Since I returned from AFM last month, in addition to post-production work, I’ve been building out the marketing and release strategy for First Signal. For marketing, it’s about verifying media contacts, researching new outlets, creating talking points and a million other details. The goal is to create awareness and reach First Signal’s intended audience. I don’t shirk those responsibilities. In fact, it’s part of my job as a filmmaker.
The one thing that was painfully apparent at AFM, albeit not surprising, was the limited marketing/pr resources that a sales agent/distributor was going to bring to any single title. This is not necessarily the fault of the agent/distributor, it simply comes down to resources. If they have a couple of hundred films in their respective catalog, there is only so much time they can allocate. But at the end of the day, they must have some sort of plan—especially if they want to charge for it.
I recently turned down a contract from a sales agent. While the contract was littered with tens of thousands of dollars in fees, there was no marketing and release strategy for me to review. It was simply, send us your film (at considerable expense), we’ll see if we sell it, but we’ll still charge the film along the way. Um..no thanks. It shocks me that these one-sided contracts still exist. To turn a phrase “Send it and forget it” does not apply to film distribution.
Post-production is well on its way for an April completion. I wrote the trailer up just over a week ago. The VFX areas of the film are on their way to our visual effects supervisor. Every Sunday for the last few weeks I receive a section of score to review. Although I believe it’s important to maintain a schedule with an end date, it’s equally important not to be rushed. On the marketing side, I have a general idea of where and when I see our first screening. Will it be a “world premiere” or just a private screening? That I’m not sure yet, but plans are moving forward.
My notes for the sequel to First Signal are starting to turn into some actual writing. I generally have the concept for the beginning and end. The sequel will be a continuation of events in First Signal while incorporating a good part of the storyline from my ebook First World: Covenant. I can always tell when the motivation to start writing again hits me—an idea for a scene or line comes to me and I stop what I’m doing and note it.
EXT. THE PLANET SHINAR – 8282 BC
Satellite images of the Earth like planet Gliese 581 d come into view.
Good afternoon my fellow citizens. This government, as promised, has maintained the closest surveillance of the military buildup on the Channel Islands in the Southern Provinces.
Capturing the essence of a movie usually starts with the one sheet (poster), followed by stills and then the trailer. It’s about developing the film’s brand and the PR campaign around it. For First Signal, the first official one sheet was designed by Daniel Elek-Diamanta (who is also our composer). The poster represents the famed “Earthrise” photo from Apollo 8 along with some sort of alien satellite or ship between the Moon and Earth. As the First Signal story is rooted in the Apollo space program, I thought the blend of science fact with fiction would make for a compelling picture.
With editing well underway, the next step in the branding process is to tell First Signal’s story through carefully chosen stills. Quoting Arthur Brisbane from an article in 1911, “Use a picture. It’s worth a thousand words.”
Our first “picture” tells part of the First Signal story with Air Force One arriving in Brussels, Belgium. To the casual observer they just see Air Force One over a newscast. But for those that are following First Signal, they will see much more. Not only does the still lend to the logline, an emergency meeting with the President, it represents the arrival of Earth’s most well-known plane. I say Earth’s because something else arrives later in the story. The rotating planet Earth in the chyron graphic is later identified as another world. But it’s the crisis in Ukraine that leads to a government conspiracy to thwart an insurgent military action that’s at the heart of the First Signal story.
Over the weeks and months ahead, the idea is to create a campaign to bring awareness to First Signal for its release in 2020. When you consider the tens of thousands of films made in any given year, the marketing and communications efforts need to be just as well thought out and planned as principal photography was. For First Signal it’s about building off our early press.
As for building, next week I start the research process for AFM. But prior to AFM, I’ll be presenting First Signal next week to some interested parties that are traveling to Toronto.
Finally, I’m re-presenting First Signal’s one sheet now with credits. As you will see, it truly does take a village to make a motion picture. While a director has a vision and acts as conductor, they are only as good as their orchestra.
