TARA MIELE & Wander Darkly
This week, we have a conversation with writer/director Tara Miele about her recent feature film Wander Darkly, which premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Tara is well known for the viral video 'Meet a Muslim' which she created to combat Islamophobia. The video has been featured on Refinery 29, Buzzfeed, Upworthy, and was shared around the world over 45 million times. Tara recently directed the backdoor pilot Green Arrow and The Canaries, and has directed episodes of Arrow, Batwoman and Hawaii Five-0, as well as four micro budget feature films. She is also a graduate of Ryan Murphy's Half Foundation and the CBS Directing Initiative. Wander Darkly is now available to watch on VOD.
Click here to listen to our interview with Tara Miele on Apple Podcasts.
Episode transcription below.
TARA MIELE & Wander Darkly
Larkin: Well then we'll just get started, if you could introduce yourself and just tell our listeners a little bit about your film, Wander Darkly.
Tara: Sure. My name is Tara Miele, I'm the writer/director of a film called Wander Darkly that stars Sienna Miller and Diego Luna. It follows a couple after a tragic accident, trying to sort of sort through their relationship, and make sense of where their relationship went wrong in order to face their uncertain future.
Jennifer: Awesome. So we actually heard you speak back in January at Sundance [Film Festival] at a panel. And you mentioned that the genesis for the film came from a personal experience, which we were intrigued to hear. Could you tell us how you took that experience and then used it as inspiration to create the story that we see in Wander Darkly?
Tara: Yeah. So, um, my husband and I did survive a head-on collision about seven years ago. And there's a few things that happened in that experience that really stuck with me. One was I blacked out when the car crashed originally happened and, um, afterwards, like, I don't remember feeling it or anything, but afterwards I was saying, "I can't see, I can't see." Um, and then I was like mad that he wasn't responding to me. And so I was like, 'I can't see!' you know, and I was like mad at him, um, which is insane because then he, kind of eked out "I can't breathe." And there was sort of like, uh, such a strange, uh, dissonance between, like, there was something about the sense that something could have happened to me. Or I had been disembodied in some like old Irish folk tale way that my mom had sung about when I was a kid. But that like the idea that something had happened to him just hadn't, it hadn't even crossed my mind. Like that was an impossibility. So, there was that little piece of it. And then also, you know, we were young parents at the time. Our daughters were only six months and four at the time. So there was something about my mortality that struck me in a really, uh, hard way-- being a mom of two young kids and how much they needed me. And the idea of leaving them was so frightening. And then like, uh, you know, a day or so after the accident, I was on the couch, I was really concussed.
And I had that moment, uh, where Adrian in the movie calls to her baby and the baby ignores her, because she's a baby! But for me in that moment, it was like so clear and so real that I had died and that I was just witnessing what came after and I would not raise my kids. It was so deeply true. Um, and then it lasted a half a second, right? And so. So then, coming out of that, it was like Thanksgiving, we're with my parents and I'm feeling so incredibly grateful for these messy, delicate lives, everybody's fighting and, you know, it's crying and mayhem. And I was just so like glad to be there. So that was the feeling that I really wanted to share.
And then I really became interested in, um, that, that concussed state and how it protected me in some ways, right? Like how a concussion messes with your head. And I also was really interested. I had lost some people in my life around that time. And I was very interested in the psychosis of grief and sort of, uh, how we allow that-- that it's just this time that you have to like be crazy for a little while after you've lost someone close to you.
And I'd always wanted to tell a love story about the longevity of a relationship and the fact that we never plateau, that we're always peaks and valleys. Um, and I was also sort of interested in the loss of love and how parallels with the loss of life, you know, like the death of a relationship and the death of somebody.
So, there were all these things swimming around me. And then one morning at three in the morning, I like woke up hot with it and I was like, 'Oh, I know what I want to do with it.' Um, and then it kind of spun out from there.
Jennifer: Wow. That's so that's incredible all those different layers coming together, but I can totally see all those layers in the film.
