Liftoff of the trailer for First Signal went off without a hitch. To put in in space terms, we are now in low Earth orbit. A special thank you to WMUR, Athol Daily News, Greenfield Recorder and Britflicks for reporting on the trailer. We’ll continue orbiting until First Signal is released and we venture into deep space. OK, enough with my outer space analogy on releasing a trailer!
Two weeks ago I had several browsers open with the trailer ready to be published. Did I spell the title of the trailer correctly? How does the formatting look for the email newsletter? Once I proofed everything for what seemed like a tenth time I finally entered the commands to go live. When the time came everything worked. But it wasn’t for a lack of planning. The organizing and release of the trailer took about three months. It wasn’t just about the actual video file of the trailer but all the marketing around it.
When you are an independent filmmaker your team is small if not but one. There’s no marketing communications group to handle this effort. Oh sure, you ask people to read this or double check that, but at the end of the day the responsibility is yours. Like it always happens before I launch something, I think of the steps it took to get to that point. It all started as an idea at the Naval Justice School in Newport, RI in 2017.
Up until that point I honestly never thought I would be revisiting this First World Universe I created. First World, the script, came out in 2006 with the short film version following in 2007. With the global financial crisis in full swing, it was next to impossible to get a film financed. At one point, just before the collapse, the financing and production teams were in place. But then, seemingly overnight, financing fell out of the markets and that was the end.
Slow but sure the markets recovered. A filmmaker friend of mine knew about my frustration with getting First World made and challenged me to write something that I could film on a true indie budget. A moment that involved mind reading in the sequel I wrote for First World turned into Justice Is Mind. The rest, as they say, is history.
Shortly after the trailer was released, I started to receive interest from sales agents and distributors I didn’t meet at AFM. I have to say that was very encouraging. The whole goal of a trailer is to “sell” the feature. As I can well appreciate how inundated these representatives are, the fact that they are even interested at this point bodes well for the project. What kind of deal will ultimately emerge? That’s really impossible to tell as there are numerous factors involved.
While post-production continues with an end of April (early May) completion date, marketing of the trailer continues, while I plan for the release of the feature and presentation to sales agents and distributors.
On a closing note, I’m aiming to have a draft of the sequel to First Signal completed before the film is released. To turn a military phrase, it’s about preparedness.
I cannot begin to thank the actors, crew and location partners enough for making First Signal possible. When I started to write the script a few years ago, I really had no idea that the story was actually going to be produced. Then moment by moment, meeting after meeting, First Signal became a reality.
There were so many fits and starts during the pre-production phase I wondered if we were ever going to lens those first scenes. But through patience, perseverance and planning, principal photography started last May and wrapped in July. The post-production team of Daniel Groom, Daniel Elek-Diamanta and Adam Starr have been working feverishly to bring First Signal to life.
While pre-production and principal photography are obviously important, the real magic happens in post. It’s in post that one takes the time to insure that quality is always top of mind. For it’s quality that distributors are looking for. When I was at AFM the discussion wasn’t so much about “stars” but about the on screen production value. In essence, how does the film look and sound.
Now that the trailer is out, marketing begins again in earnest. The months of planning for this day are now here. Marketing is something I truly enjoy. If you believe in what you’re selling you can pitch it to anyone. This is where the three P’s (patience, perseverance and planning) come into play. If someone you pitch your project to says no, you just keep moving down the line. For Justice Is Mind, I must have pitched over one hundred theatres, in the end twelve screened the film. Had I given up after I heard what seemed to be the endless “no”, the limited theatrical run never would have happened.
Given the challenges independent filmmakers face on a daily basis, the release of a trailer is another reason to celebrate. It proves that like-minded people, with very busy schedules, came together for a singular purpose – to create a motion picture – to create a piece of art. Over the next few months the final pieces to the feature film puzzle will be completed. In ocean liner parlance First Signal is being “fitted out.”
Welcome to the First World Universe!
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.
Yesterday I ran into a colleague I hadn’t seen in few years. The first thing he asked me was “How’s the writing going?” I told him about First Signal and a few other things going on. As he runs a successful business in Worcester, I asked him how the salon was. He responded “Busy.” I really didn’t have to ask him that because I know his salon is always busy. He’s been working on building his brand for years.
It took some years to build my brand in figure skating and equally as long as a writer and filmmaker outside of the sport. Building a brand isn’t something that happens overnight. It builds from one project to another. However, we now live in a world where people think that having a large social media following is a brand. Social media, in my view, is great for amplifying what you’re doing in the real world. But without a foundation of something, it’s just likes.
