Dave Ash lives a double life. The 48-year-old treasury director for Ecolab moonlights as a filmmaker. No wonder that his third feature, "Twin Cities," debuting locally Wednesday at the Twin Cities Film Fest, brims with dualities: life and death, health and illness, faith and godlessness, perseverance and letting go.
Ash's dualities are evident during a lunch meeting at Sakura in St. Paul. Though imposing at 6 feet 4, with silky graying hair and a crisp button-down the same bold blue as his eyes, within minutes he drops the first of many four-letter words and admits, "I'm really lame with chopsticks." The day before, he had eaten escargot and pommes frites while discussing Malaysian banking regulations for Ecolab, the Fortune 500 company based in St. Paul. Today he struggles with spicy, sticky sushi as he dishes on the role divorce and mental illness play in his films.
"It's pretty bananas," he said of the contrast. "Not gonna lie to you."
"Twin Cities" opens as John, a computer programmer, is hurtling toward rock bottom. His marriage to pregnant author Emily is nearing its end in tandem with her due date. When Emily rebuffs John's final attempt at reconciliation, the panic-attack-prone man decides to commit suicide — then receives a terminal cancer diagnosis.
The expiration date on his misery renews John's passion for life. He visits his pastor and confronts his parents about a childhood trauma, and his marriage improves. Then John's life implodes in a brutal scene and the second half of "Twin Cities" turns viewers' understanding of these characters upside down.
"I wanted to try to make a film in which nothing is what it seems on the surface," Ash said. "I think that many films just promise a feeling and then deliver on the promise, thinking it's too much to ask viewers to take a chance."
Although the circumstances in "Twin Cities" are not biographical, the emotional core is culled from Ash's personal life. About 10 years ago, he and his writer wife divorced. "Beyond the loss of the family, things kind of fell apart for me in a lot of different ways," he said. "It was a terrible time in both of our lives."
While Ash never touched the depths of suicidal ideation his character does, he did suffer major depression and "dabbled" in anxiety and OCD post-divorce. It "made me have to deal with stuff I had been dutifully repressing my whole life, like any good Midwestern Scandinavian," he said.
He promised himself that if he did emerge from the abyss, he'd do something to help others feel less alone in their despair. That something was screenwriting and filmmaking.
"A big part of how I pulled myself out of depression was to work like a mother on this stuff," he said. "It's exhausting, but it also gives you energy at the same time."
A necessary outlet
Ash rises at 4:30 a.m. to write, and scribbles ideas on Post-its throughout the day.
Like his characters John and Emily, he met his current wife on Match.com. Each has two teenagers, and the blended family lives in St. Anthony. Ash works 50 to 60 hours a week and films on the weekends, a lifestyle he calls "crazy." But the artistic expression is a necessary outlet; it helps him "avoid the work-obsessed burnout that is so common in corporate America," he said.
Ash never intended to be a filmmaker. Raised in Iowa, he studied business management at the University of Kentucky and earned an MBA at the University of Iowa, where he met his first wife. After his graduation in 1994, they moved to Minnesota and Ash landed a job in corporate finance, eventually becoming international finance director for H.B. Fuller, the Vadnais Heights-based manufacturer of industrial adhesives.
He continued his college hobby of freelance writing on the side but soon tired of profiling wealthy businessmen for local publications. He began writing satire and signed with a literary agent. When that went nowhere, he gave up on writing for two years.
While watching endless PowerPoint presentations at a Fuller management conference in 2003, something snapped. Working for a "very old-school company in an incredibly boring industry" wasn't enough, he said. He started writing a screenplay that he described as " 'Taxi Driver' in an office." After failing to impress a producer with the concept, he realized the only way to get his stories on-screen would be to direct them himself.
Inspired in part by the work of Charlie Kaufman ("he takes so many ridiculous chances") and Richard Linklater ("who showed me that films where everyday people have real conversations can be just as compelling"), Ash enrolled in filmmaking classes at IFP Minnesota, now FilmNorth, in St. Paul. His first short film, "Who Shot Tony?" (2005), made it to a few festivals. His debut feature, the bitter and cynical comedy "Love: A Documentary" (2009), garnered some buzz, so he kept writing. In 2013 he released "2021," a precursor to "Twin Cities" that explores John and Emily's courtship. It got national distribution, sold rights overseas and is now on Amazon Prime.
Ash realized he "wasn't done" with the couple's story, so "Twin Cities" picks up five years after "2021" left off. Clarence Wethern, who plays the "really smart but dysfunctional" John, and Bethany Ford Binkley, who plays Emily, reprised their roles.
"It definitely challenges the audiences in ways that most film doesn't — and by that I don't mean that it's unpleasant, because I think it's entertaining — but that it's intentionally disorienting," said Wethern.
"It is a very blunt and truthful depiction of a lot of aspects of trauma recovery and depression and mental illness," said Binkley, who was drawn to Emily's "intellectual romanticism and awkward introversion."
Next up: TV series
Ash funded "Twin Cities" with a Snowbate from the Minnesota Film and TV Board and his Ecolab bonus. He filmed locally and frugally, using locations including his own home, Roseville's Central Park, Micawber's Books in St. Paul and Underground Music Cafe in Falcon Heights.
"Twin Cities" has begun accumulating accolades, including the audience award for best feature at Film Invasion Los Angeles and an award of excellence from IndieFest, a California-based juried competition. But Ash is already on to his next project: a television series by the same name. Armed with a full series treatment and a pilot episode script, he'll soon pitch the show to producers and financial partners. His goal? A distribution deal on a major streaming service.
Ash compares his films to pointillist art, where viewers can see the cohesive whole only from a distance: "Everything makes sense only in relation to other elements of the film that come either before or after, rather than a more traditional, causal type of structure — this happened, which led to this, on and on.
"These kinds of films are increasingly rare with so much riding on the box office. But when you find one that gives you something entirely different than you were expecting — those are the kinds of films I'm always trying to find."
Erica Rivera is a freelance writer and book author from Minneapolis.