Last week I talked about lists. Well this week I was able to cross off, or at least through, one thing on my list – uniforms.
Whenever I plan to put a script into production I go through it with a fine tooth comb to break down exactly what’s needed. For First Signal the Nehru styled suits for two of the characters have been secured for some weeks. Personally, I thought it was going to be a bit of a challenge to get the look I wanted with the budget I set for costumes. I soon discovered there were numerous manufacturers that offered countless styles and ranges in price. In the end I got what I wanted for that look.
But there was one type of uniform that was proving a bit elusive–Air Force officer service dress. Yes, a good number of regional costume shops had air force officer uniforms. They would have worked fine if our story was set in the early 1990s. But as First Signal is set in the year 2014, we needed a contemporary look.
To start I discounted contacting the big costume houses that work with “Hollywood” budgeted films and TV shows. My thinking was why on Earth would they want to work with an indie film on the scale of First Signal? So contacting the official uniform suppliers to the Air Force began in earnest. But in the majority of cases you need to be authorized military personnel to make a purchase from those companies. So short of purchasing items piecemeal on eBay and the like, this was a major item on my list that wasn’t budging.
When I saw the season finale of Madam Secretary and the number of military uniforms that were used on that episode, I decided I had to take a different route. I went to their listing on IMDbPro to see who was in charge of costuming. No sooner did I contact one of the wardrobe supervisors via LinkedIn did he get back to me with companies and contact names. Yes, these were the big costume houses on the west coast.
The welcoming reception I received from Eastern Costume put aside my preconceived anxiety about contacting one of these companies. To say they are knowledgeable about costumes would be an understatement. After sending them some pictures of the types of Air Force service dress uniforms I was looking for, they gave me a rundown on prices that will work for First Signal. Is it a bit more than I budgeted? Certainly. But in this case anything less than a contemporary look just wouldn’t have worked.
The search, however, continues for a suitable location. The one thing I have done with all my films is to secure locations via a trade marketing partnership. It’s a pretty straight forward process that works great for everyone. A location allows us the opportunity to film and I promote and market the location. Well after the actors and crew have left, a location sees themselves promoted regularly on social media, mentioned in the press, credited at the end of the film, on official sites and other entitlements that benefit all concerned long after “That’s a wrap” is called. I have no doubt that a suitable location will be secured. But there are always surprises in this business. Like when you believe you have a deal and suddenly it goes from trade to a $10,000 plus fee! Um no thanks, I’ll keep looking! The one thing I have long learned in this business is never be desperate to do a deal. I look for partners not takers.
Since First Signal’s table read last Saturday there has been a flurry of activity behind the scenes. From location scouting between Massachusetts and New Hampshire to waiting to hear from the Department of Defense on production assistance, the pre-production process of a feature film is a myriad of activity that gives new meaning to one word – lists.
With our aim to secure the final locations in the next ten days, those working on the pre-production side will see their respective lists grow exponentially. As I believe organization is critical to any production, keeping a well ordered list means that you’re one step closer to the start of production.
Speaking of productions, this past week was an interesting one from the acting side of things. When I was auditioning for a film in Boston, I ran into one of the actors that I cast in First Signal. I think we were reading for the same part! To quote Bette Davis in Now, Voyager, “The world is small, but Boston is big”. Suffice to say we shared some interesting stories while waiting to be called. The one thing I’ve learned about the New England market, is that there are a number of us that operate on both sides of the desk. Personally, I prefer it that way as it gives me a fresh perspective on the business.
However, it was all business on Friday when I was at Charles River Media Group. A few weeks ago I was cast in a book promo/trailer. The book is not a work of fiction, but fact. The story takes place in Austria during World War II. The producer, who is also the author, gave all the actors a personally signed copy. I started to read the book last night and it’s a page turner. I’ll write up the project once the production releases stills.
This was my first time working with this director (who was also the director of photography). From the costuming he sourced to the way he directed the shoot, his style was engaged and calming. The actors were tremendously professional and took their respective parts seriously. The end product should be stunning.
Indeed this market is a small one. No sooner did I arrive and I recognized one of the actors I worked with from the Joint Base Cape Cod exercises. Although another actor doesn’t know it yet, when the time comes I plan to reach out to him to see if he’d like to play one of the secret service agents in First Signal.
This week I also launched the Facebook and Twitter accounts for First Signal. Suffice to say I was encouraged by the response. These are only the first steps towards developing the overall marketing communications plan for the project.
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.
There is that moment during pre-production when suddenly you shift into a higher gear. That moment came this week with location scouting in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Personally, I find location scouting one of the most interesting parts of the filmmaking process.
After the actors are cast, it comes down to the location. Of course they have to be captured brilliantly by a talented crew, but finding the right location encompasses a variety of factors. Does the scheduling work between the location and film? Does it work geographically for the actors and crew? Does it fit to the story? Unless a set is custom built to the script, there are always story adjustments after a location is secured.
Just as I mentioned last week, one of my jobs is to make sure a location knows exactly what they are getting into when they sign on to a film project. I’ll be working on a proposal to one of the locations this week. For me it’s all about planning and efficiency. I personally can’t stand disorganization on sets. As they say, time is money either literally or figuratively and film sets are no exception.
