INTERVIEW: Filmmaker Tina Mabry on Independent Storytelling and the Future of Cinema

INTERVIEW: Filmmaker Tina Mabry on Independent Storytelling and the Future of Cinema

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Morgan's Mark - ANT Behind The Scenes Still Photography - JanuarTina Mabry is an accomplished filmmaker. As a writer/director she is able to create meaningful stories of underrepresented communities. Her works include two FUTURESTATES shorts, Brooklyn’s Bridge to Jordan, and Mississippi Damned, which is her first feature length film. She also collaborated with Jamie Babbit for Itty Bitty Titty Committee. She works closely with her partner Morgan R. Stiff, who is an experienced producer and editor. Both, Morgan and Tina founded Morgan’s Mark, an independent production company that focuses on telling unique stories that are not typically heard within the mainstream.

I was able to ask Tina Mabry about her filmmaking process, working in a collaborative environment, and the importance of representing different stories.

Mychal Shanks: Do you think self-representation is important when creating stories?

Tina Mabry: Film and television are incredible vehicles for change and enlightenment.  Growing up in a small southern town, it was through media that I learned about and connected with the world around me. However, I quickly found that films representing my community and experiences were rare. When stories I could directly relate to did surface, they were often inaccurately told from an outsider’s perspective. For some time I waited for an artist to surface that would take on stories of marginalized people like me. Then, I thought that mainstream television and cinema would evolve by consistently showcasing a range of truly diverse stories. Sadly, it did not. Finally, I realized that I should stop waiting for someone else to take on the challenge; I could give my community, as well as other marginalized groups, the voice in cinema we deserve.

I realized that I could debunk stereotypes while making films that examine the complexity of the human psyche. Therefore, as a minority independent filmmaker, I have made it my mission to give the disenfranchised a much needed voice by exposing their struggles, highlighting their cultures, and showcasing their triumphs.  While I have heard those in mainstream cinema suggest that these types of stories are niche and esoteric, I strongly disagree. Just as I as a child was drawn to stories outside of my community, audiences in general are curious, receptive, and drawn to authentic human experiences that evoke visceral feelings. Those types of emotions have the power to unite us all.

MS: What are the differences when writing your own stories compared to collaborating?

TM: Collaboration is key in my mind as no one can make a film alone.  Only by having creative and talented voices working harmoniously on the project can it reach its optimal potential. I try to make sure I only attach myself, as a director or screenwriter, to stories with which I have an emotional connection. Simply put, I never want it to feel like a work-for-hire but rather a passion project.  The major difference between the two would be ultimate control over the script and the film itself.  When I’m collaborating I often have to be extremely budget-conscious while maintaining a strong plot with complex characters with whom the audience can connect.

Morgan's Mark - ANT Behind The Scenes Still Photography - JanuarSometimes the producer or director may want to eliminate or add scenes.  I merely explain my story choices in order to clarify why I creatively went in that particular direction. This usually opens up a constructive and collaborative conversation, which more times than not turns out to solve the real root of their problem thus elevating the script.

When I’m writing with a partner, I find the collaboration rather refreshing.  Writing is such a vulnerable process and knowing you’re not going through the script alone definitely helps with this.  The co-writer knows the story and is as emotionally invested as I am, so we already know where we want to take the script.  Besides, you get that objective second eye on what you write.  As a writer, it’s crucial to have professionals who can objectively read the script and give notes.  With a writing partner you get that luxury in addition to a sounding board for every idea, good or bad, you have about the project.

I especially love collaborating with my business partner, Morgan R. Stiff, because I know she’s as committed to the project as I am. Her background in dramaturgy and an editor prove to be invaluable in all aspects in production.  She knows how to give constructive notes that serve the project as well as the script. It’s really rare to find someone who functions as a creative producer in addition to being an innovative editor.

MS: Does writing or directing give you more artistic freedom?

TM: That’s a difficult question to answer as I feel my skills as a writer enhance my directing skills and vice versa.  Things always change on set – dialogue, scenes get deleted, or action is added or eliminated.  When this is happening, I feel that my talent as a writer allows me to handle these hiccups. I can quickly and comfortably rely on my skill set as a screenwriter to remedy the situation.

MS: How does it feel being a part of a bigger project like FUTURESTATES?

