For those that have ventured down the road of producing a film, there are numerous details to attend to. But one thing that is truly paramount is character and story background. This week I sent the actors and crew a multi-page document that provides not only the character backstory but terminology associated with the “First World” universe.
While Justice Is Mind was about mind reading, I honestly can’t expect actors or crew to read mine. First, I find the phrase “motivation” to be terribly overused. Rather, I like to give the actors and crew the big picture. It’s easy for a director to drone on about this or that or whatever. But when someone reads in black and white what the backstory is or universe they are in, it makes the process so much easier. It also fosters thoughtful creative input.
As for creative, this week also yielded some interesting conversations regarding costuming. In First Signal, four of the characters have very specific looks. Two are outfitted in Nehru styled suits, while two are Air Force officers. It’s the latter that saw the progress we were looking for. From discussions with an Air Force base military store to a costume company that outfits the military in my favorite TV show, the aim is to have these actors outfitted accordingly.
Speaking of actors, I received a call a few days ago from an actress that was beyond frustrated with the fact that she hasn’t secured representation. Is she talented? Yes. Does she have a solid resume? Yes. The one thing I stressed in this industry is that nothing is simple or easy. There are no shortcuts. And the one unwavering thing you need is patience. But comparing my work to yours or another actors is not the route you go. And when you start tuning out the advice you sought because you aren’t hearing what you want, you might need to rethink your career. This industry is waiting for no one, but it may respond if you have talent, a viable idea or a unique project (film or TV). I say may because I will quote the late Maximilian Schell, “This an industry of chances and luck.” Even after all his years of fame from Happy Days, Henri Winkler still auditions.
I do seem to be having good luck with the DJI Spark. I have to say this is a very smart drone. It takes a bit of getting used to operating virtual joysticks (there is an optional controller you can buy), but there’s so many flight options that are brilliantly automatic. At the end of the day all a filmmaker wants is a great shot.
Finally, I just finished reading James Comey’s A Higher Loyalty. No matter what side of the political aisle you’re on, this is an important read. In the hyper partisan, media obsessed world we live in, it’s too easy to make snap judgments without knowing or caring about the facts. That’s really what our country comes down to does it? Facts, truth and loyalty to the constitution of the United States and those that defend it.
There is that moment during pre-production when suddenly you shift into a higher gear. That moment came this week with location scouting in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Personally, I find location scouting one of the most interesting parts of the filmmaking process.
After the actors are cast, it comes down to the location. Of course they have to be captured brilliantly by a talented crew, but finding the right location encompasses a variety of factors. Does the scheduling work between the location and film? Does it work geographically for the actors and crew? Does it fit to the story? Unless a set is custom built to the script, there are always story adjustments after a location is secured.
Just as I mentioned last week, one of my jobs is to make sure a location knows exactly what they are getting into when they sign on to a film project. I’ll be working on a proposal to one of the locations this week. For me it’s all about planning and efficiency. I personally can’t stand disorganization on sets. As they say, time is money either literally or figuratively and film sets are no exception.
The one thing I believe is critical is testing equipment at locations well prior to the start of production. Sadly, I have been on my share of sets where camera, sound and lighting were simply never tested until the first day of production. There simply are some things you really want to know in advance. Where are the outlets? Are there reflections? Is there signage that needs to be covered? Can the house lights dim? Any strange background noises during the sound check? That’s why it’s called pre-production!
But it’s not all about locations. Wardrobe is another important part of the process. First Signal calls for two unique sets of costuming for certain actors. Two are wearing U.S. Air Force uniforms and two are wearing Nehru styled suits. After finding a great vendor in Colorado, the Nehru suits arrived yesterday. Not only was the price fantastic, but the quality was solid. A few alterations and we will be good to go.
With more location scouting over the next couple of days, along with numerous other details, the pre-production process continues as we move forward towards the June 16 table read.
With First Signal’s table read set for June 16 at The Verve Crowne Plaza in Natick, MA, the priorities are now turning towards locations. Of course there are numerous other details to attend to, but locations are the top of my list. Once I have the locations secured, I build out the rest of the production from there.
The one thing I have learned over the years is you never know what type of locations are available until you start talking to people. This past week I introduced First Signal to someone who operates a website that chronicles former Cold War bunkers and installations in New England. Then there was the pitch to certain government agencies in Massachusetts. In both instances, the parties got back to me the same day to discuss the possibilities. I look forward to some interesting tours in the next couple of weeks!
When I start the search for locations, it’s not just about filming, but establishing a marketing partnership. As I’ve learned over the years, a location is either eager to work with you or doesn’t want anything to do with a film. That works just fine for me. The last thing you want is to film in a location that isn’t supportive.
But as a filmmaker I also have the responsibility to be forthcoming on what a location can expect when filming commences. There will be the actors, crew and equipment. To those not familiar with the process it will appear to be chaotic and disorganized. There will be no glamour. There is no red carpet. Even when “action” is called, it’s only for a limited time before you hear “cut”. Then the process is repeated for another angle, then repeated for another…and another. With everything I’ve produced I always have someone come up to me and say, “I had no idea so much was involved.”
One thing that can be assured is that First Signal will have an epic score. Last week Daniel Elek-Diamanta, who scored both Justice Is Mind and Serpentine: The Short Program, agreed to score First Signal! His work on my last two films was beyond brilliant. You can learn more about Daniel and listen to his work on his official website at this link.
After dealing with a massive snowstorm the day before, the first day back at the Naval Justice School went well. As this is my fifth time doing the program, these are like class reunions between the actors and staff. But with every new class, we have new actors join the program.
I can’t speak for other regions, but in New England the acting community really is about six degrees of separation. While I may not have worked directly with some of the new actors, the other actors have or are familiar with their work. What struck me interesting with one of the new actors was him telling me about a project of his own that he’s putting into production himself. Sound familiar?
While any actor, screenwriter, cinematographer, etc., wants to be hired, there’s nothing more satisfying than creating your own work. It truly is magical watching your performance, your words and your images come to life. But one does not magically snap their fingers to get a project off the ground. In the end it’s about partnering with good people that believe in bringing the project to life.
In addition to the casting notices going up this week for First Signal, location searches will also begin in earnest. As I mentioned to someone already involved in the project, the way I approach a location is to trade the opportunity to shoot with a mutual public relations and marketing plan. I’ve taken this approach with the films I’ve produced and, with the exception of $100 to shoot in church for Justice Is Mind, it has worked.
