The final days leading up to principal photography are ones that give the word “multitasking” a whole new meaning. Throw in a last minute casting and that brings it to a new dimension. But as I look at my lists, what I’m crossing off and what we have left to do, things are moving along.
I’m also pleased to announce that Wendy Hartman will play President Helen Colton in First Signal. Although I’ve known of Wendy’s work for some time, we haven’t had the opportunity to work together. But the one thing I have admired is her dedication to any project she becomes a part of. Welcome Madam President!
It would have been too easy to throw the towel in when I received the news that someone was pulling out this close to the start of production, but I have never been one to throw a towel. When you reach a certain point in this process you just double down and pursue all avenues.
After the auditions in Nashua I drove up to the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center for a last minute location check. Our first day of shooting will involve just two locations, but it’s those last minute looks that are important. While visiting I had the most fascinating conversations with a few of the staffers about all things science and science fiction. They showed me some of the new shows in the planetarium. Every time I visit the Center I “discover” something new.
One area art direction I did some work on this past week was having Belgian license plates created for the first scenes we are shooting. I believe in authenticity and making every effort to get it right. A special thanks to Adam Starr for creating the plates and to my friends at FedexOffice for bringing them to life.
With some final fittings this week and picking up the tailored Air Force Uniforms, First Signal will soon be filming.
From when I started writing the script in 2017 to where we are today, I think of the journey and dedication of so many to see this project through. I can’t help but be reminded of when I started to put this “First World” universe together back in 2006 with the screenplay First World, to the short film version in 2007 to a near greenlight of the feature film version in 2008 until the economy crashed. It was from my writings in First World that the genesis for Justice Is Mind was born. That project seemed a lifetime ago until I was driving home yesterday and actually drove by one of the restaurant locations in New Hampshire we used in that film.
I believe this quote from Theodore Roosevelt sums up what many of us feel in this industry when a project finally moves forward after years in development – “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.”
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.
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.
From finishing the latest class at the Naval Justice School to National Guard role playing exercises at Joint Base Cape Cod, the last six weeks have been a whirlwind of activity. But perhaps the most anticipated was last weekend’s auditions for First Signal.
Every film has its origins. First Signal can trace its back ten plus years ago when I wrote First World in 2006. After three screenplay nominations, the production of a short film version, over twenty screenings at sci-fi conventions around the world, that project was at the twelfth hour of funding with a production company attached only to see the economic collapse in 2008 hit the entertainment industry like a rocket explosion. Anyone that was around at that time and working in the industry knows what it was like. But in the end it’s called survival.
It was First World that gave birth to Justice Is Mind. The psychological sci-fi courtroom thriller with mind reading at the center of the story. When I was writing notes on a sequel story to First World, it was the development of a mind reading computer called CENTRAL (Computer Encoding Neuro Transmission and Library) that found its way into Justice Is Mind. In Justice the computer program was called FVMRI for Functional Video Magnetic Resonance Imaging. The rest, as they say, is history when Justice Is Mind was produced in 2012 and released in 2013. My goal since 2006 was to create a new sci-fi franchise around the “First World” universe. With First Signal the aim is to do just that.
Like Justice Is Mind, I wrote First Signal with the intention of producing it myself. Sure, one can pitch to “the industry” and wait…and wait…and wait. Or, take the bull by the horns and get it done. The key is to find enthusiastic actors, crew, location partners and a host of others to see the vision through. To say I am pleased with the auditions from last weekend would be an understatement—I was thrilled.
But first and foremost I want to thank actress Patience McStravick for inspiring me to write First Signal. If it wasn’t for our conversations last fall during our time at the Naval Justice School about a story that largely takes place in one room, I doubt this project would be where it is today. Then it was her introduction to talented filmmaker Daniel Groom. Patience starred in his film They Don’t Know (highly recommended!). With Patience and Daniel on board, First Signal was moving forward.
Auditions commenced last Saturday at the Nashua Library in Nashua, NH and then moved to The Verve Crown Plaza in Natick, MA on Sunday. Some I cast in my past films (and were good friends), some I recently worked with between the Naval Justice School and National Guard. Others I didn’t know. But prior to all this, some parts were already cast. There are times as a director you just know you can offer a part to someone without an audition.
