Category: film

ISLEY REUST : actress, musician, documentarian & transgender activist

Isley has her hands in just about everything. Google her. You’ll find enough articles to fill up your entire day with reading. She’s an actress, a musician, an up-and-coming documentarian, and a transgender activist. Her creative output is inspiring, but more than that she’s just an inspiring person. She’s out there in the world trying to make life a little easier for someone else.

01. What’s your typical morning routine? How do you get your day started?

My mornings tend to start different all the time but, there are a couple routines that are a must for me. I usually get up around 7am and have some tea. Tea is a must to start my day off right. Then I check my e-mails and depending from then on out my day can vary from working on music, to shooting a video, or brainstorming a project, traveling.

02. Can you just tell me a little about who you are? Where were you born? What did you want to do with your life when you were young?

My name is Isley Reust and I’m what I’d like to think of as a well rounded artist. A jack of all trades in a way. I was born in Whittier, California to a German immigrant mother. I’m first generation on her side. I spent my summers in Germany, Austria and France growing up, while going to high school in a small desert town in California.

When I was growing up I wanted to be a National Geographic photographer, play in a rock band and be a movie star. I’ve been in films, played in a rock band but yet to have had any work in National Geographic.

03. You’ve been involved with music for a while. What were your first bands like? Did you always want to be a singer?

I started playing piano at age 8 then picked up the bass at age 12 and guitar at 13. I played bass in my first band at age 12 and it was a Nirvana cover band. From the first time I picked up a guitar I was really into the classical techniques of playing and finger picking. To this day I incorporate that style into all of my songwriting. I didn’t always want to be a singer. Music and writing music was something that always inspired me more.

04. A simple Google search of you brings up an impressive list of press (New York Times, Huffington Post, Rookie Mag, etc.) What’s that been like for you? Has it been a positive experience?

It’s been great but it all came with a lot of responsibility that I don’t think I was ready for at first. I never really wanted to have any acknowledgment from helping others. It was just more of me giving back to those who were looking for the right path in life, or struggling. I’ve had more people than I can keep count of who have said I saved their life, and just knowing that is rewarding enough for me. But like I said the recognition that came with that was great but I didn’t at the time want it. I was just being the best version I could be of myself and living my authentic life. I was trying to lead by example to show that others can do that also and be happy.

Now in my life I can’t see myself not helping others. The world needs more positive influences to make a better change, and I’m happy that I’m one of those people now. It’s been the most rewarding thing ever.

05. Your band Spectacular Spectacular has been touring and you recently released an album. How’s that been for you? Any new developments with the band?

Yes, we have and it’s been absolutely amazing. We’ve recently been writing new material for another release due sometime next year.

06. Can you describe a moment when you finally felt happiness? What did that feel like?

I think it was around 2010, possibly late 2009, that I knew life was going to get better and that I was on the correct path. A path I wanted to be on and knew I would eventually be on. Each day gets better and the the happier I become. Life has a funny way of working out. I always knew from an early age that I would do and be where I am now in some aspects.

07. Are you working on anything new right now that you’re excited about?

I just spent some time in Quebec and Ontario Canada directing a documentary about a trans woman named Zoey. I also have a documentary I’m directing in October that I’m thrilled about. My band is working on new music, which is great, and I also hope to do some more acting when the right roles come around. I wrote music for an Emmy-nominated show last year which was so cool.

08. I’m really interested in the documentary you’re working on. Can you tell me a little more about how that came about and what the process has been like?

For a little over a year now I’ve been trying to develop a series which I can’t go too far into detail at the moment. I got the idea of creating a doc-series about the lives of normal everyday transgender individuals across the U.S and Canada. I wanted to share what they go through on a daily basis. Starting this project has been a real eye-opening experience. Some of these individuals go through so much hate, hardships and also beautiful moments everyday just to be their authentic selves.

I remember a couple weeks ago in Canada, as I was half-way through one of the episodes, I was laying in bed and just started crying for about 2 hours. This particular transgender woman deals with so much on a daily basis that it would make the strongest people crack. The confidence that she exudes was so inspiring. I’m filming a episode on a trans police officer this month and I’m really excited for that one as well.

09. What is currently inspiring you and in what way? (book, movie, song, podcast, anything really…)

As far as films go…Casey Neistat is pretty inspiring. Currently I’m just trying to make the best of my time and who I spend it with. When I was in Canada this last month shooting that documentary it was such an emotional and inspiring experience, and it’s something I will treasure and remember for the rest of my life.

Musically I’m inspired by my surroundings and life experiences. It’s really hard for me to force sincere music when I’m not feeling inspired.

10. How do you end a typical day? What do you do to unwind? 

I usually edit my videos or work on music until about 2am. Then I plan out my next day.

You can find Ms. Reust on the web:


Alex is a New York based director, writer, editor and producer. He directed and produced HAMILTON’S AMERICA, a RadicalMedia feature documentary that explores America’s founding while following Lin-Manuel Miranda through the creation of his pop culture sensation, Hamilton. We talked about fatherhood, theater, the creative process, and getting films made.
HAMILTON’S AMERICA premieres Friday, October 21st at 9PM ET on PBS’ Great Performances.

01. What’s your typical morning routine? How do you get your day started?

I became a father in the course of making this film (we shot over a period of three years). So when I wasn’t following Broadway actors with a camera around Valley Forge, I was taking my son to daycare every morning before going into the edit suite. On a good week, I go for a run with my border terrier.

