Come Hell or High-water, Mara Tasker is Rising to the Top


Mara Tasker HeadshotFollowing the Pitch to W.I.N. seminar held on May 2nd at Laurel Canyon Stages, I had the utmost pleasure of sitting down with Mara Tasker, Associate Producer with VICE Media. Quick-witted, confident, with a vocabulary that includes such gems as galvanize, caveat, and nebulous, Tasker is immediately recognizable as a woman of vision and action.

We discussed her trajectory in film production, her enviable position with the massively popular and innovative media company, VICE, her advice for women who want to make their own content, and how a little boredom is key to living a fulfilling, creative life.

MK: What drew you to film production?

I was born with a camera in my hand. (laughs) No, I actually came into film later in life. I wanted to do a hundred different things, and in high school I started to ask myself some real questions about what I wanted my life to be. Even though film wasn’t in my face in Denver, Colorado, my parents were cinephiles. With film, there was no better way for me to access any part of the world; it could take me anywhere. Also, fortunately, I got into trouble my senior year and my dad came to me and gave me an ultimatum, for which he had already made the choice. So I wasn’t going to stay home with my friends all summer, I had to apply myself in something of my choice. I said, “Film.” Which is what he knew I wanted anyway. I was stir crazy and ready to go. And he found a summer program the farthest he could send me from the suburbs of Denver, and that is how I ended up in the at the Oxford Media School in the UK. That experience did everything that I didn’t know it was going to do, but everything I needed it to do. I made my first terrible film and I loved it. I loved the entire process.

MK: And then you studied film production at CU Boulder?

When I got back, I had learned that something was possible for me as a producer. I was already enrolled at CU Boulder, which didn’t have a robust film school, but happened to have the top experimental film program in the country. So I began studies in a very avant-garde film program. We shot on Super 8 and burnt the emulsion, did the film processing, learned the plastics of filmmaking. We learned all about capturing an image on film, and what it means to capture an image in storytelling.

MK: And the male gaze and what’s in the frame…

Yes! The only thing that bothers me in hindsight is that you learn about gaze, but inherently you learn about the male gaze. But at a certain point as a female, you realize you look at things differently. I think that some of the most intelligent, talented male directors still have a tendency to depict women on film as ethereal, which is a tendency of humans, to take something beautiful and make it otherworldly. Actually, this dangerously dehumanizes a woman, because it turns her into something that is other than a real person. And that’s what films do a lot. You don’t really get time to question the gaze. For me, it became even more apparent when I was filming a female dancer in an artist’s residency, because there was this strong voice in my head about how she should be filmed. And what it really came down to was ‘how do I want to film this woman?’.

I guess that’s one of the reasons I’m really happy I was in that type of film program, is that we didn’t focus on narrative storytelling for a long time. The practice of turning the world into some sort of image that can be captured on film and trying to figure out some sort of story then, took me out of having to have characters tell story. And that took me out of having to make characters. It is a double-edged sword because those are incredibly important components, but on the other hand, it lets you experimentally film the world and figure out where your eye-line goes and how you need to see this person.

MK: What are some of your impressions on how women are depicted in scripts today?

What I’ve learned from reading tons of scripts over the past five years is that in the character introduction lines for men it’s always like, “he was chiseled, worldly, and stern.” There’s always something describing who he is, but for women it’s discouraging and frustrating to see that the female character introductions are only about her looks and her energy levels. Always. Always, always. And it’s frustrating because it’s right there – the moment where we change this character from a real person to a representation of a kind of person. Those are incredibly important distinctions, and I think that some writers do it by accident, and some writers do it just because it’s been indoctrinated, and some do it because they just don’t think women are real characters.

MK: What can we do about that?

At the end of the day, I think about the many men and women alike who are championing for real characters. I think the best thing we can do on the creative side, and I mean this wholeheartedly, is we need to tell more than just stories about revenge and retribution. We are past the point where we need women to have somehow been victimized to go on a power or revenge kick. You don’t have to become a victim to become a badass. And you don’t have to have the loss of a child or sexual control to have a darker side. Nor do you have to be a dude who lacks any female nuance to become a powerful character. We need to have more films that follow women into the darkest corners of their souls. Put women in contentious roles and put that shit on screen.