Larkin: They all came through. I just, I can't even imagine how you just began the process of writing it and then kind of grappling with all those emotions as you're writing as well. And kind of balancing that must have been hard.
Tara: Yeah, for sure. Um, I like to think of writing as like an accordion, so like I start really small and I just, I want to know the whole movie, but in a really basic way. So like, I want to know three sentences. What is it? And then I started sort of saying it to people to see what they, that, to kind of gauge your reaction.
Um, and when I started just sharing this with like friends, people would go, Oh, And I was like, Oh, that's good. Okay. So like the idea of the song works, you know, like the notes work and then I work like a one-page just for myself. And then it turned into like a 12 page treatment. Um, and I never showed that to anybody.
It didn't feel like something that anybody could understand. It was like, there was just so much that had to be done in the execution of it. And so. Um, I wrote it before, you know, I had, I had shared the idea with Lynette Howell encouraged me to write it, but nobody ever read the treatment. And so I just went to page and, and sort of explored it. But yeah, definitely, it was a very emotional thing to write. Um, a friend of mine, a theater friend was like, 'change your socks.' So when you're done, change your socks and be you again. And so I found that really helpful actually, uh, to kind of wash that off, you know?
Larkin: Oh, I love that. It really does have such a unique narrative structure that keeps the viewer engaged and just kind of reveals the psyche of these characters as we're watching. Was that always your intention when writing the film and, how did it evolve or change from script to production?
Tara: Yeah. it was always my intention that Mateo would want to tell her their story, uh, in order to make sense of things for her. And that he would kind of control the narrative of the first half of act two. And that at some point in the mid point, she was, is going to be like, okay, like enough. Cause I actually don't feel like I can trust you.
And I, have my own version of things. And then she would sort of take control at that point, but that, because her head wasn't sort of as stable that her memory like they slipped through many, many memories. It sort of gets a little bit less in control. So I always knew like that that structure was going to happen.
And I spent a lot of time before I got to script kind of like taking note cards and moving things around and making sure I knew like what went, where, and for me, there was like an emotional through line more than there was like a time-specific through line. I think that's how we live. You know, I'm constantly reflecting on the past and projecting into the future.
And like how many times do we revisit one moment in our life that happened years ago? I mean, like we can make one moment last a lifetime, right? And let a million other moments go. So I was really interested in that sort of spiral-ness. You know, Diego has on his arm, we gave him the Fibonacci Spiral, which is the symbol of the connective ratio of all things, right?
Your forearm to your arm, the spiral of a wave, a snail shell. I mean, it's every it's in everything, right? And I think time really unfolds more in that way than it does as a, as a straight line. So I was sort of interested in all of this going into it.
Larkin: I am amazed at how you kept track of all, all the memories, like just the, the shifting of time was so intriguing to watch. And then just thinking about writing that kind of blew my mind.
Tara: Right. Yeah, it was, um, uh, very intuitive and the process of it. But then like once I actually got writing, I really had to like, let go and make it an emotional experience and stay with her in her state. But certainly moving into production, um, I created a timeline, like an in-order timeline of the events, just to make sure that there were no like paradoxes that I had missed, cause I'd never done that. Um, and there was a lot of time spent with the AD and the producers. We would always have extra eyes just to make sure there wasn't something that we were missing, you know, with continuity and with, um, with the run of things. So many conversations really, truly with actors. Um, they did the gymnastics here. They were like Olympians. They. We're doing hairpin turns and, um, trusted me beyond what anybody should ever trust. It was so unknown and they were so brave.
Jennifer: Yeah, the film really rests on obviously their relationship and, um, which honestly, sounds like a really cool acting challenge, uh, for them, for Sienna Miller and Diego Luna. And we were curious, what was your rehearsal process like with them? And how did you approach working with them in like such an intimate film?
