With post-production on First Signal coming to an end, it seemed fitting that I finished a draft of the sequel early last week. Titled First Launch, the story picks up two years after events in First Signal. While First Signal introduced the First World Universe in a very contained environment, First Launch is entirely the opposite. With the majority of primary characters returning, the logline “The President faces a military coup and extrasolar war when a covertly built second generation space shuttle reveals a worldwide military destined to confront an alien presence on Earth,” sets the story shortly before the 2016 Presidential election.
While I’m glad to have finished a draft to the sequel of First Signal, my priority is to see that First Signal properly exits post-production as I plan for general marketing and distribution. As for distribution, this past week I was approached by a theater to have First Signal screen in July. While I normally would have jumped at the opportunity, I honestly can’t commit one way or another until we learn when restrictions are being lifted. I do know one thing, so long as mask requirements (something I vehemently disagree with) are order of the day there’s no point, or joy, in having a theatrical screening. While our governor may employ Orwellian powers in Massachusetts, he has no power or jurisdiction of its citizens outside this tiny state. Thus, I’m looking at screening opportunities outside of New England and the country.
I am, however, considering “attending” the virtual Cannes Marché du Film in June. As the fees are negligible, it certainly doesn’t hurt to try and see what comes of it. There’s no question that by the end of the summer, theaters worldwide will be open and the markets will endeavor to return to some sort of normalcy.
While the large theater chains can tap into a variety of reserves and credit lines, it’s the independent theaters that are most at risk during these perilous times. As their only source of revenue are ticket sales, the real concern in the industry is that some of them just won’t make it and that a vital link for independent films will simply disappear. Unless you have a robust concession, ticket sales alone just don’t carry theaters. Simply, the box office percentage that’s shared with the distributor just varies too greatly between films.
But with every economic upheaval, there is always a revelation of something new or in this case a return. How many of us remember drive-in movie theaters? I remember the days when we would all pile into the car, drive up to a parking spot, place a speaker on the side of the car and watch a film unfold on a giant screen. It’s no surprise, that moviegoers are starting to look at the drive-in as a solid alternative while the traditional theatrical experience is sorted.
With the trailer edited and scored, we are in the rollout phase as the color grading commences. As each day passes we are rolling closer and closer to the day when the trailer for First Signal is released. I don’t think I’ve prepared nearly as much for the release of any of my film projects. Yes, Justice Is Mind was obviously important to me, but with First Signal being my first feature film in the “First World Universe,” I want to make sure I reach who I need to reach.
When I was talking to an acting friend this past week, we started to talk about certain sci-fi series and movies and what we do and don’t like. For me, I’m not so much into spectacle but story. I’d rather watch a solid story than things getting blown up. Yes, sometimes you need to blow something up, but I feel it should be done within the context of the story, not just for show and tell.
Last weekend we had First Signal’s ADR session. Watching these talented actors bring their characters back was nice to see. It was also an opportunity to show them the trailer and opening credits. Aside from some stills, they haven’t had the chance to see anything since we wrapped last July. I know when I’m part of a project as an actor I anxiously await to see what the product will look like.
With audio complete, the provisional score nearly done, VFX being built and the film close to a lock, I can almost see the light at the end of the post-production tunnel. But this is where all the details come up. From polishing the edit and score, finishing the VFX, sound mixing and color grading, creating a film is an arduous task and all about project management.
One of my favorite “TV” series these past few years has been The Man in the High Castle on Amazon. The entire production on both sides of the camera was first rate. When I started to write the sequel to First Signal it dawned on me the character of Major Sampson could parallel Juliana Crain. In High Castle, Crain was instrumental in the resistance movement and played all sides to achieve her goals. In the sequel to First Signal, Sampson finds herself torn between three worlds – the President of the United States, the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Cedric Yonah the Premier of the Synedrion Council. As of this morning I just hit the sixty-page mark and I think I know how I want it to end. I think!
As for films that have a military storyline, I saw 1917 last weekend. I can’t say enough great things about this film. From filming the entire story in one continuous shot, to the production values and acting, 1917 was truly a delight. The cinematography alone is reason enough to see this film. I can only imagine the pre-production planning!
I was reading an email newsletter this morning and the author talked about having to love the journey not only as a writer but as it pertained to sales. As a screenwriter, there is that moment when you feel these characters talking back to you as you type their dialogue and action their elements. When you’re filming your screenplay, you see these characters come to life. When you’re watching your story on the silver screen or your TV, you know you’ve made a sale. There is something immensely satisfying being in the lobby of a theatre when someone asks to buy a ticket to your film. Equally when you get notice that your film has been streamed.
The journey is a long one, with many highways and exits ahead. But it’s a journey that I have loved since I wrote my first screenplay in grade school.
Stay the course.
The shot list is complete and a preliminary schedule was worked out yesterday. It now goes to the actors, crew and the location partners for review. From what starts as a one person exercise writing a screenplay (I use Final Draft) now turns into project management. I can at least add another checkmark on my task list. But make no mistake, just because I checked off an item doesn’t mean that it’s completed.
One thing I realized years ago when I was publishing magazines was the importance of organization. In those early days being late meant paying heavy fees. In this industry it means that something doesn’t or can’t be filmed. Case in point the Air Force uniforms that we need. Do I buy them or rent them? While I have pricing for a purchase, I’m waiting to hear from the costume company. One thing I learned from producing Justice Is Mind is advanced planning when it comes to costumes.
In Justice Is Mind one of the actors had to be outfitted as an SS officer. I ordered the uniform from a Chinese company and it was shipped well in advance of our shoot dates. Although tracking showed that it arrived in the United States I still hadn’t received it yet. Finally, I talked to customs and got the “opinionated” custom agent on the phone who asked why I needed such an outfit. After I directed some choice words to him and cited certain regulations, the uniform arrived in time for our shoot.
While I look back at the scheduling for the number of events and films I’ve produced over the years, I realized I’m starting to develop an interesting inventory of wardrobe and props. I still have the original Nehru styled jackets worn in First World along with the briefing file the Prime Minster shows the President. It might not be bad to add Air Force uniforms to the collection.
