Interview With “Mississippi Damned” Filmmakers Tina Mabry and Morgan Stiff

LGBT film festival-goers and anyone who follows independent film are already well aware of the new feature Mississippi Damned, written and directed by out filmmaker Tina Mabry. Along with Mississippi Damned producer and editor (and Mabry’s fiancee) Morgan Stiff, Mabry has made a film that’s winning awards and critical accolades for its realistic depiction of families struggling with addiction, violence, racism and poverty in the rural South. recently talked with Stiff and Mabry (who also wrote the hit lesbian feature film Itty Bitty Titty Committee) about the making of this highly personal film (which includes a butch lesbian) and their plans for their production company, Morgan’s Mark.

Tina Mabry (left) and Morgan Stiff (right) How did you and Morgan come to meet and work together?
Tina Mabry: Morgan and I met at USC where we developed a personal and professional relationship. Not only did I think she was an incredible person, but she was also an extremely talented filmmaker with an unstoppable drive. The first project we did together was Brooklyn’s Bridge to Jordan, which was also the first film that the producer and executive producer of Mississippi Damned, Lee Stiff, executive produced. The three of us made a phenomenal team and we decided to create our own production company, Morgan’s Mark.

Some people ask Morgan and me how the two of us maintain being partners in both senses of the word, but for me it’s simple: Morgan brings out the best in me and never lets me settle for anything less than what we want to achieve. When I feel down, she has a particular reassuring approach that re-instills my confidence. The dynamism and strength of our working and personal relationships have fostered a nurturing environment that allows us to produce thought-provoking and emotionally engaging films.

AE: Are you at all surprised by the success of Mississippi Damned, or the response it’s received?
Morgan Stiff: From the beginning, Mississippi Damned was a labor of love for us. We were not going to cheat it in any way. We were dedicated to making a quality film from the acting to the production design to the writing to the editing. We have given our all to this film and were lucky to bring other creative talents on board who believed in what we were trying to do just as strongly. So with that said, I’m not surprised by how the film has been received. When so much love and talent and creativity go into something you only hope others will appreciate what we all set out to do.

I can truly say I am proud of this film, and as my own hardest critic, that’s saying a lot. I also find how the film is being received encouraging. I’m encouraged that audiences are ready for a new type of narrative and that will fuel us as we set out to make our next project.

TM: After hearing the positive responses to the script, it sort of foreshadowed the response of the end product. When people read the script, they were completely sucked in by the rich dialogue, the multi-dimensional characters, and the overall authenticity of this world I conveyed. I feel this is one of the reasons why our cast members were initially drawn to the film.  The emotional journey these characters have to embark on presented a welcomed challenge not only for me as a director, but for the actors as well.

Once we started production, it reinforced our belief that we had something special. There were days when the crew was so touched by what was unfolding on set that they were brought to tears. The scenes felt so real on set that there were times when I forgot to yell “cut” because I was so engrossed by what I saw. So it’s been great to have audiences see and respond to the film they way we do.

AE: Speaking of authenticity, your attention to detail in the film is amazing. You really create a specific time and place and its not something we usually get to see with independent films with limited budgets. What do you think was your magical formula for making that happen in Mississippi Damned?
MS: When Tina was writing the script for MD and we were discussing whether we were going to try to make the film ourselves or find someone else to make the film, we knew early on that we would remain honest in the telling of the story, revealing the characters, and creating their world.

In fine-tuning the script, Tina, Lee, and myself were constantly making sure that there were no false beats. When we brought on Bradford Young as our director of photography, and Aiyana Trotter as our production designer, we  talked about how we wanted this film to feel real and authentic.

We often spoke of it as if it were a documentary. We knew that for the film to be successful it was necessary to create a visceral feeling for the audience. To do that, we had to make sure we paid attention to what might seem like the most minor detail. So the magical formula was being very clear about what story we were telling, very clear about how we wanted the audience to feel, and then bringing on skilled artists who understood that vision and help bring it to life.

A scene from Mississippi Damned

TM: This wasn’t a script I wanted to see in the hands of another director because in order for it to be properly executed, the director would need to have an intimate knowledge about this family’s life. I had literally lived and breathed this life so I felt I was the perfect person to direct it. We set out to have this film feel like a documentary; we wanted the audience to feel like they were in this world.

I sat down with our cinematographer and production designer and talked about every single detail, from incorporating peeling paint on Junior and Delores’ living room wall to depicting the grease stains on the stove in Charlie’s apartment. I found that these elements also helped the actors further develop their characters. It didn’t feel like a set to them, it felt like a home because everything was so detailed.

I’ve had years of practice in observing details. I tell people that when they walk into anyone’s home, to pay close attention to what they choose to showcase and to what they neglect to showcase, because what you glean from that can very well tell you a little bit about their life story.