What was your filmmaking background before making Mississippi Damned?
TINA: While I always had an interest in filmmaking, I didn’t actually gain any experience until I got into the University of Southern California’s graduate film program. In my final year at USC, I started working on my thesis film, Brooklyn’s Bridge to Jordan. At USC we make quite a few short films, but they are done on a small scale and on a “what’s currently in your pocket” type of budget. This was the first time I had to think about fundraising and gathering a semi-large crew. It was only a six day shoot, but it felt like an eternity because I was wearing more than just the writer/director hats, but also producer, editor, location manager, UPM, etc.
Once I finished the film, I put it on the festival circuit and it got into over 50 film festivals worldwide. It even made it on Showtime, LOGO, and BET, which made the rough production days worth it. While I was working on Brooklyn’s Bridge to Jordan, an opportunity came up to write a comedic feature for Jamie Babbit. I was a big fan of her work and I had a deep interest in the project. After around a year of writing the script, Itty Bitty Titty Committee, was ready and they went into production. Subsequently, the film premiered at Berlin in 2007 and won Best Feature at SXSW.
Where did the idea for Mississippi Damned come from? What was the writing process like?
TINA: Mississippi Damned is based on my family and I’ve always had an interest in telling it. I really wanted to explore the destructive cycles that pass on from generation to generation and more importantly, why those cycles continue.
At times it’s difficult to write your life story because you have to step outside of yourself and take an honest look at yourself (in my case, family included) seeing both the good and the bad. The producer/editor of Mississippi Damned, Morgan Stiff, knows my family and me intimately; therefore, she was able make sure I was on track when telling the story. Morgan has a background in dramaturgy, so she’s very skilled at providing proper notes on my scripts.
I took some time off from writing Mississippi Damned when my mother passed away. It was too painful to write about my family during this time, so I stepped away for a few months. After a close friend suggested I start back writing as a way of healing, I sat back down and went to work. All in all it took anywhere from 6 to 8 months to finish the script.
How did you fund the film?
TINA: Funding any film is usually the main difficulty and we found similar hurdles. We had an investor who was willing to put a considerable amount of funds into the project, but we wanted to make the film for a larger budget. Morgan participated in Film Independent’s Producers Lab with the script and it was there that she got the advice to make the film with the money we had in hand. This was the best advice we could’ve received because we would still be out there trying to raise our initial budget.
Morgan and her producing partner, Lee Stiff, were very creative when figuring out how to make a 109-page period piece script with 34 characters on our budget. When you have creative producers who are emotionally invested in the project, you’ve caught lightning in a bottle.
Did the story change much in the editing process?
TINA: The film takes place in 1986 and then in 1998. The 1986 portion of the story is pretty much scene for scene. The editor, Morgan Stiff, had to do a bit of switching of scenes and deleting of scenes in the 1998 segment of the story.
When reading the script pages, there were certain scenes that needed to be there to progress the story, but once we shot them they were superfluous. An actor’s look, the visual setting, sound design, etc. can cover in two seconds what I wrote two pages for and that’s the beautiful thing about filmmaking.
Overall, the story didn’t drastically differ from the final cut, but Morgan’s changes and Lee’s notes took the film to a new level.
What was the smartest thing you did during production? The dumbest?
TINA: The smartest thing I did during production was to just be a writer/director. With superb producers and a talented crew, I was able to solely focus on doing those two jobs, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Shooting Mississippi Damned was a vastly different experience from my thesis film and it made me actually look forward to going to set everyday; I was excited about the material we were capturing.
I suppose the dumbest thing I did during production was doing 10 takes on one shot. During the entire shoot, we only had maybe a max of 5 takes on any given shot; we usually got what we needed in 2 takes because the performances were so good. However for this scene, we designed it to take place in one shot. Needless to say, the shot was not working so instead of going in for coverage I proceeded to do 10 takes of the thing until we got it right.
I run a very open set where people can feel free to come to me with ideas because making a film is a group effort, so from time to time a key crewmember might whisper something to me. But this time, not one word was said. It wasn’t until I was in the hotel room that night that it hit me. When Morgan started editing, she looked at the scene and smiled at me. She said, “You didn’t think to go in for coverage, did you?” All I could do was shake my head.
And, finally, what did you learn from making the film that you can take to other projects?
We shot Mississippi Damned on a tight budget and we had six-day shoots, which start to take a toll after a few weeks. The one thing I learned is that having a five-day shooting week would be the ideal production situation. I also learned about adapting to the given circumstances. Often times, you find yourself slightly behind schedule and you have to know what to cut and what to keep. Thankfully, we had a wonderful crew to working on the project who were able to throw in valuable suggestions.