As a screenwriter one of the things I do prior to writing any story is research. In SOS United States the fictional ocean liner in that story is called the Leviathan and is based on the famed ocean liner SS United States. But during this research I came across the MV Aurora and have been following this find ever since.
Anyone that knows me, or follows this blog, is aware of my passion for ocean liners (past and present) along with preserved navy ships. For me the preferred way to holiday has always been by cruise ship or ocean liner. So when I learned that Christopher Willson was restoring a cruise ship from the 1950s, I naturally had to learn more about the Aurora. And let’s be clear, restoring a cruise ship is a project!
The Aurora was launched in 1955 as the Wappen von Hamburg. When you consider that she was the first cruise ship built by West Germany since World War II, that fact alone secures her place in history. After her launch the ship passed through a variety of cruise lines and operators until a literal ad on Craigslist caught the attention of Willson. The ship at that point was in a sorry state, but it was a calling for Willson to restore her to glory.
Through the years I have been following this project, I continue to be amazed at the progress he and an army of volunteers have made in restoring this iconic piece of maritime history. Such efforts are a unique passion and should be applauded and supported by anyone that comes across such dedication.
Restoring a cruise ship from the 50s is not like restoring a house from the same time period. We’ve all seen the ridiculous modifications from the 60s and 70s in houses that have been thankfully done away with in the 21st century. But a cruise ship is different. Over her years the Aurora has had numerous, shall we say “changes” to her original design. But learning about Willson’s drive, ambition and progress bringing this ship back to life must be promoted.
While I certainly applaud the efforts to eventually restore the United States, Willson and his team are restoring the Aurora. One weld, one paint stroke at a time, the ship is returning to take her place alongside such historic liners as the Queen Mary and Rotterdam. In the case of those two liners from days past, someone had a vision to see that those vessels were saved from the fate of breakers or worse (remember what happened to the Queen Elizabeth?). But unlike those liners, there’s no hotel chain or municipality assisting in funding and promoting. It’s just Willson, his volunteers and related capital efforts to continue this important work.
All of us have seen the restoration of iconic buildings in our towns and cities. Nothing is grander when you see an old building restored to glory. Restoring a cruise ship from the 1950s is no different. In fact, it’s even more important. A ship, unlike a building, calls to you. Ask anyone who owns a boat or captains a ship and they’ll share their story. It’s clear the Aurora was calling Willson to save her. It knew her place in history and what it had to offer future generations. Personally, I’d rather sail on history than read about it in a book.
To the captain and crew of the Aurora, may the wind be at your back.
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There were many times when I was in the process of making Justice Is Mind I remarked that my experience running a company helped create my first feature film. Producing a film is nothing more than project management and being able to compartmentalize numerous areas of a production. From personnel to the creative, it’s keeping everything in order, on schedule and on (or under) budget.
I can’t tell you how many times I come across filmmakers that are all excited to direct only to see a project fall off the radar in post-production or worse not promoted. When I think about it being a magazine publisher is just like being a filmmaker. Pre-production is the creation of the editorial, production is organizing the editorial around advertising with post-production creating the final product, distribution and promotion. Sounds like a familiar process doesn’t it?
When I was operating my publishing company we were financed on cash flow only after a brief round of investment capital in the first few years. I had to figure out ways to do things that saved money while producing a premium result. I’ve brought this experience to my film work. Back in the day publishing companies would over staff for even the most mundane type of work. No wonder when the financial bottom started to fall out in that industry their top heavy structure caused them to collapse. The same holds true for filmmaking.
Certainly for productions of a substantial budget (like a Star Wars), you need a sizable crew for obvious reasons. But honestly I was on a recent production and was astonished at the ridiculous number of crew they had to film a simple bar scene. First, it was clear that there was no rehearsal. Second, the production of the scene fell on its own weight when the moving of a camera position was a herculean time consuming task. This was not a science fiction production or one that was going to require any special effects in post. This was just a bar scene. I sometimes will go incognito to see how other productions execute. Sometimes I learn things that I take with me, but in the case of this production you learn what not to do (unless you don’t care about a budget).
I think the understanding of small crews came from my experience on set during those early days of publishing when I was frequently interviewed. Sometimes they would come to my office, but I usually would go to a location. Generally, there was just a camera operator, producer/director (who conducted the interview), sound operator and sometimes a gaffer (lighting). On occasion a makeup artist would be present. If there’s anything I learned about being on TV was the importance of makeup. Believe me the horror of seeing yourself on TV without makeup is something you’ll never forget! And with today’s high definition it’s just that, a makeup-less face will overly define everything.
On Friday I picked up the first three VHS tapes I had converted to digital. I have to say I think they came out pretty good. Of course things like this bring back all kinds of memories. It was a different time back then when social media didn’t exist (that wasn’t a bad thing). But when I look back we were always pushing the envelope. Creating targeted direct response commercials that ran during figure skating broadcasts, producing one of a kind themed cruise events and distributing our enthusiast magazines internationally.
If all this sounds familiar with how I produce and market my films, this is where it came from. But one does not execute alone. In all cases it’s about working with a dedicated team that sees your vision.
In a little over a week my mother and I leave for the international premiere of Justice Is Mind on Cunard Line’s Queen Elizabeth. Yes, we are both very excited. This will be our second cruise with Cunard having previously sailed on the Queen Mary 2 in 2006. As a “working holiday” the Justice Is Mind schedule is as follows: on October 25th I present a filmmaking seminar to guests with the international premiere on October 29th.
I recently found the pictures from our cruise on the Queen Mary 2. During that voyage I just finished making First World. I remember sitting in the theater watching a movie on the ship and thinking to myself how cool it would be to have a movie of my own screen on an ocean liner. Well, that thought seven years ago will soon be a reality.
And while I think of the many “away missions” we have had for Justice Is Mind with our various screenings, this one will be particularly special as it combines a reinvention. As the ocean liner industry reinvented itself after the arrival of passenger aircraft, so has the motion picture industry. Sure, gone are the days that ocean liners brought immigrants like my great grandmother to the United States from Sweden on the S.S. Sicilia in 1895 or theaters that for the price of one ticket you could stay all day and watch more than one movie. But like those bygone days, they simply reinvented their industry based on experience.
As for reinvention, I used to be a magazine publisher. I would come up with ideas for stories, write outlines and then have a production team create a magazine. Along the way, I produced direct response TV commercials, corporate videos and major events (some on cruise ships). So while Justice Is Mind is being presented on an ocean liner, in a theatre at sea by this filmmaker, it represents what’s possible in an age of transition.
And while the cruise industry is nicely sailing along, the film industry continues to go through so many changes when it comes to production and distribution. With Amazon announcing new original programming and Netflix getting into film production, it’s no wonder that theaters are concerned about their ever shrinking windows and revenue. But you know what? There will always be theaters. It’s just a matter of what they chose to screen and how they do it.
“Hollywood” didn’t collapse when TV was invented and theaters won’t empty because Amazon and Netflix are ramping up production. In my view you can never have enough production because at the end of the day it’s up to the consumer what they want. Sure, we are getting more and more into niche interests, but we also have more choices than ever in terms of where we want to watch a movie. I still go to the theater of course, but for the first time I watched a movie on my new smartphone.
A recent article in The Wrap talked about changing the pitch process to include “big data”. As this data is collected by theaters and VOD platforms, that’s how I pitch Justice Is Mind for screening opportunities. In addition to loglines and press reports, I use data from attendee demographics to internet and social media engagement. Now more than ever, filmmakers have more tools to present their projects.
A new age.