TM: This final season of FUTURESTATES functioned as a writer’s room, which is extremely helpful for writers who jump from feature films to an episodic format. Knowing that we were very clear on what we wanted this season to accomplish, we knew we were heading in the right direction.  I had the opportunity to work with extremely talented filmmakers who knew how to handle a series of this magnitude.  The result is Ant, which stars Guillermo Diaz (Scandal, Half Baked).

MS: How does that dynamic change your creative process?

TM: I don’t feel as if my core creative process changed as a result of being a part of a bigger project.  When it came to our particular episode, Ant, I went about it as I approach any script.  I start with character development as I feel this is paramount in whether or not a film’s creative quality will succeed or fail.  Once I’ve locked down the characters then I move toward the outline stage before going to script.

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MS: What do you think the future of filmmaking will be?

TM: It’s no secret that the advancement in digital technology is a threat to the theatrical experience we have become accustomed to since the creation of the motion picture industry.  The industry has witnessed the constant profitable decline in theatrical releases of non-blockbuster summer films.  Theatrical releases are becoming more of a marketing tool to increase awareness and to negotiate equitable ancillary deals.  At the same time, DVD sales have declined as well.

More people prefer to watch film and television at their leisure, in the comfort of their home, and the ability to binge watch; these new digital platforms allow for this.  I have to admit that with a hectic work schedule, I too have become one of those individuals who consume films and television shows I cannot view within a restricted time frame.  There is a concern that within the next five to ten years, these digital platforms will take away the communal experience of watching films theatrically.  Personally, I love sitting in a theater being able to share a laugh or shed a tear with a complete stranger.  The communal experience is a way for society to connect in a manner we might not have the opportunity to partake of in our current lives.

Also, we’ve already seen a plethora of films materialize from the emerging digital technology. I believe we are moving toward an era of filmmaking where individuals rely even more on creative software & hardware.For one, digital technology has allowed more people to view films that may not have the opportunity to have a theatrical release.  Secondly, it’s a way to circumvent the dilemma of making a movie and not having the resources to adequately distribute the film on a larger platform.  Finally, digital technology invigorates filmmakers to produce films on more of a consistent basis.  There can be years between projects and it’s easy to fade into the background when there are some many films available for consumption. Filmmakers and companies can get lost in the shuffle.

This is all to say, I don’t know what the future will hold. However, it should be exciting. So many people are having an opportunity to add their voice to the mix and there is something for everyone. This excites me and inspires me to keep creating.

MS: When writing stories, do you think about which parts of your identity you want to focus on?

TM: When I write I embody every character. I’m sure my identity creeps in, as a writer has to dig deep in order to come up with authentic material and situations. I often pull from previous life experiences or from the life experiences of those who are close to me.  This makes the stories more personal and raw in my opinion. I’ve had several writing sessions where I have two characters arguing and once I’ve stopped writing for the day, I’m still with my characters’ mindset for a bit. I’ve been told I make just about every emotional facial expression when writing; I had no idea I did that until Morgan pointed it out.

MS: Does having diverse bodies on screen mean that they are being represented? Or does there need to be more?

TM: I’m happy to see more diversity on screen, but I believe we honestly have a long way to go in this industry as the numbers for people of color and women behind the camera are startling. Women directed 22 of the 466 films released by the six major studios in the last five years. That’s just 4.7 percent.  Only one woman has directed two or more studio films in the last five years. These statistics just focus on women and not on the disheartening number of people of color in television writing rooms or directing, writing, and producing films.  I’m pretty sure audiences watching these films and television shows are more diverse than these numbers.  Why can’t there be a correlation between the consumers and the creative forces? These are more than enough reasons for the industry to put a mirror to its face and make definitive steps to eliminate these dismal percentages.

MS: Brooklyn’s Bridge to Jordan was your first short film. Are there things you’ve learned that you wish you knew then?

TM: The major thing I learned from Brooklyn’s Bridge to Jordan is to not try to produce and edit while being the writer/director.  It was too overwhelming because on set I had to multitask between handling producer duties while trying to focus on getting the actors’ performances.  I think this further put us behind schedule, which eventually led to an eighteen-hour final shooting day, which is something I’ll never do again. When we shot my first feature, Mississippi Damned, I was relieved to have excellent producers who put out fires I knew nothing about. It allowed me to concentrate solely on making the film and I believe that’s one of the major things that contributed to it being a successful and resonating film.

