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First Summit

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The table read is set in the Jupiter room at The Verve Crowne Plaza in Natick, MA.

Whenever I’m involved in the production of an event, I always arrive early. First, I hate to be rushed. Second, it’s about setting everything up.  Finally, I like to just sit and take it all in for a few moments. I don’t meditate. It’s about quiet time. Because the time for this event was starting shortly before 11 AM – the table read for First Signal.

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Patience McStravick and Adam LaFramboise.

This journey didn’t just start when I wrote the script for First Signal, it started back in 2006 when I wrote First World. When you write a screenplay you never really know where it’s going to go or who is going to be involved. But when I was watching Lindy Nettleton reprieve her character of Allison Colby, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from First World, I was not only enormously thankful for her return, but the realization of the journey this project has taken since those early days.

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Kim Gordon, Lindy Nettleton and Yefim Somin.

As a writer, there is something surreal about watching actors bring your characters to life. I’ll admit, when I was writing First Signal I had several actors in mind for certain parts. There’s a reason why you see filmmakers work with the same actors because you know what you’re going to get in a performance. But then there is also the excitement about working with new actors and crew. They bring things to the table that you just don’t see. Not because you don’t want to, but as the writer you tend to have blinders on to keep the train of the story on a certain track.

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Stephanie Eaton and Kim Gordon (that’s me in the back).

Case in point when Vernon Aldershoff and Adam LaFramboise were in a confrontational moment. Vern suggested the line of “You can sit down” or “Sit down” before his character answers Adam’s. As I mentioned to the room, I have no problem with such additions (or deletions) if it adds to the vibrancy of the story. As a filmmaker you have to let a story breathe. The key, is to make sure it’s remembered by the actors and then noted by the director. Yes, I made a variety of notes from yesterday’s table read and will be following up with the actors and crew.

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Vernon Aldershoff and Paul Noonan.

This is the first time I’ve held a table read and I’m glad I did. It wasn’t just about hearing the words come to life, it was about the actors and crew meeting each other and getting familiar with their respective styles. In the end it’s about chemistry for the next time we are all together it will be on set.

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Phoenyx Williams enters the scene.

It’s impossible to thank the actors and crew enough for believing in First Signal.  Your dedication and talent means a first rate production. And from their hosting of First Signal’s auditions in April to yesterday’s table read, my thanks is also greatly extended to The Verve Crowne Plaza in Natick. Indeed, a film has many behind the scenes partners. Each one of them is part of the production engine that finds its way to the silver screen.

Action.

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Testing the drone with Patience McStravick at the location of the field.


First Locations

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What will an Arctran look like?

With First Signal’s table read set for June 16 at The Verve Crowne Plaza in Natick, MA, the priorities are now turning towards locations. Of course there are numerous other details to attend to, but locations are the top of my list.  Once I have the locations secured, I build out the rest of the production from there.

The one thing I have learned over the years is you never know what type of locations are available until you start talking to people. This past week I introduced First Signal to someone who operates a website that chronicles former Cold War bunkers and installations in New England. Then there was the pitch to certain government agencies in Massachusetts. In both instances, the parties got back to me the same day to discuss the possibilities. I look forward to some interesting tours in the next couple of weeks!

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Where will the President of the United States hold a secret meeting. 

When I start the search for locations, it’s not just about filming, but establishing a marketing partnership. As I’ve learned over the years, a location is either eager to work with you or doesn’t want anything to do with a film. That works just fine for me. The last thing you want is to film in a location that isn’t supportive.

But as a filmmaker I also have the responsibility to be forthcoming on what a location can expect when filming commences. There will be the actors, crew and equipment. To those not familiar with the process it will appear to be chaotic and disorganized. There will be no glamour. There is no red carpet. Even when “action” is called, it’s only for a limited time before you hear “cut”. Then the process is repeated for another angle, then repeated for another…and another. With everything I’ve produced I always have someone come up to me and say, “I had no idea so much was involved.”

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Composer Daniel Elek-Diamanta will score First Signal.

One thing that can be assured is that First Signal will have an epic score. Last week Daniel Elek-Diamanta, who scored both Justice Is Mind and Serpentine: The Short Program, agreed to score First Signal!  His work on my last two films was beyond brilliant. You can learn more about Daniel and listen to his work on his official website at this link.

Production meeting.

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The table read for First Signal will take place on June 16 at The Verve Crowne Plaza in Natick, MA.

 


First History

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In First Signal a military satellite in Earth orbit intercepts an alien signal.

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.

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From the National Guard role player exercises.

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.

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The location search for an underground (or windowless) conference room commences for First Signal.

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.

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Patience McStravick in They Don’t Know. Patience will play Major Ellen Sampson in First Signal.

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).

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Kim Gordon as District Attorney Constance Smith in Justice Is Mind. Gordon will play Helen Colton the President of the United States in First Signal.

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.

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Lindy Nettleton as Prime Minister Allison Colby in First World. Nettleton, pictured with Jeffrey Phillips as the President, will reprise her role in First Signal.