The last thing you do as an “independent” filmmaker is ask what their rate or how much they would charge. I promise you, you’ll get frustrated when you hear numbers that are impossible to meet. Worse, you meet them and go broke in the process. You want to work with people and companies that are excited about the project. But that excitement is not without responsibility.
On a set I am the first to arrive and the last to leave. Why? Because it’s my responsibility to insure that I leave a location the same way I found it. Case in point was the conference room we used in Serpentine. In the film, the location was at the FBI in Washington, D.C. In the real world that was the Aquarius board room at The Verve Crowne Plaza in Natick, MA.
That room worked out great in the film, but it needed to be dressed. I purchased Washington, D.C. images to cover up the posters on one wall and added The Brandenburg Gate during the Cold War era to highlight a certain moment in the story (it was also an Easter Egg for Justice Is Mind). How did the viewer know they were at the FBI? Stock footage the moment before that showed the exterior of the FBI. What’s interesting about that footage is that one of my favorite shows, Madam Secretary, has also used that same clip.
With the script breakdown for First Signal almost complete, look for a casting notice in the coming days. And that military exercise I mentioned last week? Looks like that contract is coming through.
And so the new season started with a bang—literally. Yesterday I attended the Massachusetts Military History Exposition in Orange, MA. This is the second year this group produced this show. While last year focused on World War II, this year’s outing represented a timeline of military history. My favorite group was those representing the 16th century.
The group from the year 1528 called “Das Geld Fahlein” offered an excellent history on how troupes from those days were organized, compensated and fought. Imagine you are a knight in “shining armor” on a horse galloping towards several hundred of these 30 foot long spears and other types of sword defenses. It may have been low-tech even by 1528 standards but it did what it had to do—stop the enemy.
Another area of interest to me has been about communications and infrastructure during World War II. I talked to a few reenactors at the German camp about some technical aspects of how they communicated back then. The distance limitation in radio communication and the shelf life of the field batteries was very interesting. Needless to say, there’s always something new to learn at these events.
Of course the highlight of these types of events are the battle reenactments. While “Hollywood” would have multiple takes over a period of days if not weeks to shoot something like this, this is a one take moment. Once the action starts it just keeps going until there’s a victor. Yesterday was also the first time I used Facebook Live. I broadcast the World War II battle and had viewers all over the country. You can watch the video at this link.
But through all the uniforms and equipment of wars long past, there is the educational component of these events that’s so important. It is through events like this that one learns about the issues of those times and what brought yesterday’s societies to conflict and then peace. Like my experiences last year attending these events, it’s the reenactors that bring them to life. Their depth of knowledge and passion is what makes for a most enjoyable experience.
As so many of my projects have some sort of military component to the story, while I have a great time at these events, it’s all about networking and learning about the talent involved. Why on earth would I seek to hire actors, get costumes and source equipment from the ground up if I could reach out to one of these groups?
With Marche Du Film (Cannes) coming up, I always find it interesting to learn about the new players while reading about the fate of others. No doubt in the weeks ahead we will read in the trades about the big splash of a new company’s star driven acquisition or the sorry story of others that used to hold court on private yachts. Having been to Cannes many years ago (not for the festival) the location is truly a stunning one to announce a major project.
There is no question that this is an industry of flash. When you have good news to announce you do so publicly, loudly and in grand fashion. The whole point is to cut through the noise to get your project noticed. As I’ve said time and time again, this industry is as much about making motion pictures as it is about promoting them. This is why in so many cases when you see a production budget you multiply it by itself for marketing and public relations.
But then there are the rest of us that aren’t making $175 million motion pictures (at least not yet!). What filmmakers like me rely on is reliable consistent revenue from VOD. While so many players come and go in this industry, we rely on VOD platforms to be there year after year. Although sites like Netflix are in a public relations battle with Cannes, Amazon is playing by the rules and, “was not coming to the South of France “looking to disrupt Cannes,” adding, “You have to approach Cannes on its own terms.”
And while Cannes is one of the world’s greatest launching pads for a film, there are VOD sites like TubiTV that are also making waves. Just this past week the site announced a $20 million outside investment. Justice Is Mind has been on TubiTV for several months and has started to gain some solid traction. I’ve also noticed an increase in traffic for Justice on other VOD sites. All these upticks bode well for the industry as a whole. It shows that consumers are watching across a variety of platforms and it doesn’t matter if they are star driven $100 million plus budgets or films made for under $100K. At the end of the day audiences want to be entertained and they want the choice to be theirs.
But as the industry enters a new season it’s a review of my current projects First World, SOS United States, Serpentine and In Mind We Trust, the sequel to Justice Is Mind. Are my websites updated? Do they convey the current status of each project? You know what they say about first impressions, you only get one to make one.
There is, however, a cardinal rule that I live by. I never disclose who I’m talking to and who I submitted to. This is why I declined to respond to a local entertainment publication that reached out to me on one of my projects. This is like when actors announce who they just auditioned for (or what festivals a filmmaker submitted to). I promise you that doesn’t help you get the part any quicker. In fact, it can have an opposite result. The same holds true for behind the scenes conversations. Sure, the trades like to know what’s going on, but confidentiality is paramount.
However, I will say this. The world’s largest oversees mobile player picked up Justice Is Mind from our distributor earlier this year. But until it’s live, I’ll hold on the formal announcement.
The media has reported. The DVD has been tested. We have a green board on Amazon. The file has been transferred to the Ice Network. No, this isn’t LC 39 at Kennedy Space Center, it’s the preparation for the world premiere of Serpentine: The Short Program tomorrow night at The Strand Theatre and on Amazon and the Ice Network the following day.
When launch day, or better known in the industry as “release date” arrives for a film, that’s when the story you’ve worked on for so long is transferred to the audience. As Bill Sampson said in All About Eve, “You’re in a tin can.” Of course in this age the tin can reference is more about DCP and DVD.
This past week was just about some final details, finishing up the copy for various email templates and our official press release as part of the VOD launch on Tuesday. The highlight was this article that appeared in The Item. While national press is great for general awareness for VOD, there’s nothing like local press that can drive traffic to a theater. This newspaper circulates in Clinton and the neighboring towns.
Tomorrow night looks to be a star studded affair with many of the actors and crew from both films attending. I have to say I love these reunions. Not only does it give everyone a chance to catch up, but to see our collective efforts on the silver screen. And then there is the overlap. Audiences will see several of the actors and crew from Justice Is Mind in Serpentine: The Short Program.
But with each project comes an expanded network and new processes. While Amazon certainly existed five years ago, the opportunity to distribute directly to several countries did not. Since Evidence premiered at the Strand, the number of VOD platforms has exploded. Not only does this mean the need for programming from TV shows and movies, but the ability to rise above the crowd and be heard.
Like Evidence that resulted in Justice Is Mind, the goal with Serpentine: The Short Program is to develop enough interest to produce the feature film version this year to release after the Winter Olympics in 2018. What this comes down to is building an audience and not getting lost in the crowd. When you consider that there are 10,000 – 50,000 films made a year, you can’t wait for an audience that may never find you, you have to tell them where you are.
As the saying goes, when opportunity knocks you take it. But none of this comes without passion, dedication and being steadfast for the long haul. A haul that can seem like forever until the day arrives.
Standby to launch.
Whenever I secure a theatrical screening, one of my goals is to obtain local press to bring awareness to the event. Sure, there’s the requisite social media engagement and Facebook event. But there’s nothing like securing media placements. This week the Sturbridge Villager wrote a terrific cover story on Serpentine and our upcoming premiere at the Strand Theatre on March 6. Not only did reporter Olivia Richman capture the essence of the film, but my background in the sport and passion for filmmaking.
It is about passion when a theatrical screening is on the horizon. For the thousands of independent films that get made every year only a sliver receive any sort of theatrical release or even one time screening. To fully capture that exposure I always seek to have the events “officially” photographed. I’m delighted to report that David Bruno of David Bruno Event Photography will be our official photographer for the evening.
Further to the above it also simply comes down to organization. By the time the day of the event arrives my aim is to actually enjoy the evening rather than running around at the last minute trying to rectify something. This is why I no longer participate in some third party events unless they are produced by professionals. I recall one science fiction convention I was at five years ago when despite my assurance that they had a DVD projector, screen and speakers set up, they didn’t. Compounding the issue was some volunteer lecturing me that their failure was my responsibility. Understand these words, if you dare to put on the hat of producer it is your responsibility to make sure things run smoothly.
As for distribution, next week I transfer Serpentine: The Short Program to the Ice Network. I have to say it will be great to see Serpentine on both Amazon Prime and the Ice Network. With Amazon being available to over 60 million and the Ice Network reaching figure skating enthusiasts around the world, the VOD distribution plan will bring the awareness this project needs to develop as a feature film.
Of course all these efforts with Serpentine remind me of the days when I first produced Evidence which led to production of Justice Is Mind. In some ways it seems like it was years ago (it was), in others it seems like it was yesterday. Because if it’s the one thing I endeavor to do is to promote my projects at whatever stage they are in. There are regular updates to Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, pitches for development, media and presentations for distribution and screenings.
Over the course of any given week I get Google Alerts on various subjects I track. One of them, no surprise, is for mind reading. When I received an alert for a recent article in MustTech News I pitched them Justice Is Mind for coverage. I was delighted to receive an email from them about a wonderful review they posted yesterday – “A must-watch film for those in love of thrill and science fiction!” That works!
And it’s back to work next week at the Naval Justice School in Newport, RI. I have to say I’m looking forward to falling back into the character of an NCIS Agent and working with some new actors and JAG students. Out of all the performance work I’ve done, this is the most unique. Not only is this a great acting opportunity from a role-playing point of view, but you learn something in the process about how the legal services work in the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard.
Back to base.
I have often stated that there is so much more into filmmaking than making the film itself. While one naturally wants a quality project that maximizes available resources, it’s also about getting the word out. Although social media helps, there is nothing like a media placement that drives awareness and needed attention. Thank you to the Ice Network and Community Advocate for that attention.
This past week Lois Elfman, my former business partner, wrote a great article for the Ice Network. This article was particularly important for a variety of reasons. First, in addition to the article itself, the Ice Network will also be streaming Serpentine: The Short Program after our March 6 premiere at the Strand Theatre. Second, from 1993 – 2004 Lois and I published a figure skating magazine. For nearly a decade it reigned as the world’s largest under our leadership. There wasn’t a skater, official, ISU member nation or skating club that didn’t know about it. But the Ice Network is today what we published yesterday. Indeed, it was an honor to see this article on their site as it reaches the sport on a worldwide basis.
It also important to mention that there was a third party to this story, albeit a bit behind the scenes this time. That would be acclaimed skating coach Thomas J. McGinnis who also was our business partner at the skating magazine. Tommy not only saw the vision I had for the magazine at the very beginning, but for Serpentine as well. Thus his much appreciated Executive Producer credit you will see when the film is released.
A film release not only consists of a marketing plan but a test. This past week I went to the Strand Theatre for a DVD test of Serpentine: The Short Program and a DCP test of Justice Is Mind. While the Strand screened Justice back in 2013 from a DVD, we now have the film in a DCP format. Both tests went great. I’ll say this, out of all the theaters I have screened Justice Is Mind the Strand presents the best picture and sound. There is nothing like seeing your film come to life on the big screen and that thrill was just as exciting with Serpentine.
Serpentine: The Short Program also got the green light from Amazon Instant Video this week. I say green light because that’s literally what happens with the circles on the Amazon platform when everything is cleared to go. We did have one red light as our original poster submission just said Serpentine. It had to also include The Short Program. Starting on March 7 the film will be available on Amazon in the United States, Japan, United Kingdom, Germany and Austria.
Finally, I will conclude this post with the importance of art. On Friday night my mother and I saw the acclaimed National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine at the famed Mechanics Hall in Worcester, MA. Part of the program included Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95 “From the New World” by Antonin Dvorak. One of my particular favorites. The strength, precision and passion in which the symphony played under the direction of Theodore Kuchar presented one of the most exciting symphony performances I have even seen.
I say strength because unless you live on another planet the continued existence of Ukraine hangs in the balance with the Russian invasion and annexation of the Crimea to say nothing of the armed conflict on their Eastern border. I simply ask every American reading this blog, how would you feel if another country walked across our border and occupied part of our country? The proud history of the Ukrainian people existed long before the United States was even a thought. While this historic national symphony of a challenged peoples tours our great country, isn’t it time the United States helped restore the greatness of another before it’s too late?
Conduct music not war.
From the World Figure Skating Championships to the Naval Justice School, 2016 has been a whirlwind of a year. And between these events was the figure skating political thriller Serpentine. From script, to production to media coverage, Serpentine has certainly set the stage for 2017.
I’m never one to make New Year’s resolutions. Instead I look at what was accomplished in any given year. For me, there needs to be at least the creation of a new project or perhaps some interesting acting or on camera work. Thankfully for 2016 there was a bit of both.
Of course we had this thing in the United States called a presidential election. But you can’t define your entire existence over who won or lost. Putting aside that it narrows your world and opportunities, the country goes on no matter who wins or loses. The great thing about the American presidency is every four years we change hands (sometimes). As Scarlett O’Hara would say, “After all, tomorrow is another day.”
As for another day, post production on Serpentine is moving right along and on schedule. We are into the second draft of the edit and I signed off on the opening credits VFX sequence yesterday. And generally speaking a good amount of the film has been scored. The post-production process of any film (short or feature), takes coordination. Are all the parties on the same page? Is communication flowing from one department to the next? I’ll say this there is a comfort level working with the same parties that brought Justice Is Mind to life.
In addition to Serpentine, 2017 will usher in some personal changes. I renewed my membership in SAG-AFTRA a couple of months ago for a variety of reasons. Let’s just say I see more trips to NYC next year. One of the benefits to membership is being able to vote in the SAG Awards and getting DVD screeners. Like the election, I’ll just leave it as what film isn’t getting my vote.
But for any given year it comes down to moving the needle just a bit in the direction I want to go in. I don’t try to push for the “all or nothing” approach as that can just set you up for disappointment. Do I outline goals for the near year? Certainly. Are they resolutions? No. Frankly, I’ve never understood those that proclaim with all the caps they can on social media at the start of any year that they’re going to quit X or move to Y! Um, how about just do it for yourself whenever and see where it goes. You won’t know until YOU try not when your “friends” approve.
Sure there’s been some disappointments this year. It wasn’t all champagne and caviar. But there’s no point dwelling on the past or those that tried to check all these bags of drama onto my ship (sorry we’re full up!). Like the car accident I was in. As I thankfully walked away, you just move on (cue Scarlett O’Hara again with score).
In closing it was great to see the reach of this blog across the world for another year. Your support of these words is very much appreciated. And to you and yours across this great planet…
Happy New Year!
Last Sunday principal photography on Serpentine, The Short Program wrapped! After eight months of writing and two months of pre-production planning, I was more than pleased with the end result. A special thanks to the cast, crew, location partners and sponsors for making this possible. After taking the past week to organize the video and sound files, the hard drive will transfer to our editor on Monday to begin the post-production process. It’s this stage that turns a puzzle into a completed print.
But make no mistake about this process, as an independent filmmaker you are pretty much responsible for everything…even the weather. And while I believe organization and communication are critical to a successful production, it does come down to both diplomacy and flexibility. A film production, whether it’s a short or a feature, is unlike any other type of business. You start by yourself and then suddenly ramp up. For Serpentine that meant over 30 people and three locations (for Justice Is Mind it meant over 200 people and 15 locations). As a screenwriter there is a thrill like none other than watching your screenplay come to life. Isn’t this why we do what we do?
For me this production was both a reunion as well as working with some terrific new people. It started with the FBI conference room scene at The Verve, Crowne Plaza. When Michael Coppola arrived I was immediately reminded of First World where he played a secret service agent. But it was the night before that I wrote an additional new scene for Michael and Vernon Aldershoff (Assistant Director in Serpentine and Henri Miller in Justice Is Mind). Of course, the last thing I wanted to do was to tell the cast and crew about a new scene when we didn’t even shoot the intended one! I waited to see if we were ahead of schedule and we were. It worked out great.
It was at Northstar Ice Sports that the word scope came into focus. First, I am beyond thankful to Denise Marco, the board and staff of Northstar for this opportunity. By scope I’m talking about the size of the set. It was about making sure all actors, cameras and crew were properly placed to make sure the scenes worked. For weeks I drew this out from the skating program, to camera and actor placements. What may not have seemed obvious to some would be very obvious in post-production.
Reuniting Kim Gordon and Paul Lussier from Justice Is Mind was a particular goal of mine from the beginning. Their on screen chemistry in Justice was what every director dreams of. So when they both signaled their availability for Serpentine I immediately signed them on to the project. As a director, there is also a comfort factor in terms of direction when working with actors that you know will deliver. In advance of our shooting I forwarded a detailed memo on character and scene development for all actors and crew. As time is a serious commodity on an independent film set, I think it’s best for everyone to understand the entire tone and feel of a scene when they arrive.
As a director I don’t believe in grandiose demonstrations of direction to actors and crew just to prove a point. In my simple view of it all, the most that should happen on set are adjustments. There’s no time to teach someone how to act on set. (Side note: On Justice Is Mind one adjustment I gave to an actress was how to say a particular phrase of profanity. I’ll just say this, it’s an American thing in terms of word emphasis and slang).
Our last day of filming was at a friend’s house. It was a fitting end to the production after coming down from two days of intense work at Northstar and the fact that there was only one line of dialogue. As I said to everyone, these scenes are largely atmospheric and what composers live for.
Another highlight of our week was when the MetroWest Daily News interviewed me about Serpentine and sent a photographer to our shoot at Northstar. Not only did they write an excellent article, but created a video as well. You can access both at this link.
Over the next few months I’ll be working on a variety of marketing and promotional efforts as we build towards our February release. During this time look for more stills, behind the scenes images and a trailer.
In two weeks Serpentine goes into production. With our locations secured and cast and crew locked, this is the phase in which there are numerous details to attend to. From printing posters, to purchasing a new laptop, American flag and external hard drives, it’s a methodical checking off the list of all the things that are needed to produce a film. For me it’s about organization. I produce dramas not seek to create them in real life.
Past all the aforementioned details, there’s also the creative side, from being in touch with the actors regarding their characters to the crew for various shots and other production matters. Producing a film is a team effort one that requires the cooperation of numerous parties. While the director may conduct the orchestra, you do need an orchestra!
As for the creative side, as we are filming just the first ten pages of the feature length version the end of the month, I wanted to give this short a name. For Justice Is Mind we called that short film version Evidence. For Serpentine it will be called The Short Program. I think this is a fitting title. First, this is a short film. In figure skating the short program is, to quote Wikipedia, “The short program of figure skating is usually the first of two phases in figure skating competitions.” As this short is phase one of the Serpentine project that’s another reason for the name.
Earlier this week I updated Serpentine’s IMDb listing. For this short film alone there are just over 35 people and companies. When you hear someone say it takes a village to make a film, they are speaking the truth! For those that wish to get into this industry, I always tell them to try to visit a film set at some point to see what’s involved.
But the one thing that I will be working on today is our press release announcing that Serpentine is going into production with The Short Program. Anyone that has worked with me on my past projects knows how much I believe in promotion. And when someone signs on to one of my projects, I promote them at every opportunity. Case in point when I was marketing Justice Is Mind. It was always great to include the cast, crew and our partners whenever I could.
The marketing of a film is just as important as its making. Without promotion there is no audience. While today’s world of VOD is great for the independent filmmaker, if your audience isn’t told about your project how can they ever find it? To this day, I continue to promote First World, Evidence and Justice Is Mind. When one thinks of the enormous amount of time to develop and make a film, why wouldn’t you promote them regularly? As they say the proof is in the pudding when you see a consistent placement on IMDb along with VOD streams.
But there is one thing I do need to find for this particular production. It was a gift from Tara Lipinski after we photographed her for the magazine I used to publish. It’s been in my basement since I moved back from Los Angeles.
After six months of research and writing I finished the first draft for the political thriller around the sport of figure skating. From the tranquility of local skating rinks to the power capitals of the world, the story centers around a champion figure skater, her mysterious new sponsor and the president of the “American Figure Skating Federation” as they traverse a Cold War mystery that has engulfed the skater’s family since the 1970s. While the title of the story will soon be revealed, the working logline is as follows, “A champion figure skater finds herself in a decade’s long government conspiracy involving her missing mother and a Cold War mystery that culminates at the world championships.”
Writing an original story takes time, at least for me. I move the process along, but don’t rush it. I let the characters speak to me and the settings they are in. While the story started and ended the way I had originally planned, I always find it interesting how suddenly the idea comes for this character to do this or that character to do that. In the end, I like to see characters evolve.
Since SOS United States went under review some months ago, I’ve had the time to devote to this project, a project that I’m planning to put into production the way Justice Is Mind came to market. Some have asked how this process moves forward. First, the script is now being read by my trusted attorney for the last twenty five years. In addition to trusting his judgment and comments, it’s also for legal purposes. Over the week the script will get registered at the Writers Guild of America and then at the U.S. Copyright Office. After WGA registration the script will roll out to a select group for their comments.
During the script review process a concept poster will be produced along with website registration and a preliminary design. The project will be formally announced once the concept poster is complete along with a synopsis. I usually let a project sit for a week or two after a first draft before I tackle the synopsis. It’s not so much as a challenge to write, but you need to decide what to write. I never like giving away the whole story because in the end the synopsis is also a promotional tool. In Justice Is Mind we don’t learn the outcome of the trial, just that the situation is dire. If you want to know what happens, I say watch the movie.
But following the Justice Is Mind model, will be the production of a short film version to develop interest and present the production aspects of the intended feature, in this case, the first ten pages of the script that introduces the primary characters and their world. By the end of next week, or first of the following, I will be reaching out to several actors and crew that I have worked with on First World and Justice Is Mind. This will be in addition to reaching out to area skating rinks that I’m familiar with and other locations.
Of course, critical to the process will be the interest of a skater who can project the starring role on and off the ice. A tall order? We shall see. The one thing that will not happen is using a double. It was one thing in Justice Is Mind when an equestrian was used in the advanced riding scenes, but even the actress that played that part was a rider. Yes, I’ll be looking for a “Lynn-Holly Johnson” type. On the production side, there will be the filming of the skating sequences and having them look as dynamic and exciting as possible. I already have color scheme in mind that will play out throughout the production.
Yes, this is a very exciting time but having been down this path before with Justice Is Mind it’s all about planning, production and execution.
On the ice.
“Not paying enough attention to the script.” I couldn’t agree more when I first read that statement attributed by Arnon Milchan of New Regency on The Tracking Board. Time and time again I read in the trades, or general consumer press, about the issues a film has faced because of the script. In so many of these cases it seems that a script was rushed to fulfill some sort of contractual obligation. But as I posted this past week on Facebook, no amount of A list actors can rescue an ill-conceived script.
The article that Milchan was quote in revolved around the dearth of the mid-budget movie. I fondly remember the variety of movies that studios used to distribute in mainline theaters that didn’t revolve around a comic book, endless sequel or rehash of something we already saw (like the latest Star Trek and Star Wars films). But thanks to determined filmmakers, great films like Trumbo, Spotlight and The King’s Speech are being made and, honestly, always will be. It’s just a matter of finding the right audience to support it from financing to distribution.
As I come up towards the end of the political thriller I’m writing around the sport of figure skating, there is the continued promotion of either projects completed or in development. In my post last week I talked about my “special relationship” with the UK. A few days after my post, I was nicely surprised when Daniel Elek-Diamanta sent me a re-imagined look for the SOS United States concept poster. While I wanted the first concept poster to reflect the vintage era of the ocean liner, this one presents the same view but with a contemporary look. When developing a new project, it’s all about promotion and this concept poster really captures it!
In the world of filmmaking, particularly as an independent filmmaker, it’s all about promotion and getting the word out. It’s about exploring every avenue of distribution and pitching your project. We all look around to see what other filmmakers have done to promote their projects, but what works for one film may not work for another. But there are some distribution avenues that are just a no brainer – Amazon.
When Amazon announced their new Amazon Video Direct program I could not be more excited. Although First World was available in the United States for some years, I now had the ability to have it in Japan, United Kingdom, Germany and Austria. Last week it went live in those countries. Yesterday, I uploaded all the necessary digital assets for Evidence, the short film version of Justice Is Mind (the feature is with a distributor). The process was painfully simple to reach an audience in the tens of millions.
But when I saw someone post on their Facebook page, “I fear my work will get lost in a sea of titles and get drowned out by larger studios.” That’s a defeating position to take. Once it’s live on Amazon it’s just a matter of external promotion through social media and other channels. Amazon operates on an algorithm of suggested films. All it takes is a few people to find your project on Amazon and it will just continue to grow. While there are other VOD platforms popping up every day, they rely on the filmmaker to bring the audience whereas Amazon already has the audience. Yes, you’re in a sea of films. But I’d rather be in an ocean than a puddle.
Today I finished Act Two of the political thriller I’m writing around the sport of figure skating. With a story that traverses a season in the sport along with over 40 characters on and off the ice, this stage of the writing process is a point of reflection. It’s a point when I review my notes (there are 25 pages) and read the script from the beginning. I liken it to building a road. The “earthwork” has been done, but it needs to be paved. For me, the Final Act (or in this case Act Three and/or Four) is both the most exciting and nerve wracking. Why? Because the road has to lead to a destination — a conclusion.
Every writer works in their own way. And while books, seminars and industry experts dictate how you should do the process, I promise if you talked to ten different screenwriters you would get ten processes of mixed results. For me, I look at a character or story arc and see if it has evolved. Nothing is worse than watching a movie and not seeing a character or story resolution. I’d rather take some extra time to get the last acts right than have audiences leaving disappointed or, worse, with a predictable ending.
When I wrote Justice Is Mind the initial premise was someone facing their own memory at trial. But for anyone that has seen the movie, while that may be the central core, there’s a conflux of other activities going around it. In my view, nothing is linear in real life and it shouldn’t be in film. For me, I always love a good twist at the end or a surprise ending. Two of my favorites with surprise endings are The Sixth Sense and Witness for the Prosecution. Both films couldn’t be more different in genre, but they brilliantly pulled off an ending that I don’t think anyone saw coming. As of this moment, I believe I have the surprise ending all set for this story, but as it’s not written yet that can certainly change!
As for a mix of things, there was a great practical article in Forbes titled How To Finance An Independent Film by Bryan Sullivan. While I’ve known about these steps for some time, it was nice to see a “drama” free article just present the facts. Often with the trades or some of the bloggers I follow (or used to follow), there’s this air of judgment or bias in their reporting that does nothing but lecture. This is an industry of creatives that develop stories for an audience. And while there most certainly are standard ways to accomplish that, the last thing we need to hear are “You can’t do this” or “You can’t do that” when it comes to building projects. Bottom line, all projects and their path to market take different roads.
I’ll admit there is a certain satisfaction in creating an original story. In the case of this story around the sport of figure skating, it’s worked out well so far that I was involved in the sport in so many different areas. From skating (I passed that Junior Free before the rule changes!), to teaching, to publishing a magazine for the sport to TV analyst work, I can say that this story travels from learn to skate, to receptions to the world championships with the FBI and NSA steadfastly involved that builds a story that takes us around the world.
Representing the United States.
When I was living in New York City in the 1980s there was ship docked a couple of avenues away that I would sometimes notice. In those days it was a dawn walk down 10th avenue in the morning on my way to Sky Rink before I went to work at Time magazine. That ship was the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid.
Last week I traveled to the city to spend the day at The Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum. I’m not sure if there is another museum in the world that offers an aircraft carrier from World War II, the Concorde, the Space Shuttle Enterprise and the Galileo shuttle from the famed TV series Star Trek. Needless to say among the array of exhibits there’s plenty to do!
When I was researching and writing both First World and SOS United States there was so much at the museum that touched on these stories. Not only do both involve aircraft carriers, the basis for First World is the 1960s space program and the return of the Concorde in SOS United States as Commonwealth One for the Prime Minister of the UK. It’s one thing researching a subject, it’s entirely another to experience them in real life.
Of course, being a Star Trek fan, I know the museum is getting a Star Trek exhibit in July. What I didn’t know is when I walked into the Space Shuttle pavilion I would see the Galileo shuttle from the TV show! I had just watched a documentary on the group of fans that saved this storied piece of TV history from a piece of discarded junk to a restored prop of broadcast quality. Yes, it was a total geek out moment seeing this iconic prop.
As for history, I remember seeing the Space Shuttle Enterprise on TV when it did its atmospheric tests in the 70s. Although I saw the Space Shuttle Discovery some years ago at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, the way the museum has the Enterprise displayed along with its related history and exhibits made the pavilion one of the highlights of my visit.
When I was at the museum I took two guided tours, Pacific War: USS Intrepid in WWII and Concorde a Supersonic Story. For the respective price of $15 and $20, they were wonderfully informative and were essentially private tours. For WWII it was another guest and myself. The tour was all the more interesting as the other guest was a veteran of the Korean War. If it wasn’t for those brave men and women that serve in our military, we would be living in an unrecognizable world today.
Having always been a fan of the Concorde, I saved what turned out to be a private tour until the end of the day. If you grew up in the 70s the Concorde was all over the news. Simply put she was so far ahead of her time that just to see the plane was a cool experience. I first saw Concorde in 1985 on my first trip to London as she was taxing at Heathrow. As I understand it from the terrific guide I had, this is one of the few Concordes in the world that you can actually go into. When I was sitting in the passenger seats I was just thinking to myself about the amazing conversations and deals that went down in the cabin during her time in service.
As for time, I met up with my former business partner Lois Elfman for a wonderful dinner at Bistro Citron (highly recommended!). I first met Lois during my days in New York City at the offices of the Ice Theatre of New York (for insiders Moira’s loft). As many know we went on to launch a newsmagazine for the sport of figure skating that we proudly built into the world’s largest with an “intrepid” team.
Speaking of building, I just completed the second act of the political thriller I’m writing around the sport of figure skating “If she skates the way she did at sectionals she’s going to worlds. And the Federation can’t stop it.”
Being a filmmaker, I’m an avid reader of the industry trades. From The Hollywood Reporter, Variety and IndieWire to several email newsletters (SSN Insider is my favorite). In general, I look to get a feel for the industry and where it may be going. As I’ve written about in earlier posts, navigating this industry is like being on the bridge of a ship and deciding what port to sail into. The choices are numerous and in some cases smartly promoted. One of these choices was a film festival.
I attended my first film festival back in 2007 when First World was nominated for best screenplay out of over 80 submissions at the California Independent Film Festival. Having placed in the top 5 for this contest it was a total thrill to attend, network and then hear the title of my first screenplay announced as a finalist in a theater. I didn’t win the Slate Award but it was honor enough to be nominated. It was at this festival that I realized I had developed a new trade.
In this industry it seems just natural that you start to pick up new trades. You may start as a writer or an actor and before you know it you may be producing and directing your first short film. You start to get into some festivals, perhaps some theatrical exhibition and then score some media. Soon thereafter you realize you want to make your first feature film. Every level of this industry takes time and patience and despite what one might read in the trades, none of this happens overnight.
One thing that never happens overnight is film financing. It doesn’t matter what your station is in the industry. Film financing, in particular, is very nuanced. As for my projects, I’ve fully funded some and have had investors (public and private) in others. In one case I used crowdfunding. Larger projects, if they can attract the right talent, can also achieve pre-sales. But that’s being challenged owing to certain bankable “A” list availability to commit to a project before one scene is even shot. But one area that I’m particularly excited about is equity crowdfunding. There have been numerous articles on the subject, so I would do your own searches. That being said, it offers filmmakers yet again another option–and port?
With First World, In Mind We Trust and SOS United States in various stages of review and development, the one thing I have committed to is producing the first ten pages of the political thriller I’m writing around the sport of figure skating as a promotional vehicle. As some may recall, I made a short film version of Justice Is Mind titled Evidence. The point of that short was to not only develop interest in the project but to bring together an initial cast and crew to insure that various aspects work.
What are the primary challenges with this new project? A figure skater that can do a couple of triple jumps and can act. No matter how it has been done before, using a double for either the extreme close ups of a jump or distance shots just doesn’t work. A skater has a particular way they stand on the ice along with body type. The other part of this short is developing some new techniques to film a skating program that truly captures the grace, style and power that a skater projects. In essence I want the audience to experience the program not just see it.
Perhaps the greatest challenge of course is developing an original story. As I enter the closing of the second act to this political thriller, I remember where I was at the time when writing Justice Is Mind. At this moment I’m literally living with the characters and all the plots and subplots. But rather than taking the easy way out on their resolution, I will let the story sit for a few days and let the story speak back to me.
I only subscribe to a handful of writing and filmmaking newsletters. In today’s day and age anyone can have a newsletter, but what it really comes down to is content. Many years ago my former business partner recommended that I subscribe to C. Hope Clark’s FundsforWriters. The amount of useful and insightful information about the world and industry of freelance writing is nearly unlimited. For me, I always enjoy Hope’s “EDITOR’S THOUGHTS” and the featured article. I was honored when Hope asked me to write the featured article for this week’s newsletter. Titled “From Bookstore to Theater, Turning Your Book into a Movie”, you can read my article at this link.
Writing an original story is not easy by any stretch and we all approach our stories differently. But in each and every case, there is that one moment when we are inspired to write that one word or phrase that will ultimately result in a book a movie or both. When I wrote a screenplay for a friend last year based on his book, there was a road map of sorts, a foundation in which to build off the primary story. The book was the original idea, the screenplay was the adaptation. A couple of weeks ago at the World Figure Skating Championships in Boston, a friend of mine was passionately telling me about an original story that they want to turn into a movie.
And therein lies that one word that drives us creatives – passion. I can only speak for myself when it comes to writing an original story, but passion is the number one driving force for me. When you are “world building” an original story, if you aren’t excited about the concept why should anyone else be? I was having dinner with a friend last night who mentioned the complexities of the Justice Is Mind story and how it compared to a particular author and the movies that followed. The comment was very flattering.
For me, I like a complex story. A story that isn’t paint by number, but one that you need to watch more than once. I like characters that are multi-dimensional or suddenly change their tone. Take for example Margaret Miller in Justice Is Mind. In the beginning we see a concerned wife who happens to be a novelist. Suddenly in her desperate attempt to save her husband she goes against type by retaining a dubious private investigator to steal what she wants.
Having spent over three decades in the sport of figure skating in a variety of capacities, I suppose it had to be inevitable that I would conceive of a story around the sport. When talking about the concept a couple of weeks ago, I referenced the political thriller Marathon Man that starred Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier. But there is another movie, a bit obscure, that is having another influence on this story—the conspiracy thriller Executive Action that starred Burt Lancaster and Robert Ryan. I say obscure, because when you look up the film you’ll see what happened when it was initially released.
In the end the goal, of course, is to write a story that audiences will enjoy. For me films are a living legacy. Long after their creatives are gone, a film lives on. One of my favorite thrillers is Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938).
But before I vanish into this new world I’m writing, I’ll leave you with a sample piece of dialogue from an FBI supervisor, “If I know this much you can bet that someone else sure as hell does. Because suddenly, there’s a concerted effort to get Wilson’s daughter to the World Championships in a country that has no extradition treaty with the United States.”
What I love about screenwriting is the research that goes with it. When I wrote First World I learned about the Apollo space program, the Kennedy and Nixon administrations, the Roswell incident and how parts of the United Nations operate. For Justice Is Mind it was the science of mind-reading (“thought identification”), reincarnation, and complex legal issues from the introduction of evidence based on new science to the construction of a criminal trial. Whenever I write science fiction, I think it’s important to have it rooted in plausibility or at least have it explained with a sense of realism (Star Trek is great for that).
The basis for my political thriller SOS United States has always been around this premise – the possibility that an ocean liner may have a nuclear device on board. Where did the idea come from? I’ve always been interested in the Cold War and count Fail Safe and Seven Days in May as two of my favorite movies of the time. Add that interest to my passion for ocean liners and SOS United States was born. It was my mother that first got me interested in ocean liners in the 1970s with our membership in the Titanic Historical Society (Yes, Titanic is one of my favorite films).
With premise in mind I started my research. The ocean liner in my story needed to be fast, luxurious and military-like. It didn’t take long to discover the SS United States. Built in 1952 the luxury liner “was designed as part of a top-secret Pentagon program during the Cold War, which stipulated it could be quickly converted from a luxury liner into a naval troopship in the event of a war.” Needless to say I found my ship. And found her I did. Since the SS United States was retired in 1969 she has been laid up all over the world and is currently docked in Philadelphia. More than once the ship was almost scrapped.
In my original notes the idea was that some company purchased the SS United States and refurbished her. But I quickly discounted that as unrealistic. Instead, I researched the United States Lines and discovered their early flagship the SS Leviathan. With that name, and the original blueprints of the SS United States, a company built a “state of the art” luxury liner, equipped with offensive capability to defend against pirating with a maximum speed of over 50 MPH. I guess my original notes proved to be something more than an idea.
Last week in New York City, Crystal Cruises, a luxury cruise line, “announced it will save “America’s flagship,” the SS United States, and embark on the enormous undertaking of bringing the ship into compliance with the latest standards, and returning her to oceangoing service.” While I figured some sort of redevelopment plan would be put forward, as was done with the Queen Mary in Long Beach, California, the fact that the SS United States will actually sail again as a luxury liner just proved once again that if you stay true to your mission with persistence and patience the impossible can become a reality. My congratulations to the dedication of SS United States Conservancy to save and preserve the ship and to the visionary leadership of Crystal Cruises to see the SS United States return to the high seas.
Suddenly the world premiere of SOS United States on the SS United States just became a little more possible. I remember sailing on the Queen Mary 2 in 2007 and saying to my mother how grand it would be to have one of my films screen on an ocean liner. After years of planning and determination, Justice Is Mind had its international premiere on Cunard Line’s Queen Elizabeth on October 29, 2014.
Russia. Spain. Taiwan. First, the email came in from a colleague if I could assist a filmmaker in Spain to register his film in the United States. That was followed by a university in Taiwan that wanted to license Justice Is Mind. As the week drew to a close a distributor in Russia approached us about a VOD for Justice in Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan.
In the world of filmmaking “chain of title” is critical to establish a variety of documented steps of ownership rights to a film. As a former magazine publisher, I’ve been working with copyright matters for years. Sadly, I’ve seen some projects that don’t take this matter seriously. If you don’t have a properly established chain and necessary releases, it can severely complicate matters when it comes to dealing with a distributor. The chain starts with registering the script. Believe me it’s worth the fee.
The next chain of events this week came when I was contacted by a university in Taiwan that wanted to have Justice Is Mind for their library. Obviously, I was flattered and directed them to the variety of download and streaming options for the film. I even pitched them to screen the film like we did at some domestic universities here in the United States. It will be interesting to follow this development. Perhaps it could serve as a model for international university screenings.
On Thursday we received an offer for Justice Is Mind from a distributor in Russia that wants to distribute our film on a variety of VOD platforms in that part of the world. While I’m still reviewing the agreement, unlike some other recent distributors that approached us, this one appears to be pretty buttoned up. This is when I go back to my magazine experience and a phrase from President Reagan “Trust but verify” when it comes to foreign companies. I don’t say this because of the United States/Russian connection that Reagan was referring to during the Cold War, but from a business point of view with independent verification aka “due diligence.” Because once you sign on the dotted line and transfer the film assets, it’s done.
What has been very interesting for 2015 is how much the film industry has changed on the global stage. Everything from financing to production to distribution has literally taken a 180 degree turn. Some will say for the better, some for the worse. It all depends on your point of view. Film Specific had an interesting take on all of this last week. Their webinar can be found here. But if there is one thing that prevails in all of this it’s marketing. Yes, I’ve written about this before. In my view it’s marketing on all fronts, from presenting new projects to potential investors such as SOS United States and In Mind We Trust, to the continued marketing of established projects such as First World and Justice Is Mind. As I’ve said before, consistency is key for the long term.
Of course while all this was going on, I was patiently awaiting the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I remember sitting in a theater in 1977 and seeing Star Wars come to life. Was it that moment that I wanted to be a filmmaker? I don’t know. All I do know is that with all the issues the world is facing right now it’s great to see a film that brings everyone together in a unifying force to enjoy a medium that the world over appreciates.
It’s been just over a year since I completed my political thriller SOS United States. Like all my screenplays, I revisit them after some months for various edits. Part of the general premise revolves around a cyber-attack on the nation’s power grid that also cripples military satellites. Imagine my response when Emmy and Peabody Award winning journalist Ted Koppel’s book “Lights Out” was released last week. As Koppel stated on CBS This Morning, Centcom Commander General Lloyd Austin had told him, “It’s not a question of if, it’s just a question of when.” Needless to say, Koppel’s book will now be part of my “general” pitch with SOS United States.
As American’s we like to think we are number one, that we are an invincible. Sure, we lead in many areas, including our military capability, but unless you are truly living off the grid we all remember the Sony Entertainment hack and one drive down most streets in our nation says – fix me. It’s always a positive when a journalist like Koppel shines a light on something we take for granted – electricity. Remember 1953’s War of the Worlds when the phone went dead after the initial alien attack took out the power lines? “That’s funny the phone isn’t on the same circuit as the lights.”
As for film, the American Film Market (AFM) starts next week. Their website boasts, “2,000 new films and projects”. You should see the catalogs of sales agents and the hundreds and hundreds of films that are represented. One does have to truly wonder how to stand out in the crowd. But stand out we must. Because, let’s be honest, it’s our project first before someone else’s.
It should be interesting to see how AFM resonates after Toronto’s tepid market. There’s no question that the recent box office troubles of Steve Jobs, Burnt and Our Brand is Crisis will be over analyzed and discussed. As filmmakers we are told by the “experts” that you need to attach stars to pre-sell into foreign markets, raise capital and secure distribution. But how many times do we see the absence of the consumer equation in this formula? It doesn’t matter what star you have in your film if the story isn’t there audiences won’t buy it.
Case in point I watched Marathon Man yesterday. Now there is a film that has stars and story. Imagine seeing the legendary Sir Laurence Olivier bring a film to life with the incomparable Dustin Hoffman along with the great Roy Scheider and the, what I believe, was the American debut of Marthe Keller. Watching the DVD special features, the passion of all involved truly made this film resonate at the box office in 1976, a film which still holds up today as a classic crime thriller.
This industry is a marathon. It’s easy to read about this great deal and that great deal, but we very rarely get the entire back story of the years it took to get to that point. By example, just this past week, two years after our initial release, a distributor in one of the world’s largest film markets, reached out to me about Justice Is Mind for VOD. It’s all at the preliminary stage, but it proves that long term marketing and promotion is effective.
S.O.S. United States. The call went out by the SS United States Conservancy this week and was answered by media around the world. From The New York Times, to The Telegraph to CBS, the famed ocean liner SS United States may be auctioned by the end of the month and scrapped unless a buyer, developer or investors save America’s flagship. As the conservancy’s Executive Director Susan Gibbs stated to CBS, “We have never been closer to saving the ship and never closer to losing her”.
After World War II, the United States government realized the value ocean liners could bring when Cunard’s Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth were converted into troop ships during the war. Partially funded by the government, the SS United States keel was laid in 1950 and was launched in 1951. A technological marvel, she projected American pride around the world and shattered speed records during her sea trials sailing through the ocean at 38 knots or 44 miles per hour. She won the eastbound and westbound Blue Riband for speed records in 1952 and still, to this day, holds the westbound title. So advanced were her propellers and steam turbine engines, they were classified Top Secret until the 1970s. In the event of war, she could quickly be converted to a troop ship for 15,000 soldiers.
Of course, with jet travel literally taking off in the 1960s, the SS United States along with the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth were withdrawn from service. While the Queen Elizabeth was lost in a mysterious fire in Hong Kong, the Queen Mary is still with us as a museum ship in Long Beach, California. I’ve had the opportunity to visit the Queen Mary on a few occasions. That liner still projects to this day a symbol of an era that should be remembered, not scrapped.
I have long wanted to write a story that revolved around an ocean liner. A story that also enveloped the complexities of world governments and the atmosphere of the Cold War, but set in the present. In SOS United States we learn that the “world’s fastest ocean liner” is heading to New York and may, or may not, have a nuclear device on board. Modeled after the SS United States, the ship is called the SS Leviathan. In the real world the SS Leviathan was originally called the Vaterland until it was seized by the United States government after World War I and became the flagship of the United States Lines; the same line that would eventually build the SS United States. It was maritime engineer William Francis Gibbs who renovated the Leviathan and who went on to design his dream ship the SS United States. Entirely self-taught, he devoted himself to this singular passion.
And now that same passion has been picked up by his granddaughter Susan Gibbs. Her tireless efforts, determination and commitment to save this ship reflects the best in America—pride.
Stated Gibbs, “It’s our shared history as a nation.”
SS United States