The one thing I believe is critical is testing equipment at locations well prior to the start of production. Sadly, I have been on my share of sets where camera, sound and lighting were simply never tested until the first day of production. There simply are some things you really want to know in advance. Where are the outlets? Are there reflections? Is there signage that needs to be covered? Can the house lights dim? Any strange background noises during the sound check? That’s why it’s called pre-production!
But it’s not all about locations. Wardrobe is another important part of the process. First Signal calls for two unique sets of costuming for certain actors. Two are wearing U.S. Air Force uniforms and two are wearing Nehru styled suits. After finding a great vendor in Colorado, the Nehru suits arrived yesterday. Not only was the price fantastic, but the quality was solid. A few alterations and we will be good to go.
With more location scouting over the next couple of days, along with numerous other details, the pre-production process continues as we move forward towards the June 16 table read.
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!
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.”
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.
After dealing with a massive snowstorm the day before, the first day back at the Naval Justice School went well. As this is my fifth time doing the program, these are like class reunions between the actors and staff. But with every new class, we have new actors join the program.
I can’t speak for other regions, but in New England the acting community really is about six degrees of separation. While I may not have worked directly with some of the new actors, the other actors have or are familiar with their work. What struck me interesting with one of the new actors was him telling me about a project of his own that he’s putting into production himself. Sound familiar?
While any actor, screenwriter, cinematographer, etc., wants to be hired, there’s nothing more satisfying than creating your own work. It truly is magical watching your performance, your words and your images come to life. But one does not magically snap their fingers to get a project off the ground. In the end it’s about partnering with good people that believe in bringing the project to life.
In addition to the casting notices going up this week for First Signal, location searches will also begin in earnest. As I mentioned to someone already involved in the project, the way I approach a location is to trade the opportunity to shoot with a mutual public relations and marketing plan. I’ve taken this approach with the films I’ve produced and, with the exception of $100 to shoot in church for Justice Is Mind, it has worked.
The last thing you do as an “independent” filmmaker is ask what their rate or how much they would charge. I promise you, you’ll get frustrated when you hear numbers that are impossible to meet. Worse, you meet them and go broke in the process. You want to work with people and companies that are excited about the project. But that excitement is not without responsibility.
On a set I am the first to arrive and the last to leave. Why? Because it’s my responsibility to insure that I leave a location the same way I found it. Case in point was the conference room we used in Serpentine. In the film, the location was at the FBI in Washington, D.C. In the real world that was the Aquarius board room at The Verve Crowne Plaza in Natick, MA.
That room worked out great in the film, but it needed to be dressed. I purchased Washington, D.C. images to cover up the posters on one wall and added The Brandenburg Gate during the Cold War era to highlight a certain moment in the story (it was also an Easter Egg for Justice Is Mind). How did the viewer know they were at the FBI? Stock footage the moment before that showed the exterior of the FBI. What’s interesting about that footage is that one of my favorite shows, Madam Secretary, has also used that same clip.
With the script breakdown for First Signal almost complete, look for a casting notice in the coming days. And that military exercise I mentioned last week? Looks like that contract is coming through.
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.”
In Justice Is Mind the fictional trial was The Commonwealth v. Henri Miller. In reality Justice Is Mind was primarily filmed in The Commonwealth of Massachusetts. This past week, Justice Is Mind’s editor Jared Skolnick, who is also an award winning filmmaker, was featured in an article titled “Hey, Hollywood and Bollywood — how about Valleywood?” The story in The Valley Advocate stated that Jared “makes movies in the Valley because this is where he’s from and where he began building his professional network.” The same holds true for me. Even when I was living in Los Angeles in 2007 and cast the two leads in First World in the “Golden State” of California, I filmed the project in Massachusetts? Why? Because this is where I’m from.
Having lived in both New York City and Los Angeles, I can certainly understand the desire to be at the epicenter of the entertainment industry. Having been on a network TV show, a city like Los Angeles can be very exciting when you are working on the high end of the industry. I know numerous actors (some I’ve trained) and filmmakers who have left Massachusetts for the hope of fame and fortune. I firmly believe if you have the desire and will to move to these cities you should. You will never know until you try. For me, I’m glad I had my experience in both these great cities, positive ones from a career point of view, but my creative energy and the launching of all my projects has originated in Massachusetts. It’s not something I set out to do, it just happened that way. My new personal website, www.markashtonlund.com, chronicles the journey.
Case in point, the making of First World and Justice Is Mind. Both of these projects were enormously ambitious between the number of talent involved and needed locations. I had to work in a region where I knew the people and their general enthusiasm about being part of the film. Why film in a location that will require permitting, location fees and local regulations just to look cool, when you can film somewhere else for free working with enthusiastic location partners in exchange for promoting their business?
For me, as I did with Justice Is Mind, once I give the green light to a project I like to move along at reasonable pace in pre-production. Simply put, time is money whether literally or figuratively. As some may have noticed from postings to this blog, I have generally already scouted most of the locations for SOS United States and to some degree for In Mind We Trust.
But as we have seen from the latest film markets, the greatest challenge filmmakers on all levels have is in securing production financing for their projects and a return on investment. You don’t have to be a fortune teller to recognize that it always comes down to equity and what the investor wants. To say there has been an about face in film financing you just have to revisit articles that the trades wrote around the latest American Film Market and then there was this blog post over at Film Specific. But there is one piece to “The Commonwealth” financing pie that keeps films in the state.