As a filmmaker there’s nothing quite like seeing that first rough cut in post-production. You wonder what it will look like. You wonder if the years you’ve spent pulling it all together was worth it. A film is not a play where things can generally be adjusted because you change your mind about something. As Bill Sampson said in All About Eve, “There’s nothing you can do, you’re trapped, you’re in a tin can.” If the 18 minutes of the first rough cut are any indication, First Signal isn’t trapped!
Building a film in post-production is akin to the prefabrication we see today in the construction world. Have you ever seen how a ship is built? Sections are built elsewhere, shipped and then assembled in one location. That’s pretty much how a film is born. Shots are created offsite and assembled in one location according to the script (the blueprint). I have one cardinal rule in post-production, we don’t deviate from the script. The shots are created for the script, not the other way around.
When Justice Is Mind was in post-production, I remember receiving emails from some of the actors wondering if their scenes were being cut. My response was generally always the same, why would I cut something that I wrote in the first place? In the end, nothing was cut. The result was a complete story.
Some years ago I was cast in an independent film. The script was solid and all of us associated with it were looking forward to the end result. Well, the end result was an over-edited product that didn’t resemble the script we were handed a year earlier. A completed film is just that a product—one that must be promoted and marketed.
With the 6th anniversary of Justice Is Mind tomorrow, I can’t help but think of the promoting and marketing I did for that film. I still, whenever an opportunity presents itself, market that film wherever I can – why wouldn’t I? I see so many projects being hyped during the production process just to wither away in post-production. For me post is the most exciting. Not only are you building a product but you are laying the groundwork for its release.
For First Signal that groundwork includes the completion of the first 11 minutes of the film in the next few weeks. Why so quickly? Just over a month prior to AFM is when I start my pitch process for meetings. Although AFM is in November, time moves quickly in post-production and meetings are set about a month in advance. The idea with this footage is to show prospective buyers what the film will look like.
Although First Signal is in post-production, I still had some casting to do – a voice over artist for a newscast. There are so many services for voice over artists, but I found Fiverr to be the best. Although there is just one newscast in First Signal, it opens the film. I needed a voice that “broadcast” as a newscaster and sounded believable. Needless to say, we found that voice.
Last Sunday First Signal wrapped principal photography. The final shot seemed particularly appropriate. It was a POV from Major Sampson (Patience McStravick). With Daniel Groom on camera, Patience guiding his shoulders to mirror her character and myself directing, it was that moment when I remembered the day all three of us met at a Starbucks in January 2018 to discuss First Signal. None of us could have foreseen the journey that was to lie ahead. While pre-production was fraught with fits and starts, the train of principal photography not only ran on time, but finished five production days ahead of schedule.
Shooting First Signal these last few months has been nothing less than thrilling for me. Oh sure, as director you worry about countless things, but when you see the progress and quality being produced from one day to the next, those worries quickly evaporate. Those pre-production matters that sought to derail the train are nothing more than a distant memory. Of course no vision comes to life without a dedicated cast, crew and location partners. Without their tireless efforts First Signal would still be just that—a vision.
The vision for First Signal was nicely magnified by some wonderful press over the last several weeks. WMUR-TV, The Concord Monitor, The Athol Daily News and the Greenfield Recorder all visited set (The Hippo did a great piece that you can find in my previous post). I couldn’t be more thankful for their coverage. It isn’t just about producing a film, it’s about getting it noticed. When you consider the tens of thousands of films that are made a year, having media support, particularly at this stage, is paramount.
Throughout the production process and this past week, I have kept the contacts I made at AFM last year informed about our progress. While one during production was keenly interested in First Signal, another got back to me last night and wants to see some footage as soon as possible for TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival). In addition to the festival itself, Toronto is one of the major film markets.
This is what producing a film is all about – distribution. Putting aside getting an actual deal for your film, there are simply so many platforms to distribute and market you really need a distributor to navigate this labyrinth.