MK: Tell me about your first job, with William Morris Entertainment, and how that led you to VICE.

That’s where everything opened up for me, at WME. Everything I have now is an extension of what happened there. I was working in the Indie Distribution and Financing Department, so that’s where I got my first taste of where the market is. I was there for two and a half years, and at that time, my boss was becoming connected to Vice Media, so I was introduced to Transmedia and many team members at Vice.

[After leaving WME] I worked hand in hand with Tobey Maguire in his company, Material Films. But, I quickly realized that what I really wanted to be doing was creating my own work, and days away from self-expression began to feel wasted. A friend directed me to an opportunity working as an assistant and researcher for screenwriter, Drew Pearce (Iron Man 3), and I loved working with him. All of the research I did informed my own research practices, and at that same time I began to write and produce the film I directed last year. At the end of that six-months I went to my now boss [who Tasker met at WME]and said, “I don’t know what I’m doing. I love filmmaking, I love researching, and I love business, but what can I do with all of that?” And he said, “Well that’s actually perfect. Because that’s what we’re doing [at Vice].”

MK: What has that done for your artistry and career?

That’s what brought me back into Transmedia, and where I learned to engage with the digital space. There’s a lot of stuff you can make. You can practice directing content and producing small shows, you can engage in short form content. And Vice is awesome because I get to work on the feature film side and I also am surrounded by the media world and these journalists, short form content producers, and field producers, and I see what it means to just make content. It’s not only the feature filmmaking process, which is such a massive process that sometimes it feels like it can’t be done.

MK: Do you have advice for anyone who wants to become filmmaker but might not be at the stage of producing the beast that is a feature film?

I think people have this misconception that if you want to be a director, you need to constantly be working in the narrative space, and what Vice has shown me is that content is content in every format. You want to tell a story? You can do it in a documentary. You can do it in a narrative. You can do it in a short. You can do it long-form. There are a thousand ways to tell stories. And there is absolutely no reason you shouldn’t be doing it all the time. Like the Duplass brothers said, there is absolutely no reason you shouldn’t be making movies on your cell phones on the weekends. There’s no reason why you can’t boil down the expectations of what it is to tell a story into something that is actually tangible and possible for you to accomplish.

This is why I encourage women to try and find different platforms that compliment them when trying to break into film. I have this awesome spot where I sit between Hollywood and a new media news company. It’s just amazing how these journalists have demystified content creation for me into something very pragmatic. You figure it out. You do a ton of research, you figure out what your story is, and then you execute. And you go and come back and watch your footage, and you see if it works, and then you go and do a re-shoot if it doesn’t work. That is important creative processing.

At the end of the day, nothing tops genuine passion. That is key. It is an energy force, and when someone loves something and she starts to describe it to you, you can just see it take her over. And the reason that it is so important, especially for women filmmakers, is that when you are doing what you actually love to do, then regardless of obstacles – of which there will always be – you have this commitment to making your work, come hell or high-water. The drive that you have when you actually want something is so notably different for you and everyone around you. Always begin by loving the project inside and out. When you speak from that voice and that level of truth, that’s when you can galvanize your spiritual warriors, and put together this army behind you.

MK: And what would you like a little more of in your life?

I want more unproductive playtime in my life. I’m first generation Italian, and so I grew up very close with “Dolce farniente” (Sweetness of doing nothing) – the importance of doing nothing. My parents were clear about the fact that they wanted to make sure as a child I got bored. Because that’s where creativity comes from.

We have this tendency to think we have to be Superwomen, and we have to do everything. That’s all a distraction. You don’t need to be a mini-empire. You need to focus on those things that you want to do, and when you’re not doing them, you need to focus on other stuff in life. There’s so much more in life. It’s important that I read a book that I don’t have plans to option, and to take photographs that I don’t plan on posting.

It’s important that you know as a human being, that you have value outside of whatever is that you do for a living. You need that empty space. Spend a Saturday afternoon not getting things done. In that time to yourself, you have the mental space to contextualize what you’re doing. Remember, you’re a person in all of this.

Permission from an expert, people! And inspiration from one hell of a woman.