Ashley James Louis on Writing, Resilience, and Success

Written by Justine Owens and Avery Faeth

Ashley James Louis on Writing, Resilience, and Success feature image

Ashley has long been captivated by the magic of cinema, rooted in a childhood fascination with iconic films such as Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Ashley's aspirations were as varied as the characters that graced the screen, from becoming an archaeologist á la Indiana Jones to imagining life as a spy like James Bond. However, it was the family of noir detective stories, particularly the director's cut of Blade Runner, that sparked a deeper passion within Ashley.

I distinctly remember having a moment of revelation around age eight or nine – that what I actually loved was movies. After that, I started watching every ‘Making of…’ VHS tape I could find and ever since then I’ve sort of known that I had to make movies with my life. And the great thing about film is that it kind of grows with you.

Blade runner deckard

Every time you come back around to a movie, you’ve changed and so the movie changes, too. You understand it in a different way. Sometimes a movie you initially hated sparks a new resonance later on because of life experiences. Sometimes, you start with a movie you’ve already loved, and you find a new way of appreciating it that makes you fall in love with it again. That’s what I love about film.

Challenges as a Screenwriter

Reconciling with the unforgiving landscape of screenwriting and the inevitability of rejection, Ashley acknowledges the stark reality that the journey to success is often paved with far more declines than approvals.

In most cases, a writer will get a lot of ‘no’s’ for every ‘yes.’ But all it takes is one ‘yes’ and suddenly the ‘no’s’ don’t matter anymore. But even once you’ve ‘broken in’ with a project, you still have to deal with rejection in some ways.

In spite of the mostly glowing reviews of The Last Victim, Ashley found himself focusing on some of the harsher criticisms. However, he found motivation in the words of Ridley Scott, who once shared his own experience handling a four-page critique of Blade Runner: “I was so crushed. I had a hard time making it, and yet I thought I delivered something special. And then to have it killed…I took the four pages and I framed them on the wall of my office. They’re still there today because there’s a lesson in that, which is: ‘When you think you’ve got it, you don’t know s—.” This perspective is a beacon for Ashley, who sees in Scott's resilience a path to navigate his own setbacks.

Knowing that the masters of the craft have been in the same situations always helps to keep the fire lit.

A pivotal moment arrived unexpectedly when horror icon (and one of Ashley’s writing heroes) Stephen King offered praise for The Last Victim on social media: “Looking for a bloodthirsty little thriller? How about The Last Victim (Hulu)? … Like a combination of Joe Pickett and Cormac McCarthy.

For Ashley, this transformed a period of doubt into one of affirmation. “Having something I wrote being compared to one of my favorite authors (Cormac McCarthy) by one of my favorite authors was, and still is, an absolutely unreal experience that completely made up for any negative reviews. It only takes one ‘yes’ sometimes.”

Passion & Preparation

Ashley emphasizes how crucial passion is in pitching projects, advocating for a strategy that shares the entirety of the concept with potential partners. By revealing all aspects of the story, including climactic moments, intriguing scenes, and the satisfying conclusion, he makes stakeholders visualize the movie so vividly that they become eager to see it on screen. This approach, according to Ashley, leverages the contagious nature of excitement, drawing others irresistibly into the vision.

Preparation is another cornerstone of Ashley's advice for aspiring screenwriters. He reflects on his early career missteps, particularly during meetings with major industry figures that had shown interest in his spec scripts on The Black List website. Realizing he was inadequately prepared for these opportunities, Ashley did not anticipate the need for a variety of pitches and ideas that could demonstrate the range of his voice. Instead, he had mistakenly believed that the interest in his spec scripts would directly lead to film adaptations.

Write a Feature that Entertains & Sells

As for writing scripts that entertain, Ashley had this to say: "I think the key to writing an entertaining script is that old trope of ‘write a movie that you’d want to see’ … which to me has always meant ‘use all of your experiences when you write it, since you’re the only one with those exact experiences.’ You grew up with specific interests and fears and weird neighbors that no one else had – those are your secret weapons and those are the things that make up your ‘voice’ as a writer."

On writing a script that not only entertains but sells, Ashley stressed the importance of being able to condense the story into a single, compelling sentence loaded with a twist or hook. This sentence forms the backbone of the pitch, designed to capture the attention and interest of potential backers from the outset.

It might be helpful to try and think about the script from three perspectives: a producer's, an actor's, and a director's – because to turn that script into a movie, you generally need at least one of those three things. Once one of them agrees to be a part of the project, the others will be more likely to jump on board. So how do you write a script that attracts those people?

The Producer

To get a producer involved you have to understand that what they're usually looking for is a return on their investment. So, you have to think about it from a business perspective. Why are people going to come to see this movie and why will it make more money than it takes to produce the film? Will it only need a very low budget, but it has the potential to have a cult following with the A24 crowd? Can you show a proven track record of movies in this genre (with certain stars) being a big hit on VOD?

The Actor

To get a named actor involved you need to write characters and dialogue that named actors (it sometimes helps to think of specific, attainable actors) want to perform. Your goal is for them to agree to give you a chunk of their very costly and important time because they don’t want to let that character get away. Producers can generally tell when a script will be easy to get an actor attached.

The Directors

To get a director involved, you should make sure the script creates great visuals so they can create the film in their heads. Is this a visually and philosophically striking movie? How do you write it to make them visualize something that’s unique and has never been seen before? How do you make it so they want to bring it to life in their unique way? Is it full of non-stop, well-thought-out action sequences? How do you write so that they can see every punch and feel the rush of the action in black and white?

Advice for Emerging Writers

Ashley's advice for other writers? "Be open-minded. Be flexible. Defend the integrity of your script, but pick your battles wisely – in the end, this is a collaborative process."

On the topic of collaboration, Ashley stresses the significance of forging partnerships based not only on understanding but also complementing each other’s creative visions. The alignment between a screenwriter's vision and their collaborators' style, including producers and directors, is paramount. He stresses that regardless of a script's quality, if it fails to resonate with the team's expectations, the project is not guaranteed to succeed.

I've been lucky enough to find an amazing collaborating partner in director/producer Naveen A. Chathapuram (who directed The Last Victim). We have the type of working relationship where we can sort of see each other’s blind spots, but also collaborate on nearly every part of the filmmaking process because we have such similar sensibilities.

He also said that the best thing to do as an emerging filmmaker is to watch as many movies as you possibly can.

I love that there is so much access to great videos dissecting films on YouTube – among others, I watch Patrick (H) Willems, Oliver Harper’s Retrospectives, JoBlo, JustWrite, Heavy Spoilers, Lessons from the Screenplay, CineFix, StudioBinder, Cinema Tyler and even old episodes of Siskel and Ebert.

One last piece of advice from Ashley:

“Always keep a notebook on your bedside table.”

Ashley James Louis

Ashley was a quarter-finalist in Shore Scripts’ 2018 Feature competition with his screenplay A Long Shadow at Noon. He wrote the 2022 neo-Western crime thriller The Last Victim, starring Ali Larter (Heroes, Final Destination), Ralph Ineson (The Witch, Game of Thrones), and Ron Perlman (Hellboy, Cronos) which was directed by Naveen A. Chathapuram.

He was recently found success with his screenplay Catalina, which was awarded Grand Prize at the Stage 32 Sci-Fi/Fantasy Screenwriting Award as well as winning "Best Sci-Fi Script" at the iconic Hollywood Horrorfest. It was also in the top 1% of all scripts on Stage 32 for the year 2021.

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This article was produced in collaboration with Shore Scripts.