Putting together the puzzle that was created during production, is now the purview of our editor and the rest of the post production team. This is where the tone and style of the film come to life. We’ve already decided on a color scheme and I’m pretty close on what I’d like to see for a score. While I’m overseeing post-production, I’ll be working on branding and other marketing aspects. Yes, making a film is thrilling, but seeing it come to life in the consumer market is where it matters.
In closing, thank you to all those that have supported this project. Your support over these months have made First Signal possible.
It’s hard to believe that First Signal is nearly at the halfway mark in principal photography. The dedication of the actors, crew and staff at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center has been unprecedented. Producing a feature film is no easy task but when you work with a dedicated group of professionals, the process doesn’t actually seem like work. Of course the one thing I won’t do is get complacent. There’s still several weekends left of filming with half of them being outdoors.
Along with principal photography, our public relations efforts are also well underway with our first press release announcing First Signal (click this link). I’m also delighted to report that The Hippo published a great article this week about our filming at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center. The Hippo does a wonderful job with their Q&A formats.
Now that we’ve had some press, I’ll be reaching out to the distributors and sales agents that I met at the American Film Market (AFM) this past November, particularly those that expressed an interest in First Signal. As AFM is all about planning, it’s never too early to start conversations about projects in production.
One of the next steps in the process is how the film will look from a color point of view. It’s something I need to start thinking about as we will soon be releasing stills. While it’s a process that shouldn’t be rushed, it shouldn’t be delayed either. Like the building up towards the release of the first trailer, I believe the releasing of stills should be given equal weight. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.
With principal photography resuming next weekend, Daniel Groom (Director of Photography) and I will be doing some test photography tomorrow in a field. This location encompasses the last scenes of the film. While the scenes we are shooting indoors are obviously important, the outdoor scenes will be involving a substantial amount of special effect work in post-production.
Although the making of a feature film takes quite a bit of work while you’re on set, that doesn’t mean that we don’t have moments of frivolity. From Patience McStravick (Major Sampson) and Conor Timmis (Cedric Yonah) in a Space Shuttle simulator to a birthday celebration for Daniel Groom. One of the highlights from last weekend was when Sarah Beattie, who works at the Discovery Center as an educator, treated us to a wonderful planetarium show about the constellations. I never knew there were so many! But what was very touching to me, was this lovely blog post that she wrote last week.
For me there is truly no more rewarding of a process than seeing a film come together. It is a form of art like no other. Long after I call the last “cut” this film will live on forever. A film is a testament to the dedication of so many to realize a vision. When you watch a film and see the credits role know that every person, company and location played a vital part in its creation. While the adage for actors is “there are no small parts” that also holds true to those that sit behind the camera. As I conclude this blog post, I want to say a special thank you to Patience, Dan, Sarah and Linds for believing in First Signal.
The train has left the station. I’ve often used that phrase to describe what happens on the first day of principal photography. There is nothing quite like that first day. You wonder if you’ve missed anything in the planning process because film production is all about details. Every day of principal photography is an event unto itself. But after months of pre-production, the First Signal train left on schedule.
I always arrive early to any set, but particularly so when it’s my own project. I view it as my job to have everything at the ready for the cast and crew. Last Monday our call time wasn’t until 9 AM, but I arrived at 7:30. One thing I had to do was to turn my “United States” car into a “Foreign” one. That meant changing my Massachusetts license plates into Belgian (First Signal takes place in Belgium).
After one of the staff at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center arrived early, I was able to load in my stuff and wait for the crew and actors to arrive. It didn’t take long for 9 AM to approach and then one by one they started to arrive. Before I knew it, we were ready to go with our first shot.
By the end of the day we largely accomplished what we wanted to. All the necessary indoor scenes, promotional photos and some key outside drone footage were shot. Although we still have a couple of drone shots to complete, the day by all measures, was a success. I can’t thank the crew, cast and staff at the Discovery Center enough for making First Signal’s first day a positive one.