When I started to revive the First World Universe to write First Signal a few years ago, I realized after reviewing all my original material and the media we had at the time, that I created a unique brand. One with its own voice. With First Signal I finally had the opportunity to present this world as a feature film. The first in what I hope to be a series of films in the First World Universe.
With the trailer nearly complete, the marketing train will soon be leaving the station. Once it leaves it can’t come back. While post-production has been going on in earnest with countless notes with the editor, composer and VFX artist, I’ve been working out the marketing plans for the trailer and ultimately the feature. All of us on the post-production team know how important it is for the trailer to present the film. At the end of the day it’s about selling the feature.
As for the First World Universe, I’m just over the thirty-page mark for the sequel. This is the story that takes place before the events in First World. In my view, writing a sequel is no easy feat. You must balance the established characters and their stories with something new. I think one of the most interesting sequels was 2010 from the legendary 2001. Starring Roy Scheider, John Lithgow and Helen Mirren, 2010 created a wonderful “what if” possibility.
In the sequel to First Signal the following dialogue happens in the Oval Office
“Exactly. Now he’s operating covertly and illegally. If you lose and Reager legitimately controls the military and his commander in chief is complicit, history books won’t judge your actions today, because they’ll be none left. It will be the end of civilization.” – Elisabeth Seward, National Security Advisor to President Helen Colton
That dialogue derives from actions around Operation Troy in First Signal.
“General if I sign this. What’s the objective of Operation Troy?” – Helen Colton, President, United States of America.
“Identification.” – General John Reager, Commander, Air Force Space Command
This week I write the draft press release and email newsletter to announce the trailer. As for when the trailer will be released? Sometime in February
There has been a flurry of activity since First Signal wrapped principal photography in July. From editing, scoring, special effects to market preparation for the American Film Market, the work on a feature film hardly ends when the final “cut” is called. Post-production is where the puzzle of all the shots taken comes together. You only hope you have all the pieces! Thankfully, we do.
The one thing I’ve learned on this feature film, was that a long pre-production period was a good thing. There were casting changes that worked out for the best, ideal locations that came forward and research that proved invaluable during production and post-production. The one thing I’m glad I did during the pre-production process was attend AFM last year. It gave me a sense of how a film market operates and what to expect (or in some cases not to expect).
For AFM 2019 I have several meetings booked and several more sales agents/distributors that want to see a complete screener of First Signal. Certainly, these are all positive developments. However, as a filmmaker, the one thing you must believe in is your own film and not to be swayed by critics. One sales agent stated that I needed to introduce the “creature” early. As First Signal is a story driven science fiction film akin to Gattaca with the production style of Fail Safe, I declined that meeting (there is no “creature” in First Signal). In addition to an original story, what First Signal also offers is the start of a new science fiction series.
This weekend I picked up the sales cards/sell sheets for First Signal. A special thanks to Daniel Elek-Diamanta for the design! These sell sheets will be used like business cards during the market. What I aimed for with the sell sheet were select stills and copy that represented the story. While it’s impossible to present an entire film on such a piece of collateral, the goal is that of a trailer—promote the feature.
Out of the 82 page script, First Signal is edited up to page 76. The pieces of the puzzle are nicely coming together. Editing is a process all unto itself. It’s time consuming and detail oriented. It’s about pouring over hours of footage and audio to look for the best takes to build the story. A special thanks also to our editor (and director of photography) Daniel Groom for his work.
As I head into the last two weeks before I leave for AFM, there will be meeting preparations, practicing my pitch and finalizing the schedule. I’ll still never forget the first time I walked into the lobby of the Lowes Hotel last year—everything I saw was about the world of independent film. It’s an ideal market to network, get the latest insight and to present your project to the industry.
It is amazing to me how much this industry has evolved from my first film. When I released First World in 2007 Amazon had just announced video on demand the year before with Netflix just announcing a streaming service. Of course theatrical and DVD were still major revenue sources. But it was when I saw First World on the nascent Hulu that I knew the world of filmmaking would change forever. Yes, theatrical is still the primary revenue source, but we all know what happened to DVD. As I employed when I was a magazine publisher, I think it’s important to test and try new release and market technologies to reach audiences the way they want to watch your film.
This past week the pitch process for First Signal began in earnest. As long as you follow the process outlined by the American Film Market (AFM), it’s pretty straight forward. There is so much that goes into getting ready for a market. For the last few weeks it’s been about updating my websites, building First Signal’s official website and preparing other marketing materials. They say you only get one shot at a first impression, so why not give your best one.
