AE: How did you make the shift from writing novels to writing screenplays, and was that change difficult to make?
TM: There were a few hard shifts I had to make from writing novels to writing screenplays. I had to learn how to develop subtext and to cleverly incorporate exposition into the script without it feeling forced. In a novel I could just write what I wanted, when I wanted. But I had to drill in the concept that if the audience cannot see or hear it, it doesn’t exist. Even though it wasn’t an easy shift, I love writing screenplays more than novels.
Morgan Stiff and Tina Mabry on the set of Mississippi Damned
AE: You were at USC film school when you made your award-winning thesis film, Brooklyn’s Bridge to Jordan. Some directors say that it isn’t necessary to attend film school to master the craft. Would you encourage a budding filmmaker to go to film school?
TM: For me, I had to go to film school to master the craft of filmmaking because while I had stories, I lacked the actual knowledge needed to create a film. I needed a structured environment in which I’d be taught the fundamentals, be required to deliver on a schedule, and be exposed to a supportive community of up-and-coming filmmakers. But I also know several people who started out at USC and dropped out because they felt they could learn more by jumping into the industry and letting experience be their guide.
Film school is not for everyone and going to film school doesn’t guarantee success. There are a plethora of well-known directors who never went to film school and, on the other hand, there are many well-known directors who did. I don’t agree with anyone who implicitly says to do one way over the other. I believe it’s strictly dependent on the individual and the environment they thrive best in.
AE: How did you get involved with POWER UP and Itty Bitty Titty Committee, and what was the experience of writing that film like for you?
TM: I was in my last semester at USC when I heard Power Up was looking for someone to write a comedic feature, which would be directed by Jamie Babbit. I was a huge fan of But I’m a Cheerleader and even though I’d never tried comedic writing, I threw my hat into the ring. Itty Bitty was done on a limited budget so there were things that couldn’t be in the script. The experience was invaluable, because I had to learn how to maintain the integrity of the script while keeping the production needs in mind, and that came in handy when I made Mississippi Damned.
AE: Morgan, you attended NYU (Dramatic Writing) and USC’s School of Cinema-Television. Did you always want to be a filmmaker? Which writers/directors/films most inspire you?
MS: When I was attending NYU I thought I was going to be a playwright. I fell in love with the theater and by my senior yea,r I was well on my way to Columbia to study dramaturgy. But because of a video production class that I had to take to graduate from NYU, I was forced to start looking at the stage as a vehicle vs. video and film.
As corny as it may sound, I was studying writing because I wanted to change the world. I wanted to use my creativity to comment on society. After a lot of inner debate, I came to the conclusion that I was going to reach far more people through film and television than I could ever reach as a playwright. The people that I was creating my art for were more likely to go to the movies or turn on the television than have access to stage productions. While applying to graduate schools for dramaturgy, I decided to send in one application to one film school, and that was USC. When I got in I was finally forced to choose a side and I chose the medium that would allow me to reach the most people.
Because of my background, the artists who inspire me come from different disciplines. I appreciate people who can tell a good story, no matter what the nature of their voice may be. Playwrights Suzan-Lori Parks and Chey Yew may be the most inspirational, along with poet Dante Micheaux, authors Sarah Waters and Piri Thomas, and musician Prince. My favorite films include L.I.E., Secretary, Capturing the Friedmans, and City of God.