Of course there are still many days to go until principal photography is over. Today, I’m putting the final touches on our shoot for next weekend that involves Senator Hadrian and General Reager. Weather permitting we will also be shooting a scene in their Observatory. Then there is the pre-planning for the primary conference room scenes with the majority of the actors the following weekend.
The one thing I want to reference from our shoot last Monday were the actors that played Secret Service agents. I’ve worked with two of them before on my own projects and as an actor. The other three I met through our casting notices. For one, this was his first film. For another, he was in the army. For another, he had a great eye for costuming. It was through their collective experience and efforts that brought an authenticity to their scenes.
There is nothing more exciting as a writer than seeing your words come to life through the process of film. When you combine great talent on both sides of the camera, against the backdrop of an ideal set, that’s when magic is made.
On a closing note, I want to particularly thank Patience and Dan for your efforts, dedication and friendship. I remember that day at the Naval Justice School when Patience and I first talked about a story that would largely take place in one location. Then, on her introduction, our first meeting with Dan at a Starbucks to talk about the possibilities.
The days are long, the lists are endless, but in the end there is a product everyone involved in can be proud of—a feature film.
The final days leading up to principal photography are ones that give the word “multitasking” a whole new meaning. Throw in a last minute casting and that brings it to a new dimension. But as I look at my lists, what I’m crossing off and what we have left to do, things are moving along.
I’m also pleased to announce that Wendy Hartman will play President Helen Colton in First Signal. Although I’ve known of Wendy’s work for some time, we haven’t had the opportunity to work together. But the one thing I have admired is her dedication to any project she becomes a part of. Welcome Madam President!
It would have been too easy to throw the towel in when I received the news that someone was pulling out this close to the start of production, but I have never been one to throw a towel. When you reach a certain point in this process you just double down and pursue all avenues.
After the auditions in Nashua I drove up to the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center for a last minute location check. Our first day of shooting will involve just two locations, but it’s those last minute looks that are important. While visiting I had the most fascinating conversations with a few of the staffers about all things science and science fiction. They showed me some of the new shows in the planetarium. Every time I visit the Center I “discover” something new.
One area art direction I did some work on this past week was having Belgian license plates created for the first scenes we are shooting. I believe in authenticity and making every effort to get it right. A special thanks to Adam Starr for creating the plates and to my friends at FedexOffice for bringing them to life.
With some final fittings this week and picking up the tailored Air Force Uniforms, First Signal will soon be filming.
From when I started writing the script in 2017 to where we are today, I think of the journey and dedication of so many to see this project through. I can’t help but be reminded of when I started to put this “First World” universe together back in 2006 with the screenplay First World, to the short film version in 2007 to a near greenlight of the feature film version in 2008 until the economy crashed. It was from my writings in First World that the genesis for Justice Is Mind was born. That project seemed a lifetime ago until I was driving home yesterday and actually drove by one of the restaurant locations in New Hampshire we used in that film.
I believe this quote from Theodore Roosevelt sums up what many of us feel in this industry when a project finally moves forward after years in development – “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.”
The email came in on a Thursday afternoon. A producer from station KABC-AM 790 in Los Angeles wanted me to do a phone interview on Friday with Jillian Barberie and John Phillips for their popular morning drive talk show. The subject was figure skating. The topic was an incident between two skaters at the World Figure Skating Championships in Japan.
I co-starred with Jillian on FOX’s Skating with Celebrities. She was a skater and I was one of the judges. No sooner did we meet on set than we became fast friends off the ice. Needless to say I was very excited to do the interview. First, it was Jillian but second she’s a great interviewer. It was a reunion of sorts as we haven’t seen each other since I moved back east in 2008. The moment the interview started we picked right back up where we left off all those years ago. You can listen to the interview at this link. Those few moments on air with Jillian brought back so many great memories from my time in LA.
As for the world of entertainment, last year I was cast in a documentary titled Reconstruction: America After the Civil War. As you see in this still, it was shot entirely in green screen. In the production these shots will be animated to recreate areas of the documentary for which no photos or film exist. From what I’ve seen, this looks like a brilliant documentary about an important part of American history after the Civil War. The documentary airs on PBS April 9 & 16. To learn more click here.
