Meet Screenwriter Stacey Parshall Jensen: Telling Stories Through the Wilderness

Peter Jensen and Stacey Parshall Jensen of Through the Wilderness

Stacey Parshall Jensen is a screenwriter who “tells stories through multiple cultural lenses.” In her bio she writes that she’s “Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara, Black and a wee bit German living creatively in Los Angeles by way of Minnesota.”

I met Stacey in the early 2000’s when we worked at The Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis. I was in my 20s, starting what I thought was my first “grown-up” job. She was in her 30s, a single mom with a graduate degree, taking a major leap from a career in academic advising and counseling towards pursuing writing. On the surface we had little common, but we both knew from day one that we were going to be friends (actually, I hoped for it during her interview – see below. And apparently I was wearing a tiara on Stacey’s first day. That sealed it for her). 

In the years since, Stacey earned an MFA in Creative Writing and another in Screenwriting from USC. With her husband and fellow filmmaker, Peter Jensen, she started Through the Wilderness – a perfect name because Stacey never looks for easy ways around the difficult, the painful, the dark parts of our lives and our society. She dives right into the wilderness. And somehow she always finds the humor and love and community there, too. Below is an edited version of our conversation. A complete version can be found here.

Headshot of Stacey Parshall JensenSara: Why did you and Peter call your company Through the Wilderness?

Stacey: Peter and I spent a couple years of planning the company, including what it would be called…We both really connected to the woods near the cabins on the shore of Lake Superior. In my most stressful times, it was only there that I actually got seven hours of sleep. Rest.  

We both explore the psyche in our stories. We search for understanding the dark place we all have inside ourselves and we both examine the journey people make to get out of the dark place. How do we get “Through The Wilderness”?

Also, I think the ‘movement’ of ‘through’ is most significant. Helpful.  Hopeful.  Just imagine if the company was called “Facedown in the mud films” or “Stuck In Shit Productions”  A totally different kind of vibe, right?  

Sara: Talk about Blessed!

Stacey: Blessed was our first production. Our very fitting debut film. It’s a short action film about a Native cop who is struggling between her desire to become a mother and being the warrior she needs to be.  

It’s a contemporary crime suspense film with a Native woman lead, who is pretty damn badass. It has all the tropes of action films; car chase, shootout with blood splatter, Russian bad guys, a thumping score and some tender moments. It’s quite the ride. Lol!

I wrote this story of Kiona Stetson many years ago. There was an image that stuck with me for months. I won’t say which one because I want folks to see the film. (It’s available at Vimeo at Blessed, Password: Blessed2015)  

We wanted this film to be a showcase of what we could create. So as we’ve been told by many, it feels like a small feature and not a short film. Which is great.  

Blessed is also unique because sadly, it’s rare to have a film with a Native woman character like Kiona. She’s layered, dealing with grief, trying to find her way through it while still honoring the job she knows she’s good at – a cop. There are very few Native women cops in film and television, even though there’s quite a few in real life. Go figure. I wasn’t surprised in my research that I couldn’t find other films like Blessed. Nope. I felt empowered to keep on this path of creating characters and stories like I do.

Sara: Why a Native American woman cop?

Stacey: I didn’t know at first that my lead was going to be a Native cop. KT’s story came first to me.  But the story didn’t deepen until I discovered Kiona was a cop. A Native cop.

 Most Native woman roles are “booties in buckskin,” exotic creature, giving up her culture and tribe for a scuffy-faced but loving yet rapey white settler or soldier. As for contemporary Native women roles, again, how many can anyone name?

Native American women work in all careers, are educated, dedicated members of society.  They’re smart doctors and strong police officers. And they should be in the films and television we watch because they are real in our world.

Specifically, for Kiona, living and working in Los Angeles, at a distance from her spirituality, I drew from my own experiences. I don’t look like or act like the stereotypical Native woman. But my connection to the Great Spirit runs very deep and most folks don’t know that from just looking at me, or meeting me. I like the idea of exploring a present day Native woman who in her deepest time of pain is having a crisis of faith and how she settles that.  

