“Audiences will always connect with universal themes explored through the eyes of real people,” says writer and filmmaker Tina Mabry. “That’s why it’s important that I make sure I remain honest to the humanity of the characters I create.”
Tina Mabry heads up the Los Angeles-based production company Morgan’s Mark. Mabry and creative/business partners Morgan Stiff and Lee V. Stiff have structured Morgan’s Mark as an independent production company and editing facility that “focuses on producing films that emphasize character, and an editing facility that focuses on quality over quantity.”
Recent films from Morgan’s Mark include Brooklyn’s Bridge to Jordan, Mississippi Damned, and Ant.
Stories of the Marginalized
“I set out,” says Mabry, “to tell stories that reflect the world that I know, a world that lives in the gray. Along with my business partners and creative producers, I have dedicated myself to telling stories of the marginalized. As a kid, even though I enjoyed all the films I watched, I rarely saw people like me on screen. This left a void that I have been determined to help fill ever since.
“I’m happy to be working in a time that I’m among other filmmakers who raise awareness on issues, spark debate, and still entertain their audience. I take on this challenge with each film I choose to make. When choosing whether to work on a film, I see if the film takes an original perspective I haven’t heard or ever thought about. I think this makes it easier to determine what stories need to be made at a particular time.”
Journeying Into Another Life
“I literally watched every film I physically touched as a kid,” says Mabry. “I’d have several stacks of VHS tapes alphabetically arranged in every genre. Drama. Comedy. Horror. It didn’t matter. I simply loved films because I got to go on a ninety-minute to two-hour journey into someone else’s life and/or experience. Genre didn’t matter. Character did.”
In her first writing class Mabry discovered she had “a great ear for dialogue and a strong sense of story.” A key element of writing, for Mabry, involves the ability to observe details.
“When I was in graduate school at USC, I found that it was extremely difficult to get out exposition without writing a boring scene void of substance. At the end, scenes felt like a wasted opportunity of bullet pointed facts. At that point in my development as a writer, I wanted to find a solution to this problem. I set out to observe and be more aware of how I gleaned expositional information in my daily life. Given I was on a ‘higher education budget’, people-watching seemed like the most organic and fiscally responsible way to observe the intentions, idiosyncratic behaviors, and speech patterns of people. I could then use these observations when developing the characters in my various scripts.”
These Were Stories
“While people-watching for my scripts, I observed successful (and failed) first dates, stressed-out SC students, naïve young couples ending relationships before even beginning them. These were stories. At the time I kept a composition notebook, since buried in my garage after transcribing, where I kept a database of characters and ideas. I started developing stories and plots based off of imagining situations I’d like to see my characters confront.
“With directing, I feel as if people-watching has helped me know characters more than anyone else on set. I was a psychology major as an undergraduate, so research, analysis, and behavior modification is something I reflect on when dissecting character in a script and their driving motivations.
“I enjoy collaborating with the production designer,” she says, “to create sets my actors can get immersed in. I thrive off of finding organic solutions to all directorial challenges that serve the story at the end of the day.”
A Personal Character Arc
The journey from Mabry’s first short film, Brooklyn’s Bridge to Jordan, to the present moment is marked by collaboration. “My personal arc and development as a writer and director has been mostly centered on acquiring patience and pushing myself to explore vulnerable issues without projecting any fear or unease to my cast or crew. Instead, I strive to create an environment where not only can I explore the issues, themes, and characters most important to me, but those who I collaborate with can feel free and comfortable to do the same.
“With Morgan’s Mark’s first feature film, Mississippi Damned, I had a team of collaborators who helped me recreate an extremely personal story based on my life. There were times in making that film that I wasn’t sure others would relate to my life experiences.”
“However,” Mabry says, “once we hit the festival circuit, I quickly realized that due to the honesty we were able to capture on film, Mississippi Damned proved to be a life-changing filmic experience for many audiences. Despite the seriousness of the film, we had a lot of fun making Mississippi Damned. I was sleep deprived, yet excited to be able to direct my first feature. I looked at each day, challenge, and sometimes even disasters (we had a tornado on day one of shooting) as opportunities.
“I learn and grow from my mistakes and experiences from each film. In each new piece that I do I strive for honesty in story and character. I continue to use film as a vehicle to ignite discussion, bring attention to issues that matter to me as a person, and create work that grows in its meaning with each view.”
Most recently, “Ant nicely handles the modern day issue of mental health care, strengthened by honest performances by Guillermo Diaz, Jason Dechert, and the rest of the talented cast.”
Creating Change With Films
“We hope to make many more films at Morgan’s Mark and are open to different platforms for telling our stories. The immersive world that ITVS (Independent Television Service) has created with (the series) Futurestates gives us another way to share our ideas with our audience.
“There have been many technological advancements and cultural shifts since we started our mission in 2007. This only serves as all the more motivation to continue, and provides us with excitement about future possibilities.”
A parting note: “Films have the capability to create change and bring people together. Films were a bond between my mother and me, and I can’t even begin to say how much it means to me to be able to create films that do the same thing for others.”
View the trailer for Mississippi Damned: