***Every Friday (#FeatureFriday), we will feature an up and coming woman working in film and television who is fearlessly blazing her own path in the world of television and film while proving to the world that anything is possible. This week, K. Nicole Mills had the pleasure of speaking with filmmaker, screenwriter, storyteller, Stacey Parshall Jensen who is also the co-founder of Through The Wilderness LLC, a film production company dedicated to telling untold stories and “New Takes On Old Tales” Parshall Jensen speaks about having the courage to pursue your passion through hard work and persistence, and also stresses the importance of working to perfect your craft.
I grew up in this little rural town in the southwest corner of Minnesota. At that time, I could count the families of color on one hand. It was a white little town. My mother is Native American, and I didn’t know my father, but he was black (and maybe Latino); however, I realized I wanted to be a writer when I was a little kid. I was the geeky girl with a stack of books in the backyard sitting in the apple tree. I knew early on that I wanted to be a storyteller.
I wound up going to school for Mass Communications. I was doing really well, and received straight A’s in all of my Journalism classes; however, I wasn’t showing up for the rest of my classes, so of course, my GPA dropped down to a 1.87 and I was unable to graduate.
I moved back home to live with my mother and worked three part-time jobs to figure out a way to get out of that small town. I wound up moving to Minneapolis, and had my own funky store. Shortly after, I decided that I wanted to be a Social Director on a cruise ship, so I went to school to learn more about that. In the process, I wound up getting pregnant.
With the newfound responsibility of a child, I quickly developed purpose and my child was more than enough reason for me to change my life. I needed my degree and was determined to quickly figure out my calling. After my daughter was born, I went back to school to complete my undergraduate degree. I received my BA in Liberal Studies with a focus on Human Service Administration and placed an emphasis on women and children. I worked for a battered woman’s shelter, and created a children’s program. I became a child advocate and began telling the stories about women and their survival. After a few years, I went to graduate school and received a Master’s in Liberal Studies in interdisciplinary child social policy.
My sister passed away, and that changed everything that I initially thought I knew about life. I decided to revisit what I was passionate about as a child, writing and storytelling. I received my first MFA in Creative Writing in 2005 from Hamline University in St. Paul, MN at the same time as I was working in theater at The Playwright Center and writing plays. I was a single parent, taking two classes at a time, working in theater, and writing plays. It was a lot of work, but I loved every single minute of it. I loved writing and was learning how to hone in on my voice.
“I had something that I needed to say, and started to trust my gut to honor that lens. I started to give more power to my experiences coming from a small town, being raised by a Native mother, and not quite understanding what it meant to be a black woman at that time.”
I decided to look at Dramatic Writing Programs at UCLA and USC. In 2006 I met my now husband, Peter, and applied to film school. I was denied at UCLA and wait listed at USC. After being wait listed, I worked around the clock to hone in on my skills. I would read and study scripts, and I also started studying films. I was writing plays and really immersed in the world of theater so my goal was to figure out the difference on the page between being a playwright and a screenwriter. In 2007 I moved to LA with my daughter, Lanee Bird. Peter was already here doing the MFA in Writing for Performance At CalArts. I reapplied and got into both USC and UCLA. I chose USC’s School of Cinematic Arts and got my second MFA. We all graduated in 2010.
I set my sights on a program called Project Involve, through Film Independent. Through that program I created relationships with other filmmakers that I still have to this day. This program allowed me to see firsthand what I really wanted to do, I just had to find a way to keep learning and keep doing it. My husband studied opera and theater, and other mediums while at CalArts, and he also took some Continuing Ed classes at UCLA, so we would just learn from each other.
In 2014 we formed Through The Wilderness, LLC (TTW). I wrote the debut short action film, Blessed, that was directed by Jen Derwingson and produced by John Hermann. TTW produced it, and it is making it’s way around the festival circuit. It just won the Jury Award for Best Narrative Short at the One Nation Film Festival! We also developed a short film titled Seppuku, a Japanese love story, that was co-written by my husband and Daryn Wakasa and co-produced by our production company, Through The Wilderness, LLC alongside Foment Films, and Just Cause Productions.
I’m currently writing a TV pilot right now about obsession titled Rockheart. My lead is a black female police officer who is trying to keep her family together. She moves from the city to the suburbs with this idealist belief that that things will be so much better for her 11 year old son. In addition to protecting her family, she is trying to solve the mystery of her own childhood to save the lives of abducted children.
There are a few people who I’ve had the opportunity to pitch to, so if it gets picked up or gets further in the room, than awesome. Eventually, as the company continues to grow, I will find a way to shoot the pilot myself if I have to. There was a time when you didn’t produce your own TV pilot, but the landscape is changing, and there are so many opportunities available to content creators now.
The number of opportunities for women in this industry are low, but at the same time, we have seen champions who are winning this Hollywood race! If you are lucky, and able to meet the right person at the right time, it can happen; however, when your moment comes, you have to burst through the door and actually have developed the skills to back it up. The landscape is shifting right now, nothing is rigid, and anything is possible.
If you are a writer, continue to write. Write and re-write. No one will know that you have a good story until the product is on the page. For some, it’s difficult to put in a large amount of time to get the writing on the page. To be honest, being creative on the page, is difficult. I also know that when I watch movies, I’m still writing. I’m still learning from what I see based on what I choose to watch. So if you’re a writer, write. Keep writing.
Melanie Marnich, a playwright, who wrote for Big Love, The Big C, and The Affair, gave really great advice while speaking on a panel at BinderCon, an organization where I serve as Chair of the Scholarship Committee and Co-Chair the Programming Committee for LA, and shared with the group her curiosity about cancer, the end of life, and mortality. That’s what allowed her to write some really beautiful things. That’s what kept her going, and allowed her to be a part of The Big C. I think that this is a beautiful way to be creative.
“You have to always ‘Be Curious’ about the things that surround you.”
Despite the challenges that come with being a woman of color filmmaker, I feel like there’s this army in place, where we’re fiercely steppin’ and looking sharp with beautiful boots. I feel like I’ve been granted something very special where I get to be in this space right now. I’m going to show up with the best possible army and with the best possible story that I can conjure right now. That’s what I’m going to do. This is who I am, and these are the stories that I will tell.