In closing, NASA announced this week that the Mars rover Opportunity ended after a 15 year mission. When we consider the science this rover discovered over its decade plus mission, it truly paved the way for new “opportunities” as plans for an eventual manned mission to Mars come to fruition. For an original mission that wasn’t supposed to last more than 90 days, it is a testament in time, patience, research and excellence to all those in NASA that worked on this project.
Its stories like Opportunity that remind me of the day I first looked through a telescope and saw our neighbors in the solar system.
For years I have followed the film markets, but none so closely as the American Film Market (AFM). As an independent filmmaker and screenwriter, I think it’s important to stay informed on the latest trends and news. As we are “indie” it’s too easy to operate in our respective vacuums without the benefit of new voices. That ended last week when I attended AFM in Santa Monica, California.
As this was my first AFM, I followed their how to work AFM guide. Several weeks prior to the start of AFM, I researched companies that might be interested in hearing more about my projects. I curated a list and then sent an email of introduction that included a brief (title/logline) of my projects for consideration of a meeting. By the time I arrived in Santa Monica, I had several meetings confirmed. In addition, I made sure my Cinando profile was completed along with the MyAFM section of AFM’s website. The completion of my profiles and subsequent postings in MyAFM conversations resulted in a few companies reaching out to me for meetings.
My industry badge granted me access for four days that began on Saturday. But as the director in me wants to get the lay of the land prior to “arriving on set,” I landed in Los Angeles on Thursday and picked up credentials on Friday. I knew that the start of the market for me on Saturday would mean putting on my acting hat. The days and weeks of memorizing the loglines and synopsis of my projects along with talking points was soon going to be put to the test. As an actor, I wouldn’t think of arriving to set without knowing my lines, attending a film market is no different. If you don’t take the time to know your own projects, why should anyone else take their time? As attendee’s schedules are booked up well in advance, AFM is all about maximizing time.
The Lowes Hotel is entirely converted for the market (you can’t enter the hotel without the proper credentials). When you enter the lobby you are soon greeted by representatives of the industry trades with the dailies, see throngs of attendees going to and fro and banners representing the myriad of companies that are bunted on the multi-floor balcony railings. What were hotel rooms before the market, are now offices. You have arrived at AFM.
Over the course of two days, meetings with producers and production companies in the United States, Canada, Germany and Romania resulted in positive experiences. Then there were the various film commissions from Russia, Georgia and Japan that also asked for meetings. On Saturday night at the official carousel cocktail reception, casual conversations resulted in meeting two producers with substantial credits (there was a specific request for China related stories – First World anyone?).
But what I do want to stress is that you can’t go into the market thinking “what can you do for me” it’s more about “what can I do for them.” Think about it, is the screenplay I have going to be a good fit for “X” production company or producer? One company I met with wasn’t interested in science fiction, but wanted to see my political thrillers. In the reverse, one producer was very keen on developing science fiction franchises and requested information on the “First World” universe. In both those cases, they asked for scripts. It pays to have a variety of projects to offer.
These meetings are also about building relationships for the long haul. All the meetings and interactions I had were positive, with the exception of one. In that case, it didn’t take long for me to realize that one was just playing the posture and poser game (he didn’t even have a business card). Yes, while AFM is all about meeting the right people and developing a network, you do have to be judicious on who you interact with.
But here’s an interesting twist of fate. Years ago I pitched Justice Is Mind to a distributor that passed on the project. For AFM, this company reached out to me about First Signal. When I was meeting with them and Justice Is Mind came up and their original pass, they presented a new division for digital distribution and asked me for a screening link. As for First Signal, the number of companies looking to get involved at the script stage is a market trend. This is an industry about product and intellectual property and that’s exactly what AFM is all about.
Now it’s about the follow up. The continuation of introductions, conversations and presentations that started at AFM. One thing that’s always excited me about this industry are the possibilities of what’s next. Because for this filmmaker, there will be a next AFM next year. As for AFM, a special thanks to Jonathan Wolf, Managing Director at AFM, for creating a welcoming atmosphere for first time attendees and his informative presentation at the AFM Orientation.
After AFM I had the opportunity to visit Eastern Costume. I was introduced to Eastern by the costume supervisor on Madam Secretary regarding Air Force Uniforms for First Signal. Another special thanks to Ian Brown, Military Technical Advisor, for a three hour tour. Whatever you need for your film, Eastern Costume has it!
Of course, my trip to Los Angeles wasn’t all business. I had some great reunions with friends along with some requisite touring. Seeing the Endeavour Space Shuttle and the King Tut exhibit at the California Science Center was truly exciting. But my favorite place to visit is the Griffith Observatory. From the wonders of science and space to its expansive views of the city, it was wonderful way to spend my last night in the city at…
…the top of the world.
In the entertainment industry it is the “one sheet” that advertises and promotes a film. In an instant the release of a one sheet sets the tone for a film that could be weeks, months or years from release. It is a form of media that should be carefully thought out. While it’s impossible to convey the entire story in a film poster, it should at least project a certain atmosphere.
When I was in post-production with Justice Is Mind my goal was to conceive of a poster that would represent the general story. With an MRI image in the background we see two sides of Henri Miller. One looking forward in the present world and the other looking backwards into World War II. I had the general concept in mind when we were shooting so I had Vernon Aldershoff, the actor that plays Henri Miller, photographed accordingly.
With Serpentine, the story revolves around a figure skater caught up in a Cold War mystery. With a sheet of ice as the backdrop, a skater is centrally framed in Red Square to convey the premise of the story. For SOS United States, the image of two F35’s flying in proximity to a cruise ship, dramatizes the accompanying tag line that says it all.
There are times when the production of a one sheet has to be as accurate as possible. First Signal was one of them. While the science fiction aspect gives one a certain amount of creative freedom, some things need to be right. The Moon to Earth vantage point was modeled after the famed “Earthrise” picture taken from Apollo 8. But it was the star field that needed to be accurate. Thankfully, Celestia, a 3D astronomy modeling program, was available (Special thanks to Daniel Elek-Diamanta for creating the poster and finding Celestia!).
Right after I registered for AFM, I was wondering what I could create to represent my various projects. While they each had their own branding and collateral (depending where they were in the production pipeline), I realized that I didn’t. Those that know me and my projects know what I create, but there is a whole industry universe out there that doesn’t.