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.

Pre-Production

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Vernon Aldershoff, at his audition last Sunday, will play General John Reager in First Signal.


The Challenge

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NCIS Challenge Coin

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.

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In First Signal a military satellite intercepts an alien signal.

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.

Performance.

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First Casting

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The opening credits of First Signal travel over the Moon to Earth.

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.

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The President of the United States and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom have been cast.

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!

Pre-production.

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The April 15 auditions for First Signal will take place at The Verve Crowne Plaza in Natick! The same conference room will be used that we shot Serpentine in.


Center Ice

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Denise Marco as Elizabeth Rogers and Isabella Ramirez as Suzanne Wilson.

Last Sunday principal photography on Serpentine, The Short Program wrapped! After eight months of writing and two months of pre-production planning, I was more than pleased with the end result. A special thanks to the cast, crew, location partners and sponsors for making this possible. After taking the past week to organize the video and sound files, the hard drive will transfer to our editor on Monday to begin the post-production process. It’s this stage that turns a puzzle into a completed print.

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The FBI conference room scene.

But make no mistake about this process, as an independent filmmaker you are pretty much responsible for everything…even the weather. And while I believe organization and communication are critical to a successful production, it does come down to both diplomacy and flexibility. A film production, whether it’s a short or a feature, is unlike any other type of business. You start by yourself and then suddenly ramp up. For Serpentine that meant over 30 people and three locations (for Justice Is Mind it meant over 200 people and 15 locations). As a screenwriter there is a thrill like none other than watching your screenplay come to life. Isn’t this why we do what we do?

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The Assistant Director, played by Vernon Aldershoff, during the FBI conference room scene.

For me this production was both a reunion as well as working with some terrific new people. It started with the FBI conference room scene at The Verve, Crowne Plaza. When Michael Coppola arrived I was immediately reminded of First World where he played a secret service agent. But it was the night before that I wrote an additional new scene for Michael and Vernon Aldershoff (Assistant Director in Serpentine and Henri Miller in Justice Is Mind). Of course, the last thing I wanted to do was to tell the cast and crew about a new scene when we didn’t even shoot the intended one! I waited to see if we were ahead of schedule and we were. It worked out great.

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Paul Lussier as sponsor Philip Harrison and Kim Gordon as the President of The American Figure Skating Federation.

It was at Northstar Ice Sports that the word scope came into focus. First, I am beyond thankful to Denise Marco, the board and staff of Northstar for this opportunity. By scope I’m talking about the size of the set. It was about making sure all actors, cameras and crew were properly placed to make sure the scenes worked. For weeks I drew this out from the skating program, to camera and actor placements. What may not have seemed obvious to some would be very obvious in post-production.

Reuniting Kim Gordon and Paul Lussier from Justice Is Mind was a particular goal of mine from the beginning. Their on screen chemistry in Justice was what every director dreams of. So when they both signaled their availability for Serpentine I immediately signed them on to the project. As a director, there is also a comfort factor in terms of direction when working with actors that you know will deliver. In advance of our shooting I forwarded a detailed memo on character and scene development for all actors and crew. As time is a serious commodity on an independent film set, I think it’s best for everyone to understand the entire tone and feel of a scene when they arrive.

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Directing Paul, Denise and Kim.

As a director I don’t believe in grandiose demonstrations of direction to actors and crew just to prove a point. In my simple view of it all, the most that should happen on set are adjustments. There’s no time to teach someone how to act on set. (Side note: On Justice Is Mind one adjustment I gave to an actress was how to say a particular phrase of profanity. I’ll just say this, it’s an American thing in terms of word emphasis and slang).

Our last day of filming was at a friend’s house. It was a fitting end to the production after coming down from two days of intense work at Northstar and the fact that there was only one line of dialogue. As I said to everyone, these scenes are largely atmospheric and what composers live for.

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The MetroWest Daily News reported on Serpentine.

Another highlight of our week was when the MetroWest Daily News interviewed me about Serpentine and sent a photographer to our shoot at Northstar. Not only did they write an excellent article, but created a video as well. You can access both at this link.

Over the next few months I’ll be working on a variety of marketing and promotional efforts as we build towards our February release. During this time look for more stills, behind the scenes images and a trailer.

Cut.

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It’s not all serious on set. Isabella made a cake for Denise!


The Battle

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“Battle for the Airfield” The Collings Foundation

This past week was another busy one as pre-production moves along for Serpentine. But today was a visit to The Collings Foundation production of “Battle for the Airfield”. To quote from their website, “There will be over 300 re-enactors representing several branches of Allied and Axis military participating in an amazing re-enactment.” The event did not disappoint.

Although it was raining, the announcer reminded us all that wars are not always fought on warm sunny days. Indeed, it was like watching a conflict in real time. Unlike a movie set with constant calls of “action” and “cut”, there was no stopping once the action did start. When the tanks started to roll the re-enactment was just as good if not better than any Hollywood production. The filmmaker in me wished I had cameras recording it for some upcoming production. All I could think of was the battle scene in 1953’s War of the Worlds!

