Unscripting The Girl: An Interview With Tara Veneruso

by | Oct 31, 2023

Over the course of 10 years, through hundreds of hours of footage, award-winning filmmaker Tara Veneruso documented the lives of a group of young women, allowing them to find their voice and be heard. Through the Girl Unscripted, we are given a glimpse of what life is like for an at-risk girl in modern-day society. We sat down with Tara to discuss her passion for Directing and Filmmaking and how Girl Unscripted, now airing on PBS stations nationwide, should be a catalyst for everyone to get involved in helping girls find the confidence they need to shine brightly.

When Did You Know You Wanted To Be A Director

I think I was about twelve years old when I knew for sure that I wanted to direct and work in film. I was a socially nervous kid and very shy and we had just moved to Texas and I was finally making friends. One of my friends’ dad had a camera. And at the time there were about ten to fifteen kids at the house. So I just started directing everyone. I was grabbing lights from every lamp, and using aluminum foil to make the lights brighter. It all felt very natural to me and I just fell in love with it. And I never stopped. I realize now that the common thread throughout my entire film career is that I love talking with people and finding out who their soul is. To me, it is about meeting their soul. That is what drives me. 

Where Did You Go To School? 

I graduated from NYU-Tisch School Of the Arts.

What Was Your First Film Job?

Janis Joplin Slept Here was my first real project outside of school. It was a music documentary about the Austin music scene. I had nterviewed over sixty people and was so excited it got into the very first SXSW. I was involved every step of the way. I was calling video stores that I found in the Yellow Pages and asking them if they wanted to buy it! One day, one of the stores that also had its own distribution, Music Video Distributors, picked it up. This was in 1996. After that, I went on tour with the movie after graduation. 

How did Girl Unscripted Come about?

When I look back, and I think about the puzzle pieces that came together, I do not think I could do that today. It took so much naivety and bravery. I was working on a fiction feature film, and one of the Hollywood executives considering doing the film with me was concerned that I had not ever directed kids. And there were kids starring in this fictional film. So, I began taking the necessary steps to get myself in a position to work with young kids. 

I went to the Kansas City Film Festival. I always loved St. Joe as a film location. Paper Moon was filmed there, and I was inspired by the idea of filming there. So, I began scouting locations. I was ready to move forward with this fictional film idea, and then I was invited to speak at a Kansas City Women’s luncheon. There, a woman from the audience asked me what I was working on. 

As I thought about the high school off Paseo half empty and I could see the racism and disparity around me, I knew at that moment what the project was. I say, “Oh well, I am working with at-risk teenagers. We teach them how to make movies. Then I film them and their lives.” The entire plan formed in my head at that exact moment. I felt called to do this project. I spent a year putting the puzzle pieces together. I reached out to different organizations in St. Joe and came up with any excuse I could to present to groups in order to network and meet people. 

How Did You And Eric Meet?

I had read an article in the Kansas City Star about how Eric Keith and David Huffman of Red Echo Group were teaching at-risk kids after school. I felt like I knew them already. So, I reached out to Eric and told him about the project. And we instantly had a shared vision. 

For everyone involved, it did not matter if the film turned out or not. As long as the camp was successful and the girls learned something, then as far as we were concerned, it was a success. And because of our sentiments, the girls could feel the positive intention behind the project. 

How Did You Find The Girls?

It was important that the girls came from different socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds. 

We held a contest, a writing competition through Time Warner Kansas City. The girls had to write why they wanted to do an all-girl film camp. Eric and I also went to different organizations to find girls who could benefit from a positive outlet. We found there were a lot of sports organizations for girls but nothing else for teen girls. We wanted to offer a way to create an engaging and positive environment filled with creativity.

We found girls in foster care and talked with high schools, psychologists, and those in the justice system to find at-risk girls who truly needed mentorship.

We then held auditions to see how the girls were in front of the camera and how they interacted with each other. 

What Made You Decide To Hold Off On Finishing The Film? 

My brother, Steven Veneruso, was helping with the screenwriting classes at the camp. He and I both discussed it and concluded that there were more risks to the girls if we were to expose this footage when they were so young. 

At the time, there was a trend of young girls being exploited; 16 and pregnant, for example, was a popular show at the time. So we decided to wait until the girls were over 18, and they could make decisions as adults if they did not want to continue to participate. 

When Did You See The Girls Again?

Early into the filming process, we were talking about coming back in ten years to finish the film. At that time, I had not planned to come back before then. But I decided a year later to film another camp. We eventually returned nine years later to finish the film. 

Was It Hard For You To Direct The Girl Unscripted?

There were some girls that were disruptive to the other girls – but to me, that was the reason we were doing the camp. So I needed to make tough calls like that. And yes, it caused problems, but it was the right decision. This was not an easy project to direct. I would leave St. Joe, and minutes later, there was a fight, drama, and problems. The reward was that all of the girls who started the camp graduated from the camp. And they learned how to make music, and they learned how to edit, and they learned about themselves.

How Do You Feel Now That The Girl Unscripted Is Finally Being Released on PBS Nationwide as a series, and as an award-winning educational piece? It is mindblowing what it has already accomplished. What is your interpretation of this experience?

It does feel otherworldly that it has won awards and that people have been moved so deeply by the girls. For me, my focus has always been the girls. And how can we draw awareness to the issues at-risk girls face? It is about empowering the kids of these girls and other teen girls. And it is about getting our audience to take action. Whether it means working with your local community or becoming a mentor, it is necessary to get involved.

What Lessons Do You Think The Girls Taught You During This Experience?

Everyone in the community must work together to empower at-risk girls. And that it needs to 

happen when they are young and through learning tools to help them. These girls need to be exposed to positive role models. And they need programs that teach them both skills and the confidence to shine. The girls from our summer camp are now deeply passionate about empowering other girls. This was the entire point. To create a movement. Things do not have to continue to go downhill for these girls. Because they are unscripted. And with the right tools, they have the power to write their own future. You can watch all the Girl Unscripted Series via PBS.