I am therefore pleased to present the one sheet for The Ashton Times. Designed by my longtime colleague and friend Adam Starr, it is designed to promote and illustrate the type of works I create. For the last couple of weeks it has been included in my industry communications and promoted on MyAFM and Cinando. As we are an industry of image, I think it’s important to create what we can to present our projects in the best possible light.
It seems fitting that I’m preparing to leave for AFM during the anniversary week when Justice Is Mind had its international premiere on Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth in 2014. That screening proved to me that you don’t have to be a major or mini studio or have A or B list actors in your film to have a marketable project. Indeed, you only need one thing…
…a good story.
This past Wednesday I registered to attend the American Film Market (AFM). It’s a market I’ve been wanting to attend for some years. It’s interesting, the last time I was in Los Angeles was in 2013 for the West Coast Premiere of Justice Is Mind that took place during AFM but wasn’t connected to it. Now I return to network and to introduce my six film projects.
As I was uploading the details of my projects on Cinando (you receive a one year membership for registering at AFM), I was fondly remembering the long journey to this point. My first short film, First World, had its first screening in Los Angeles in 2007. Never in a million years did I think I would be returning to the city six years later with a feature film in hand that wasn’t the feature film version of First World.
Since the day I penned my first screenplay, I’ve worked with over 250 actors, crew and other partners to bring my projects to life. As I’ve often referenced, being a director is akin to that of the conductor of an orchestra. A director is only as good as the instrumentalists that make up its actors and crew. The process of creating a film is like writing a symphony only in this industry it’s called a screenplay.
The screenplay is the very foundation of everything this industry is about. You can’t build a stage to shoot without a solid foundation. But this does take me to a bit of a rant. I find filmmakers conducting auditions without a completed screenplay to say nothing of forwarding a side to actors. How on Earth are you expected to get a quality audition from an actor without the benefit of them reading from your script? It happened again this week when I was asked to audition and the filmmaker refused to send sides from the actual script. My response? Pass. This is also an industry of time management with very little to waste.
Time is what’s ticking as the days lead up to my November 1 flight. There’s making sure all my project listings are current, setting up meetings and working on some new artwork. Of course, like getting ready to put a film into production, there’s a hundred other details.
Many…many…years ago I worked for someone that instilled in me the importance of preparing a solid presentation when making a pitch and a quality “leave behind” (the document you leave behind after a meeting for further consideration). In those early days I didn’t really know what all that meant, but it soon made sense. As they say you only get once chance to make a first impression. That couldn’t be truer in the entertainment industry where everything is about communication and visualization.
Since my last post, three First Signal presentations have resulted in solid location possibilities and interesting cooperation. We shall see where these communications go. But the point is, there are mutual communications.
When I first make a pitch I make every effort to provide as much information as possible with an equal amount of brevity. Why? Because not only is time short for everyone these days, but a pitch needs to offer something beneficial for the party you’re making a pitch to. I also believe it’s important to be clear in what you want and what you can offer in return.
Case in point, I receive at least one pitch a month from screenwriters wanting me to consider their screenplay. Fair enough they don’t know that I only develop my own work, but they could at least do some homework on what I’ve done. It’s pretty clear I’m only interested in science fiction and political thrillers. But what really stuck out like sore thumb with a pitch I received this week, was the fact that this writer didn’t include a phone number, web site, IMDb link or other external links so I could review who they were. This was almost as bad as the actor that submitted to First Signal and said “Google me.” That’s not the way it works.
But what is working beautifully is my DJI Spark drone. Over the last couple of weekends I’ve been to Ogunquit, ME and Newport, RI and have been able to capture some cool photography. I also tested the active track feature with my car. A couple of the scenes in First Signal require a drone shot to follow a vehicle.
So with the vast majority of all the pre-production work completed on First Signal, there is one organization we are waiting to hear from that is considering our presentation for locations and cooperation. They have a department that deals specifically with the entertainment industry.
Whenever I’m involved in the production of an event, I always arrive early. First, I hate to be rushed. Second, it’s about setting everything up. Finally, I like to just sit and take it all in for a few moments. I don’t meditate. It’s about quiet time. Because the time for this event was starting shortly before 11 AM – the table read for First Signal.
This journey didn’t just start when I wrote the script for First Signal, it started back in 2006 when I wrote First World. When you write a screenplay you never really know where it’s going to go or who is going to be involved. But when I was watching Lindy Nettleton reprieve her character of Allison Colby, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from First World, I was not only enormously thankful for her return, but the realization of the journey this project has taken since those early days.
As a writer, there is something surreal about watching actors bring your characters to life. I’ll admit, when I was writing First Signal I had several actors in mind for certain parts. There’s a reason why you see filmmakers work with the same actors because you know what you’re going to get in a performance. But then there is also the excitement about working with new actors and crew. They bring things to the table that you just don’t see. Not because you don’t want to, but as the writer you tend to have blinders on to keep the train of the story on a certain track.
Case in point when Vernon Aldershoff and Adam LaFramboise were in a confrontational moment. Vern suggested the line of “You can sit down” or “Sit down” before his character answers Adam’s. As I mentioned to the room, I have no problem with such additions (or deletions) if it adds to the vibrancy of the story. As a filmmaker you have to let a story breathe. The key, is to make sure it’s remembered by the actors and then noted by the director. Yes, I made a variety of notes from yesterday’s table read and will be following up with the actors and crew.
This is the first time I’ve held a table read and I’m glad I did. It wasn’t just about hearing the words come to life, it was about the actors and crew meeting each other and getting familiar with their respective styles. In the end it’s about chemistry for the next time we are all together it will be on set.
It’s impossible to thank the actors and crew enough for believing in First Signal. Your dedication and talent means a first rate production. And from their hosting of First Signal’s auditions in April to yesterday’s table read, my thanks is also greatly extended to The Verve Crowne Plaza in Natick. Indeed, a film has many behind the scenes partners. Each one of them is part of the production engine that finds its way to the silver screen.
In all my years being involved in the industry the only “equipment” I’ve purchased was the screenwriting software Final Draft. Is that equipment per se? No, but if you don’t have a solid script all the equipment in the world doesn’t matter. As a filmmaker, I’ve always contracted with those that have their own equipment. We all have own way of navigating this industry and, as I’ve often said, you can’t do everything. Or more precisely, have everything. I believe the best projects come together through a myriad of partnerships where everyone brings something to the table.