Kim Gordon as the President of the United States was my immediate first choice for this role. Her portrayal as District Attorney Constance Smith in Justice Is Mind was brilliant. I wrote the Major Ellen Sampson role specifically with Patience McStravick in mind (Patience is an Army veteran as well).
But there was one actress that I wanted to bring back to the “First World” universe. It was in 2006 and I was getting ready to produce the short film version of First World. The short called for a Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. An actress by the name of Lindy Nettleton submitted. She arrived at the same time actor Jeffrey Phillips did who was auditioning for the role of the President. They both read for the parts together outside an elevator bank at the hotel I was staying at while I recorded it on my Palm Treo! During their reading I truly thought they were heads of state (Jeffrey also appeared in Justice Is Mind as George Katz). Although I stayed in touch with Lindy throughout the years, I had no idea if she would be interested in reprising this role after a decade plus. When she said she would play Allison Colby I was beyond elated! First Signal was coming full circle.
But the circle was complete with last weekend’s auditions. I could not be more excited to work with such talent. I invite you visit to First Signal’s IMDb page to learn about the talented group of actors in this project. For those that know how I promote, you’ll be learning more about them the weeks, months and years ahead.
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.
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!
Last week I had a meeting with a filmmaker about the development of First Signal. While he knows I watched his work, what immediately struck me was that he watched some of mine as well. Isn’t this what the process is all about? Learning about each other’s work before you work together?
When I’m in a pitch meeting with a possible producer, I might not watch all the movies they’ve produced, but you can be sure I’ve watched some. When I’m looking to cast an actor, I read their resume to see if we have any common background or talking points. Likewise, when I’m cast in a project I always look up the director. You never know where a conversation of mutual interests can take you.
I figured the meeting was going to go well, but you never really know until you have a face to face. The result of that meeting was a change in process on the production of First Signal. While a table read was nearly cast and scheduled, the decision was made to go straight to auditions in April with production in August.
The decision to forgo the table read really came down to a few things. First, there were some scheduling conflicts in early March, a preliminary working budget was largely agreed to and it appeared to be an extra step in the process that we just didn’t need. Naturally, once the actors have been cast the requisite rehearsals will take place prior to shooting. A formal casting notice will be posted on Backstage and New England Film in late March, but for now please visit this link for more information.
The process of making a feature film is an exciting one, but also a careful one. It all comes down to planning and execution. When I think of the days when I produced some major events (some out of the country), and what has gone into my film projects, I’m a firm believer in the importance of pre-production. A film is like a train. Once the train leaves the station it’s almost impossible to stop. Best to have everyone board at the station rather than trying to jump on while racing down the tracks.
From actors I’ve cast in past projects to learning about new talent in the region, since the notice went live I’ve been very encouraged by the quality of the submissions. However, for this project I’ll be reaching out to additional sources for certain roles. The goal of the table read isn’t just to hear the script, it’s also about casting possibilities for the feature film itself.
The character of Cedric Yonah is particularly important to the overall story. Not only does the actor need to be great at his craft, but he also must have a certain look. I can almost say that I’ve received enough quality submissions for all other characters, but I’m still looking for this one. This isn’t exactly “The search for Scarlett” but let’s just say the search is ongoing.
This reminds me of the classic sci-fi film The Day the Earth Stood Still. As I understand from the development process, director Robert Wise didn’t want to have a recognizable actor walk out of the spaceship as it wouldn’t have been believable. But it had to be an actor with gravitas and a certain look. The casting of Michael Rennie as Klaatu/Mr. Carpenter was brilliant.
Casting is not an easy process. I remember the three hundred plus submissions for Justice Is Mind. While I was fortunate to find some of the leading roles from the short film version Evidence, there were numerous parts that I needed to cast. In as much as you want to see a quality audition, it’s also about how you get along with the actor during that brief time. I do believe it comes down to the sixty second impression.
However, what I still don’t understand is how simple submission instructions aren’t followed. When I submit for a project I make sure I follow the instructions to the letter (why wouldn’t I?). If you refuse to follow submission instructions, how are you going to be during filming? I kid you not I received a submission that literally said here is my IMDb link and Google me. Sorry, if you can’t submit a required headshot, resume and link to your reel you just get relegated to archive.
