In 2009, 19-year-old Ashleigh Love was gunned down in her own home in the Milwaukee suburbs. Today, the killer or killers remain unknown. The documentary short “Letters To Ashleigh” is part of the effort to keep her memory alive, as well as a rallying cry for action. It premieres Saturday, August 9, at the Marcus Majestic at 7 p.m. The writer and director of the film, Kyle Olson, sat down to talk with me about it. This is the short version of our conversation.
Andrea Thompson: Kyle, you wrote and directed a documentary short about a local girl. And you grew up in Milwaukee correct?
Kyle Olson: That's correct. I grew up in South Milwaukee. Once I graduated high school, I moved from Milwaukee to Los Angeles, and I've been working there for the last seven years in the television and film industry.
Andrea Thompson: Always good when a local boy makes good. So why did you decide to come back here to do a documentary? Like the girl, Ashleigh, that the documentary is about, she was gunned down in her home, in her own bed, correct?
Kyle Olson: That's correct. This is a story that definitely took Milwaukee by surprise when it happened back in 2009. Basically, an intruder broke into Ashleigh's house, Ashleigh's family's house, and shot her point blank in the middle of the night while she was sleeping. And as you can imagine, there was a surplus of emotions that went with that. And one of the things that came about after this murder had occurred was a number of people from the Milwaukee community and then from outside of the Milwaukee community in the states in the Midwest or around the country, started sending letters to kind of give their condolences and give their well wishes, and that sort of thing to Ashleigh and the family. And so over time the family started to collect these letters to Ashleigh and they weren't quite ready to open them yet. So a lot of them sat in this box for a long period of time. And eventually, as time went on, the family kind of got stronger about the idea of well, maybe in fact we should open these letters and take an opportunity to read what people have said throughout the years. And they did just that in the movie, and we were lucky enough to let them do that on camera for the very first time for us.
AT: Wow. So you caught them on the very first time they read those letters on camera.
KO: Correct. Yeah, we went to them beforehand and said hey, this is something we'd really like to do. We'd really like to be able to watch you guys opening these letters for the first time on camera. We know it's going to be emotional, we know it's going to be a roller coaster of emotions. But we would like to be there to show people what that whole experience is like, all the emotions that you would expect to go with it.
AT: How exactly did you hear about this? And how did you get involved?
KO: My best friend to this day, who has been my best friend since middle school, is is Ashleigh's older brother. So naturally when this tragedy happened to the Love family, I was very much a part of hearing about (it) when this news first broke, and obviously being their friend when this happened during their time of grief. And we've obviously stayed close since then, and this kind of started stewing in the background through the years after Ashleigh's death. The family definitely wanted to get Ashleigh's word out there, Ashleigh's legacy, Ashleigh's memory, if you will. But of course that came (with) the idea that they didn't want to exploit themselves or anybody else. And so they wanted to make sure that if they did anything,that it would be done by somebody that they trusted. And so that is where I had to say look, I know you guys, I am familiar with you guys, I'm not going to be like every film crew in town, but at the same time, we're going to give you an opportunity to get the word out and to hopefully find the people that did this to Ashleigh on top of getting the word out about her legacy.
AT: That personal touch really showed. In a topic like this, it's really hard to avoid, being exploitative in one way or another. This felt very non-exploitative. One thing that I noticed is, you didn't show her through the crime scene like practically every other media (outlet) does when a young woman is killed. You barely address the details; you include the bare details. So do you think that personal connection with the family really influenced that?
KO: Yes and no in a way. I mean, to an extent obviously of course we wanted to look out for the family, but at the same time, transparency is important. We want to present the facts the way that they are to be presented. It is a documentary. Some of the time documentaries lean one way or the other way. The whole goal here was to make sure that we were as transparent as possible in showing any and all sides that were available to show. In this case, there were many sides to show because the killer has not been caught, has not been brought to justice, etc.
AT: There was no motive.
KO: No motive. Well, I mean, at this point there has been nothing. So I mean, I'm sure one day, whether it would be in the near future or the far, far away future something will come about this, and hopefully they will find the person and bring them to justice, or persons. But for now, I mean, this was a movie about Ashleigh's life, not about her death. So many movies that are done about these types of topics, go the other way. Like you were saying, they go the crime scene route. They go the tragic murder route. They push that angle. Because it's the angle gets us more angry. It's the angle that gets a more visceral reaction out of us. When you watch the news, we're not hearing about all these lovely things happening in the community. We're hearing about all the tragic things happening in the community. And there's a reason for that. But in this particular documentary, we said no, we can have the same kind of reaction, but by giving a different kind of storyline. We completely 180'ed what would be the normal route for a storyline in this type of situation and said we're still going to get the feeling, we're still going to get the emotion, we're still going to get the storyline, but without getting into the grim details because it's unnecessary. Everybody knows she was murdered. That's all they need to know. You know, there's nothing more that we have to say.
AT: Yeah, it really helped that they had all that personal footage That really hit home that this was a celebration of life, not an exploitation of her death.