But sitting right on the table next to me is the DJI Spark. While I’ve spoken about the technological improvements in the industry, it truly is incredible where the drone world has gone since we filmed Justice Is Mind in 2012. Of course drone technology has been around for some time, but in the world of true indie films I was just starting to see it used back then. Now it seems to be de rigueur.
In First Signal there are some particular scenes that call for drone photography. I suppose these scenes could have been done without it, but the point was to open up the visuals after we spend a good amount of time in a conference room. There’s a few other reasons for it as well, but I don’t want to give away the story!
This week was another National Guard training exercise at Joint Base Cape Cod. The exercise was formally called the Massachusetts and New England National Guard HRF and CERFP External Evaluations. Approximately one hundred casualty role players (actors) participated in this exercise. I was brought in as the Casualty Role Player Coordinator.
For those that have been wondering what’s involved in these exercises, it’s pretty straight forward. In the event of a disaster (natural or man made), the National Guard is called up. These exercises involve search and rescue scenarios along with medical evaluation, triage and decontamination from radiation exposure. Needless to say, they’re important.
As this has been the third time in a month I’ve participated in one of these exercises, it has been great to work with so many familiar faces. These exercises reminded me of some of the large scale film productions that come through the region. Just like a film the actors go into wardrobe and makeup and then proceed to “set” or what is called the insertion point of the exercise. If you have a chance to participate in one of these exercises, I highly recommend it. It’s not only a great experience on a variety of levels, but you are also providing a vital service to the preparedness of the National Guard.
And so it begins. The casting notices for First Signal have been posted to Backstage and New England Film. Audition dates are scheduled for April 14 in Nashua, NH and April 15 in Natick, MA. So far the responses have been very encouraging. Although the cast for First Signal is substantially smaller than Justice Is Mind, that just raises the importance of casting the right actor for each part.
The characters listed on the casting notice are open, but three of the lead characters have already been cast (The President, Prime Minister and Major Sampson). The one thing I’ve learned about casting and directing is that once you work with a certain set of actors, you know what they can bring to the table. This is why you see so many directors working with the same actors from one film to another. It’s not that they aren’t interested in discovering new talent, it’s that they know the actor can breathe life into these characters and are easy to work with. But make no mistake about it, I love discovering new talent. Then there are the actors I’ve worked with in the past who are auditioning for the same part in First Signal. I promise you casting is not an easy process.
But the one thing I don’t believe in is the taped audition. Sure, all actors send in a reel of past work, but you can’t evaluate an actor properly unless they are standing in the same room with you. They may deliver a dynamic and exciting audition on tape, but how do they get along with others on set? Are they friendly or standoffish? Do they like the director? Sometimes it’s not about talent but about fit of personality.
As for fit, the April 15 auditions will take place at The Verve Crowne Plaza in the same conference room in which we produced Serpentine. Another part of the filmmaking process is about developing relationships with location and marketing partners. Thanks for having us back!
Whenever I start the process of preparing a project for pre-production I start to breakdown the script. Every filmmaker has their own process, but for me I start on page 1 and list what’s needed apart from the characters themselves. Aside from the three locations and uniforms, the majority of the breakdown notes for First Signal is stock footage.
I’ve posted about stock footage before and its importance in film production. Without stock footage First Signal would only come to light with a significant seven figure budget. One scene calls for a “Helicopter Taking Off From Roof”. In the days before stock footage, such a scene would have to be produced. Now, it costs about $50.
For me the breakdown of a script brings the reality of production that much closer. Once that list is done, I just start to pull all these pieces together and check them off one by one. Of course, there’s always things that come up that seem next to impossible. With Justice Is Mind it was the 11th hour securing of an MRI center to shoot the pivotal scenes of the mind reading process.
The one thing I’m adamant about when producing a film (or anything for that matter) is organization. Nothing is worse than arriving on set and disorganization (or incompetence) seems to be the status quo. I honestly don’t understand it.
When I’m cast on a project I just do as I’m told. But I’m also observing everything. The one thing I have observed with these “large productions” is that there are simply too many cooks in the kitchen all trying to out maneuver each other. On a set there is only one cook, the director. It’s pretty laughable when a production assistant gives you direction opposite of what the director just gave you. Their look when I say, “Well the director wanted me to do it the other way” is priceless.
As for communication, next weekend I’ll be posting a casting notice on Backstage and New England Film for the characters in First Signal that have not been cast. Auditions will be in April. These next two months are going to very busy. The next Naval Justice School class starts on Friday for the next few weeks, then it looks like I’ll be casting for a major military exercise in April and May.
I programmed SpaceX’s launch date into my calendar. The upcoming launch of the Falcon Heavy was an event I wasn’t going to miss! But as can often happen with a launch, the time (and even date) can change at a moment’s notice. When the launch time did change, I went to the gym. As the time ticked down, most of the news oriented stations started to report on what was either going to be an historic success or a catastrophic failure.
I soon found myself paying attention to who was watching and who wasn’t. Yes, there were a good number of people watching (particularly in my age group). But then there were those that just didn’t seem to care. Judge Judy and Dr. Phil are fine enough shows, but you only get one chance at seeing history in the making and remembering where you were at the time. While I remember seeing the later Apollo missions on TV, at four years old I was a bit too young to remember Apollo 11. To this day I still remember those grainy black and white images. But today’s broadcast was being carried in vivid HD.
Watching the Falcon Heavy liftoff from the same pad as Apollo 11 was epic. It reminded me of what’s possible when we join together to create greatness. It’s this type of science, cooperation, ingenuity and forward thinking that makes this country great not myopic politicians. Although the political winds of the Cold War set the space program on the course it achieved in the 1950s and 60s, it’s private enterprise that will take us on the next step of this final frontier.
There’s no question that my following of the space program led to my interest in science fiction. While the 60s had Star Trek (again, a bit before my time), my introduction to science fiction was in the 70s with such programs as UFO and Space: 1999. Each of those programs had a base on the Moon along with a fleet of ships.
