“The Church has long realized that art speaks to the human soul in a uniquely powerful way,” says Tara Stone, a graduate of John Paul the Great Catholic University in Escondido, Calif., who has launched an online film camp this summer for high school students that offers college credit through JPCatholic. She believes it’s important for young Catholics to be involved in the arts and create “well-crafted stories in film and television” that reflect “goodness, truth and beauty.”
The Newman Society recently asked Stone to share about her experience at Newman Guide recommended John Paul the Great Catholic University in Escondido, Calif., and about her offerings for high school students this summer, as a part of “Profiles in Faithful Catholic Education” series.
Newman Society: What was your experience like at John Paul the Great Catholic University, and how has it impacted your career and life?
Tara Stone: My experience as a student at John Paul the Great Catholic University was unique in a lot of ways. The university was still very small and very new when I was a student—I graduated with about 20 other students, and we were only the third class to graduate. My experience was also unique in that I was 23 years old when I started my freshman year. I had spent several years at a much larger, secular university and ultimately decided not to transfer any credits when I enrolled at JPCatholic. I wanted to begin with a clean slate.
Having taken other college courses, which shaped my expectations, I was admittedly impressed with the academic rigor of my JPCatholic courses—not so much because the content was difficult to grasp or the concepts particularly complex, but because the hands-on nature of filmmaking requires an enormous amount of time and effort and practice to learn and do well.
The three years of my undergrad were three of the busiest years of my life, and they prepared me well for working in the industry. My senior year was especially helpful in launching my career: I pitched the idea to my professors that instead of several small senior projects, our entire class could collaborate on a single feature film. My professors gave me the green light to write the script, and by the end of our senior year, we had shot the entire thing. Eventually, the film, Red Line, received distribution on DVD and VOD. Having that feature film credit on my resume has been invaluable, and I’ve been able to find work in the industry ever since.
Apart from the academic/professional impact, JPCatholic also shaped my faith journey in a really important way. I’m a cradle Catholic, and I was already serious about my faith when I started at JPCatholic—that was part of the reason I chose to go there and start over on my undergrad degree—but while I was a student there, I developed the habit of going to daily Mass and daily adoration. Those habits were integral to my vocational discernment. A few years after I graduated from JPCatholic, I became a consecrated virgin living in the world.
Newman Society: How did the “Story Masters Film Academy,” which you run with two JPCatholic faculty members, come about? Can you tell us about your film camp for high school students this summer?
Tara Stone: At the beginning of 2020, I was working for a video production company that mostly made multimedia programs for the Air Force, though we did make a handful of documentaries as well. When the COVID pandemic shut everything down in March of 2020, the company’s owner told us all to work from home for the next couple weeks. A couple weeks turned into several months. Meanwhile, all the projects we had been working on were cancelled mid-contract.
With the abundant free time I suddenly had, I decided to self-publish two of my screenplays in paperback and e-book format. Both scripts are period genre films that aren’t being made anymore, so I didn’t (and still don’t) think they would ever be produced. But they are good, fun stories that I wanted to share with the world. At some point, I realized there could be potential to sell them as educational tools to film instructors—they could be used to demonstrate script formatting and story structure, or they could be used to practice practical production skills like scheduling and budgeting.
I reached out to Christopher Riley, who taught my screenwriting classes and still teaches at JPCatholic. He agreed that my scripts could be valuable educational tools, but during the course of our conversation, he suggested that I could seize on an even bigger business opportunity—an opportunity to provide online screenwriting classes to high school students and use my scripts as course materials. Not only that, but Chris wanted to be my business partner and write the curriculum. Shortly after our initial conversation, we roped Nathan Scoggins in to add directing courses to our offerings. Like Chris, Nathan was one of my professors at JPCatholic and still teaches there. Since all three of us have a connection to JPCatholic, partnering with JPCatholic seemed like a natural fit. And so, Story Masters courses are eligible for college credit through JPCatholic.
This summer, we will have our very first Summer Film Camp and Festival for high school students. The summer camp runs from June 14 through July 23. Students will be challenged to write and direct a short film in five weeks, and their final films will be showcased in the film festival during the last week. It’s all online, as all our courses are, but each week begins and ends with a live Zoom session with me, Chris, and Nathan to guide students through their projects.
Newman Society: Why do you think it’s important for young creative Catholics to develop their artistic gifts? Why do you think it’s important for the Church to be involved in the arts?
Tara Stone: Art has always been an important part of the Church’s work of evangelization and catechesis. The Church has long realized that art speaks to the human soul in a uniquely powerful way.
Right now, film and television are being dominated by a culture that is deeply confused and, in many ways, morally depraved. And now, especially in the last year of being in various stages of lockdown, people are consuming unbelievable amounts of media. The human soul naturally craves goodness, truth, and beauty, which is why we are drawn to well-crafted stories in film and television. Unfortunately, much of what’s on offer today are merely counterfeits of goodness, truth, and beauty. If young Catholic artists don’t step up and create, the counterfeits will fill the void.
In my own life, I’ve often related my responsibility as a writer to the Parable of the Talents: God gave me some measure of talent as a writer, and I have an obligation to develop that gift and make it work for God’s Kingdom. Otherwise, I’m like the servant who buries his talent in the ground, and that servant’s story doesn’t end well. I would much rather hear at the end of my days, “Well done, good and faithful servant… enter into the joy of your master.”