Post-production is moving right along. The film is nearing the halfway mark with a rough cut, with the first twenty minutes generally scored and color corrected. It’s these twenty minutes that’s being pitched to interested parties at the AFM. I can’t say enough good things about the post-production team of Daniel Groom, Daniel Elek-Diamanta and Adam Starr. The post-production process is highly detailed exacting work. It requires organization, patience and diligence. Traits, I’m happy to say, that we all have. But there’s something else none of us have, an ego that gets in the way of working together. To turn a phrase from McDonald Walling (William Holden) in Executive Suite, “In your own words, Shaw, I have only one interest around here – the good of this company.”
With this post, I’m releasing an additional still that introduces the mysterious Cedric Yonah and James Griffin. Titled “When Worlds Collide,” it follows the previously released still titled “Who are you?” In that still we saw General Reager and Major Sampson looking at someone. Now we know who they were looking at. It is from this point forward in the story that the tension in First Signal builds to a revelation that leads into the sequel.
It’s hard to believe that in six weeks I’ll be back in Los Angeles. It’s even harder to believe that it’s been over ten years since I lived in the city. Like so many of us that are part of this industry we are drawn to LA for its magnetism with the word “opportunity” in the air. While I loved my years living in New York City, it’s Los Angeles that always feels like my second home when I visit.
I was living in LA when I wrote my first screenplay First World. What was the genesis that gave me the idea? It may have been all my visits to the Griffith Observatory. For it was an event at that famed institution when I had the honor to meet Ray Bradbury. For the few minutes I talked to him and told him how much I admired his work, he asked me if I was a writer. I told him briefly about First World, he smiled, shook my hand and said graciously, “You keep writing.”
Capturing the essence of a movie usually starts with the one sheet (poster), followed by stills and then the trailer. It’s about developing the film’s brand and the PR campaign around it. For First Signal, the first official one sheet was designed by Daniel Elek-Diamanta (who is also our composer). The poster represents the famed “Earthrise” photo from Apollo 8 along with some sort of alien satellite or ship between the Moon and Earth. As the First Signal story is rooted in the Apollo space program, I thought the blend of science fact with fiction would make for a compelling picture.
With editing well underway, the next step in the branding process is to tell First Signal’s story through carefully chosen stills. Quoting Arthur Brisbane from an article in 1911, “Use a picture. It’s worth a thousand words.”
Our first “picture” tells part of the First Signal story with Air Force One arriving in Brussels, Belgium. To the casual observer they just see Air Force One over a newscast. But for those that are following First Signal, they will see much more. Not only does the still lend to the logline, an emergency meeting with the President, it represents the arrival of Earth’s most well-known plane. I say Earth’s because something else arrives later in the story. The rotating planet Earth in the chyron graphic is later identified as another world. But it’s the crisis in Ukraine that leads to a government conspiracy to thwart an insurgent military action that’s at the heart of the First Signal story.
Over the weeks and months ahead, the idea is to create a campaign to bring awareness to First Signal for its release in 2020. When you consider the tens of thousands of films made in any given year, the marketing and communications efforts need to be just as well thought out and planned as principal photography was. For First Signal it’s about building off our early press.
As for building, next week I start the research process for AFM. But prior to AFM, I’ll be presenting First Signal next week to some interested parties that are traveling to Toronto.
Finally, I’m re-presenting First Signal’s one sheet now with credits. As you will see, it truly does take a village to make a motion picture. While a director has a vision and acts as conductor, they are only as good as their orchestra.
Last Sunday First Signal wrapped principal photography. The final shot seemed particularly appropriate. It was a POV from Major Sampson (Patience McStravick). With Daniel Groom on camera, Patience guiding his shoulders to mirror her character and myself directing, it was that moment when I remembered the day all three of us met at a Starbucks in January 2018 to discuss First Signal. None of us could have foreseen the journey that was to lie ahead. While pre-production was fraught with fits and starts, the train of principal photography not only ran on time, but finished five production days ahead of schedule.
Shooting First Signal these last few months has been nothing less than thrilling for me. Oh sure, as director you worry about countless things, but when you see the progress and quality being produced from one day to the next, those worries quickly evaporate. Those pre-production matters that sought to derail the train are nothing more than a distant memory. Of course no vision comes to life without a dedicated cast, crew and location partners. Without their tireless efforts First Signal would still be just that—a vision.
The vision for First Signal was nicely magnified by some wonderful press over the last several weeks. WMUR-TV, The Concord Monitor, The Athol Daily News and the Greenfield Recorder all visited set (The Hippo did a great piece that you can find in my previous post). I couldn’t be more thankful for their coverage. It isn’t just about producing a film, it’s about getting it noticed. When you consider the tens of thousands of films that are made a year, having media support, particularly at this stage, is paramount.
