Tara Lynn Marcelle… wears a whole lotta hats. Screenwriter, Casting Director, Memoirist, Artist, Musician, Actress and the most coveted title of all…Film Director. By day she slings head shots around in search of a “middle aged Bostonian leaning more towards a Ben Affleck accent” to pay the bills. Her Casting Director hat keeps her in the business surrounded by agents and actors and producers. But in between emails and phone calls, she writes screenplays and pitches investors with her own work. Waiting until the day she can stand behind a camera again, surrounded by a crew, and create this visual storytelling we call film.
This past summer she spent in California directing her own screenplay Divine Appointment about a young man who ends up at a winery of all places, lost and maybe in need of some soul searching. It was Tara’s eighth film and one she’s especially proud of because it stars musicians and because it’s always a collaboration. Something she’s also very proud of. Surviving collaborations. Surviving the chaos of filmmaking. Surviving as an artist.
And in this business, you keep moving. Now on the cusp of another green light this year for a film about a female rapper, Tara talked to us about growing up on film sets, God, Paul and the bible and being a woman in a very male dominated business.
You live in North Carolina where you work as a casting director but where did you grow up
I grew up in a small Bible belt town called Lynchburg, Va. and lived there till I was about 16. To paint a better picture, Lynchburg, Va was home to the late Dr. Jerry Falwell – the People vs. Larry Flint, Jerry Falwell. And yes, I knew him. He was actually kind of funny, and I could tell you stories but they have nothing to do with directing. Although I will say he once told my parents that if he believed in ordaining women, I’d be the first woman he would ordain. So if the filmmaking thing falls through…
I know you’re from a film family and “cut your teeth on a set.” What was that like because my Mom was a school teacher, and to go to her classroom on a school day, made me feel like A GOD! Was that how it was for you when your father was directing? Did you feel special?
So I was extremely shy and hated to talk, be talked to or singled out. To the point that I wouldn’t speak to anyone without using my mom as an interpreter. So on set, while I was enthralled by the stars and the hard work and behind the scenes, I mainly just observed and stayed out of the way. Mostly. One time I thought I was so careful and they were shooting an all-nighter and I’d fallen asleep on the couch. I awoke to “cut!” And them telling me I had to move cause I was in the shot. They played it back and there was my little head popping up in a scene where Grant Goodeve (Eight is Enough) was battling some evil demon.
I remember meeting a young Michael J. Fox at the height of his career, and I think I broke my muteness for him by asking how Tina Yothers was from Family Ties. He paused and said, “Tina is good.” And I looked back down at my shoes.
But yeah, it made me feel special in some ways but I was also used to it, so I don’t think I understood how lucky I had it. I still wish I would’ve known for sure what I wanted to do then and could’ve become this ten-year-old prodigy cinematographer/director or something. Though back then I would’ve had my mom be the one to actually shout out my direction! But I thought I’d be an actress instead. So I didn’t take advantage of really learning the crew work till I was older and had come to the conclusion that I hated acting and would rather be behind the camera.
Now you’re the screenplay writer and director, the Captain of the ship, but how much back and forth is there between a producer and director? It must be intimidating to show up on set and keep that kind of confidence and vision up all day when people are coming at you with questions and ideas. I mean do you sleep at all while filming? I think I’d be a mess.
That’s the one thing about film, there’s so much back and forth. You may write the movie, yet it goes through so many different hands before the final version the audience sees onscreen. Even as a director, you’re still answering to people higher up than you, and they’re answering to people higher up than them. It truly is a collaborative process from the ground up and that’s in equal parts beautiful and insane when you really think about it. Imagine drawing a picture and having everyone and their mother add to it or take away from it. You just hope that in the end, the final thing that’s produced will be better than what you could’ve achieved on your own. Often it is. Sometimes it isn’t. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a very grueling process and you have to really let go of your ego in order to make it work.
This past summer I directed a feature film that I also wrote, and on set, you’re dealing with so many different personalities, tiers of command, egos, lack of egos, long hours, veteran actors, newbie actors, location issues, permits or lack of permits and trying to find ways to shoot around them, etc. You have people trying to change the script you wrote, be it to censor things or actors wanting to change lines, interpret things differently than you intended. You have background actors (extras) who look at the camera (which is called spiking), when you finally have a take that’s awesome, and producers calling you in the middle of the shoot to tell you that they lost an investor and everyone’s now mad because they don’t want to eat PB and J for lunch.
I cried a few times, bitched a thousand times, laughed a bunch, wondered if they’d let me bring my laptop to the psych ward, and at the same time I was thinking of what I’d say during my Oscar acceptance speech.
You have all these emotions going at once coupled with long hours so yeah, no sleep, but I think I function best in chaos so I wouldn’t want it any other way. But there are moments where you have to step back and say, you know what? I fucking did this and I can do this and I am doing it. And as crazy as it is, I want to do it again. Now. Which just means maybe you really are crazy.
I need to know one very specific thing….how the hell did a self proclaimed atheist end up writing and directing faith based films?
Well I grew up in a Christian home and identified as a Christian for a lot of my life but at the point when I was asked and hired to write my first film – I had enough life experience to make me doubt all I’d grown up to believe. I really questioned there was a God at all. I was outside on the porch smoking a cigarette, divorced, depressed out of my mind on a lot of PTSD type meds – so barely awake – and someone had heard I was a good writer and called me. “We’re making a feature and we’d like you to write it.”
First, I’d never written a feature film screenplay before. Not on my own. Second, did these people know who I was and that if I did pray to God it was more along the lines of “Why did you ruin my life?”