Launching oneself into the world of screenwriting also carries its own set of risks (but not nearly as much as an actual rocket launch!), the primary one being the risk of getting a story wrong. Writing an original story is not an easy process. It takes time and research. When I set out to write a story, I usually do some baseline research so when I start to write I don’t need to stop until I reach that next point of needed additional research. When I wrote Justice Is Mind the first phase of research was around thought identification with the second phase being the legal process around a court proceeding. For First Signal, the majority of the research revolved around satellite communications and the Deep Space Network.
As the submission process continues for First Signal, I’ll also be having a meeting this week with a filmmaker. I recently saw some of his work and he had that number one thing that’s so important when working with a crew – inspiration. From my own projects to others, I’ve been on a variety of sets over the last year. And while inspiration is expected from actors, it’s just as important with members of a crew. You can easily see who’s on point and who needs a sharpening.
This week I completed a first draft of First Signal. I have to say there is something immensely satisfying about completing a script. From the moment I get the idea for a story it’s weeks and months of research, notes and random thoughts.
For me writing doesn’t start and stop at my computer. While I don’t believe in writer’s block, there are those times when after I do a bit of writing I just see the story stop for a moment. Sometimes it just takes a change of air to get the characters and storyline talking to me again. In my case, it’s generally a trip to the gym or watching a movie that brings me back to the computer. In fact, after I saw Darkest Hour last weekend I was inspired to write a critical speech in First Signal. If you can’t get inspired after watching Winston Churchill there’s a problem!
Like Justice Is Mind I wrote First Signal to independently produce, not to submit to production companies or agents. While my other projects are in various stages of review or consideration by the latter, First Signal is not part of that mix.
It is ironic how this whole project came to being. Here I am at the Naval Justice School talking to one of the actresses. Suddenly, the idea for a limited location drama that largely takes place in an underground bunker came to mind. After talking with her about the idea, I just started to write it with her as one of the new characters in the “First World” universe.
While I love acting and performing, I think my greatest joy comes from creating projects and original stories. Although it has been some years, I remember the days of Justice Is Mind and the dedicated cast and crew that made it possible. Unlike a play, when you create a motion picture it’s out in the world forever. As I often watch films from the 1930s and 40s, I wonder who may be watching my films in say the year 2088. From that era I count Gone with the Wind, Rebecca, Laura and Now, Voyager as some of my favorites.
Although I plan to reach out to a variety of actors and crew I’ve worked with in the past, the next step in this process will be a casting notice for a table read (one part is already cast).
First Signal—When Air Force Space Command receives a signal from an alien satellite in Earth orbit an emergency meeting with the President reveals a government conspiracy.
This morning I finished up the notes for the prequel to First World. The next step is to place it in Final Draft and iron it out. That’s generally the process I use when writing a script. I write out the scene structure and dialogue in Word first. I just find it 10x easier to make quick adjustments in Word before formatting in Final Draft. But when I take that next step in Final Draft that’s when the final story starts to take shape.
I’ve written a variety of scripts over the years. Some produced, some waiting for a deal, but this is one that I specially wrote to produce independently. In the end I’ve stayed with three locations and what will be a liberal use of stock footage. But unlike First World, I think this story has given me the opportunity to really create a solid backstory for two of the main characters. It also examines a presidency in crisis along with an out of control military leader.
As with Justice Is Mind, writing an original story is not easy. We receive our initial round of inspiration but then it’s up to us to figure out the rest. What I always aim to do is to have a beginning and ending in mind. Sure it may change some along the way, but if I have in mind the beginning of Act I and the ending of Act III, then I’m good to start. In my view an Act II should always be what I call “the mess” because that’s what the characters are trying to make sense of and resolve.
This story has a solid protagonist and antagonist. It was my goal to give each side not only a reason for their actions but the ability to carry them out. As a writer we wear many personality hats to create our stories. Many is the day when I thank God I’m working alone because I talk my dialogue out. I don’t think the strange looks from my cats qualifies as the need for being institutionalized, but if a neighbor randomly heard me talking like my characters I’d probably be visited by some sort of federal agency.
Once the first draft is done later this week I’ll be sending it to the actress that inspired me to write it. For me, it’s pretty easy to write a character when you model it on the actress that will play it. However, for the rest of the characters involved, one of my plans is for a table read. I never did that for Justice Is Mind owing to a variety of matters, not the least being the size of the cast, scheduling and time constraints. In the end that worked out fine. But with this project as the majority of the action takes place in a conference room and a field, it’s important to get the character interaction just right.
Last week I hit page 30 on this prequel story to First World. The title and logline came to me about halfway through this initial draft. With notes for the next two acts generally outlined, I’m aiming to have a first draft completed in January.
It’s always interesting how these new projects start. The idea came to me in September when I was at the Naval Justice School (NJS) talking with a couple of the actors about developing a new story. For the last two weeks I’ve been back at NJS with most of the students returning for this next class.
For me it comes down to motivation. If I’m not motivated to write a story, it just won’t be written. I firmly believe that environs make all the difference. When you are around other creative types and engaged in the kind of work you enjoy doing, it’s amazing how ideas start to generate with collaboration bringing new opportunities.
Of course it’s one thing to write a screenplay, it’s another to produce it. This one is being written in the same fashion as Justice Is Mind, to produce independently without pitching to the industry. While there’s obviously nothing wrong with the industry pitch, that process goes in fits and starts. Hot one day, cold the other. Ask anyone in this industry and that’s just the way it is—if you take the traditional route.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, it’s one thing to produce a feature film, it’s another to promote it. I have to know if I’m OK devoting the next 2-5 years of my life developing and promoting a project. Justice Is Mind was literally a five year commitment. From screenplay (2010), short film version (2011), production of the feature film (2012), release of the film (2013) and marketing (2013-2015). I still promote Justice of course, and I continue to pitch the sequel, In Mind We Trust, as the basis for a TV series.
The “First World” project is about developing a franchise. It always has been. But commitment is important in this industry. It’s not just about making the film, it’s about staying with it for the long haul. As I learned with the short film version of First World and Justice Is Mind, you never know where a project can take you. It was a series of pitches that saw First World have a premiere in India at their The First Ever National Discussion on Science Fiction and Justice Is Mind having its international premiere on Cunard Line’s Queen Elizabeth.