Throughout the production process and this past week, I have kept the contacts I made at AFM last year informed about our progress. While one during production was keenly interested in First Signal, another got back to me last night and wants to see some footage as soon as possible for TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival). In addition to the festival itself, Toronto is one of the major film markets.
This is what producing a film is all about – distribution. Putting aside getting an actual deal for your film, there are simply so many platforms to distribute and market you really need a distributor to navigate this labyrinth.
Putting together the puzzle that was created during production, is now the purview of our editor and the rest of the post production team. This is where the tone and style of the film come to life. We’ve already decided on a color scheme and I’m pretty close on what I’d like to see for a score. While I’m overseeing post-production, I’ll be working on branding and other marketing aspects. Yes, making a film is thrilling, but seeing it come to life in the consumer market is where it matters.
In closing, thank you to all those that have supported this project. Your support over these months have made First Signal possible.
No sooner did we finish our first pre-production test on January 26 at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center did we plan our second one for March 4. This was going to be more than a handful of shots and walkthrough. Our second test would involve lighting, sound and set construction.
I believe pre-production is the most important aspect of planning a film. It is this phase where even the slightest detail gets ironed out. How does the set look? Is the audio clear? What lens will work best for this shot? Because before you know it, the first day of production has arrived and you can only hope you covered all your bases.
When we first arrived, the main room we were going to shoot in was empty like a clean slate. One by one we brought the tables in and configured them to the set I had envisioned. There is that surreal experience as a screenwriter when you see a set coming to life that until that moment has only existed as words on a page.
One other critical component to our test was in camera special effects. So often in our modern world of filmmaking when we see a screen or monitor in a movie it’s shot with the actors without an image. The image, or special effect, is then put in during the post-production process. That was largely the case with Justice Is Mind when all 170 special effects were put in during post-production. In camera special effects for Justice wouldn’t have been practical as the majority had to be custom designed. For First Signal, the presentation that takes place during the primary scene is largely a slide presentation of still images. Thankfully that portion of the test was successful.
When we go into production I want the actors to actually look at something real. Not only does it help them get into the moment of their character, but it greatly assists with eyeline and saves an enormous amount of time in post-production. There is also something authentic about the lighting from a projector that can be used to enhance a particular character or moment.
The idea for doing in-camera special effects for this scene came from the movie Fail Safe. In the scenes at the Pentagon the image we see is rear projection. But in the command center it’s actually front projection. I can only imagine what the pre-production process was like on that film never mind the timing the actors and crew had to accomplish on set as that effect was film not a still image.
With our interior work completed we moved outside for a combination of drone and ground based photography. This is the scene where one of the major characters arrives at a “military base.” I’ve previously taken drone footage of the Discovery Center, but this was my first time tracking a vehicle. It’s all about practice!
Suffice to say First Signal’s second test went great. None of this would have been possible without the expertise and dedication of Daniel Groom, the Director of Photography; Patience McStravick, one of the producers who stars as Major Sampson and Paul Noonan who stars as General Reager. And a special thanks to the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center. To turn their phrase, thank you for having us in your “universe.”
As we plan for an end of April start date with one dress rehearsal prior, some critical components of the production started to arrive this week…
The date was set weeks ago – January 26. It was the day we were holding auditions for the final two characters in First Signal. From the moment I posted the auditions, I was encouraged by the quality of responses. When the day came the actors didn’t disappoint. I was uniquely impressed that many of them were off book. Impressed, because the sides I send aren’t just the standard two pages you usually receive for an audition (one of the sides even included a monologue). Frankly, I’ve never understood why so many auditions are based off the two page side. It’s even worse when those two pages only have like three or four lines for the part you’re auditioning for. Regardless of what side of the camera you’re on, I don’t believe you can properly ascertain a project based off a two page side.
I have some cardinal rules I follow when holding auditions. First, you send sides well in advance of the audition. Two, you include some background on the character with the sides. Three, and this is perhaps the most important, you don’t change the sides in the audition room (there is one local casting company that does that regularly and it infuriates me–I’ve stopped auditioning for them). For me, it’s about respecting the actor’s time and preparation. As a director, it’s about seeing a quality audition. To learn more about the cast (and some of the crew) of First Signal please visit our IMDb page.
The following day Daniel Groom (Director of Photography), Patience McStravick (Producer and Major Sampson) and I went to the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center for our first day of testing. After a successful day of auditions, we were all in good spirits driving up to the Discovery Center as we knew we had the actors we wanted. We now could get down to the business of pre-production. For First Signal, we’re taking extra steps in pre-production to insure, to the best of our ability, a smooth production.
