Wil Wheaton once said “Don’t let anyone tell you that that thing that you love is a thing that you can’t love.” The My Little Pony franchise has been around for thirty years, and for almost all of that time it was meant for little girls. However, with the latest cartoon incarnation of My Little Pony, subtitled “Friendship Is Magic” there was a change in the quality and tone of the franchise. Along with the sharper sense of humor, the occasional adventure tale, and a genuine examination of the meaning of friendship, there was also shift in the audience. Not the target audience, but an unanticipated audience of men who inexplicably tuned in week after week to watch the animated adventures of a purple unicorn and her friends. They call themselves “Bronies” and documentary filmmaker Brent Hodge set about examining this subculture through the eyes of voice actress Ashleigh Ball – who is better known to Bronies as the voice of the ponies Applejack and Rainbow Dash. Explosion spoke with Hodge about his film A Brony Tale.
Explosion: How did you meet Ashleigh Ball, and did you know anything about My Little Pony before filming?
Brent Hodge: I met her while working at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, I knew that she was in a band and that her “Day Job” was that she did voice over work. I asked her how the voice acting career was, and she said “It’s been great, but the difference with this one is that guys have been emailing me about this show”. When I found out about it I couldn’t believe it.
Explosion: Ashleigh is in a band called Hey Ocean!, but in the film, the other members of Hey Ocean! seem to know nothing about the show.
Brent Hodge: They didn’t know anything. They were dumbfounded by the thing when it started. They would have shows and there would be these fans that wanted to talk to Ashleigh about her voices. And they would have Rainbow Dash posters ready to sign, instead of Hey Ocean! CD’s.
Hey Ocean! is a big band in Canada, but they were putting in their time and playing cities like Phoenix or San Francisco, and not having many fans, but these places would sell out, and to their surprise it would be Bronies.
Explosion: Did Ashleigh’s other friends know about her internet fame?
Brent Hodge: In 2012 when we did this film, this Brony thing was not big. BronyCon at that time was 700 people. The 2014 BronyCon is scheduled at 10,000 Bronies. We didn’t know this was happening. We knew that Ashleigh was talented, but this is a whole new level of celebrity for her. Where she’s getting flown all over the world to go to conventions – for guys.
Explosion: There are moments in the film where Ashleigh doesn’t seem to aware of MLP memes like “Twenty percent cooler”.
Brent Hodge: I don’t know if she was aware of how deep the icebergs sinks. She knew that there was a subculture out there. She’d heard that her voice just got a million hits on a Youtube trailer that she didn’t know existed. She didn’t know that this was a 4chan thing, that it had a Reddit feed. She definitely isn’t totally all over technology. I just got her on Twitter!
When I heard [The origin of Brony subculture] was through 4chan, that’s when I knew that there was really something different happening here – that there was some internet intelligence behind this, and that’s when I dived in.
Explosion: You “Science this” by interviewing a psychiatrist who has formally studied Bronies.
Brent Hodge: I’d heard that they’d done some Brony studies, and I wanted these numbers. I didn’t make this film for Bronies, I made it for people to understand; there are stereotypes that people assumed about a lot of things. “All the Bronies are gay,” or “They’re middle-aged men,” but they range from 14-50, most are heterosexual. Or “They’re uneducated kids who live in their mom’s basement.” That’s not true, they’ve completed college and have really good jobs.
Explosion: The movie has some speculation that the popularity of Friendship Is Magic is a societal reaction to 9/11.
Brent Hodge: That’s a pretty bold statement. No question is it a pop culture and social change. They’re breaking from the status quo here and trying to fix it up in a different way. Related to 9/11, it’s more about the loss of community, the sense of finding a community, and that’s what they’re finding online – a community.
Explosion: The Bronies you interview often talk about hat makes you happy can’t be wrong.
Brent Hodge: It’s a show about friendship and happiness and staying true to that. And that’s what these guys are. Most of the time you have 20-30 minutes with the subject when you make a documentary. You have to be in and out of the house, they only have that much time.
[A Brony Tale] was different. These guys would pick me up from the airport, take me out for dinner to the best spot in their city, do the interview, and then hang out and want to be friends. I even took that in like “Am I the cynical one?”
What they’re putting out in the world is not wrong. That was the message I wanted to put out. These guys are harmless, they’re putting out things that maybe we should all think about.
Explosion: The film has lots of shots of Ashleigh stumbling across pony-shaped things that aren’t directly related to MLP.
Brent Hodge: I was just starting to see this stuff. It was always on my mind. This documentary really shot it self, I just had to show up. I had to be there and film because that stuff was happening. I didn’t have to create much.
These guys are like the new cowboys, the new wild west frontier dudes who are standing up bold, confident, bravado, saying “I don’t care if I like a kids show, it’s what I do”… The cowboys are the ones who run free, so I started including that in the edit as I put it together.
Explosion: How did you choose the Bronies that you included in the final cut?
Brent Hodge: I interviewed a lot of Bronies, 30 or 40… I wanted everybody to be able to potentially relate to a Brony, so whether it was a guy who likes to work out, or you’re in high school, or university, I wanted you to think, “I’m not that far away from being one of these guys”.
Explosion: Over the course of producing the film, did your view of Bronies change?
Brent Hodge: I realized that it’s not even about the show, it’s about this community that these guys have created. They talked about this community where they’ve been able to prosper and become artists, and they’ve had a whole community that stands behind them.. Or they’ve had a hard time at home and they need friends they can talk to, and it just happens to be surrounded by a little kids show.
Explosion: What do you think the general population thinks of Bronies?
Brent Hodge: It turns heads. And I wanted to do a documentary because it did turn heads. I think the general population of the world is actually starting to accept it. Anything that goes against the culture gets questioning and a reaction at the start… More people are just going to understand that it’s a thing in pop culture now.
Explosion: Will this film change people’s’ minds about Bronies?
Brent Hodge: That wasn’t really the intention, I just wanted to show people the journey that we went on with Ashleigh. I think it is definitely “Pro Brony”. In the way that it showcases the fandom in a good light that’s because they respected me as a filmmaker and they respected their community, and it was my duty to showcase a respectable film. If you go into it with preconceived notions you leave with different opinions about this culture.
A Brony Tale is out now on a variety of digital distributors, and is in a limited theatrical run.