the moment, you hope for what can only be described as a miracle: the unexpected moment of truth that makes your film. On a documentary, it can be that moment when an unexpected, unscripted moment creates a magic connection between story and audience. In a narrative feature, it’s those times when you catch a raw emotional truth, or experience a breakthrough in a scene.

This moment happened for us when we arrived at the trekking camp to pick up Noi Na. Lek immediately assessed her and had the  vet team begin to hydrate and prep her for the 500-mile journey. But the camp had 30 other chained elephants that Lek and Noi Na would have to leave behind. The elephants were exhibiting stereotypic symptoms of stress, up to and including psychotic behavior. They were rocking back and forth and bobbing their heads. Lek was heartbroken to leave so many in this state, but she had a plan. She convinced the owner of the trekking camp, Mr. Chaiyapong, to take his elephants for a jungle walk Jungle walk without chains. Reserved at first, the trekking camp owner finally agreed.

Ashley Bell in Love & Bananas: An Elephant Story

This episode was not “on the schedule” or in any prepared outline we could have ever imagined.

At first the elephants were stone statues. They were so used to being chained and abused that they would move only when beckoned. Lek encouraged them and the walk began. At first they walked slowly but within moments the elephants were moving down the jungle trail. Their trunks roved around, breaking branches and even eating a sign. Their paper-thin ears began to flap and you could see the veins engorged under their skin.  The owner was in shock; he’d never before seen his elephants exhibit signs of normal elephant relaxation and joy.

Before every scene I huddled with Change for Balance and they figured out who would be on which lens for that scene. Our DP was on the RED and sprinting ahead of the elephants so he could capture them moving in all their grandeur through the jungle. John would be on a medium shot on a DSLR walking with Lek, Mr. Chaiyapong, the elephants and myself. Max would be on a second 5d wide angle to get the overall scene. Sound was running so I would clap in to sync sound and give on the fly interviews. It was important to bank sound bites and content so be able to contextualize the scene for the audience. As the elephants began to move faster all of us were running to keep up with the herd.

The elephants were led to a mud pit where they enjoyed their first mud bath since being taken into captivity. When we got to the mud pit Mr. Chaiyapong had a cathartic moment as rain threatened. As thunder cracked behind us, two DSLRS were running on a three-person scene. In the scene Mr. Chaiyapong promises to turn take his elephants for walks with chains every day, and to turn his camp into a humane sanctuary as he tearfully embraces me. The second I was embraced and Mr. Chaiyapong started to cry, the clouds opened up and it began to rain. The scene lasts a little over two minutes, but it is the magical moment that makes the rest of the film work.

In editing, we called this scene our miracle factor. In my opinion, this only happens when you can stay open to the moment while on the shoot. That only happens when you’re prepared. French scientist Louis Pasteur said, “Chance favors only the prepared mind.” He means that breakthroughs, luck and epiphanies don’t just happen; they are the gifts of preparation. Approach your shoot with rigor, and then be open to the magic. MM

Love & Bananas: An Elephant Story opened in theaters April 22, 2018, courtesy of Abramorama.

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