It’s one thing scouting a location, it’s another to film in it. From interesting angles, to lighting, to electrical, there are so many numerous things that go into the pre-production process. Since I knew we were going to film First Signal at the Discovery Center, I’ve had so many ideas come to mind to bring this project to life.
In First Signal the Discovery Center will act as a European air force base. When General Reager arrives we will see a full size replica of Mercury-Redstone rocket. Once inside he passes by an XF8U-2 Crusader Jet. Considering that the First Signal story is rooted in the space program of the 1960s and two of its main characters are in the air force, the Discovery Center is the perfect backdrop.
But it’s not just about what’s best for First Signal, it’s about promoting the Discovery Center itself. Long after the final “cut” is called, the Discovery Center will forever be featured in a film that will be seen for generations to come. Those that know me, know I’m a passionate believer in the space program and all those that make “space” possible. That, in so many ways, is what makes the Discovery Center so special – it’s about discovery.
Sorting through the numerous business cards and materials I gathered at AFM, I began my follow ups a few days after I arrived home. The return correspondence has been very encouraging. For obvious reasons I won’t publish the names of the companies I’m talking with, but suffice to say things are moving in a positive direction for two of my projects. The devil is in the details of course, but as filmmakers we are used to countless details.
As I begin to ramp up pre-production for First Signal with a May production start date, I was talking to a fellow filmmaker the other day about the importance of insuring there’s a market for our projects after we wrap production. There’s simply too much time and money involved to wind up on a shelf which translates to holding up a return on investment.
I’ve talked about this subject before when I was marketing Justice Is Mind. It was vital to me that Justice was introduced in a theatrical setting. While many submit to film festivals at considerable expense and wait for an acceptance (a practice that was frowned upon at AFM unless it’s an A level festival with potential buyers in attendance), I pushed for a theatrical run. The result was a limited run of 14 theatres, box office revenue, an international premiere on an ocean liner and substantive media placements. If I worked for years to get my film off the ground the last thing I’m going to do is pay $$$ to a second tier film festival. Then wait weeks (if not months) for a decision by a committee, then, if accepted, be at the mercy of a programmer to place my film in a time slot convenient to the festival, ceding box office revenue (filmmakers don’t receive a cut from festivals) and sharing in their public relations efforts with other films. As you can imagine, the public relations and release strategy for First Signal is already in the planning stages.
Speaking of planning stages, I had the opportunity today to visit the American Heritage Museum in Hudson, MA at the Collings Foundation. Some of you may remember my trips to the Collings Foundation for their World War II reenactment event “Battle for the Airfield” or their “Wings of Freedom Tour” around the country.
Although they are in “preview” until their Grand Opening in April of 2019, what I saw today was truly outstanding. The museum represents the history of war in America. Although it starts with the Revolutionary War all the way to the War on Terror, the primary focus is generally on World War I and World War II.
The tour starts in the orientation theatre and then proceeds to two immersive experiences before advancing to the main exhibit hall. The first is the World War I exhibit complete with a trench you can walk through. From there you proceed to the World War II exhibit which features a Mercedes-Benz W31 and Panzer 1A. Click this link to learn about all the tanks, vehicles and artifacts that will be part of the museum when it reopens in the spring. Of course, as a filmmaker, their use of archival film to enhance the static displays was brilliantly done.
The development of a film property isn’t just about the actual filming, it’s about creating imagery, branding and a marketing campaign. Long after you type the first word of your script, it’s the first image associated with the story that everyone remembers. How many times do we read about a project in development or one that has long ago been filmed, until we see an image associated with it? First Signal is much more to me than just another film project. It’s about setting the right tone and creating the “world” of First Signal.
Although I had a general idea of what I wanted to see in a promotional poster, I had no idea that Daniel Elek-Diamanta was thinking along the same lines. Daniel, as some of you know, is an accomplished composer. He brilliantly scored Justice Is Mind and Serpentine. Unless he’s not available, he knows he’s always my number one. Weeks ago he agreed to score First Signal. In addition to his talent scoring films, he’s also a brilliant graphic designer. When he sent me a surprise draft of a promotional poster for First Signal it’s like he read my mind (Justice Is Mind?).
I am therefore pleased to present the first promotional poster for First Signal by Daniel Elek-Diamanta! Inspired by the famed Earthrise photo from Apollo 8, with a star field created by Celestia an open source virtual 3D astronomy program, the poster was released today on IMDb and social media.