Tara: Yeah. So I'll be honest, you know, like I've only just recently started saying this, but it was quite intimidating, right? Like sitting down with Sienna and Diego-- they're, they're incredibly talented, fiercely intelligent, both of them and like gorgeous. And I think it's an occupational hazard that those things combined really intimidate me.
Um, but I think it's important to say it. Other people should know that it's okay. So, you know, we did have a week of rehearsal and, um, mostly it was really about sharing our own, like, you know, I, the script is so personal for me. So then it was sort of an opportunity for them to share with me their own personal experiences and their- how they relate to the script.
Um, I mean, I feel like Diego has said this before, but it was like, he was like reading his son's life. Like in the script, it was like awfully personal for him and Sienna as well. There were just things that really resonated for both of them. So we all like laid our hearts out on the table. And then also we spent a lot of time breaking down the scene work and saying, okay, where are you in the past? Where are you in the present? And to be honest, there's so much unique material in the script. One of the challenges was trying to anticipate what might bump somebody or what might not translate the way that I have it in my head. Um, because there was quite a few ways to interpret it.
So, there was just so many conversations. I also, it was really important for me that, you know, we had this inter-ethnic couple living in a certain place in LA on the Eastside. It was important to me that their house felt real, for who the couple was. So, we spent a lot of time, like talking to art department and, um, discussing like where, you know, where in Mexico this character was from originally and what kind of textiles would they have?
And I mean, the pictures I have of art department of like the books on the shelves are specific to characters. Katie Byron, our production designer was incredible. Um, so yeah, we spent just like a lot of time together and I think all of that, like letting them build this couple as their own, letting them find signifiers, you know, like, they did this thing where they put their foreheads together and that was like their thing. And they do it a few times in the film. It was like just these tiny details that I think take it off the page and elevate it in such a true way. And thank God our producers allowed us that time, you know?
Larkin: Um, shifting a little bit. So when we heard you speak at Sundance, you said this quote that we wrote down, and it just really resonated with us and struck us. So you said "Often when hiring, men are judged on their potential and women are judged on their resumes." We were wondering if you could just elaborate on that a little bit, talk about how you experienced that with making this film and financing is such a big obstacle for filmmakers, and if that was part of this and how financing worked for your film.
Tara: Yeah. So, um, look, I think I certainly stand by that. I have said that a lot. I think that, um, you know, you can look at it on a directorial level where women come out of Sundance and they don't get like maybe the big studio tent-pole movie that men do when they come out of Sundance and somebody looks at a guy and goes, 'Oh, I see myself in him. He's got potential. I'm going to give him a shot.' I do think it's changing. Um, I think the more we talk about it, the more it will change, but the truth is, is if you aren't given the opportunity to do anything you haven't already proven yourself to do, that you can do, then you're, then that's a ceiling, right?
Then there's like a really low ceiling. Um, I think the reason why so many women succeed in documentary is because there's so much, um, It it's it's so like, self-driven right. Like you can go and like make half the documentary before you actually need the money to finish the documentary. And so, you're like sort of already in the ocean without the permission.
Like there's not as much of a gatekeeper in that situation. So, so yeah, I definitely feel like when hiring crew, um, it is really important to me for, uh, when I look at women and people of color that I look at what they've done and I, and I talk to them about the next steps and I like, imagine what they're ready for, you know?
And with white men I think that that's always the case that people are always sort of projecting on them, what they can do. Which is, "Oh, they can do anything." So I think it's incredibly important for women and people of color that we will and the LGBTQ community as well, that we look at those people in the same way.
