A young Colorado native had her first screenplay made into a full-length feature film released last week, and she did it with a crew full of women and before she had even graduated from college.
Tara Stone, 27, grew up in Monument, Colo. and was attending the University of Denver for a music performance degree when she decided it was time to start over, move to San Diego and pursue screenwriting.
"Everyone says San Diego is paradise. It's not true," said Stone, adding that she's glad to be spending some vacation time at home. "Colorado is paradise."
Her screenplay, "Red Line," recently screened at the San Diego Film Festival and won the U-T Award. It's also been selected for international distribution and is currently available to buy stateside on iTunes and Amazon.com, and will be available this fall at Walmart, Target and Netflix.
What began as a short film for a senior project quickly turned into an all-hands-on-deck venture with students and professors from John Paul the Great Catholic University in San Diego. Stone's professors and classmates helped turn her screenplay, "Red Line" into a full-length feature film, complete with Hollywood actors and an experienced director.
"If we made a good movie, great," said "Red Line" director Rob Kirbyson, who has also directed "Snowmen". "But I think expectations were that maybe we could make something halfway decent that we can turn around and get a broadcast license or some kind of DVD sale, but I got to tell ya, the movie turned out really good. It's really good. I think we've actually made something that stands up against multimillion dollar Hollywood pictures, and that is miraculous."
Made in May of 2011, the film boasts an unusually high number of women both on set and behind the scenes who helped make Stone's story a cinematic reality.
A recent SDSU study titled "The Celluloid Ceiling," found that just 15 percent of working writers in Hollywood are women, 2 percent of working Hollywood cinematographers are women, only 25 percent of producers are women, and only 20 percent of film editors are women.
On the set of "Red Line" however, those positions were all held by women on a budget of just $220,000. The producers now expect to recoup their investment and even turn a profit from the student project.
Stone sat down with The Huffington Post to talk about her first screenplay-turned-full-length-feature film, and some of the challenges facing women in the film industry.
What's the backstory to this screenplay?
It was actually sort of my senior project.
Ah, so needless to say you got an "A"?
What made you decide to write this story?
Well that's actually kind of a funny story because originally I had pitched a completely different story. The producers, Dominic [Iocco] and Chris [Riley], they're also professors at JP Catholic. So they had been asking the seniors to pitch projects to do as like a group senior project like in years past, but it had always been things like short films and things like that, you know they had to raise money for it. But I pitched an idea, I was like, "We should do a feature film," since we had an awesome class and we could totally do it. So I pitched an idea -- I knew that it would need to be a contained space idea, because that makes it a much lower budget and we'd only need to film it in one space. And so I pitched an idea, it was about a World War II story about people who get trapped in a wine cellar the first night of the London Blitz and then think that there's a Nazi in there with them, a Nazi spy. And they were really excited about the idea, they said, "Yeah, go for it! We'll do it." So I started writing that script and I got about 46 pages into that script, and Chris Riley called me over Christmas break and was like, "You need to stop writing, because we just brought on the director, Rob Kirbyson, and he feels like World War II is a little too... not relevant enough, and because it's a period piece it's going to be a little too expensive." So he wanted us to do something a little bit more contemporary and relevant to today's audience. So we did a lot of brainstorming together, me and the producers, and the director -- we all sort of hatched a new idea and sort of moved the plot of the World War II story to the subway in L.A. So it has a lot of the same elements but it's like, totally different at the same time.
Actors Nicole Gale Anderson, Kevin Sizemore, Joseph Williamson and crew on the set of "Red Line."
Were you nervous when they told you to stop writing, that this was suddenly a different story?
I was devastated [laughs]. I cried because I had worked so hard on the first script and I have just always loved old movies, and the 1940s is like my favorite era. I was like, so excited to write a story about that era and then they told me we were going to move it to a subway in L.A. and I was like, 'Ugh, that's not the story I want to write!' [laughs]. So it was devastating but once we got into it, it was fine. I just had to figure out a way to attach myself to the story.
According to a recent SDSU study, only 13.8 percent of working writers in Hollywood are women -- let alone students. Was this intimidating to you at all in making your first film? Or was it sort of out of sight, out of mind because this started off as a senior project?
Yeah, I actually had no idea that statistic existed when I started writing. I just knew that I had been very lucky, I guess, as a student -- like my very first writing class at the end of the quarter as I was turning in my final, Chris Riley, my professor, he said, "Do you want to work on this project with us? It's a web series that we're doing called Bump and we want you to be one of the writers." So like right away I was given all these opportunities to write and I never thought about it, that that's not normal for women. So I think more than anything, the people that I've worked with -- they're not classic Hollywood types, I guess. I don't know, my experience with real Hollywood is pretty limited cause I've only worked on independent stuff. And all the people I've worked with, it's never been an issue. You know in "Red Line", I wrote it, there was a woman who edited it, one of the camera operators was a woman -- which is extremely rare -- and our line producer was a woman, and they didn't hire us because we're women, they hired us because we did our jobs well and loved what we do.
Actress Nicole Gale Anderson on the set of "Red Line."