MS: Do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers especially women of color and/or queer women?

TM: Have thick skin, be persistent in spite of rejection, and always continue to hone your craft.  This industry is tough for anyone, however, there are often additional hurdles for women of color.  You should seek out working professionals to shadow or to be your mentor.  Not only will you see behind the scenes, but you will also have a tremendous opportunity to network, which is key.

Morgan's Mark - ANT Behind The Scenes Still Photography - JanuarI have found myself getting discouraged when it take years to get one of my projects off the ground.  I thought about abandoning those projects until I talked to one of my industry inspirations and mentors, Gina Prince-Bythewood.  Her latest film, Beyond the Lights, which will be in theaters this November, took her six years to make.  Here is a talented woman, with a long and proven track record, who still fights daily to get her work produced. This floored me as she first proved her ability to helm a feature over a decade ago.  Nevertheless, she finally made the film. It took persistence, patience, and strategic planning to do it. She told me to never shelve a project I love even it doesn’t seem favorable for it going into production.  I rely on these words of wisdom whenever I find myself frustrated about the sluggish progress of a project.  I’m forever thankful for those words.

MS: Do you have future projects that you’re working on or that are coming out soon?

TM: I recently finished another film for FUTURESTATES, which was released this May. This film, Ant, focuses on the mental health system and stars Guillermo Diaz (Scandal, Half Baked) and Jason Dechert (Grey’s Anatomy; Scandal). After losing a patient to suicide, a guilt-ridden therapist (Diaz) risks his life when he intervenes to diffuse a mounting catastrophic situation of a bi-polar patient (Dechert) who has abruptly stopped taking his medication. This was a phenomenal opportunity to continue our company’s [Morgan’s Mark] mission of producing films that emphasize character and speak for marginalized groups who have been silenced.

I’m also currently in development on a film with New York producers Leslie Norville and Courtney Lee-Mitchell. It is adaptation of the acclaimed novel, Kinky Gazpacho. After embarking on a trip to study-abroad, a socially askew, eccentric Black college student juggles her new rollercoaster relationship with a Spaniard that tests both of their racial boundaries while she unearths her own possible Spanish ancestry. This is a project that I’m fortunate to be writing and directing, as it’s a story we don’t often see.

Morgan’s Mark is currently in development on County Line which I co-wrote Morgan R. Stiff. The film is a crime drama about a small town sheriff who struggles to reconnect with his estranged teenage son while crossing pivotal moral and legal lines while investigating the drug-related deaths of local addicts and prostitutes.  This is a film we hope will go into production sooner than later.

Morgan’s Mark is also producing a feature dramedy, The Happys, written and directed by Tom Gould and John Serpe. After catching her longtime boyfriend in bed with a man, a misguided gourmand befriends her reclusive neighbor who supports her as she fights to hold on to the only reality she’s ever known—one which she’d be better off letting go.

Morgan's Mark - ANT Behind The Scenes Still Photography - JanuarMorgan heads the editing side of our production company and has worked on many exciting projects, one of which, Tiger Orange, will premiere at Outfest next month. Two estranged gay brothers attempt to make amends in Wade Gasque’s charming small-town drama. The result is a blunt, playful meditation on queer sibling rivalry and the childhood bonds that force us together.

I see Morgan’s Mark still holding true to our initial motive for creating the company in the future.  We will take advantage of the boom in digital technology and we hope to segue into television.  A tremendous amount of strong shows have emerged in the past five years and studios are looking at independent filmmakers as show creators due to our abilities to have engaging and innovative characters. Also, the intangibles and skill set we possess to produce riveting stories on limited budgets have been something that has attracted them as well.

MS: Is it rare to find the amazing professional and personal partnership that you’ve found with Morgan between filmmakers?

TM: I know that I’m fortunate to have the best of both worlds – a professional and personal partnership. I truly feel that Morgan completes the other half of me creatively.  She doesn’t pull punches when it comes to critiquing my writing and knows the solution 95 percent of the time.  Thankfully, I’m seeing more filmmakers successfully maintain a professional and personal partnership. It shows in their work and it makes the work environment a place of ease and not turmoil.

This interview was published in association with Sistah Sinema. Writing on behalf of Sistah Sinema is Mychal Shanks – a California native and current film student with a concentration in critical studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Connect with Mychal via twitter @mychalshanks.

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