Also launching today is First Signal’s official url www.firstsignalmovie.com. The site presently points to First Signal’s Facebook page, but will soon be directed to a custom designed website. The footage has already been selected with Daniel working on an introductory score.
Standing out in this industry is a herculean task. Sure, I go to my social media feeds and I see what’s going on locally. But it truly comes down to making a national and international push for a project. I’ve never had any interest in being a “popular local.” For me, it’s about someone discovering my films who lives far away from where it was created.
When Justice Is Mind had its international premiere on Cunard Line’s Queen Elizabeth back in 2014, nobody on the ship, aside from my mother, knew me or anything about the film. All they knew what was in the daily communique. Those passengers were my most important audience. Thankfully the screening was, I’ll say it, smooth sailing.
I also received word this week that the Department of Defense is formally reviewing First Signal for possible cooperation. As some of you may know, the military has entertainment liaison offices that work with the industry. Although First Signal is science fiction, there are numerous elements to the story that are based in the real world. And like the legal aspects of Justice Is Mind, I think it’s important to insure the military and science aspects are properly vetted.
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.
Last week I talked about lists. Well this week I was able to cross off, or at least through, one thing on my list – uniforms.
Whenever I plan to put a script into production I go through it with a fine tooth comb to break down exactly what’s needed. For First Signal the Nehru styled suits for two of the characters have been secured for some weeks. Personally, I thought it was going to be a bit of a challenge to get the look I wanted with the budget I set for costumes. I soon discovered there were numerous manufacturers that offered countless styles and ranges in price. In the end I got what I wanted for that look.
But there was one type of uniform that was proving a bit elusive–Air Force officer service dress. Yes, a good number of regional costume shops had air force officer uniforms. They would have worked fine if our story was set in the early 1990s. But as First Signal is set in the year 2014, we needed a contemporary look.
To start I discounted contacting the big costume houses that work with “Hollywood” budgeted films and TV shows. My thinking was why on Earth would they want to work with an indie film on the scale of First Signal? So contacting the official uniform suppliers to the Air Force began in earnest. But in the majority of cases you need to be authorized military personnel to make a purchase from those companies. So short of purchasing items piecemeal on eBay and the like, this was a major item on my list that wasn’t budging.
When I saw the season finale of Madam Secretary and the number of military uniforms that were used on that episode, I decided I had to take a different route. I went to their listing on IMDbPro to see who was in charge of costuming. No sooner did I contact one of the wardrobe supervisors via LinkedIn did he get back to me with companies and contact names. Yes, these were the big costume houses on the west coast.
The welcoming reception I received from Eastern Costume put aside my preconceived anxiety about contacting one of these companies. To say they are knowledgeable about costumes would be an understatement. After sending them some pictures of the types of Air Force service dress uniforms I was looking for, they gave me a rundown on prices that will work for First Signal. Is it a bit more than I budgeted? Certainly. But in this case anything less than a contemporary look just wouldn’t have worked.
The search, however, continues for a suitable location. The one thing I have done with all my films is to secure locations via a trade marketing partnership. It’s a pretty straight forward process that works great for everyone. A location allows us the opportunity to film and I promote and market the location. Well after the actors and crew have left, a location sees themselves promoted regularly on social media, mentioned in the press, credited at the end of the film, on official sites and other entitlements that benefit all concerned long after “That’s a wrap” is called. I have no doubt that a suitable location will be secured. But there are always surprises in this business. Like when you believe you have a deal and suddenly it goes from trade to a $10,000 plus fee! Um no thanks, I’ll keep looking! The one thing I have long learned in this business is never be desperate to do a deal. I look for partners not takers.
Since First Signal’s table read last Saturday there has been a flurry of activity behind the scenes. From location scouting between Massachusetts and New Hampshire to waiting to hear from the Department of Defense on production assistance, the pre-production process of a feature film is a myriad of activity that gives new meaning to one word – lists.
With our aim to secure the final locations in the next ten days, those working on the pre-production side will see their respective lists grow exponentially. As I believe organization is critical to any production, keeping a well ordered list means that you’re one step closer to the start of production.
Speaking of productions, this past week was an interesting one from the acting side of things. When I was auditioning for a film in Boston, I ran into one of the actors that I cast in First Signal. I think we were reading for the same part! To quote Bette Davis in Now, Voyager, “The world is small, but Boston is big”. Suffice to say we shared some interesting stories while waiting to be called. The one thing I’ve learned about the New England market, is that there are a number of us that operate on both sides of the desk. Personally, I prefer it that way as it gives me a fresh perspective on the business.