Um, the funny thing is, is on set. I think we were about 50/50 men to women ratio, um, which just shows like how hard it is to like, you know, people think you're like somehow having like reverse sexism or reverse racism and it's just. Not real, that's not a real thing. So, um, in terms of financing, the film, um, Shivani Rawat and ShivHans Pictures, um, were our sole financier. I think she's an incredible, producer and supporter of women. And she wholeheartedly believed in this project and understood the importance of shooting in Los Angeles. She was a total enabler for my vision, along with our producers, Monica Levinson and Samantha Housman and Lynette Howell Taylor. They really never tried to like, you know, uh, put their sense of finance ahead of what the uniqueness and the individuality and the specialness of the film was going to be, and, you know, all very much believed 'if you try to make a movie for everybody, you will make a movie for nobody.' And I do think the space of, you know, having like a Sundance-level film is so competitive, you know, you're with 16 other films just that month that are all in competition and, how many are going to sell for a bazillion dollars? How many are going to land a theatrical deal? How many are going to resonate? You know, it's, it's, it's really a testament. And not only that, you've competed with how many thousands of films to even get to that point, right? So, you might as well go for it.
You might as well go big and go brave and make mistakes and, and risk to fail rather than making something that nobody really wanted to make in the first place. I think they really understood that. But certainly Lynette and I have tried to work together for a long time and it was not possible to get a female director financed and that's changed. I mean, just night and day for me, for my family, for my whole life-changed.
Jennifer: Well, digging into the Sundance experience, we kind of want to hear about yeah. What that experience is like having your film premiere there, and then also like waiting all these many months, you know, during a global pandemic to have the film now be released. Wondering if you could kind of talk us through that whole process.
Tara: Yeah, it's so funny because in the lead up to Sundance, I was, I was so excited to get in first of all, so I mean, just giddy, and thrilled, and it took me 20 years, you know, from Slamdance--I was a short filmmaker--to get down the hill from Treasure Mountain Inn to the Egyptian. So, thrilled to have been there.
It was very wonderful to have time with my cast and crew. It was really, truly wonderful to have like the one-on-one reactions from audiences, from like strangers sharing these very deeply personal stories with me. I found that's why I'm a filmmaker and I found it so beautiful and so profound. And I still am like carrying that with me.
It definitely was a lot of pressure. There was like a lot of-- it felt very high stakes. Um, it felt more competitive than I thought it would feel, like I've never felt that at like, as a small, short filmmaker at SXSW, or at Slamdance, I just never was in the like, "will we sell it?" You know, I've just never been in that zone. And that's not my favorite place to be-- like, sort of getting graded by critics and feeling like I have to perform in some way like that. But we had this beautiful premiere and a standing ovation, and I thought Sienna [Miller] and Diego [Luna} deserved that. And I was so happy that they got to go and experience that.
Um, and then, and then what, and then the pandemic. Um, I here's what I'll say it was, so it was so big, right? Like the pandemic happening in the spring. I'm a mom, I have two young children who are in were one was graduating fifth grade and missed out on all of her fifth grade graduation stuff and was very devastated about that. One is in second grade now. Um, so it felt like certainly unfortunate that we weren't coming out and having this big theatrical run, like right on the tail of Sundance, like we had thought. But, it just felt like not a big deal in the grand scheme of things in some way. It just didn't feel like the, what it didn't feel like.
The thing that actually mattered in the moment. Um, and I will say now, it's really glorious to be able to share it with the world. Like ,it's really nice. I feel like it's coming at a really nice moment. I hope it gives people a real sense of the resilience of the human spirit and a moment of catharsis from our shared grief that we've been all stuck in this weird, surreal quarantined purgatory thing, very similar to Adrian.
And, um, the, the best part of Sundance was like watching people act --like, strangers hugging in the theater, or like, um, people like, 'Oh God, I love this movie. I had to call my wife and apologize for every dumb thing I ever did,' or a woman told me, 'you know, my father died recently and this film...I walked around Park City for two hours and then I just realized I wanted to live.' You're like, how do you like top that? So I hope that that is sort of what, what continues to happen for audiences and, and, you know, I think Lionsgate has been a really good partner in that. I hope it gets to lots of people.
Jennifer: Um, I just was struck by what you said about this 20 year journey you've had from, you know, your, your short premiering at Slamdance to, you know, then your feature premiering at Sundance, which, you know, can be the dream for many people. Um, and I feel like I'm starting out on that journey. Like, how did you, how do you keep going?