It's incredible that the film was done on such a low budget of $220,000 by professors and students and interns, and so many women. How many women would you say were involved in the making of this film?
I would say at least half.
Was the whole thing filmed on campus?
Pretty much. There was one day that we took a skeleton crew up to the Hollywood highland metro station in L.A. and they filmed for like four hours there just to get the opening shots in the movie. The rest of the movie, it was like 25 days of shooting, was filmed on the soundstage.
How many students and professors do you think were involved?
In one way or another, I would say like 60-70 percent of the student body was involved, which was like 120 student at the time. It's a very small school, because a lot of students who weren't actually on the set helped with construction, or helped in the post-production department or whatever. So I would say 70-80 students touched it at some point. It was extracurricular for almost everybody. I remember there was one day on set when all of the seniors actually were writing a term paper that was due that day [laughs]. Like, in between takes we're on our laptops because we had no time working 12-14 hours a day. It was crazy.
In the press release for this movie, you said: "There's nothing stopping women from making movies. We don’t need to wait for anyone’s permission to write a great screenplay, pitch to investors, and produce our own movies. That’s not the problem. But there is a monopoly on how movies get seen, where and when and which ones.”
Can you talk a little bit more about this?
Sure, I think one of the biggest lessons I've learned, both working on "Red Line" and just my entire education at JP Catholic, is that anybody can make a movie. You don't need the Hollywood studios to do it, you know? Like, it helps to have a lot of money but if you have the material, if you have a great screenplay, there's nothing stopping you from going out and pitching to investors yourself and producing your own project. The only thing that's stopping you is your own fear. So I think, either people don't know that, or they're afraid of that, or people are actually out there, women are out there making independent movies and we're just never seeing them because in order to get seen you have to go through studios, you have to go through people who have relationships with theaters and Target, Walmart and Amazon and iTunes -- because I would have a really hard time getting my own movie on those things without a distributor, and we have a distributor. We were lucky enough to get one but we weren't able to get into theaters because nobody knew how to market our movie. So sometimes I wonder if the screenplay had been different, if it had been a male lead instead of Nicole or if Nicole's role had been sexier, if it would have been an easier movie to sell, you know? And so all the statistics that you see about women in Hollywood, they're all looking at the top-grossing films, and like "Red Line" is never going to be one of those because we're only on DVD and VOD (Video on Demand) [laughs]. There are studies that look at like, [independent] films and the numbers are slightly better for women but I would argue that film festivals are still just another step in the film distribution process because film festivals are sort of matchmakers. They're looking for films that distributors would want to buy, and so if they know that distributors don't want to buy female-centric movies, they're not going to pick them up, do you know what I mean? So I think there are probably hundreds or thousands of movies that don't make it into major film festivals, that people don't see, that are really good movies but they're just not marketable.
Students at John Paul the Great Catholic University built the subway set on campus, where the majority of the film was shot.
I personally enjoyed that Nicole's character was really kind of the backbone in that train. Do you think the public is trending towards a desire to see more strong women on the big screen?
I think they would like to [laughs]. I don't know that distributors believe that because there's this idea -- and there's probably some truth to it -- that the largest audience is young men. That they go to the movies more than anybody else but I think that's kind of a chicken and egg thing. Like do more young men go to the movies because all movies are made for young men? [laughs]. If there were more movies made for women, women would go to the movies more, you know? So I think it's really an untapped audience that distributors just don't know how to reach. I don't know if it's that they don't want to or if it's just that they don't know how to. There are those movies coming out but the studies, again there was one from USC that of all the movies made in 2012, only less than a third of the speaking parts were women. And more than a third of the women who did have speaking parts were sexualized in some way, and so it's like, yeah we're making babysteps, but it's still a huge problem. So yeah, I think studios just don't know what to do with women if they're not eye candy.
I don't know if women are getting elbowed out or if they're just not going there. I do think that we're sort of told, whether explicitly or implicitly that young men are our target audience and that we need a young white man in the lead role all the time. I think, at least for women writers that's harder to write, because I can't relate to a man (laughs). I don't know what a man would say in that situation, you know? I know what a woman would say. So I think that for a woman, it's naturally easier to write female roles, so I don't know if they're actually writing those scripts and they're getting rejected or if they just kind of intuitively know that that's not going to fly and so, maybe they're writing scripts with young men but they're weaker scripts because they can't dig into that character the same way they could if they wrote a woman. So I don't know. I have no idea why it is the way it is. I just think that the end distribution is the root of it all, like it all kind of stems from what is the audience going to see?
What's next for you?
That's a good question [laughs]. Right now I'm trying to finish my second draft of a musical because actually, musical and lighter fare is actually my genre. [A] thriller was really uncomfortable for me to write, it was a really good thing I had Dominic, Chris and Rob to help me out, because I don't think I could have written it by myself. And my musical is going to go back to the 1940s because I just have an obsession with that era. I don't know what I'm going to do with that script, hopefully someone will want to buy it, it's called "Only Forever." But it's kind of my passion project. And this fall, I'm hopefully going back to the university I graduated from to teach.