In just over a month principal photography begins on First Signal. Since I wrote the script in late 2017, it’s amazing how fast time has gone by. It was becoming real enough over the last month when certain props arrived, but when the Air Force Uniforms started to arrive last week it was then that we all could feel the day coming.
I decided to buy the uniforms rather than rent. Not only was it about the same price for the weeks we needed them, I look at the uniforms as a smart investment. First, we’re not constrained to a limited amount of time with them. What happens if we need to reschedule shoot dates past the rental period? What happens if after we wrap we want to do some pickup shots? With this acquisition, the budget is locked down.
With cast and crew complete, final props being created and actors going through fittings, it’s this moment in pre-production where things are fine-tuned and coordinated. One could say we’re rolling out of our Vehicle Assembly Building.
It was sometime in the 1970s when I first saw Gone with the Wind. It must have been on TV as we didn’t have a VCR. The moment I saw this film it quickly became my favorite movie. The story, the actors, the sets, the music, it all worked on so many levels. Since that first viewing, I’ve watched it on laserdisc, DVD and streamed it. This afternoon I’ll see Gone with the Wind as it was intended – in a theatre.
What I always liked about the Gone with the Wind story was the sheer ambition of how it was made. From the “Search for Scarlett” to endless script rewrites to changes in directors, the production was fraught with issues. But in the end a masterpiece was created winning 8 Academy Awards including Best Picture. If you want to learn more about this epic film, I highly recommend the book Scarlett, Rhett, and a cast of thousands: The filming of Gone with the Wind.
There’s no question in my mind that Gone with the Wind inspired my interest in this industry. What I’ve always been particularly drawn to are the “movers and shakers” behind the camera. In the case of Gone with the Wind, it was producer David O. Selznick. For every film made there’s one person you can point to that is responsible for its existence. Oh sure, the actors and crew are vital, but they wouldn’t have anything if it wasn’t for the producer—that one person who sees the vision and takes the risk.
Selznick International Pictures produced another one of my favorite films, Rebecca. It was Selznick who brought director Alfred Hitchcock over from England. That one decision that Selznick made led to films such as North by Northwest and Psycho.
While the opening sequence references “A Civilization gone with the wind,” another civilization that is long gone is the studio system that made it. Yes, Selznick International Pictures was somewhat independent, but it was the studio system that made Gone with the Wind possible (MGM provided half the budget).
As we celebrate the 80th anniversary of this iconic picture, I look at the modern world of filmmaking. Although Selznick’s company disbanded decades ago, MGM is still around along with a literal handful of the legacy studios (sadly 20th Century Fox has been acquired by Disney). But the one thing that now prevails is the independent filmmaker. We chart our own course against a sea of seemingly endless possibilities and to destinations sometimes unknown.
When I attended the American Film Market this past November presenting First Signal and my other projects, I couldn’t help but think of the ambitions of so many under one roof striving to present their “motion picture” to new civilizations.
Tomorrow, is today.
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…
The shot list is complete and a preliminary schedule was worked out yesterday. It now goes to the actors, crew and the location partners for review. From what starts as a one person exercise writing a screenplay (I use Final Draft) now turns into project management. I can at least add another checkmark on my task list. But make no mistake, just because I checked off an item doesn’t mean that it’s completed.
One thing I realized years ago when I was publishing magazines was the importance of organization. In those early days being late meant paying heavy fees. In this industry it means that something doesn’t or can’t be filmed. Case in point the Air Force uniforms that we need. Do I buy them or rent them? While I have pricing for a purchase, I’m waiting to hear from the costume company. One thing I learned from producing Justice Is Mind is advanced planning when it comes to costumes.
In Justice Is Mind one of the actors had to be outfitted as an SS officer. I ordered the uniform from a Chinese company and it was shipped well in advance of our shoot dates. Although tracking showed that it arrived in the United States I still hadn’t received it yet. Finally, I talked to customs and got the “opinionated” custom agent on the phone who asked why I needed such an outfit. After I directed some choice words to him and cited certain regulations, the uniform arrived in time for our shoot.