However, it was all business on Friday when I was at Charles River Media Group. A few weeks ago I was cast in a book promo/trailer. The book is not a work of fiction, but fact. The story takes place in Austria during World War II. The producer, who is also the author, gave all the actors a personally signed copy. I started to read the book last night and it’s a page turner. I’ll write up the project once the production releases stills.
This was my first time working with this director (who was also the director of photography). From the costuming he sourced to the way he directed the shoot, his style was engaged and calming. The actors were tremendously professional and took their respective parts seriously. The end product should be stunning.
Indeed this market is a small one. No sooner did I arrive and I recognized one of the actors I worked with from the Joint Base Cape Cod exercises. Although another actor doesn’t know it yet, when the time comes I plan to reach out to him to see if he’d like to play one of the secret service agents in First Signal.
This week I also launched the Facebook and Twitter accounts for First Signal. Suffice to say I was encouraged by the response. These are only the first steps towards developing the overall marketing communications plan for the project.
One thing I’ve often talked about is testing. Whether it’s a screen test prior to a theatrical screening or testing equipment prior to a live event, I’m adamant about testing prior to production or going live.
I still remember to this day, that despite testing equipment the day before, a major live event I produced years ago ran into a major technical problem during the show. What happened? Someone behind the scenes decided to “think” and change the program without consulting anyone. The result? A total screw up. Thankfully the embarrassment was resolved in short order and the venue credited us $14,000 for their mistake.
Production is time and money. If you don’t set aside time to rehearse, test and think things through, the results can be disastrous if not embarrassing. In the past two weeks I have witnessed two major meltdowns with camera equipment during auditions. How does that happen in today’s day and age? And why don’t you have a backup system ready to go at a moment’s notice? It’s called preparedness.
As for preparedness, I attended the Memorial Day services at Battleship Cove last Monday. Not only does this museum do a wonderful job in organization and presentation, it’s the location itself that brings forward the meaning of this national holiday. When you are standing on the deck of a battleship that fought in World War II, it doesn’t get any more real than that.
I’ve been to Battleship Cove on a several occasions. There’s always something new to learn and discover. When so many are engaged in the here and now, it’s important that we take the time to never forget how and why well over 50,000,000 perished in World War II.
With less than two weeks to go until First Signal’s table read, pre-production continues on a variety of fronts. At this stage of the production it’s more waiting to hear from certain parties for confirmations, etc. I will say the DJI Spark continues to perform well for the required drone shots.
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.
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.
As we are about one month away from First Signal’s table read on June 16, we had a location confirmation lock with the expansive field we needed. I couldn’t be more pleased with this location. It’s exactly what the script called for.
As this location is on private property I won’t reveal its location. With an outdoor location, private property is better to shoot on. Why? It’s about privacy. While I’m all about someone learning the process of making a film, the actual process of making one is time consuming detailed work. On private property you don’t have onlookers watching from the sidelines and getting in the frame of the shot. But it’s also about taking pictures and posting them to social media, etc. Unfortunately, the wrong picture can ruin an entire film. Anyone that works in the industry knows the general policies that go with on set photography. Most sets have “still photographers” that take a variety of pictures that encompass an entire production.
While additional locations are being scouted, along with numerous other behind the scenes activity, the one thing I’m very cognizant of is the film market itself. There is no better market than Cannes to provide a fresh perspective on where the industry is going. As Alex Walton of Bloom tells the Hollywood Reporter. “International distributors are in need of product, but they’re also incredibly cautious because they’re in need of the right product. There are fewer films, fewer packages and fewer things to buy, so when we approach Cannes now, even compared to five or six years ago, it is with a completely different mindset,” Adds Entertainment One CEO Darren Throop who tells the Hollywood Reporter, “The whole concept of buying a good package on the open market and reselling it to cinema, pay and TV — that whole model has changed. The very foundation of independent film has changed.”
The one thing that has changed in the last several years is the development of franchises and the sci-fi genre has pretty much been a solid bet. As a director my job is to create a quality film that’s ready for the market. But as a producer I am making a bet on the market. It’s an interesting line to balance.
But putting aside numbers, market share and all that comes after the fact, it is the process of making a film that’s the most exciting. Watching the actors and crew bring life to your story is tremendously satisfying. As a screenwriter we spend hours, weeks and months behind a computer coming up with, what we hope, is an interesting story. But it’s seeing that story emblazoned on the silver screen that makes the entire process a worthwhile endeavor.
Part of that process is equipment. Yesterday, I purchased a drone for a pivotal shot at the end of the film. But no sooner did I complete this purchase and I’m suddenly thinking of all the other creative areas we can use a drone in First Signal. This technology has changed so much since we used one in Justice Is Mind. Add to that the cost has come down exponentially. This is why the process of filmmaking is so enticing and exciting. The democratization of the entire process from creating to distributing has changed for the better.