Like what inspires you to, to get to this point? Like that's a long time, that's amazing
Tara: You have to be like super deluded.
Jennifer: Cool, cool, cool
Tara: Yeah. You do, you have to think like, 'Oh, I have something essential, and like, this is what I'm born to do'. And then also, like, you know, there were so many times where I had like a foot out the door and where I was like to my husband who had been to with this whole time, we've been together a really long time.
I would be like, 'you know, I reserved the right to quit. I reserve the right to join the Peace Corps and do something more meaningful with my life than developing scripts that are never going to get made with a bunch of executives that do not care what I have to say.' Um, and he'd always be like, 'no, but you're a filmmaker!'
And I'd be like, 'fuck that!' You know? So lots of ups and downs, um, Certainly there was a time when I was pregnant with my first daughter. Uh, I, I had a writing partner. We had sold something, but the writer strike had happened. This really dates me. It was like, you know, 15 years ago or whatever. No, how old is she? She's 11. So it was 11 years ago. Um, which the only way I know where by the way. Um, so yeah, but I, I like broke up with my writing partner. I left my agent, I left my manager. We just could not sell anything. I was losing my benefits and I was like, this is like, not me. Like, I just am not going to sit here and not get anything done.
I can't wait for someone else's permission. So I really was going to join the Peace Corps that lasted four days. And then I went to therapy. I did some yoga. And then I got an email from a friend of a friend who had a script or who was like, I've got a hundred thousand dollars, house on like Michigan, and I'm looking for a script and a director.
And I was like, 'Oh shit, I have to go do this.' If I don't do it before the baby comes, it's never going to happen. And so I did, I went and I made a movie with that producer and that was like my first feature. That was, so that was 11 years ago. And I mean, the difference between.... I mean my life has changed so dramatically.
I should say my life. Cause now I'm a mommy too. Right. So, but my career changed so dramatically from like that moment. It like got me Lifetime movies back to back and I did all those CBS programs and now I'm directing TV. And then I wrote my way out of all that with Wander Darkly. And I think it's just like a series of right turns.
And you're just sort of like relentless, man, you just gotta be relentless.
Jennifer: Relentless and deluded. I like it.
Tara: "Relentless and Deluded" a life story by Tara Miele.
Jennifer: A memoir title. Yeah.
Larkin: Oh man. Well, Jennifer, do you have anything else?
Jennifer: No, I guess we'll just end with our, we end every interview with our lightning round. We call it "3, 2, 1 Action." So you can answer in a word or a phrase, whatever comes to mind.
Tara: All right, let's do it.
Jennifer: Okay. Uh, we'll start with three, your favorite or most influential film.
Tara: Most influential film. Oh God. You know, I'll say in relation to this movie, I feel like the first female filmmaker I ever saw was Maya Deren's Meshes of The Afternoon. Which is really obscure, but everybody should see it because she is a weirdo and a wonderful artist. And she does all sorts of time jumping and world jumping.
And that definitely was obviously a kernel of me somewhere.
Larkin: Two: dream person you want to work with.
Tara: Oh, let's say the Obama's.
Jennifer: One: best advice you've received.
Tara: Um, Oh, Bruce Paltrow, uh, Gwyneth's dad was a, you know, a big writer-producer and he was a mentor of mine and he told me early on, "Get your ass in the chair and get the pages out."
Larkin: And action: where can people follow you on social media?
Tara: Um, I am on Instagram. I am very lazy on Twitter and very non on Twitter, but I'm there somewhere and on Facebook, I guess I'm sort of, yeah.
Jennifer: Cool. Wow. It was such a delight to chat with you. Thank you.
Tara: You too this is so cool. I'm really excited that you guys do this. That's rad.
Larkin: Alright. Okay. Thank you!
Jennifer: Have a good rest of your day.
Tara: Bye guys!