"Wild Beauty: Mustang Spirit of the West" movie poster
Disney Plus hit film Black Beauty featuring Kate Winslet and Mackenzie Foy opened director and writer Ashley Avis to a journey that led her to the next big project for the big screen. As she captured B-roll footage of vistas, meadows and wild horses for the on-screen adaptation of Anna Sewell’s classic novel Black Beauty, Avis uncovered the reality that wild horses face in America.
Thereafter Avis created the documentary Wild Beauty: Mustang Spirit of the West, which is screened at Century Mark Theatre inside of South Point Hotel & Casino on March 15 with a wide release date in May. I connected with Avis on the success of Black Beauty, her filmmaking journey and animal welfare as it correlates to her feature film and documentary.
Film director, writer and philanthropist Ashley Avis
Q: Congratulations on the success of Black Beauty on Disney+! How has the response to this film been for you?
A: I appreciate it. It was really special to hear and feel how people around the world, especially children, really responded to the themes of Anna Sewell. Ultimately a lot of people don't know [that] she wrote Black Beauty as an animal welfare plea. That's what pointed us to our documentary Wild Beauty: Mustang Spirit of the West.
Q: So at what point did you read Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty?
A: I must have been seven or eight years old because that's when I started falling in love with the world of horses. I never rode in a super fancy way but horses were a huge part of my life growing up as a kid and I always wanted to be near them. Then it was just getting to that later in life as a filmmaker, to be able to to modernize a story as classic as that, that has impacted so many people around the world was just a dream come true as a storyteller.
Q: I'm so happy that you got to realize that dream of yours and that your film will also inspire other young girls as Sewell’s novel did for you. That’s pretty amazing to come full circle like that. How is it to be in a position to inspire others in a similar way that you were inspired during your childhood?
A: Thank you! I have a lot of little pen pals on social media and a couple of now personal mentees, young women that are girls that I've met because of Black Beauty or from doing talks to kids. That's been pretty special to be able to actually meet some of the people that were inspired by the messages in the film.
Q: Based off of Wild Beauty the documentary, it seems that the filming process of Black Beauty brought to light a lot of animal brutality issues. Were you aware of the severity prior to Black Beauty pre-production? Or did filming Black Beauty bring more awareness for you?
A: What was shocking to me was that even growing up in the world of horses, I didn't know this issue was relevant at all until I started doing research on Black Beauty. [I was] trying to figure out how to modernize that story while honoring the themes that Anna Sewell infused into the novel, which was animal welfare for the horses of her time and trying to make a difference for the horses then.
So we're looking at modern day issues that horses are facing today and this was around 2017. I came across the issue of wild horses and I thought if I grew up in that world, and I didn't know what was going on, how many [other] people don't know; it was the perfect parallel to tie into Black Beauty.
Everything I do I want to infuse with authenticity. My husband and I, who's my partner and producing partner, we ended up raising a little bit of money independently of Black Beauty’s budget to go out into the wild and film real wild horses. We started raising the money in 2018 and started filming in 2019.
Film director, writer and philanthropist Ashley Avis and producing partner on location
We went to Utah, Nevada and Wyoming and we saw the beauty of those horses in the wild and everything that we need to protect for future generations. Then we went to our first roundup in 2019 and seeing that was horrifying; we filmed it. We started encountering resistance from the Bureau of Land Management at that point.
It really informed how I approached those sequences in our narrative of Black Beauty to really be balanced…because obviously that was a family film. But it was important to me…that kids could understand what was going on and might be inspired to raise their voices and help.
As we started going down the rabbit hole [we began to understand] the details and the dynamics of the wild horse issue and the nuances and cruelty of it. We realized we had to keep going and that's what inspired spending several years on the road creating this documentary.
Q: Why is this happening to wild horses?
A: One of the things that I always tried to drive home on just having seen it and spent so much time with certain herds of horses, they're highly intelligent. They have these family structures very much like humans so these helicopter roundups are so brutal, they're so dangerous and horses die.
One of the most tragic things is when they're put into these government holding facilities, some that don't have shelter from the elements. They're separated from their families and they don't have room.
That level of treatment, the use of an aircraft in 2023 to round up flight animals is so antiquated and so cruel. That really needs to stop.
There's a repetitive narrative that the Bureau of Land Management purports, which is, [the wild horses] are starving and overpopulated…You see the horses…the horses are healthy.
It's this blanket statement that they keep using, even when they retract it. Some of the roundups we've been to, they admit that what they've said is false or they change the narrative and blame something else.
The main reason it's happening is because of tax subsidized livestock grazing that is really degrading our public lands. You go out to some of these places and they're like moonscapes, where the grass is just eaten down.
We're tilting into a place where we have more wild horses in government holding facilities than out on the range…Most experts say that they think it's less than 70,000 [wild horses left] and over 245 million acres of public land. It's insane.
You can barely find [wild horses] in some places now. I don't have children yet but when we do I want to be able to go out and show them that's why it’s called wild beauty…We've got to protect that.