While I look back at the scheduling for the number of events and films I’ve produced over the years, I realized I’m starting to develop an interesting inventory of wardrobe and props. I still have the original Nehru styled jackets worn in First World along with the briefing file the Prime Minster shows the President. It might not be bad to add Air Force uniforms to the collection.
In closing, NASA announced this week that the Mars rover Opportunity ended after a 15 year mission. When we consider the science this rover discovered over its decade plus mission, it truly paved the way for new “opportunities” as plans for an eventual manned mission to Mars come to fruition. For an original mission that wasn’t supposed to last more than 90 days, it is a testament in time, patience, research and excellence to all those in NASA that worked on this project.
Its stories like Opportunity that remind me of the day I first looked through a telescope and saw our neighbors in the solar system.
The date was set weeks ago – January 26. It was the day we were holding auditions for the final two characters in First Signal. From the moment I posted the auditions, I was encouraged by the quality of responses. When the day came the actors didn’t disappoint. I was uniquely impressed that many of them were off book. Impressed, because the sides I send aren’t just the standard two pages you usually receive for an audition (one of the sides even included a monologue). Frankly, I’ve never understood why so many auditions are based off the two page side. It’s even worse when those two pages only have like three or four lines for the part you’re auditioning for. Regardless of what side of the camera you’re on, I don’t believe you can properly ascertain a project based off a two page side.
I have some cardinal rules I follow when holding auditions. First, you send sides well in advance of the audition. Two, you include some background on the character with the sides. Three, and this is perhaps the most important, you don’t change the sides in the audition room (there is one local casting company that does that regularly and it infuriates me–I’ve stopped auditioning for them). For me, it’s about respecting the actor’s time and preparation. As a director, it’s about seeing a quality audition. To learn more about the cast (and some of the crew) of First Signal please visit our IMDb page.
The following day Daniel Groom (Director of Photography), Patience McStravick (Producer and Major Sampson) and I went to the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center for our first day of testing. After a successful day of auditions, we were all in good spirits driving up to the Discovery Center as we knew we had the actors we wanted. We now could get down to the business of pre-production. For First Signal, we’re taking extra steps in pre-production to insure, to the best of our ability, a smooth production.
It’s one thing scouting a location, it’s another to film in it. From interesting angles, to lighting, to electrical, there are so many numerous things that go into the pre-production process. Since I knew we were going to film First Signal at the Discovery Center, I’ve had so many ideas come to mind to bring this project to life.
In First Signal the Discovery Center will act as a European air force base. When General Reager arrives we will see a full size replica of Mercury-Redstone rocket. Once inside he passes by an XF8U-2 Crusader Jet. Considering that the First Signal story is rooted in the space program of the 1960s and two of its main characters are in the air force, the Discovery Center is the perfect backdrop.
But it’s not just about what’s best for First Signal, it’s about promoting the Discovery Center itself. Long after the final “cut” is called, the Discovery Center will forever be featured in a film that will be seen for generations to come. Those that know me, know I’m a passionate believer in the space program and all those that make “space” possible. That, in so many ways, is what makes the Discovery Center so special – it’s about discovery.
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.
With 2018 coming to an end in just over a week, I always reflect this time of year on what was accomplished. For me it’s not about volume but the quality. On the talent side, I’m looking forward to the PBS reconstruction documentary I was part of this past summer. It’s scheduled to air in the 1st half of next year. There was also my work with the Naval Justice School and the National Guard exercises. But perhaps my most ambitious mission to date was putting First Signal into pre-production and attending the American Film Market.
A film requires countless elements to be successful. There’s finding the right actors, crew, props, etc. But perhaps one of the greatest challenges is finding the right location. We often hear the phrase, “Location, Location, Location” when it comes to real estate, it’s also true when it comes to filmmaking.
