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Meet Afton Quast Saler

Today we’d like to introduce you to Afton Quast Saler.

Hi Afton, so excited to have you on the platform. So before we get into questions about your work-life, maybe you can bring our readers up to speed on your story and how you got to where you are today?
I grew up in Anaheim, California, right by Disneyland, which I’m sure warped my brain from a young age. On the bright side, watching a movie like Alice in Wonderland 400 times helped nurture my imagination-obsessed brain and made it safe for me to turn my bizarre ideas into art. From the moment I could talk, I was pretending and telling stories. I forced my friends to act out movies and plays I wrote like a tiny, bossy version of Martin Scorsese in pigtails. Sorry again, Ruby!

I began acting and singing professionally at 13 years old, going on to tour the U.S. and Europe performing and teaching elementary school-age children with The Young Americans, an educational outreach and performing group. This experience led me to study acting in New York at T Schriber Conservatory and continue a career in theater working in regional theaters across the country.

When I found myself unhappy working in musical theatre, I knew I needed to change something. I felt like I had lost the part of me that loved creating and felt more concerned with a paycheck and people thinking I was a “success” than actually doing what made me happy. It took me a while to figure out that dreams can shift and change. I needed to learn it was okay to take a different path even if it meant leaving what I had always known. That’s when I applied to film school at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, got in, and graduated this year with a degree in production.

I couldn’t be happier that I took a risk and went back to school to pursue writing, directing, and producing. I still love theatre and acting, but now I get to incorporate them into my life in a different way. For example, my husband and I started our production company, Chunky Knit Turtleneck Productions, I recently finished working as an associate producer on a program helping teens create a film about mental health with Didi Hersh, and my short documentary on the effects of undiagnosed ADHD in women, Neurodivergent, is beginning its film festival run. I love having a career that utilizes all the things I love to do and is never stagnate.

I’m sure you wouldn’t say it’s been obstacle free, but so far would you say the journey have been a fairly smooth road?
I was always a creative and imaginative kid. I wasn’t awful in school, I had friends, and my family loved me. But the other side of that is I always felt a little different and a little lonely. I suffered from severe depression through my teens and early twenties and could never figure out what was wrong. It was very confusing because I constantly felt overwhelmed, exhausted, and like I wasn’t living up to my potential.

I continued to work as an actor, but it became so hard I started to turn down jobs and auditions because I couldn’t get out of bed or stop crying. My parents homeschooled me because I couldn’t sit through school with the brain fog preventing me from focusing. My depression and overwhelm were just something I lived with and didn’t think would ever change. It was just a secret I had to hide if I wanted to have a life, which was getting harder by the year. My mental health got so bad that after a suicide attempt and falling back into old patterns of self-harm, I moved back in with my parents thinking I would always need their help and might end up on disability forever.

Luckily I have very supportive parents, so when I couldn’t get out of bed or do simple things like brushing my teeth or shower, they took care of me and did everything they could till it passed. I had a few friends and boyfriends that were not as kind, but I think that’s because mental health problems scare people and make them uncomfortable. That’s why I’m so open about my challenges now, despite what anyone thinks. It’s dangerous to stay silent about these things and not ask for help. If we all talk about it, maybe the shame won’t be as devastating, and mental health can become as normalized as diabetes.

After a lot of therapy and medication, surrounding myself with loving people, meeting my supportive angel of a husband, and putting in a lot of work to get healthier, I felt well enough to apply for film schools. It was there I got a neuropsychological exam to get accommodations for my dyslexia and got diagnosed with ADHD. It completely changed my life. All the years of depression were BECAUSE of my undiagnosed ADHD. The brain fog, the overwhelm, the sensory overload; all of it was ADHD, and I had no clue.

Once I started a new medication and found the correct tools to treat the ADHD, my depression lifted. Now I have way more good days than bad, and I can use my ADHD as a superpower and not a disorder. It makes me creative, empathetic, sensitive and gives me the ability to think outside the box. I’m learning to work with it and not against it. It also inspired me to make my short documentary, Neurodivergent and has empowered me to speak out about my journey and be a mental health advocate. There is so much misunderstood about ADHD, so I hope I can do my small part in changing that with my art.

Thanks for sharing that. So, maybe next you can tell us a bit more about your work?
The best thing about going to film school was learning every job. I always knew I like to write and direct my own work, and when it’s right, I’ll act in it. But now I frequently edit my work, fundraise, run the camera, you name it. I think as an indie filmmaker who makes their own work, it helps to know how to do it all even if you don’t have to. My husband is also a wonderful cinematographer and actor, so we make work together a lot.

My work is frequently defined by themes of flawed anti-heroes, family relationships, mental health (or lack thereof), bold visual stylings, as well as a strong emphasis placed on the use of music to create an immersive experience for the audience. I love humans and I’m endlessly curious, leading me to dive into stories I can research and learn from.

My directorial style is geared toward providing support, empowerment, and a collaborative work environment for everyone involved to find the purest reflection of themselves through the work and its creation. Or, ya know, just providing an environment where you don’t hate everyone you have to be with for 12 hours working on a car commercial. Both are super valid.

I’ve very much fallen in love with documentary filmmaking and the mixing of genre and style. Documentary and Narrative work are more similar than a lot of people think, and I like the idea of stories that can be a little of both. The real and the fantastical. The funny and the tragic. I like making work that conflicts with itself a little because it represents what life has been for me so far. As a Neurodivergent filmmaker, I like to break rules and blur the lines between fiction and reality to really represent how I see the world, which is a little different, I suppose. I truly feel that if you do what is authentic to you without trying to be what you “should” be, that the work will be relatable and compelling to watch. And that’s the point right? To connect with your audience in whatever way that is honest to you?

Have you learned any interesting or important lessons due to the Covid-19 Crisis?
Absolutely! I got diagnosed with ADHD during COVID so that was huge! Then, like a crazy person, I did a documentary about it in quarantine with my crew over zoom. AND I graduated from college. So I guess the lesson I learned was to be more confident in myself and own who I am. Sitting alone with yourself has a way of making you deal with the things in your life that don’t work. I’ve heard from a lot of other women who were diagnosed with ADHD during COVID and the general feeling was that it only happened because they were forced to slow down and sit with themselves. As traumatic as the last few years have been, I do feel like I am more connected to the people I want in my life, I am more focused on what makes me happy, and when I’m happy I actually create better art. So for that, I’m grateful.

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Image Credits:

Jesse Saler

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