Film director, writer and philanthropist Ashley Avis and her film crew capture live footage in the wild.
Q: That is some devastating yet powerful insight. Can you share more about the foundation that you established to support wild horses?
A: So when I was editing Black Beauty, I started rescuing horses and we've rescued over 50 horses so far, wild and domestic. Some of those horses have ended up really healing the humans that they've come into contact with, which is even more extraordinary.
Mackenzie Foy [the lead in Black Beauty] is an ambassador for our nonprofit, The Wild Beauty Foundation. Our most recent rescue was a wild horse that ended up in the slaughter pipeline and when we rescued her Mackenzie Foy ended up adopting her.
It's like Black Beauty has come to life. Horses…sometimes they pick you. They have this incredible bond, Mackenzie and [her rescue horse who she] named Whisper of the Wild.
I've always loved working with children and talking to young people and threading important messages through the work that I do as a storyteller. My husband and I saw a gap in the animal welfare space with horses to reach kids so in addition to rescuing horses, we've been doing creative programs.
We [aim] to get the issue out there while giving kids an opportunity to realize that their voices can make a difference. We're just about to launch another short story competition for kids.
We're encouraging people to share the trailer and to tag their members of Congress with the hashtag I stand with wild horses [#istandwithwildhorses] to try to create a social media flood to support this as the movie comes out in May.
Film director, writer and philanthropist Ashley Avis and her film crew on location
Q: I wanted to congratulate you on the Breckenridge Film Fest and the Boston Film Festival awards that Wild Beauty: Mustang Spirit of the West has received for best documentary. Were you surprised or were you expecting it?
A: Breckenridge was really special because Colorado is a big part of the documentary; we spent a lot of time there. It's one of the more progressive states in trying to protect wild horses.
I spent six or eight months trying to contact the governor's office to garner support. I finally got an email one day that they were interested in seeing the film and that they wanted to come and speak! We weren't expecting that but we were very grateful.
That recognition and support was extremely fortifying and gratifying. The outpouring of support and the festivals we have gotten into, or have been fortunate to win [awards]…when that happens, it just keeps supporting that you've gone in the right direction with something.
Q: Absolutely, like it reinforces the decisions you're making?
A: Yes and the way that audiences have reacted to the film. We've tried to strike a really fine balance with the documentary where everyone can watch it. A ten year old with a strong sense of self can watch it.
We didn't include the worst that we saw on the range. We felt like that was really important. Sometimes [even adults don’t] want to see that [level of brutality] or want to turn a documentary off because it becomes too much animal cruelty where it's hard to swallow.
So I feel like now that we've really tested the film with a wide range of audiences that we've struck a really nice balance. People are very moved by it at the end and passionate; they want to make a difference. That's a phenomenal response.
Q: Amazing, that's so great! Can you tell me a little bit more about earlier films of yours like Deserted starring Misha Barton and how you got into the creative path that you're in now?
A: Sure! When I was growing up, I thought I would become a novelist. I consumed books and was the kid on the playground reading the thesaurus. I've always really loved language and poetry.
I dabbled with journalism when I was in college and I ended up studying business in New York. I discovered screenplays by interning and as soon as I read my first screenplay at 17 or 18, I just fell in love with that style of writing because it's like poetry.
You have such a limited space to create something beautiful and I didn't know at that time how drawn I was to the visual construction of a screenplay. We're living in a time now where there's so much more support for diversity in front of and behind the camera [but back then] I didn't see women directors.
Film director, writer and philanthropist Ashley Avis
I didn't associate my gentler personality with being a director and it wasn't until I moved out to L.A. and was doing all sorts of odd jobs. I was flipping furniture, I had a web design company and I was writing.
I put a few thousand dollars into a spec pilot that was seen by the founder of Lionsgate and he gave me my first job. You have to find your champions and that was one of those key people that helped me break through to realizing what I really wanted to do, which was to write and direct.
The early films were definitely very independent where you wear every single hat. Like Deserted, my husband and I almost got lost [while] location scouting and just kind of cutting our teeth doing so many positions because you don't [always] have the money to fill them on independent films…That's one of the things that we talk to our interns about…try a bunch of different things.
Q: With the March 15 special screening of Wild Beauty: Mustang Spirit of the West taking place in Las Vegas, are there any specific points that you feel run home to that community specifically regarding the documentary?
A: Well, I think for Vegas, Nevada has the largest population of wild horses and congresswoman Dina Titus has been really supportive and outspoken. We spent almost five years making the documentary and so now we're entering into that critical window of it having its most power when it comes out in May with Gravitas.
If anybody is moved by the story or sees the trailer and wants to make a difference, we're trying to create a social media flood with as many people posting that trailer, starting now through May. Tag their Congress and other members of Congress and #istandwithwildhorses….We're just trying to create as much awareness as we possibly can, in the ways that we know how.
Photography by: By: Alexandra Petruck; Courtesy of Black Beauty