I think I exhaled my Camel Menthol and was like, “Are you sure you got the right person?” Then when they told me it was a faith-based film about the life of Apostle Paul set in post-apocalyptic times, I was even more so like, “You CAN’T have the right person.”
But I’m not usually one to turn down a challenge and I accepted. (While furiously googling “how to write a film in 12 easy steps”.) I also had to brush up on my favorite book of all time, the one I’d discounted as pure fiction, the Bible. Because even though I’d grown up in a Christian home, and gone to Christian school (see above: Jerry Falwell), I must have skipped Sunday school on the days when they’d talked about Paul.
But I wrote the film and in doing so, realized that writing faith based as an atheist or former Christian or questioning Christian, was no different than writing any other character be it serial killer, monk, or FBI agent. You find the flaws in that person, and you find the humanity. And write it as realistically as you can.
Does the content of the film mean the actors and crew are themselves Christians? Is this some sort of requirement? Are the sets Christian…like would I stick out for my bawdy mouth and middle school humor?
I’d like to say that on faith-based film sets, there’s this holiness that you immediately feel the moment your feet step on set. That in between takes the actors are singing prayers in Latin and feeding a bunch of orphans with food from craft services. And honestly, maybe it should be that way. I know some faith-based sets open with prayer and I think that sets the tone for what the shoot could be. I know some faith-based sets that no one would know are Christian except for the content of the script.
I’ve been a part of productions where the team only wanted to cast actors who shared the same faith and other sets where it didn’t matter.
I had to learn to get past my judgments and just realize that no matter what we believe, there are certain things that should always be upheld – like respect, talent, loyalty, and just treating people the way we all hope to be treated. No matter if you believe in God or not.
In other words, I’d never kick you off my set.
The first film you wrote, My name is Paul, was called a Dove Family Friendly film. I always find it hypocritical that media can portray violence without sex and conservatives will call it “family friendly.” My name is Paul, from the trailer at least, appears to be quite violent. Have you ever been censored or corrected in your screenplay writing or directing regarding violence as opposed to sexual content?
That’s a good question because I guess I’m so used to what is considered “acceptable” vs. “unacceptable” in Christian cinema that I never had to ask if it was okay to show sexual content, because I already knew the answer. I don’t know why violence is more tolerated or accepted than sexual content, though. I wish I did.
My argument with any faith-based film though is that a lot of church-goers will sit at the movies and watch R-rated content, with violence, language, and sex, including nudity, and have no problem with it. Yet we are writing for that SAME audience and having to censor everything in order to have it be considered Christian.
I’m 38-years-old now and I’ve grown up around Christian media, as well as non-Christian. So I’m conditioned enough now to know that it’s not all black and white. Christians come in many shapes and colors and sizes. To me, what makes a good Christian film isn’t if it lacks curse words or questionable content, but if it’s an authentic story of redemption. And like real life, I don’t believe all the pieces need to fall in place by the film’s end, either. Because in real life, they rarely do.
I can definitely see why an audience may not want to watch movies with any violence, cursing, or sexual content, and I respect that, too. Everyone should have that option and feel comfortable that their values are being honored. But I don’t know why certain topics are more taboo than others, or understand the criteria for picking and choosing why, for example, the use of a gun is okay but a man taking off his shirt isn’t.
But you’re up against a lot when you’re writing faith-based because not only do you have to stick to certain guidelines within the genre itself, but you have the really legalistic Christians getting angry with you for not being Biblical enough or for pushing any boundaries, and on the other side you may have non-Christians immediately rejecting your production because it’s too “religious.” So it’s tough to find a middle ground when all you really want to do is just tell a story.
Film making is such a man’s world. Maybe even more so in the Christian film making arena. Do you find it difficult to make yourself heard? Do you have any tricks you use?
I think it’s a man’s world regardless if it’s considered Christian or not. Or else half of Hollywood wouldn’t see this as an issue right now. And yes, there have been certain situations in which I’ve found it hard to be heard. I’ve literally heard men in this business say that they’d prefer working on an all-male set, or one run by men, because women have their periods every month and get crazy and ultra-sensitive.
I’ve met some really great men in this industry, as well, though. Ones who don’t interfere with women doing their jobs and doing their jobs well, and don’t get bent out of shape if a woman holds a position of power over them.
I wish I had some tricks but the most I can do is speak out about the situation if I see it occur or hear of it happening. And ironically, I AM on my period right now.
Your next film is about a SoundCloud female rapper. I know you just wrote the screenplay in only seven days. Can you tell us more about that project or is it a secret until you get funding?
Luckily I had cowriter this time, to help get the screenplay in the shape it needed to be, in only a week. What helped with this one, writing it in such a short time, was that I’d lived and breathed the story, characters, and this world for months before I ever put a word on the page. Thanks to my teenage sons who introduced me to this world. So it was a lot easier to write when you feel you already knew who these characters were. Plus, they are based on real-life hip-hop artists, not caricatures.
The film is primarily about a teenage girl who dreams of making it in underground hip-hop, and must navigate a male-dominated industry she has no clue about. It actually follows several characters on this journey. And it’s different than anything else I’ve done so far. Very excited.
Diana Kirk is the author of Licking Flames: Tales of a Half-Assed Hussy. She’s been published in Nailed and Thought Catalog and other highly impressive publications. But her greatest achievement thus far is the family she eats dinner with every night somewhere on the coast of Oregon and her ability to turn conversations dirty in under one minute. You can find her most days on Facebook or Twitter.