Ashley Shelton’s “Best Clowns” is one of the few films I’ve seen where I’ve laughed and cried. When I say laugh, I mean LOL, and when I say cry, I mean tears. I blame it on “It,” but I’ve always been a little afraid of clowns, although my mom dressed me up as a clown twice for Halloween when I was three, and then four. Of course, clowning has a long history that is not all about laughs. They can show sadness too. Ashley Shelton was inspired by the professional clowns in her extended family to use clowning as a lens through which to explore a woman dealing with anxiety, and the fear of embracing herself. This is a coming-of-age film that I feel a lot of thirty-somethings will get a lot out of. I’m so excited to share my interview with Ashley Shelton about her directorial feature debut.
You can stream “Best Clowns” now on VOD and streaming platforms.
How did you come to “Best Clowns”?
I feel that everything I write and want to make as a filmmaker is just a metaphor for big feelings that I’ve had in my life. Anxiety has been a large part of my life since I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder early on in high school. It’s something I’ve always dealt with. My mental health has always been important to me, and I don’t feel it’s been portrayed well onscreen. It’s hard to portray anxiety onscreen because it’s so internal, and everyone experiences it differently. I wanted to make a movie about clowns because I grew up with professional clowns in my family.
I didn’t know that! That’s amazing.
My cousins’ parents, on my mom’s side, were professional clowns and they did a clown ministry which we speak about in the film. They did birthday parties and different kinds of functions. So when I got the idea to write a movie about clowns, it started out as a short, but I knew that I wanted the main character to have anxiety. I just thought it was a unique way to present anxiety. I love clowns because they showcase their weaknesses. Some people may think that anxiety is a weakness, but I don’t look at it that way. That’s kind of how it all got started, it just came out like a lightning bolt one day. I just get these ideas and feelings sometimes, and as I starting writing them, it kind of snowballed.
Can you talk about how you authentically brought anxiety to the screen?
I think I just wanted to showcase something through the lens of the clown, because the movie is so colorful and it’s so fun. But there is also this backdrop of sadness to it. It has that mix of comedy and tragedy. I think there’s no better way of showing how to express who I am than through that. The film is really about accepting and becoming yourself. I don’t think coming of age stories are only reserved for high schoolers, I think you can always come of age at any age.
Only people with anxiety know what it feels like, so it’s hard to capture on film. And it’s also hard working with people who haven’t experienced anxiety before. It’s hard to tell someone what it feels like. But we tried to do it through sound design in different ways. What we all can relate to is just kind of accepting yourself for who you are. I’ve accepted who I’ve become since I began making this film. I’m a totally different person, which is just still me evolving.
Was that you in the video as a little girl?
Yes, that was me. Those are my personal home videos.
I love how you had that part with you watching yourself as a child, since I believe that reconnecting with yourself as a child is another part of coming of age.
It is emotional, because people now talk a lot about healing your inner child. That’s what I was doing in a way in this film with going back and revisiting all of those dreams I had as a child. All of those pictures were of me too.
You’re really putting yourself out there in this film and it’s awesome.
I think it’s funny because a lot of people are saying that to me, but honestly, I don’t know of any other way to be.
I know, and I love that.
I was talking to someone I know about filmmaking and being an artist and an actor. It’s one of the only professions where you get to see people grow. As a scientist, you don’t get to see all of their failed experiments, you usually only see the one that’s successful. With filmmaking and acting, you get to see all of these failed experiments. Sometimes they fail and sometimes they don’t, but that’s the beauty of art. You just kind of present these things and you discover things about yourself along the way. It helped me become myself or the version of myself that I’m becoming right now.
Can you talk about some of your co-stars, like Robyn Lively and Aerial Nicole?
I wanted to be Robyn when I was growing up because she was in the movie “Teen Witch.” I’ve been a longtime fan of hers. I wrote the part of the mother with her in mind. When I started the project, we knew someone who could get the script to her. She said ‘yes,’ which was a dream come true. She’s so much a part of my childhood and now she’s coming to be part of my childhood in this movie too. She is fantastic and hilarious. I love Robyn and I would love to work with her again.
And Aerial just nailed that part as a famous clown. She is so good at improv. I was very blessed to be surrounded by very talented actors that I got to act with and direct. And Thomas Lennon is incredible. This is his wheelhouse. He’s just naturally funny, it’s in his nature. He’s also just a terrific guy. I think it’s great we had two males as the judges. They represented the judges who are in a lot of those competition shows, people who just shouldn’t be judging people.
I really got a Christopher Guest vibe when the film began, but I feel that you added another dimension by exploring mental health through a female lens.
My favorite films have that tone of comedy and tragedy. It’s a line, and they have both. Those are my favorite kinds of stories and films. I really wanted to channel that with this film. I wanted to make it sentimental and there is a kind of nostalgia tied into it.
How was it working with the Knoxville film community?
There is nothing like making a movie in your hometown. It’s kind of nice to shoot a day of film and then go home and sleep in your own bed at the end of the night. I really had the support of the community behind me. The theater we shot at is a theater that has been in Knoxville forever. And the mini golf location is a place where everyone went to in high school. The guy that owns that golf place is a phenomenal person. I had so much help with locations and people that wanted to come out and be in the film. It always feels great to be supported in your hometown. And Knoxville does have a flourishing film community here. I couldn’t have made this film anywhere else, because it’s tied closer to who I am as a person.
What do you hope people see in your film?
My overall hope is that people see that it is safe to be yourself, no matter what you look like. Because I’ve struggled with that, embracing the real me. I think that’s my overall message. And just to make people laugh, we could all use a good laugh.
You achieved that! There’s so many LOL moments in this film. Thank you.