KO: Right, exactly. I mean, having all that home video was essential. Being able to put together Ashleigh's life story and to make it feel as if Ashleigh was in fact alive again. We are lucky enough to be able to have seen a lot of great talents come together, to be able to put this together in a way that does bring across her incredible life story and afterlife story as well.
AT: Again, I keep on seeing the personal touch that can't really be overstated. I noticed the doc also refuses to go
exploitative in the other way, making it maudlin. You
didn't pretend that the people affected by Ashleigh's death would
ever be fully okay with it, or ever fully heal, but it was also
strangely hopeful. How do you balance that fine line as a filmmaker?
KO: There is a fine line, and it is a tragic story, it is an upsetting story. It is a story that draws a lot of emotion out of somebody. When we did the test screenings for this, we had a lot of people say, “I am emotionally drained after watching this movie.” And it is because the subject matter is intense. It is heavy. It is expected that that is what is going to be the case. But at the same time, you know, what is the point of making a movie? Is it to make somebody just feel sad or angry? Or is it to actually push a message out there as well? And the film's idea is in my opinion, if you're a good filmmaker, you're a good storyteller. And there is a story beyond just, here is a story about a girl who was murdered, you should all feel sad. A movie can do that, but what's the point? You know, in our film, we not only make you feel sad, but we make you feel excited, we make you feel happy, we make you laugh, we make you cry, we do balance all of that. But here's another story. You know, Ashleigh may be dead, but a lot of other people are still alive. And this is how they're dealing with it. And the family especially, and of course the friends and all those people as well, but the family, the mother especially, are the ones we are following throughout this journey. We are following her character. We're following her storyline and how she has the will and the courage and the strength to get out of bed in the morning and be able to live each day to the fullest and to find the people that did this to Ashleigh. But at the same time, there ares a lot of other pieces that really bring this together,
AT: If there is anything positive that came out of this, it's that so many people got so emotionally invested in her death and wanted to do something about it. Do you think this would happen in another city, or do you think perhaps it's the nature of Milwaukee, our location? (That) It's big enough for something really tragic like this to happen in a way, but it's small enough that people will still be shocked by it. Do you think if this had happened in a bigger city, that there would be this much support?
KO: You know, hard to say. I mean, there are certain advantages to being in a small town. Not only from the support angle, as far as what you were talking about, for the family, for the friends, for a tragedy like this to get that support afterwards. But honestly, there is the idea that from our perspective of releasing the film, the support, the publicity, that kind of thing, that we are receiving, it is own battle as well. If you are in LA, you are competing against every major feature film movie on the market. Here, you have a little bit of an advantage playing a slightly bigger fish in a slightly smaller pond. You know, obviously, that's not the goal, but at the same time, it does help that we're not up against “The Avengers” or “The Ninja Turtles.” We can make a list of pros and cons or both to be honest. But I think that the way that it happened in Milwaukee is something that does attribute to the Milwaukee atmosphere, the Milwaukee scene, and the citizens of Milwaukee.
AT: Another striking thing about the documentary is so many strangers who didn't know her have been affected. You mention a songwriter in Austin who wrote a song about her. And I do believe there's an organization that sprung up from this event?
KO: Yeah. I mean, there's a number of things that are being done in honor of Ashleigh's death to keep her memory and her legacy alive. And that's half of what this story is about. Not only what have people done, but what can we as audience members do? What can I do besides just walk away from this movie with my bucket of popcorn feeling sad. So we give the audience suggestions. Here are some things that people have done. Now what can we go out and do?
AT: It's how the documentary ends. It's also a call to action. What will you do?
KO: Yeah exactly. And our call to action in the film has had a lot of interesting reactions, and I think it's for the better. Because without it again, you just walk out of the theater feeling sad and feeling angry because this hasn't been solved. But by putting in the what will you do, it spins everything in a completely new direction. And that's the goal. It's again, not to emphasize her death, it's to emphasize her life. So that was important to us, to make that decision.
AT: So do you think that's what you want to really come out of the documentary, like for people to see it and do something?
KO: Absolutely. This is not just a movie, this is a movement. And we said that from day one. We want to make sure to push the agenda as far as we can to not only get Ashleigh's face out, but to stop this from happening to other people. In the last month or so, here in the city of Milwaukee, there has been a complete outrage of senseless, violent acts in the community. More so than they have seen in years in Milwaukee. And people are wondering why. People are wondering how we can fix it, how we can stop it. Elected officials are finally coming to the table and saying we need to do something about this. So this is an interesting time to be having a conversation. And we are kind of coming in at the right time for that conversation. To use Ashleigh as a vehicle. It's not just Ashleigh's story, it's our story. It's anybody who's been affected by this type of tragedy. Unfortunately, in the Milwaukee area alone, there's been a lot. And getting that message out there is extremely important to us.
For more information about the film, go to http://www.letterstoashleigh.com/. To buy tickets, go to http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/742607.