Stuart Ashen - who you'll have probably seen on YouTube as Ashens, where he has built up over a million subscribers - has created a great comedy heist movie. Having enjoyed a preview of the gag-packed Ashens And The Polybius Heist, we thought we'd ask the co-writer and star to explain more about his background and the film...
Hi Stuart. How did you first get into the world of comedy?
Hello! I started writing comedy bits and pieces at school. I regularly made a weird comic for a friend, then as I got older moved on to short stories. I got hold of a camcorder and shot some sketches with a friend. Then the internet became a thing and I started a website with more stories and articles, and made a few silly animations. The audience numbers shot up at this stage and I realised that people were actually enjoying stuff I'd made.
In 2006 I started my YouTube channel and that's when things really took off, after improvising a review of a terrible knock-off games console. It's grown massively over the last 14 years and now I occasionally branch out into major side projects like feature films and books. I'm still a way off having an appallingly inaccurate unauthorised biography written about me, which is probably a good thing.
We love your channel! For those that haven't discovered it yet, what videos would you recommend they start with?
I've never felt I can personally come up with a good answer to this. What's a good introduction to a man waving rubbish toys and horrid food in front of a sofa? Fortunately, the audience frequently mention three so I'll list those:
They cover the gamut of bad food, strange toys and disappointing tech quite nicely.
My personal favourite may be the Dancing Jar Jar Binks review, which I found deeply cathartic.
We didn't know much about your background, so had a look at Wikipedia. It says you've got a doctorate in psychology, but adds that you claim to have never professionally worked in the field. They say "claim" as if you're trying to hide something?! You've had issues with the site before, when it said you were a spokesperson for the British Egg Council?
As cool as it would be to claim I was on some kind of black-ops time and motion study, I never made a single bloody penny from anything directly psychology related. In fact, due to my bizarre career trajectory, it probably would have helped me more if I'd studied less and played more computer games. Imagine the careers adviser at school telling you that...
Additionally, I can authoritatively confirm with 100% certainty that I am not in the pocket of Big Egg. (Although if any cash-rich hen boys are reading, maybe we can come to an agreement...)
Tell us more about your new film. What's the premise?
In 1981 a mythical arcade game supposedly appeared with the ability to control people's minds, until disastrous side effects led to its sudden disappearance. Obsessive collector Ashens had always dismissed the tale as an urban legend, but all that changes when he uncovers a link between the myth and his long-lost father.
Alarmed at the cabinet's devastating potential, he assembles a crew of misfits to organise a heist and recover the machine. But the 'No-Confidence Crew' quickly find themselves entangled in a web of lawnmowers, moles and a royal wedding. Before long they're stepping out to undertake one of the most complex and daring heists in history, and the stakes could not be higher.
It's always a tricky balance including jokes without undermining the scenes involving action/tension... we thought you did a great job. Gag packed, but also thrills. How long did the script take you?
The script was written in two pushes - we worked on it for about a year on and off, then came back after a break and did another six months or so.
It's fascinating now to look back at early drafts. Originally Ashens had a kind of protégé, who we really loved as a character, but they just ended up muddling the heist plot and the other character arcs. With hindsight, replacing them with established business partner Benny was the turning point for the script.
This movie helps demonstrate crowdfunding is a very viable way of making passion projects occur in a way that isn't half-arsed. It's obvious from looking at it that a lot of time, effort and money has gone into making Polybius Heist look great on screen...
Crowdfunding is absolutely viable for low budget productions if you have an existing audience and have some proof that you can achieve your plans. Not just from a technical point of view, but from a budget management perspective as well. You might be an astonishing filmmaker, but if you massively overspend on sandwiches you're going to run out of money before the sound mix.
There was a relaxed, friendly atmosphere on set which I think is very important for a comedy film. If the actors are angry or frustrated they're less likely to open up to the little ad-libs and extras which can really elevate a scene. Having several stand-up comedians in the cast helped I think.
Robert is genuinely one of the world's nicest people and it's always a treat to work with him. Although he did tell me an anecdote about how he once tore all the skin off the bottom of his foot, which still randomly pops into my head and makes me cringe and gag almost 18 months later.
What was the biggest challenge in terms of making and completing the film?
It's always a challenge to shoot something with a low budget. We had a couple of very serious problems to address while shooting which we managed to fight through, and then of course COVID-19 massively slowed down the end of post-production. But frankly these were nothing next to the eternal Biggest Problem Of Them All: getting funding in the first place!
Ultimately about three quarters of the budget came from crowdfunding. You know how a lot of creators say to their fans "We couldn't have done it without you!" after a project? That is literally true in our case.
In real life, do you think Polybius machines existed?
Nah. There's a fantastic YouTube video by Ahoy that looks into the whole legend, and comes to the very convincing argument that it's essentially a hoax loosely based on some misremembered occurrences from the eighties.
The legend is always better than the truth. It's why we're so careful what we show in the film - whatever you see will never be as exciting as what you've imagined.
Do you think you might make a third Ashens film in the future?
Maybe! We'd love to make a trilogy and have a loose idea of where we'd go with a third film. But as ever, it depends how many people buy this one.
Please buy this one. It is funny. I promise. Thank you.