For those that have ventured down the road of producing a film, there are numerous details to attend to. But one thing that is truly paramount is character and story background. This week I sent the actors and crew a multi-page document that provides not only the character backstory but terminology associated with the “First World” universe.
While Justice Is Mind was about mind reading, I honestly can’t expect actors or crew to read mine. First, I find the phrase “motivation” to be terribly overused. Rather, I like to give the actors and crew the big picture. It’s easy for a director to drone on about this or that or whatever. But when someone reads in black and white what the backstory is or universe they are in, it makes the process so much easier. It also fosters thoughtful creative input.
As for creative, this week also yielded some interesting conversations regarding costuming. In First Signal, four of the characters have very specific looks. Two are outfitted in Nehru styled suits, while two are Air Force officers. It’s the latter that saw the progress we were looking for. From discussions with an Air Force base military store to a costume company that outfits the military in my favorite TV show, the aim is to have these actors outfitted accordingly.
Speaking of actors, I received a call a few days ago from an actress that was beyond frustrated with the fact that she hasn’t secured representation. Is she talented? Yes. Does she have a solid resume? Yes. The one thing I stressed in this industry is that nothing is simple or easy. There are no shortcuts. And the one unwavering thing you need is patience. But comparing my work to yours or another actors is not the route you go. And when you start tuning out the advice you sought because you aren’t hearing what you want, you might need to rethink your career. This industry is waiting for no one, but it may respond if you have talent, a viable idea or a unique project (film or TV). I say may because I will quote the late Maximilian Schell, “This an industry of chances and luck.” Even after all his years of fame from Happy Days, Henri Winkler still auditions.
I do seem to be having good luck with the DJI Spark. I have to say this is a very smart drone. It takes a bit of getting used to operating virtual joysticks (there is an optional controller you can buy), but there’s so many flight options that are brilliantly automatic. At the end of the day all a filmmaker wants is a great shot.
Finally, I just finished reading James Comey’s A Higher Loyalty. No matter what side of the political aisle you’re on, this is an important read. In the hyper partisan, media obsessed world we live in, it’s too easy to make snap judgments without knowing or caring about the facts. That’s really what our country comes down to does it? Facts, truth and loyalty to the constitution of the United States and those that defend it.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
In two weeks Serpentine goes into production. With our locations secured and cast and crew locked, this is the phase in which there are numerous details to attend to. From printing posters, to purchasing a new laptop, American flag and external hard drives, it’s a methodical checking off the list of all the things that are needed to produce a film. For me it’s about organization. I produce dramas not seek to create them in real life.
Past all the aforementioned details, there’s also the creative side, from being in touch with the actors regarding their characters to the crew for various shots and other production matters. Producing a film is a team effort one that requires the cooperation of numerous parties. While the director may conduct the orchestra, you do need an orchestra!
As for the creative side, as we are filming just the first ten pages of the feature length version the end of the month, I wanted to give this short a name. For Justice Is Mind we called that short film version Evidence. For Serpentine it will be called The Short Program. I think this is a fitting title. First, this is a short film. In figure skating the short program is, to quote Wikipedia, “The short program of figure skating is usually the first of two phases in figure skating competitions.” As this short is phase one of the Serpentine project that’s another reason for the name.
Earlier this week I updated Serpentine’s IMDb listing. For this short film alone there are just over 35 people and companies. When you hear someone say it takes a village to make a film, they are speaking the truth! For those that wish to get into this industry, I always tell them to try to visit a film set at some point to see what’s involved.
But the one thing that I will be working on today is our press release announcing that Serpentine is going into production with The Short Program. Anyone that has worked with me on my past projects knows how much I believe in promotion. And when someone signs on to one of my projects, I promote them at every opportunity. Case in point when I was marketing Justice Is Mind. It was always great to include the cast, crew and our partners whenever I could.
The marketing of a film is just as important as its making. Without promotion there is no audience. While today’s world of VOD is great for the independent filmmaker, if your audience isn’t told about your project how can they ever find it? To this day, I continue to promote First World, Evidence and Justice Is Mind. When one thinks of the enormous amount of time to develop and make a film, why wouldn’t you promote them regularly? As they say the proof is in the pudding when you see a consistent placement on IMDb along with VOD streams.
But there is one thing I do need to find for this particular production. It was a gift from Tara Lipinski after we photographed her for the magazine I used to publish. It’s been in my basement since I moved back from Los Angeles.
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.
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.
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.
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.
With the crew coming together and over 100 actor submissions this past week, pre-production on Serpentine is moving along. With Northstar Ice Sports confirmed along with a private residence, the last location I’m working on is a conference room that will serve as an FBI meeting. Filming dates have gone out for one of the last days in October to the first few in November. To say there are a thousand details when putting together a film is an understatement.
When Justice Is Mind formally went into pre-production in May of 2012 I had three months to organize what ultimately became securing 15 locations via trade arrangements, 100 plus actors and a crew of over 17. Thankfully every star in the universe lined up correctly and those that worked on the project went above and beyond the call of duty. But make no mistake about it, there were issues that came up. Things that needed to be dealt with on a day to day basis. There’s no such thing as a perfect world in filmmaking but resilience and innovation has always been the key.
The one thing that I always find rewarding about this process are those that come out wanting to help. For First World it was the securing of a horse farm, for Evidence it was being allowed to film in a house, for Justice Is Mind it was the LAST MINUTE securing of an MRI center, for Serpentine it was an ice rink. As a filmmaker the one thing that drives us all forward is enthusiasm. Nobody is saying you have to come to set with pom poms and break out into a cheer, but there should be the want to create and be part of something. To quote the IMDb videos, there are “No small parts”.