Although we knew we were going to film the “bunker” scene at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center, I was hoping for other location possibilities at the museum. After an audition we held a couple of weeks ago, we drove up to the Discovery Center to meet with museum officials. This was also an opportunity for the director of photography and one of actors to see the facility. Needless to say, everything worked out beautifully. With the exception of the scenes in the field, First Signal will be entirely produced at the Discovery Center.
Excited doesn’t even begin to describe how we all feel about this opportunity. For First Signal the location provides a perfect backdrop to the story. For the Discovery Center it will showcase the museum for years to come. For both, the marketing and public relations opportunities are endless.
As a filmmaker what’s terrific about this arrangement is that it’s all being produced in one location. Nothing can be more taxing on a cast and crew when numerous locations are involved. It’s like you’re starting over from day one. When talent on both sides of the camera are relaxed and in a familiar environment, it only enhances the end result. Because that’s what this is all about, the end result.
The production of a feature film isn’t just about the days on set, it’s mostly about the pre and post production. This is why I always aim to plan as much as possible in pre-production so when the day comes when I first call “action” nothing is left to chance and we can all enjoy the process.
Like planning for a launch, that first day of production comes up faster than you think. As that day approaches you only hope that you’ve covered all your bases. But it’s all about surrounding yourself not only with a talented cast and crew, but a location partner that believes in your project as much as you believe in their mission.
No, this post isn’t about NASA’s new launch system but the systems created to produce the independent feature film First Signal. Since I returned from AFM a month ago the pre-production process has ramped up for a May 2019 production start date.
The process of bringing a film to life is one of organization and planning. Whatever I’ve produced, from magazines, commercials, events and films, the more I can execute in pre-production the easier the actual production is. Once production starts the train has left the station. You can only hope you’ve laid all the necessary tracks to complete the journey.
These tracks begin with rounding out the cast. Starting next weekend and into early 2019, auditions will commence for a few roles. With the majority of our filming taking place at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center, we can now plan accordingly from a production point of view.
However, before one scene is even shot, I’ve already started to lay out the general plans for First Signal’s marketing and release. While these plans may ultimately change, I think it’s important to have a good idea where you want to go so when you get to that destination you’re prepared. There’s simply too much time and money involved to not think of release plans. One thing is certain, in this age of independent film, you have to take the long view. Anyone going into this industry looking to make a quick impression (or buck) is in the wrong business. Case in point Justice Is Mind: released in 2013 to a limited theatrical run and now available on Amazon Prime and other outlets, it’s still being pitched for other opportunities and promoted on social media.
With First Signal’s URL reserved and social media already active, one of my next steps is to build the website. Although I was aware of it before I attended AFM, the one thing I was cognizant of was the countless number of films in various stages of production all looking for attention. Being a filmmaker isn’t just about shooting the film, you also need to be the marketing communications department. It’s simply one of the many hats you have to wear. Trust me, distributors will ask about your films online presence.
Sorting through the numerous business cards and materials I gathered at AFM, I began my follow ups a few days after I arrived home. The return correspondence has been very encouraging. For obvious reasons I won’t publish the names of the companies I’m talking with, but suffice to say things are moving in a positive direction for two of my projects. The devil is in the details of course, but as filmmakers we are used to countless details.
As I begin to ramp up pre-production for First Signal with a May production start date, I was talking to a fellow filmmaker the other day about the importance of insuring there’s a market for our projects after we wrap production. There’s simply too much time and money involved to wind up on a shelf which translates to holding up a return on investment.
I’ve talked about this subject before when I was marketing Justice Is Mind. It was vital to me that Justice was introduced in a theatrical setting. While many submit to film festivals at considerable expense and wait for an acceptance (a practice that was frowned upon at AFM unless it’s an A level festival with potential buyers in attendance), I pushed for a theatrical run. The result was a limited run of 14 theatres, box office revenue, an international premiere on an ocean liner and substantive media placements. If I worked for years to get my film off the ground the last thing I’m going to do is pay $$$ to a second tier film festival. Then wait weeks (if not months) for a decision by a committee, then, if accepted, be at the mercy of a programmer to place my film in a time slot convenient to the festival, ceding box office revenue (filmmakers don’t receive a cut from festivals) and sharing in their public relations efforts with other films. As you can imagine, the public relations and release strategy for First Signal is already in the planning stages.