The creation of a new story is always an adventure, a journey into the unknown. Believe me when I tell you, it’s a trip worth taking.
Writing an original story is by no means an easy process. There are times when I think and rethink various elements to make sure they flow. Does this transition from that transition make sense? Am I carrying the story forward and adding something with each moment? Even though I’m writing fiction, I always ask myself would people act and respond this way in “real life”?
But at one point it starts to click. For this story it happened around page twenty. While I have the general outline for act one, two and three (Yes, I believe in the three act structure), it’s the journey these characters take that will make the story what it is.
But one thing that is easy, is creating worlds that are larger than they appear or you have the budget for. With every film I’ve produced (and some commercials), I always use stock footage. From the White House in First World, to Reincar Scientific in Justice Is Mind to the FBI in Serpentine, it’s a simple purchase from one of the stock footage houses.
Most stock footage is very affordable. However, there are times when it can get pricey. Case in point was footage from the Nuremberg Trials after World War II in Justice Is Mind. In addition to the footage, I also had to obtain it at a certain aspect ratio. But in today’s modern world of filmmaking, it’s amazing what’s available if you just look for it.
As this story largely takes place in one room, it will be stock footage that takes us out of the scene to illustrate certain moments of the story. Why ask the Department of Defense if you can film a B-2 taking off from Whiteman Air Force Base if you can just acquire the footage for $79.
I remember after Justice Is Mind was released, I was asked by someone in the industry if I went to Logan International Airport in Boston to film planes taking off. I remember jokingly responding that it was a real pain in the ass to get over all the fences and position myself with a cameraman at the end of the runway. I think they thought I was serious. Oh well.
As I dove back further in the First World story and archives, I came across a time in 2008 when certain funding commitments were imminent for the production of the film (it was going to be part of a slate of films with a particular producer). But then the global recession took hold and literally decimated the film industry (particularly on the independent side). At the time it was disappointing, but everything happens for a reason.
It’s interesting how one is turned to a particular story. When the idea came to me during my moments at the Naval Justice School about developing a story in a one location environment, something drew me back to First World. Was it the military aspects of that story? The fact that I’ve already created these characters? Who knows, the one thing I never ask myself is why. I just write.
Last week I mentioned how producing a film is not rocket science, but writing about rocket science is a different story.
With Justice Is Mind I did an exhaustive amount of research on two fronts. The first was mind-reading technology with the second being the law as it applies to investigations and the courtroom. But at some point you reach a certain knowledge bank when you can start writing.
Once a project of mine is given the green light I bring it to experts to insure its veracity. Of course there’s creative licensing, but at the end of the day a rocket launches vertically not horizontally!
One of the things I enjoy the most about screenwriting is learning something new. Am I an expert on mind-reading, the legal profession and rocket science? Good heavens no. But I can certainly talk about it in the context in which it’s presented. That’s what filmmakers do. We present. We create a fictional world against fact. Sure, some stories are pure science fiction with no regard to science, but I like to root my stories in plausibility.
While I was inspired to write Justice Is Mind from a 60 Minutes story, did I ever actually think the science fiction I postulated in my story could become near science fact? As a storyteller I’m doing just that, telling a story. My feeling has always been that as long as the story is interesting, it will hold an audience.
We’ve all been reading the difficulty that films are having at the box office. There are countless discussions on why this is happening. I have my own theories, but what I truly believe it comes down to is having an interesting story that is well marketed.
When I was marketing Justice Is Mind the actors were brilliantly talented and on par with any A list actors you would see on the silver screen, but they were not A list from a public relations point of view. I couldn’t market the film with Starring So and So, but I could market the concept. The end result was audiences bought a ticket and came to our screenings. Some were nearly sold out while others saw an OK attendance. What it proved to all of us was that audiences will turn out for an interesting story.
Revisiting the First World story has also been interesting. In addition to my “rocket science” research, I had almost forgotten the mountain of work I have done on this project, from writing the original script, producing a short film version, writing a sequel and publishing a novella. It’s safe to say I have some well thought out characters to work with!
A few months ago I thought seriously about attending the American Film Market (AFM). Aside from the fact that I’m due for a visit to Los Angeles to catch up with friends and colleagues, there’s no question that networking opportunities at AFM are important to anyone in the industry.
Before I spend some thousands of dollars to attend (or on anything), one does have to be practical about it. Will there be a return? In my view, “Hollywood” is a year round industry and “pitching” isn’t married to a film market. But markets are something I’ve been tracking for several years and when The Hollywood Reporter starts its day 3 daily with the headline, “AFM Dealmakers in Revolt! ‘There’s Nothing for Us’”, I’m glad I didn’t make the trek.
I predicted that when Hulu came online that VOD would be the future for independent film. Now in 2017, Amazon and Netflix are the saviors of independent film. Television, whether terrestrial, cable or VOD, has taken so many A and B+ actors out of the independent film world to the more lucrative TV industry. So what’s left? Well, to quote from The Hollywood Reporter’s day 3 daily, “A lack of big-name, must-have projects is leading to plenty of grumbling at the market, with some buyers wondering if this year marks the ‘death knell’ for the indies. Says one frustrated insider: ‘It’s B-, C- and D-quality stuff’”.
If you read the dailies from the film markets you know the hundreds, if not thousands, of films that are looking for some sort of home. Something to recoup the investment that has been put up for someone’s dream. This is an industry of dreams envisioned and dreams realized. It’s important, for obvious reasons, that we keep the dream alive.
In my view the dream will be kept alive with a good story. Plain. Simple. To the point. Star driven independent films only do one thing, drive up the cost of the film with no guarantee of return at the box office. That’s fact, not fiction.
When I wrote Justice Is Mind my goal from day one was to produce it myself (with investors of course). Sure, I presented it to some production companies, but the feedback was unreal. There is this assumption that after you do all the hard work you somehow need their help. Here is a recent email I received from a production company, “I didn’t had the chance to look in details at the project as they seem to be in too early stage for us. Don’t hesitate to keep us posted when you will have a budget, cast, financial plan.” Putting aside the horrid grammar, the question begs to be asked, “And I need you why after I’ve done all this work?” The answer is simple, I don’t need you.