This past Friday I finished my fifth class playing an NCIS Special Agent in the Naval Justice School’s mock trial program. When I first started in this program back in December 2016 I was simply cast as an actor, given background information to learn and literally jumped into the deep end of the pool. For those of you that have been following this blog for the last year, you know how much I enjoy this assignment. It’s important work. Not just for me as an actor, but for the school, the students and the military.
Now that I direct and supervise this program for the government contractor the responsibility level elevates. It’s not just important that I do my job as an actor, but I need to insure that others are doing their job as well. As a director my goal is that they present a strong performance on stage and off.
This round was particularly special for me when a recently retired NCIS Special Agent joined our group as an actress playing an “NCIS Special Agent”. Obviously, she brought a wonderful perspective to the part and was a joy to work with. But when she presented me with an “official” NCIS challenge coin, well that just made this round all the more exciting. But rewarding for me came at the end when I was getting ready to leave on Friday. One of the students walked up to me and thanked me for the work I did. Likewise, I thanked him for his service and the work he is doing. In the end, that’s what this is all about.
But as for out and about, it wasn’t all business. I had time in my schedule to visit the Audrain Automobile Museum to see their latest exhibit. If you find yourself in the Newport, Rhode Island area, I highly recommend a visit.
In regard to visiting, I will be at the Joint Base Cape Cod for a National Guard training exercise on April 6-7 and 10-11. To quote from the registration link for those interested in being a Casualty Role Player, “The training exercises will simulate an emergency response to a manmade or natural disaster including a structural collapse and/or nuclear, biological or chemical incident.” I will be there in a production capacity. To learn more, and to be considered as a Casualty Role Player, please visit this link.
It’s hard to be believe that auditions for First Signal will soon be here. With auditions set for April 14 in Nashua, NH at the Nashua Library and April 15 in Natick MA at the Verve Crowne Plaza, we have some great talent scheduled.
With First Signal being the first installment of what I hope to be a franchise in this “First World” universe I created a decade ago, the challenge is finding the right actors for the right parts. I’ve been fortunate over the years to work with some wonderful talent. Actors that are not only great at what they do on camera, but a joy to be around when the cameras turn off. That’s vital when casting a film. Because long after the last “cut” is heard and the cameras are turned off, it’s on to promotion and marketing.
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.
This month marked one year since I was hired for a role playing character at the Naval Justice School (NJS) in their mock trial program. Since that first class last December my character and responsibilities have grown. There’s even been a change in the government contractor that administers the contract. But through it all, it has been an amazing experience.
The majority of projects I have worked on the last twenty years have largely been one day or multi-day projects (particularly for film projects). But this recurring opportunity is not only important work for NJS but greatly contributes to our acting experience and respective networks.
While a few of us are original to the program, the majority have been part of the program since March. For me it feels like a traveling troupe of actors with our audience being the students and our stage being the courtrooms of the school.
For this round I was directly responsible for bringing on new actors. As I mentioned to some of them this past week, when I receive a resume I always try to find some sort of six degrees of separation or similar project. One of the actors had previously done a mock trial program at Harvard, so that was a no-brainer.
In my view it works when an actor is open minded to the process of one of these role playing characters and gets along with other actors. The latter may sound a bit obvious, but it’s probably the most important because we spend so much time together. When I think of the amount of socializing we did this time it confirmed that we had a solid group for this round.
The one thing I can’t emphasize enough is the networking part of it all. When I was doing background on a film earlier this year, one actress and I hit it off and she was the first one I thought of when filling one of the larger roles. With another, I came up with the idea for an original story with her in one of the starring roles. Another one of the actors has been enjoying a successful run in Rhode Island theater circles and some of us plan to see him in his latest play next weekend. But there is one actress that I’ve worked with since last December, that sadly won’t be returning this coming March as her husband has been transferred to another military base.
When I first met Helen last December, she was so positive, with a constant smile and eagerness to help others. It didn’t take long for us to become fast friends and when I was in Newport this past summer we caught up over lunch.
So many of us are coffee drinkers with constant walks to the kitchen or the Starbucks on base. Helen, who isn’t a coffee drinker, suddenly arrives with a coffee maker, filters and coffee! As we were all struck with amazement and gratitude her response was along the lines of, to make our day easier. On our last day this week Helen wrote each of us a personal note. This wasn’t email, but a handwritten note!
Helen’s generosity, kindness and talent is something all of us should strive for.
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.”