But this is just part of the development process. Every project takes on a life of its own. I always find it interesting where a project gets its start. First Signal started at the Naval Justice School. But Justice Is Mind actually got its start when I wrote the sequel to First World and was researching mind reading technology. Thus my discovery of the 60 Minutes story from 2009 on thought identification being developed at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). Four years after that story Justice Is Mind screened at CMU.
While the submissions continue to come in for the next class at the Naval Justice School, this past week took an interesting turn when I was cast as a policeman in an upcoming TV pilot. What was originally one day turned into three days on this production.
I always find these large scale productions interesting for a variety of reasons. Am I learning something new? Did I have a good time? And did I meet interesting people? I would say the answer was yes on all counts.
For me I always look at these “large-scale” productions with two different hats on – as an actor and filmmaker. As an actor I had to learn pretty quickly how this director worked. He gave me direction once and then returned on a couple of occasions to rehearse it without any verbal cues. He would appear, I would do what he directed and then he would leave. It must have been OK because after one rehearsal and two takes it was done. I guess we will see if that moment makes it in the final cut.
As a filmmaker, what I appreciated was the level of detail on the built sets. The desk I was sitting at was complete with period files, notes, etc. Even the wording on the files was specific to the era. As we live in an age where movies and TV shows are constantly screenshot, the last thing you want is something on camera that shouldn’t be there.
But this week it’s back to my own projects. In addition to the handful of actors to cast in the Naval Justice School (NJS) project, I start meetings on First Signal. This will be my fifth class with NJS and it’s great to see so many actors return from previous classes.
After my first meeting this week on First Signal, my plan is to post for actors in regard to a table read. The goal is to have a read sometime in late February or early March. From there I move on to locations and then crew.
And just when I think I’ve heard every excuse in the acting book, today there was a new one. I scheduled an interview with an actor days ago this morning in regard to the next NJS class. I couldn’t believe when I received an email this morning asking to push the interview back because, “I’m just trying to run some errands before the football games today and wasn’t sure if we could push back to 11:30.” Obviously I declined to do so. To every aspiring actor out there read these next words carefully – an actor declined to keep a scheduled interview for a paid gig because of football.
Here in Massachusetts (and New England in general) there is an obsession on football that borders on near hysteria. It’s all well and good that you have your passions, but when they interfere with work you have a problem. When you ask a producer/director to reschedule an interview because of your passion for a sport, I have two words of advice – don’t submit.
Can you even imagine for a minute if the day after I committed to this pilot that I emailed the casting director and said, “I can’t work tomorrow because I need to watch XX” I don’t even want to know the note that would go in my file. But I do know what that casting director would do after crossing my name off all their lists.
It was back in 2011 and I was casting the short film version of Justice Is Mind titled Evidence. The starring character of Henri Miller was pivotal. He had to have an air of sophistication and mystery, while also being an “everyman”. As a director, you are auditioning for me the moment you walk into the room. And god help you if you submitted a headshot from the last century or to quote a colleague of mine, “generously photoshopped” the way you want to look. Neither was the case with Vernon Aldershoff. He looked like his headshot and was the look I had in mind for the character of Henri Miller. Of course, the next question rolling through my head was, “Jesus, I hope he can act.” Well, the rest is history. He starred in both the short and feature version of the film.
This past weekend I attended his surprise 50th birthday party at a golf club. While Vern was playing golf with his son Dmitri, who played his on screen son Gary Miller, Vern’s wife Jackie turned the clubhouse into a Hollywood theme along with posters of Justice Is Mind and a step and repeat (red carpet). On the golf course I heard that Dmitri faked a hip injury to get Vern to bring him back to the clubhouse. As I see Vern and Dmitri pull up to the clubhouse in the golf cart, Dmitri is going through the only act of injury with Vern buying it. I wanted to yell “Cut!”. Let me just say that Dmitri’s acting was beyond excellent. Talk about a long take! But the look on Vern’s face when he entered the clubhouse and realized he had been taken was priceless!