Producing a film is not rocket science. You just need a good script and capital. Done. Yes, it is that simple. The “rocket science” comes up if you’ve never produced because there are countless details you need to know, particularly when it comes to post-production (sound engineering anyone?). It also can get involved if you decide to use a named actor and have to deal with the myriad issues around that. Seriously, at the end of the day a filmmaker just wants to see their dream come to life. Having produced four films (3 shorts and 1 feature) and seeing them come to life on the silver screen is a feeling like none other.
Tomorrow I start to write this new feature with the same production aim as Justice Is Mind. The title of this new feature may have the word First in it, but thankfully it will be the fifth.
If you’ve seen Justice Is Mind, First World or Serpentine: The Short Program, you know I don’t shy away from using multiple locations to tell my stories. I’ve been very lucky with my productions to secure some unique locations.
Each one of those projects had one or two critical locations. For Justice Is Mind it was a courtroom and MRI facility. For First World it was a presidential suite and a horse farm. For Serpentine it was a figure skating complex. Each of those locations brought gravitas to their stories.
For this new project, my aim is a simple one. Keep the story largely contained to one interior room and one outdoor scene. My goal is both for story and cinematography. With the primary story taking place in a windowless bunker one of my inspirations is Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder. For those that have seen this classic, the story primarily takes place in an apartment. As that film was first produced as a play, it largely makes sense that it would be confined to one location.
This new story is a prequel to First World and revolves around one particular meeting. While I would obviously love to see First World produced, I also know that it’s a science fiction epic that would require, while maybe not an “epic” budget, certainly one in the seven figures. For this project, the aim is to contain production costs for independent production.
While Dial M for Murder is one inspiration, another is Fail Safe. The scenes in the Pentagon’s “war room” worked on a variety of levels. What I particular liked was the rear projection that was used to display the military crisis between the United States and U.S.S.R. Because this type of “special effect” was produced while the movie was being photographed, it saved time in post-production.
With a good amount of my research completed, I’ll shortly start the writing process. The fall and winter months are my favorite time to write an original story. Believe me, it’s the cold weather that will set the mood for this piece!
This story will revolve around a particular signal intercept and how certain government and military officials are responding to it. To give you an idea of the conflict in this story, I’ll borrow a quote from Valkyrie, “This is a military operation. Nothing ever goes according to plan.”
As a screenwriter one of the things I do prior to writing any story is research. In SOS United States the fictional ocean liner in that story is called the Leviathan and is based on the famed ocean liner SS United States. But during this research I came across the MV Aurora and have been following this find ever since.
Anyone that knows me, or follows this blog, is aware of my passion for ocean liners (past and present) along with preserved navy ships. For me the preferred way to holiday has always been by cruise ship or ocean liner. So when I learned that Christopher Willson was restoring a cruise ship from the 1950s, I naturally had to learn more about the Aurora. And let’s be clear, restoring a cruise ship is a project!
The Aurora was launched in 1955 as the Wappen von Hamburg. When you consider that she was the first cruise ship built by West Germany since World War II, that fact alone secures her place in history. After her launch the ship passed through a variety of cruise lines and operators until a literal ad on Craigslist caught the attention of Willson. The ship at that point was in a sorry state, but it was a calling for Willson to restore her to glory.
Through the years I have been following this project, I continue to be amazed at the progress he and an army of volunteers have made in restoring this iconic piece of maritime history. Such efforts are a unique passion and should be applauded and supported by anyone that comes across such dedication.
Restoring a cruise ship from the 50s is not like restoring a house from the same time period. We’ve all seen the ridiculous modifications from the 60s and 70s in houses that have been thankfully done away with in the 21st century. But a cruise ship is different. Over her years the Aurora has had numerous, shall we say “changes” to her original design. But learning about Willson’s drive, ambition and progress bringing this ship back to life must be promoted.
While I certainly applaud the efforts to eventually restore the United States, Willson and his team are restoring the Aurora. One weld, one paint stroke at a time, the ship is returning to take her place alongside such historic liners as the Queen Mary and Rotterdam. In the case of those two liners from days past, someone had a vision to see that those vessels were saved from the fate of breakers or worse (remember what happened to the Queen Elizabeth?). But unlike those liners, there’s no hotel chain or municipality assisting in funding and promoting. It’s just Willson, his volunteers and related capital efforts to continue this important work.
All of us have seen the restoration of iconic buildings in our towns and cities. Nothing is grander when you see an old building restored to glory. Restoring a cruise ship from the 1950s is no different. In fact, it’s even more important. A ship, unlike a building, calls to you. Ask anyone who owns a boat or captains a ship and they’ll share their story. It’s clear the Aurora was calling Willson to save her. It knew her place in history and what it had to offer future generations. Personally, I’d rather sail on history than read about it in a book.
To the captain and crew of the Aurora, may the wind be at your back.
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The weather in Newport last week could not have been nicer. On the drive home Friday, I was reflecting how fast time flies and the weather we had last December and March. Let’s just say it wasn’t very cooperative from black ice to blizzards! But this round could not have gone smoother. From the trials at the Naval Justice School where fourteen of us participated as role players in their mock trial program to evening festivities and touring, it was a great time all the way around.
As I discussed with one of the newer actors to the program, this is probably one of the most unique acting gigs they will do. It’s one thing role playing a character, it’s another interfacing with over sixty students, instructors and leadership at the school. It’s that depth of involvement that has many of us returning for every class.
But with another class over, it’s time to return focus on to other projects. That new idea I mentioned in my last blog post means I will be firing up Final Draft this week. While I won’t go into the premise just yet, it will largely be a one location drama. The genre—science fiction.
As a writer my ideas come from a particular moment or experience. With Justice Is Mind it came from writing the sequel to First World. For this story, I had a basic idea for it last year and wrote down some thoughts placed in a folder called, brace yourself, ideas. But it was over the last four weeks at the Naval Justice School when I started to think about it again and talked to one of the actresses who I already have in mind for a part. Perhaps it was also the fact that fourteen of us are either in a classroom or a courtroom that the idea started to blossom.
Like I told this actress, I generally can’t start writing a story until I have an ending in mind. I need to know where the journey will eventually end. Now, that may change at some point, but it’s something to work towards.
