As the pre-production process of First Signal continues towards a May launch, I always take the last weekend of any given year and reflect on what I was able to accomplish. The key as I’ve learned over the years is to not spread yourself too thin. I mentioned in my last post, it’s about quality rather than quantity.
One project that I will always be immensely proud of is my work with the Naval Justice School. Acting and directing that project was a true honor. I never viewed it as just another acting gig but rather my small way of giving back to those that serve in our great military. What I always conveyed to the actors was the importance of “staying on script” as the mock trial program was one of the last exercises these law students had before they were deployed.
The contractor for that program then retained me to write a training script for the military. I can’t go into too many details publicly, but it gave me an opportunity to broaden my screenwriting skills while again giving back. When I learned that my script is now part of the orientation program at one of the largest military bases in the country, well, that was another honor.
Outside of the military contracts, my acting work led me to some unique projects. At this stage of my career, a project has to be interesting. It’s not about the check, it’s about the scope. I also need to believe in those that are behind the project. Do they have a vision? Will they see it through to the end? I’m proud to say that the projects I have been part of in 2018 had both scope and vision. There’s nothing more exciting as an actor than working with passionate filmmakers.
Speaking of passion, one of the most exciting things I did this year was drone photography. As some of you may know, I purchased a drone for First Signal. From the beaches of Ogunquit to the mansions of Newport to museums in Concord and Quincy, more doors opened than I could have possibly imagined.
One of those doors of course was the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center in Concord, NH. It’s no secret that I love museums, but museums that focus on space, science and aviation are my favorites. When I first walked through the door at the Discovery Center this gem of a museum offered a bit of everything to this enthusiast. But it’s when I asked permission to do some drone photography that more doors opened—the door to First Signal.
Of course the biggest project to come out of 2018 has been First Signal. Undertaking the production of a feature film is a task like none other, but I’ve been through it already with Justice Is Mind and other projects. After ten years in development from the First World story, and as the first in a series, it’s important to get as many things right as possible. Nothing is worse than when a project is rushed into production and you feel like something is off. But when things do come together as you envision, that’s when a project becomes exciting.
The one thing I strive for is enthusiasm and a positive outlook. But anyone that works in this industry knows it’s not easy. There’s always some sort of obstacle, setback or situation to overcome. But it’s also about perseverance, persistence and above all patience.
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.
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.
From an unreleased film to the latest cameras, this was a most interesting weekend. At the invitation of Jared Skolnick (who was our editor on Justice Is Mind), I attended the Massachusetts premiere of Doomed: The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four. This was a great documentary on why this 1994 film was produced but never released. Director Marty Langford did an excellent job at bringing this infamous story to life. Check out their website at this link with some additional information here.
Being a science fiction fan, I heard about this story in bits and pieces. And being a filmmaker, I couldn’t help but watch this documentary and feel for the cast and crew that were involved. When I produced Justice Is Mind one of our locations was a nearby warehouse. While I didn’t tell many of the actors and crew at the time, in one corner were the remains of a set from an unreleased film that shot at this location a couple of years earlier. In the film industry, an unreleased film is akin to archeologists discovering a lost city. There are always questions, but most remain unanswered.
But at the Mass Media Expo yesterday, many of my questions were answered. Before attending an industry event, I always ask myself the following – am I going to learn something new; be introduced to people and vendors I may want to do business with or hear from industry insiders that reinforce what I’m doing or perhaps some new trends or ideas that I can apply. In all three cases I came away with something. The schedule from the expo can be found at this link.
First and foremost the attending producers have long stated what I’ve advocated. Being nice goes a long way and the search for funding is work done the hard way – cold calling, networking, etc. As I’ve long learned, if you don’t ask, if you don’t present, if you don’t market, how will anyone know what you want to do. The one thing I was stunned to hear, but not surprised, is how one producer gets blind pitched with a script attached! Look everyone wants to get their project off the ground, but a simple email of introduction with logline suffices as a preliminary introduction. As for being nice? I remember my first TV appearance on the Montel Williams show in 1994. A production assistant brought me coffee and was very attentive. She knew I was a basket case of nerves. In 2002 when I was reporting for CNN and other networks during the Winter Olympics, this assistant was now a producer.
The drone panel was pretty much what I wanted to hear. From regulations, to safety, new technologies and the companies in this space that operate locally, I now know who I’ll be reaching out to in the next couple of weeks about SOS United States.
But when it comes to technology and viewing habits, the panel on mobile content and storytelling was just that “telling”. Like it or not films are being watched on smartphones and tablets. And to those naysayers that say films should be shorter rather than longer, this expert panel stated that length isn’t the issue it’s the scene cuts that are speeding up. One only has to watch the TV series Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder to see this in action.
We look at others in the industry for viewpoints, new technologies to realize our concepts and a network of talent on both sides of the camera to execute. In the end we tell our story the way we want to tell it.
Act one. Scene one.
Whether it’s an investor, theater or media outlet, it all starts with a cold call or cold pitch. I have always taken the position “nothing ventured, nothing gained”. Sure we can all hope to be discovered at a “Schwab’s” or positing a proof of concept video to YouTube, but in the end it truly comes down to a pitch and then the presentation.
I have long discovered that it’s easier to pitch the office of a qualified investor than it is to a “Hollywood” production company. Why? A production company is fielding countless projects and they need that one thing to move any project forward—cash. I also have long believed in charting my own course rather than following the same route everyone else takes. Put it another way, I’d rather pull my car up to the front door than park blocks away.
Just this morning I was watching a video on IndieWire by writer/director Charlie Kaufman about his film Anomalisa (impressive wins at the Venice Film Festival). When asked why there was so much time between his projects, the Oscar winner stated freely a variety of challenges and that his film was made outside of the “studio system” and didn’t go the conventional route. The point? It doesn’t matter your credentials, this business takes a steady hand of determination and patience. Kaufman went on to mention that he was on this project for three years (his team also raised some funds on Kickstarter).
As some of you know, my political thriller SOS United States sees the Concorde fly again. Just yesterday an article on Road Warrior Voices revealed a determined group of investors and enthusiasts that may just bring the Concorde back. I’ve been following the steadfast voices behind this movement for the last couple of years. Their resolve, like those behind the SS United States ocean liner, is impressive. And, yes, I will be informing the group behind this hopeful return of the Concorde about SOS United States – with a cold pitch!
From script (2010), to short (2011), to feature (2012) to release (2013), Justice Is Mind has been a five year project. I remember those early days of pitching to the “establishment”. Why not. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do because everyone else is doing it? Sure, a deal can happen. But in the end, producing it independently outside of any system has brought far greater returns on so many levels.
Next week there’s an industry event taking place in Boston. I’m largely planning to attend because of a panel around drones. We used a drone in Justice Is Mind for the climatic end scene, but SOS United States calls for a substantial amount of drone shots. Imagine skimming close above the ocean only to rise up to take in the gravitas of the USS Massachusetts battleship as the President of the United States addresses the nation.