During the celebrations Vern was talking to family and friends in attendance and referenced how much the entertainment industry is about rejection, but that it only takes one person to say yes. In regard to Justice Is Mind, that person was me. But in as much as I said yes, it was also Vern and the countless others that said yes to me and to an untested project.
The Justice Is Mind project is now over five years strong. Through the writing, production and distribution, so many of us have become friends and have kept in contact. Yes, I’m looking forward to working with many of the actors and crew from Justice on my next project. In fact, with one project I’m working on now I don’t even know if auditions will be necessary. Why? Because I plan to offer parts and positions to those I’ve worked with previously. I don’t need to worry about on screen chemistry or whether or not these folks get along.
When I read these stores on IndieWire about Tribeca and Cannes that discuss distribution and the market, I am reminded about the challenges this industry faces. But nothing is more challenging than casting the right actors or securing a solid crew. I don’t care how great the screenplay is, without them breathing life into it your project goes nowhere.
Of course you always bring new people into the fold. That’s what this industry is all about. Meeting new people and expanding your horizons. It’s an industry of risk and chances but more importantly opportunity. If you look at my projects from First World, to Evidence to Justice Is Mind, you will see some familiar names.
Since the funding was announced to produce Justice Is Mind last month, there has been a flurry of activity around the entire project. As a filmmaker, it’s great to see a film begin to take on a life of its own. Of course in that process there are a mountain of details to attend to. In addition to securing the cast and crew, there are the locations and the nuances to detail so that when principal photography starts all things are in place—or damn close to it!
Our posting on New England Film for actors yielded over 300 responses across several states. I was delighted to see so many familiar faces from the work I’ve done over the last several years as both an actor and producer. But discovering new talent during the audition and casting process is always exciting. Make no mistake about it while New York and Los Angeles may claim to be the entertainment centers of the country, New England is a treasure drove of talent on both sides of the camera. Our call for crew has also brought an unprecedented quality in submissions. With callbacks taking place on July 7, and with crew discussions ongoing, look for our announcement of cast and crew soon.
In addition to the people that will bring Justice Is Mind to life, it is the locations that truly make the look of a production jump off the screen. A few weeks ago I traveled to Rotterdam, New York at the request of one of our starring actors to scout locations (thanks Vern!). There is something to be said about the welcoming atmosphere of a small town and the enthusiasm of the world of film. The same can be said for a restaurant in the town of Oxford we worked with on the short film and a two restaurant group I just visited in New Hampshire this past Friday.
Producing a low-budget feature film is no easy task. You are asking actors, crew and locations to work with you largely as a project of passion and belief in what everyone is aiming to accomplish – a quality motion picture that will be well received in the market. But for anyone that has worked with me on previous projects, there is one element that they know I bring to the table – promotion and marketing. Yes, I am relatively relentless when it comes to the promotion of projects I’m involved with (it’s also what I do for a living). While the immediate situation may not yield a market level payout, everyone rides along on the promotion train, shares in the rewards and leverages this project for the next gig and the next and so on. I did that in figure skating which eventually led to a gig on network TV show (FOX’s Skating with Celebrities). This is why we are offering points to the majority of actors and crew on this project. I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but I know I wouldn’t mind receiving a check every quarter for a project I did a couple of years past. It’s a reminder that the work you did mattered and that someone is going to bat for you. Just as important, your work is being seen.
On the side of promotion and distribution, I am delighted to announce that IndieFlix released Justice Is Mind: Evidence on June 19. The short is now available digitally for all those to view and enjoy. And on the film festival front, Evidence has been accepted to the Scinema 2012 Festival of Science Film in Australia and the Chicon 7 Independent Film Festival in Chicago. With our acceptance to these festivals, we are making some artwork updates to the Justice Is Mind: Evidence DVD. Look for that release later on this month.
To the actors and crew who have submitted, to the location stakeholders who have welcomed and considered our production, to our distributor IndieFlix and to the film festivals that have accepted us, I say thank you. To Mary Wenninger and Stefan Knieling, who backed the feature, and to my Producer/AD, Jess Killam and her organizational skills and knowledge—it goes without saying that absent your support the production of the feature film Justice Is Mind would not be possible.