As for the genre, the numbers I’ve been gathering over the last several years just reaffirm the market interest in science fiction. Ten years after its release First World is still generating revenue. The psychological sci-fi of Justice Is Mind, combined with a dramatic story arc through a courtroom, is what brought audiences to theaters and now online.
But for this weekend it’s time to decompress from the last four weeks. However, I will leave you with one word that will be mentioned in this new story…
The hotel is booked. The luggage is packed. Around noon I’ll be leaving for a week. This is the week of the mock trials and are the “performance” days. But unlike a theatrical or film premiere, no tickets are sold. There’s no public audience. But when all is said and done, all of us involved take our performances out into the real world.
Having played this character for the third time, there’s always something new to learn. Some new process, procedure or training an agent will need to know. Or an area of law that will be focused on. It’s one thing writing a legal drama like I did with Justice Is Mind, it’s another to be on the witness stand being questioned and cross examined by an actual lawyer. In a screenplay I know where the dramatic arcs are. I never know when they are coming in this setting!
So often I hear about this acting class or that acting class. This technique or that technique. I see actors obsess about learning this secret or that secret to acting. In my view I’ve always liked the way Anthony Hopkins has described the process, “I just learn my lines.” In the case of the NCIS Special Agent I play, I need to know my background and statements. I then research certain areas of law and procedure that may apply and then visualize the setting.
As for settings, while I’ve worked with most of the actors and staff from the school before, it has been great working with Monty Lyons. As some of you may remember, Monty played a police detective in Justice Is Mind and did an excellent job in the role. In this program Monty and I play the same character. Owing to the structure of the program we don’t often see our characters performed by other actors, so when I saw Monty play the role the other day, it was interesting to see his take on it. If I was to score his performance from the old figure skating scoring system, I’d give him a 6.0!
Finally, reuniting with some of these actors has brought forth some new ideas for projects down the road. Looks like I’ll start writing a new screenplay next week.
Tomorrow is a motion hearing in court. Not a real court. But the mock trial program I’m in at the Naval Justice School (NJS). While I can’t go into specifics for a variety of reasons, it involves my character as an NCIS Special Agent to be informed on matters pertaining to “my training” and certain actions I took. Sorry I can’t say more.
As an actor it gives me the opportunity to create a character. As this is a role playing part, as long as I know my background, there is a certain amount of leeway I can bring to the performance. The goal is to create a realistic environment for the students in the program. Because when this program is over, these students go out into the real world.
Creating worlds is what the fall is all about with the film markets. Toronto just finished with AFM coming up in early November. Some of the discussions that I’ve seen on filmmaking sites talk about the importance of having a teaser to represent a project. I couldn’t agree more. It honestly doesn’t take too much effort to create a sample of what a project could look like. Although I love reading a good script, being able to see some sort of visual does help bring it to life.
As for bringing a project to life, I firmly believe not going broke in the process. Yes, we all want to see our written word come to life, but it seriously isn’t worth emptying a bank account or maxing out credit cards. About a month ago I learned that an indie film that was in post-production hell finally climbed out of it when a producer mortgaged their house to finish it. Seriously.
But whether it’s a teaser, short or feature film, you want to work with actors and crew that do their part. Let me be clear, professionalism has nothing to do with union status and everything to do on how you comport yourself during a project. Are you prepared? Do you know your character? Do you show up on time? Are you contributing to the project or taking away from it?
There are people I’ve worked with on both sides of the “camera” over the last ten years that I wouldn’t hesitate to work with again. If you look at my projects you see many similar names. But sadly, there are those that I just won’t engage with on a future project. Nothing is harder on a production than an actor not being prepared or a crew member not doing their job. Simply, there are too many people looking for an opportunity and to prove themselves in the process.
The one thing that I enjoy about this industry is discovering new talent. And that truly is what this industry is all about—talent. Because there’s a “talent” in bringing a project to life.
Yesterday I attended the annual World War II Saturday at Battleship Cove. While there seemed to be less reenactors than last year, I found it just as engaging and interesting. If I come away with having learned a few more moments during that time in history, it’s well worth the visit.
By example, I learned some interesting details behind the Sino-American Cooperative Organization (SACO). Sure, I was generally aware that the United States and China had some sort of cooperation during the war, but when it’s illuminated it puts it in perspective. That “perspective” continued after SACO dissolved which was followed by China’s civil war.
Speaking of China, Justice Is Mind has been picked up by China Mobile as a flat licensing deal. As I understand from our distributor, it’s now going through censorship and localization on their end. It will certainly be a milestone to break into the Chinese market. One does not need to be a filmmaker or read the industry trades to know that China is one of the leading film markets.
Given the tumultuous state of U.S. box office revenue this year, it’s imperative that these foreign markets are available to filmmakers. For Justice Is Mind and First World our primary foreign market is the United Kingdom. I have also noticed that viewership in Japan is picking up. But one driving force that continues to put films front and center is the importance of a marketing plan.
I can’t tell you how many times the marketing plan for an independent film seems to begin and stop at the industry trades. Never mind when you read the first cut to studio budgets seem to be in marketing. As I have often said you can have the greatest project in the world but if nobody knows about it nobody will care.
As soon as I finish writing a script, I start working on the marketing plan in terms of a target audience. With distributors relying more and more on filmmakers to assist in the marketing plan, there really needs to be one in place before the first scene is shot. With First World it was science fiction conventions. With Justice Is Mind it was law schools and universities that focused on neuroscience. With Serpentine: The Short Program it was the Ice Network. Yes, like the aforementioned, films have their primary target audience then they broaden out from there.
Amazon is a perfect example of that. Someone might have heard about Justice Is Mind from our primary plan, but found the film on Amazon. Their algorithm then points customers to other recommended films. At that point the plan is relatively complete. But it all starts with that primary plan to push consumer awareness then generally continues with social media and other digital marketing tactics on an ongoing basis.
It’s hard to believe that it was five years ago this month that we were producing Justice Is Mind. Yet here we are five years later with new markets opening. The greatest thing about the world of film is discovery. It doesn’t matter when the film was made, it’s about when a customer learns about it for the first time. In today’s world of VOD a film no longer has a shelf-life.