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At The Verve, Crowne Plaza Natick. The Aquarius Boardroom.

Just prior to the start of the battle, the national anthem was played. I’ve heard our anthem played in many venues, but there’s something special to hear it against a military backdrop with veterans present. When I think of the tens of millions that have sacrificed themselves for this country, this American proudly stands and turns to honor our flag and all those that have defended it.

Speaking of old glory, the flag will be part of the set dressing for our FBI conference room scene at The Verve, Crowne Plaza. On Thursday I visited the hotel for a site visit. The room looked just as great in real life as it did in the pictures I saw prior to my visit.

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Serpentine welcomes Foley Motorsports of Shrewsbury, MA.

A site visit is another one of the critical components to pre-production as there are usually things that need some sort of adjustment or that may have changed. In this case, a couple of posters to cover up artwork on the opposite wall and a movie screen has replaced the TV screen. Actually the movie screen is better as it gives us more room in post-production for images that our VFX specialist will put in. A special thank you to Lynne Luongo, The Verve’s General Manager, for the personal tour!

Earlier in the week I was reading the script again for other creative components. One scene has a character leaving in a car—a car that will be getting a fair amount of screen time. As this character comes forward to sponsor a skater in the story, I wanted something high end that said wealth.

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Although there are countless dealerships in the area, there is only one luxury dealer I wanted to approach to see if they might be interested in working with us. When I visited Foley Motorsports website, I was thrilled to see that they have direct staff contacts, including owner RJ Foley. After his review of my presentation, I’m delighted to report that Foley Motorsports will be providing a luxury vehicle for Serpentine. Now, here’s fate for you, his daughter used to be a figure skater and will be appearing as an FBI Agent at The Verve!

As for figure skating I visited Northstar Ice Sports again this week to work out some additional details on our upcoming shoot and to skate again. Yes, I’m getting the skating legs back underneath me to assist in the production when we start to shoot the on ice scenes. It is interesting being back in a rink again and on the same ice as my first coach Denise Marco, who is not only the Executive Director of Northstar but will be playing Elizabeth Rogers in Serpentine.

Full circle.

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Inside The Collings Foundation hangar.


On Location

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The Aquarius Boardroom at The Verve, Crowne Plaza Natick will serve as one of Serpentine‘s locations.

On Thursday Serpentine’s final location came through via a marketing partnership with the The Verve, Crowne Plaza Natick in Natick, MA. Our “FBI” conference room scene will be shot in their stunning Aquarius Boardroom. This location in terms of looks and geography is perfect. As Serpentine’s cast and crew is coming from all over the state, and southern New Hampshire, a Metro West location is ideal.

The day before I paid a visit to my friend Al Mercado’s home. His house will serve as Suzanne Wilson’s residence. Although I’ve been to Al’s house many times, now I’m looking at it literally through a different lens. For the story I needed a ranch house on a corner lot with a front door and back door on opposite sides of the house. Now that all our locations are secured, the next step is to complete a shot list.

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This private residence will serve as Suzanne Wilson’s home.

As I am a person who lives and dies by lists, nothing is more sacred to me than the shot list. For those of you that follow this blog but don’t necessarily know the process of filmmaking, a shot list is a list of the shots that you need to shoot for coverage of a scene. From wide to mid to close ups to inserts, etc., it’s making sure you have everything before principal photography “wraps”. And with each shot consisting of 2-4 takes (sometimes more), that’s why a seemingly simple scene on paper can take some time to film. But before the shot list is implemented on that first day of principal photography, there are the inordinate number of things that need to be done in pre-production. One of these are test shots.

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With Jeremy and Liz at Northstar Ice Sports.

Also on Thursday I met Jeremy Blaiklock, our Director of Photography, and Liz Carr, our Assistant Director, at Northstar Ice Sports for some test shots. For more reasons than I can count, the Northstar shoots will be the most involved. Between the scope of the facility and on the ice shooting requirements, it was important to run through some tests with Isabella Ramirez who will be playing Suzanne Wilson. Filming two actors standing stationary in a room is one thing, filming a skater execute jumps, spins and footwork is entirely another. But in the end we were all very pleased with the tests.

It seems like it was just yesterday that I came up with the idea for Serpentine and then attended a World Figure Skating Championships after a ten plus year hiatus. But here we are less than a month from filming the first ten pages of the script. Yes, it’s very exciting.

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Tests with Isabella Ramirez who will be playing Suzanne Wilson.

In so many ways it reminds me of those early days when I was preparing First World for production. I was living in Los Angeles at the time and had just struck a deal with a hotel in Boston, MA to serve as the Secretary of State’s residence. Like Serpentine, that deal for First World was the last location I needed to secure for the production.

While creating a new production is both exhilarating and challenging, I am also reminded that this is where a project goes from script to screen. Seeing a project develop from one dimension to three is why we love what we do.

Action.

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