Which leads me to Kiona, her mother and her grief.

DeLanna Studi as Kiona Stetson in Blessed

Sara: What did representation mean to you growing up – in terms of seeing or not seeing characters you could identify with? Were there characters or stories that resonated? Did you find a way into certain stories even if “yours” wasn’t exactly there?  

Stacey: I didn’t see myself at all in television or movie characters. I thought Thelma on Good Times was beautiful and smart and I was poor like her but we lived in a tiny white town, not the projects. And I’m mixed so I wasn’t “all-Black” which came to my understanding to mean “not Black enough.” And being Native? I didn’t see anyone like me.

I remember the iconic film “Billy Jack” and thinking I saw my sister in it. A character that came close to her. Thinking back now I don’t see what made me conclude that. But that film tore us up. I get weepy just thinking about it. It gave me images to go along with some of the stories my mother told me about how she was treated as a young girl. Of racists attacking her, her friends, her cousins. And the sadness of the sense of defeat when all you want is to be seen? And not hurt for who you are? I felt that. I connected with that film because of that. I see my Grandma’s sad, tired face when I think of that.  But I didn’t see me in anything.

When I got older, high school and college, I had other issues going on that would appear in films that spoke to me. Strife of high school. “Less Than Zero” with friends who used too much drugs. I was desperately trying to be seen, and loved and hiding pain as best as I could.

I’m so sure this is one greatest internal creative motivators for me – to write stories, create films that do show me. My writing is very cathartic. It heals some of my wounds. And because I believe so strongly in cellular memory and intergenerational trauma, I know that within each of these women characters I am attending to someone in me. Somehow. So, I created Kiona to experience loss, the grief of not being able to get pregnant, of dealing with that struggle of being a mom and a cop, two parts of her identity that feel so very opposite, it tears her apart.  She wants both and therein lies the universal story, the one that many women can connect to. And it also allows me to heal my own pain of not getting pregnant again and the shame that comes along with that, along with my expectations of what ‘woman’ means. As mother and a warrior.  

Remember how Toni Morrison wrote The Bluest Eye because she wanted to see herself in a story and wasn’t finding that in other fiction? I think it’s the same way for me.

Sara: Do you think gender/racial/class/sexual etc. diversity as a screenwriter is important? I know – this sounds obvious, but how do you respond, for example, to people who say like “Oh, so as a white person I’m not allowed to write about people of color now? Or a man can’t write a good female character because it’s not ‘authentic’? Aren’t we all just human??”

Stacey: Yes, I do think for any artist gender/race/class/sexual orientation is very important. And if someone tries to claim their art isn’t influenced somehow by these they’re full of shit. And probably shitty artists, too. I think these make up who we are. How we came to be. Certainly creates our lens we see the world through and therefore create from.  Baseline.

I have been having this conversation on “who writes race” since I began writing years ago. Being Mixed Blood- Native, Black and possibly Latina (no confirmation on my father except he was part Native and Black) and a wee bit German. And yes, I know I spell it out as German and I don’t say Caucasian or White. This is because I only learned of this clarification a few years ago and it’s something I’m working through. I didn’t realize that as much as I hated being ‘the other’ in my world, I must have been hanging onto some prejudice. Something inside of me said “at least I’m not White” because learning that there is some whiteness in me has been difficult to accept and understand. I’m being very honest here, and hope I’m not being offensive. Natives mixed with white people were not all marriages based on love.

Exploring identity and history is hard work. It’s not easy to admit what we see in ourselves, that’s for damn sure.

Anyway, I used to think that only people of color could and should write POC characters and stories. But yet, I know the work I put in to develop male characters, and I’m all chick.  And I have diverse characters, of races and ethnicities other than mine, in my stories…I think some men have written great female characters. Some. Few.

I think though that the argument first comes from the privilege of who gets to tell. And who do we listen to. We’re more likely to read a white guy’s book or see or produce a white guy’s story so he’s creating the roles, including POCs and women. I believe that has to change. It is, but I’m all for finding ways to make that happen faster.