02. Can you tell me a little about your background? Where did you go to school? What did you want to do with your life?

I’m from New York originally, but grew up mostly in and around DC. My mom was a classically-trained mezzo soprano and my dad won a Tony for creating Ain’t Misbehavin’, so theater nerdery is in my blood. I’ve always been a film geek though, always wanted to make films of all kinds, and went to Wesleyan University, where I majored in film studies.

03. How did you meet Lin-Manuel Miranda? I’m curious to know what your working relationship is like and how the idea for this film came about.

I suggested the film to Lin, but someone else would have if I hadn’t happened to be first. Lin and I met at Wesleyan and were housemates senior year. We were friends long before I asked him to let me roll cameras on him as he was writing Hamilton, and I’m guessing that it was more comfortable for him having a friend documenting his writing process than it would have been with a filmmaker less known to him. Still, as open as Lin was with my camera, I tried to maintain a respectful distance of the creative process as much as possible. I got great stuff, then got out of the way so that he could do the amazing things he does.

04. I love that people who haven’t been fortunate enough to see Hamilton will now finally be able to see bits of it in your film. What were your goals in telling this story? Is it simply a record of the phenomenon or did you want to try and touch on something bigger politically or culturally?

The film was always designed to be about history seen through the show’s eyes, rather than a straight-forward “making-of” look. I love creative process films, but I had seen that movie before, and wanted to do something different here. Lin was always onboard with that mission as well. To be sure, I’m excited to share parts of the show with a wider audience and give them a backstage peek at the musical, but this film is about creating a companion piece to the Hamilton experience, in which we go to places and hear from people far removed from the Richard Rogers Theatre.

05. What kind of research, if any, did you do when going into the project? Were there any documentaries or films that you looked to for inspiration?

Al Pacino’s Looking for Richard was always the cinematic inspiration for the film’s thesis: history seen through the lens of a company of actors. As for the history itself, I did what Lin did and started with Ron Chernow’s incredible biography of Hamilton. I crammed a lot of studying, especially for the two interviews with former Treasury Secretaries. The film — like the show — barely scratches the surface of how rich our early American history is, but what we do cover is accurately and evenly presented (I hope).

06. At what point did RadicalMedia and PBS become involved in the project? What’s it been like working with them?

I started filming Lin on my own, for about six months, and developed a little demo reel, which I took to RadicalMedia. We continued to develop it together for another couple years before we officially partnered with PBS. But really, we were just getting the band back together. Radical had made In the Heights: Chasing Broadway Dreams for PBS’s Great Performances, and I had known Lin for a long time and worked as an editor at Radical for years, so we’re all family.

07. You interviewed so many amazing people for the film. What it was it like talking theater and history with such high profile people? Are there any moments that stand out for you?

Certainly, rolling on President Obama in the White House and having the better part of an hour of President W. Bush’s time are privileges I won’t soon forget. And this is to say nothing of Stephen Sondheim, Nas, and many other impressive characters. It was such a joy to make a film in which such a heady mix of people all had a valid reason to be commenting on the subject. That’s a testament to the universality and deep reach of Lin’s creation. He opened the doors, we just walked through. I don’t expect ever to have it that good again as a filmmaker.

08. People now have the ability to shoot, edit and distribute films entirely via their smart phones. Technology has made it possible for everyone to make something and get it out there. Do you have any advice for young people wanting to become documentarians?

Ultimately, just start. That’s the hardest part. Have a nose for a compelling subject (but you can make any subject compelling if you’re passionate about it), and use personal connections to stories where you can (I certainly exploited my proximity to Lin to get my foot in the door before anyone else did). True, not every doc subject will be as big as Hamilton became, but when I started, almost no one had heard of it. So just be first and be tenacious. And although technology is getting tiny and cheap, I would recommend some extra care. Take your time to make it a cinematic experience if you can. Even in the early days of Hamilton’s America, my cinematographer and I laid down some dolly track to get some elegant shots. We took our time capturing more visuals than we needed, which made the film better years later in the edit room. Also, don’t skimp in the sound recording department. It’s the first giveaway of amateur work. It doesn’t cost much money or time up front to make things look professional, so just be thoughtful.

09. What is currently inspiring you and in what way? (book, movie, song, podcast, anything really…)

I’ve been so plugged into Hamilton for so long — not to mention rearing a toddler and expecting a second kid soon — that I’m way behind on everything else. I watch very little TV, but do still like Game of Thrones. I try to go to the movies as much as possible, but it’s tough. I think the last gut-punch I had in a theater (in a good way) was The Witch. But I’m really a curmudgeon who prefers to listen to older music and catch up on films and books I missed. I guess living in the past explains why I made a movie about American history.

10. How do you end a typical day? What do you do to unwind? 

Netflix and chill — but literally. This film has been an amazing journey and its month of rollout and screenings leading up to release has been a great joy, but ultimately, there’s nothing I’d rather do than build magnetic tile castles with my son and relax on the couch with my very pregnant wife, scratching my dog’s head. But after they go to bed, sometimes Daddy gets to watch a movie by himself. Life’s good. Can’t complain.

You can find Mr. Horwitz on the web:

Hamilton’s America
Alex Horwitz

photo borrowed from Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images.