What I have learned over my twenty years of experience is that everything we do in this industry is cumulative. Some parts are small, some are starring roles. Some parts pay extremely well, some cover gas (maybe). But when you put them all together it’s what you call a body of work.
All my work resulted in the production of Justice Is Mind. This past week I was reminded about the many theatrical screenings we had for my “freshman” feature. When I look at the pictures of us from those screenings and recall the work and dedication of so many, it’s events like those that make the journey all the more worthwhile. Yes, making a film takes time, dedication and resources, but it’s knowing what you create will far far exceed the time to produce it in the first place.
As for time, today I looked at the past 12 weeks of minutes watched on Amazon. When my three films have been watched for over 120,000 minutes in that period it further justifies what I do as a storyteller and filmmaker. While making a film is exciting, the joy comes in those that watch it.
After seven months of writing and research, along with attending a World Figure Skating Championships this past March for inspiration, I announced my latest project on Friday. Serpentine – A champion figure skater finds herself in a government conspiracy involving her missing mother and a Cold War mystery that culminates at the world championships in Moscow. The official website can be found at this link.
The name of the project came to me the first week I started to write it. In figure skating the word “serpentine” is used throughout a variety of areas from figures to footwork, to spiral sequences and generally consists of an “S” type of pattern. Serpentine is also mentioned in cryptography and as a code word. For this project the title Serpentine links all aspects of this story.
For independent filmmakers it’s one thing to write the screenplay and come up with a title, but then there are numerous aspects that need to be addressed prior to launch – writing a logline and synopsis, building a website, sending the script to trusted sources for review and comment, registering the script with the Writers Guild of America and U.S. Copyright Office and submitting the title to IMDb and other sources (thank you Rotten Tomatoes!). Then comes development and bringing the project to life.
Those that follow me on social media or this blog, know some of the groundwork that I’ve been developing. In as much as it’s important to keep a public face, there are those countless conversations and presentations that go on behind the scenes that are not discussed publicly until they are a done deal. Remember Justice Is Mind’s international premiere on Cunard Line’s Queen Elizabeth? That was months in discussion before the approved press release. I could have announced Serpentine months ago, but I wasn’t finished with the screenplay and had to ascertain a variety of areas within the sport to see if I wanted to move forward. But forward we are moving.
I could not be more encouraged by the response Serpentine has received since Friday. But suffice to say the next couple of weeks will be inordinately busy. From developing location deals to securing talent, I plan to post this week for cast and crew. The goal is to produce the short sometime in October with an early 2017 release. If all goes well, the idea is to produce the feature in 2017 with release after the Winter Olympics in 2018.
Does this plan sound remotely familiar? It should. I produced a short film version of Justice Is Mind titled Evidence in 2011. The release of the short in 2012 led to the production of the feature film later that year with a 2013 release. In the case of Serpentine, the plan is produce the first ten pages of the script that introduces the primary characters and storyline.
Before I close this post, I want to thank those that have supported me in developing this story. Your words of encouragement and comments on the project have been greatly appreciated over the past weeks and months.
But foremost in those thanks goes to Adam Starr who designed the concept poster you see below. I have been working with Adam since 2000 on numerous projects. In fact, the first project he did for me was a corporate promotional video for my old publishing company. In terms of posters Adam designed First World, Evidence and Justice Is Mind. To learn more about Adam and the story behind the poster, please visit the website.
On the ice. Representing…
Today I finished Act Two of the political thriller I’m writing around the sport of figure skating. With a story that traverses a season in the sport along with over 40 characters on and off the ice, this stage of the writing process is a point of reflection. It’s a point when I review my notes (there are 25 pages) and read the script from the beginning. I liken it to building a road. The “earthwork” has been done, but it needs to be paved. For me, the Final Act (or in this case Act Three and/or Four) is both the most exciting and nerve wracking. Why? Because the road has to lead to a destination — a conclusion.
Every writer works in their own way. And while books, seminars and industry experts dictate how you should do the process, I promise if you talked to ten different screenwriters you would get ten processes of mixed results. For me, I look at a character or story arc and see if it has evolved. Nothing is worse than watching a movie and not seeing a character or story resolution. I’d rather take some extra time to get the last acts right than have audiences leaving disappointed or, worse, with a predictable ending.
When I wrote Justice Is Mind the initial premise was someone facing their own memory at trial. But for anyone that has seen the movie, while that may be the central core, there’s a conflux of other activities going around it. In my view, nothing is linear in real life and it shouldn’t be in film. For me, I always love a good twist at the end or a surprise ending. Two of my favorites with surprise endings are The Sixth Sense and Witness for the Prosecution. Both films couldn’t be more different in genre, but they brilliantly pulled off an ending that I don’t think anyone saw coming. As of this moment, I believe I have the surprise ending all set for this story, but as it’s not written yet that can certainly change!
As for a mix of things, there was a great practical article in Forbes titled How To Finance An Independent Film by Bryan Sullivan. While I’ve known about these steps for some time, it was nice to see a “drama” free article just present the facts. Often with the trades or some of the bloggers I follow (or used to follow), there’s this air of judgment or bias in their reporting that does nothing but lecture. This is an industry of creatives that develop stories for an audience. And while there most certainly are standard ways to accomplish that, the last thing we need to hear are “You can’t do this” or “You can’t do that” when it comes to building projects. Bottom line, all projects and their path to market take different roads.
I’ll admit there is a certain satisfaction in creating an original story. In the case of this story around the sport of figure skating, it’s worked out well so far that I was involved in the sport in so many different areas. From skating (I passed that Junior Free before the rule changes!), to teaching, to publishing a magazine for the sport to TV analyst work, I can say that this story travels from learn to skate, to receptions to the world championships with the FBI and NSA steadfastly involved that builds a story that takes us around the world.
Representing the United States.