…I think we’re living in a time of such immense fear that folks are afraid they won’t be seen. Heard. Understood or cared for. We fight for this. And not necessarily by supporting others who have our voice, like POC’s supporting other POC’s, or women who support women- this happens, of course, but we are also fighting against those who don’t see us or value us.  And that’s painful and exhausting. So we hang onto who we feel we are even tighter. We scramble for power and if we get any, sure shit, nobody’s taking it away. And when that power is historical, it runs so deep you might not even see it…We become super sensitive when someone calls us out to say, “hey, you got that wrong.” Or “you can’t see your privilege because that’s how privilege works.” Or “how about you listen and let me tell my story.”

I am learning to see when this is happening, which is often and how that colors the debate. I think a hard line against white folks writing or telling POC’s stories doesn’t help…[but] if everyone is clear on the perspective, that might get to the authenticity we want. At least from the white lens we’re seeing the story. For instance, The Help. Remember? I knew many POC who were angry about that film but I figured that it was just a white girl’s perspective (I’m shrugging). Now, I would much rather see a film about civil rights from a POC perspective that understands the range of emotions of racism, from the nuances to the violence to the survival. I don’t need to see another film about a white girl coming to terms [with] having this amazing Black nanny. But for a lot of audiences, that’s what they wanted. Which is fine as long as we’re clear about what we’re viewing and why. It was safe. Okay. So be it.

If I want to see something other than that, then I get out there and find the filmmakers who are doing that, fall in line and help them or I make it myself.

Stacey Parshall Jensen with the cast of Blessed
The Women of Blessed. From Left: DeLanna Studi, Stacey Parshall Jensen, Jen Derwingson and Daniella Garcia

Sara: That is a great lead in for talking about upcoming projects!

Stacey: These days I’m working on some features. Blessed, the feature length from the short. This one is going to cost more than my other microbudget so the current draft is brewing on my desk. I’ll get back to it soon.

Also, Waiting For Sam, which is a drama co-developed with my director, Geoffrey Quan. It’s a story about the Pakistani American mother of a soldier who is captured in Syria and how she tries to hold her family together while they wait for him to come home.  With all that is happening in Syria and our current political landscape this story is shifting.

Coastin’ On E is a microbudget feature that is top of my list these days, though. It’s the story of Kit, a Native adoptee, wild-child, who returns home to her dying father’s ‘going-away party’ in an attempt right the lie she told that destroyed his career, but learns the depth of her mother’s hatred, her brother’s pain and jealousy, and that her lie might not be too far from the truth.

I’m co-producing Coastin’ On E with the Elizabeth Frances, who also has the lead in the film. You can check her out as Prairie Flower in AMC’s The Son. And we will produce this film in Minnesota, which is very exciting for me. I’ve been wanting to shoot back home for a long time.

I also have a current TV project called Stands Alone about a Mixed Blood detective who gets help solving crimes from her ancestors. It’s gritty and supernatural.  And it’s letting me explore cellular memory while kicking some ass.

I have other stories brewing, too. And just not enough time in the day.  

Sara: Last question. Do you remember your job interview at The Playwrights’ Center? You made a joke about the 80s family band The Jets (who I just now read were from Minneapolis!) and everyone chuckled politely but I was like, I want to be her BFF 4ever. Ok, not a question really. Just a fact.

Stacey: Lol!! That was the question about how I feel about multiculturalism. And I was trying to be cool, hence the reference to an 80’s family club dance band. Lol! The skin shades of the Jets is like the range of beige to toasted tan in my family. It was great! So proud.

Stacey and Sara ca 2003 doing sarcastic duck faces before it was a thing.

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Sara Tatyana Bernstein
Sara is the co-founder of Dismantle Magazine. You can also find her writing on Catapult, The Outline, Racked, BuzzFeed Reader, and more. Most of her work is about everyday fashion and consumer culture, with forays into pop culture, higher ed, and labor.