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…
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.”
What I love about screenwriting is the research that goes with it. When I wrote First World I learned about the Apollo space program, the Kennedy and Nixon administrations, the Roswell incident and how parts of the United Nations operate. For Justice Is Mind it was the science of mind-reading (“thought identification”), reincarnation, and complex legal issues from the introduction of evidence based on new science to the construction of a criminal trial. Whenever I write science fiction, I think it’s important to have it rooted in plausibility or at least have it explained with a sense of realism (Star Trek is great for that).
The basis for my political thriller SOS United States has always been around this premise – the possibility that an ocean liner may have a nuclear device on board. Where did the idea come from? I’ve always been interested in the Cold War and count Fail Safe and Seven Days in May as two of my favorite movies of the time. Add that interest to my passion for ocean liners and SOS United States was born. It was my mother that first got me interested in ocean liners in the 1970s with our membership in the Titanic Historical Society (Yes, Titanic is one of my favorite films).
With premise in mind I started my research. The ocean liner in my story needed to be fast, luxurious and military-like. It didn’t take long to discover the SS United States. Built in 1952 the luxury liner “was designed as part of a top-secret Pentagon program during the Cold War, which stipulated it could be quickly converted from a luxury liner into a naval troopship in the event of a war.” Needless to say I found my ship. And found her I did. Since the SS United States was retired in 1969 she has been laid up all over the world and is currently docked in Philadelphia. More than once the ship was almost scrapped.
In my original notes the idea was that some company purchased the SS United States and refurbished her. But I quickly discounted that as unrealistic. Instead, I researched the United States Lines and discovered their early flagship the SS Leviathan. With that name, and the original blueprints of the SS United States, a company built a “state of the art” luxury liner, equipped with offensive capability to defend against pirating with a maximum speed of over 50 MPH. I guess my original notes proved to be something more than an idea.
Last week in New York City, Crystal Cruises, a luxury cruise line, “announced it will save “America’s flagship,” the SS United States, and embark on the enormous undertaking of bringing the ship into compliance with the latest standards, and returning her to oceangoing service.” While I figured some sort of redevelopment plan would be put forward, as was done with the Queen Mary in Long Beach, California, the fact that the SS United States will actually sail again as a luxury liner just proved once again that if you stay true to your mission with persistence and patience the impossible can become a reality. My congratulations to the dedication of SS United States Conservancy to save and preserve the ship and to the visionary leadership of Crystal Cruises to see the SS United States return to the high seas.
Suddenly the world premiere of SOS United States on the SS United States just became a little more possible. I remember sailing on the Queen Mary 2 in 2007 and saying to my mother how grand it would be to have one of my films screen on an ocean liner. After years of planning and determination, Justice Is Mind had its international premiere on Cunard Line’s Queen Elizabeth on October 29, 2014.
I remember the mission I was on when I wrote First World in 2006. It was a commitment and passion to learn the craft of screenwriting, research a project and then, to quote this recent article in Script magazine, “write the hell out” of it. Those early efforts resulted in three screenplay nominations and the production of a short film version that screened in several countries. Indeed, I was on a mission.
We live in a world of instant gratification. But that world is a fantasy in the entertainment industry. Someone at some point at some place at some time dedicated years (or decades) to make their project a reality.
Just this week the tireless efforts of the SS United States Conservancy seems to have led to a deal to save the majestic and historic SS United States ocean liner. The redevelopment of the famed liner will be announced in New York City this week. Anyone that has been following their efforts knows this has not been smooth sailing. Thankfully an impassioned plea by the Conservancy to save the ship from the breakers a few months ago brought much needed worldwide attention and donations to the storied liner. The same passion and commitment holds true in the entertainment industry.
After I wrote Justice Is Mind I remember the endless pitches, presentations, blind alleys, dubious investors and bad advice. But it was at one point during the process that I remember going through the same thing in publishing a decade plus prior when trying to raise capital for that venture. That deal clicked at one point just like Justice Is Mind did. But in both cases there was a commonality – I produced these projects myself with investors. That’s the direction I now take.
Would it be grand if “Hollywood” wanted to take one of my projects and run with it? Of course. But Hollywood as we now know it, because the industry is fragmented and decentralized, is everywhere. Audiences don’t care where or how a film came together, they just want to be entertained. It’s really that simple. It was the same with magazines. I was told over and over again that nobody would take me seriously unless we published out of New York. I lived in New York and worked in publishing (TIME magazine). Sure, it was cool. But expensive. In the end, I published market leading magazines based in Worcester, Massachusetts. Readers and theater audiences don’t care where a project originates from.
There was a certain sense of satisfaction when I returned to Los Angeles in 2013 for the West Coast Premiere of Justice Is Mind. A film, born out of Worcester and filmed primarily in central Massachusetts was screening in the entertainment capital of the world. “Hollywood” is as much an atmosphere as it is a corporate entity comprised of all manner of divisions. All “Hollywood” wants is the audience because the larger the audience the larger the revenue.
For those of you on a mission in this industry, I encourage you to read Jeanne Veillette Bowerman’s article in Script magazine. Above all else you need to be passionate about your work while keeping an open mind on collaboration.