Speaking of planning stages, I had the opportunity today to visit the American Heritage Museum in Hudson, MA at the Collings Foundation. Some of you may remember my trips to the Collings Foundation for their World War II reenactment event “Battle for the Airfield” or their “Wings of Freedom Tour” around the country.
Although they are in “preview” until their Grand Opening in April of 2019, what I saw today was truly outstanding. The museum represents the history of war in America. Although it starts with the Revolutionary War all the way to the War on Terror, the primary focus is generally on World War I and World War II.
The tour starts in the orientation theatre and then proceeds to two immersive experiences before advancing to the main exhibit hall. The first is the World War I exhibit complete with a trench you can walk through. From there you proceed to the World War II exhibit which features a Mercedes-Benz W31 and Panzer 1A. Click this link to learn about all the tanks, vehicles and artifacts that will be part of the museum when it reopens in the spring. Of course, as a filmmaker, their use of archival film to enhance the static displays was brilliantly done.
In the entertainment industry it is the “one sheet” that advertises and promotes a film. In an instant the release of a one sheet sets the tone for a film that could be weeks, months or years from release. It is a form of media that should be carefully thought out. While it’s impossible to convey the entire story in a film poster, it should at least project a certain atmosphere.
When I was in post-production with Justice Is Mind my goal was to conceive of a poster that would represent the general story. With an MRI image in the background we see two sides of Henri Miller. One looking forward in the present world and the other looking backwards into World War II. I had the general concept in mind when we were shooting so I had Vernon Aldershoff, the actor that plays Henri Miller, photographed accordingly.
With Serpentine, the story revolves around a figure skater caught up in a Cold War mystery. With a sheet of ice as the backdrop, a skater is centrally framed in Red Square to convey the premise of the story. For SOS United States, the image of two F35’s flying in proximity to a cruise ship, dramatizes the accompanying tag line that says it all.
There are times when the production of a one sheet has to be as accurate as possible. First Signal was one of them. While the science fiction aspect gives one a certain amount of creative freedom, some things need to be right. The Moon to Earth vantage point was modeled after the famed “Earthrise” picture taken from Apollo 8. But it was the star field that needed to be accurate. Thankfully, Celestia, a 3D astronomy modeling program, was available (Special thanks to Daniel Elek-Diamanta for creating the poster and finding Celestia!).
Right after I registered for AFM, I was wondering what I could create to represent my various projects. While they each had their own branding and collateral (depending where they were in the production pipeline), I realized that I didn’t. Those that know me and my projects know what I create, but there is a whole industry universe out there that doesn’t.
I am therefore pleased to present the one sheet for The Ashton Times. Designed by my longtime colleague and friend Adam Starr, it is designed to promote and illustrate the type of works I create. For the last couple of weeks it has been included in my industry communications and promoted on MyAFM and Cinando. As we are an industry of image, I think it’s important to create what we can to present our projects in the best possible light.
It seems fitting that I’m preparing to leave for AFM during the anniversary week when Justice Is Mind had its international premiere on Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth in 2014. That screening proved to me that you don’t have to be a major or mini studio or have A or B list actors in your film to have a marketable project. Indeed, you only need one thing…
…a good story.
Since I registered for AFM (American Film Market) it has been a whirlwind of activity. From setting up personal and film profiles on MyAFM and Cinando to arranging meetings in advance, there seems to be no shortage of things to do as I prepare to leave for Los Angeles on November 1.
The one thing I’m looking forward to is learning something new. In an ever changing industry, I think it’s important to know where things are going. That doesn’t mean that I latch on to the next big thing. But it does mean that you have to be aware or at least open minded to change.
It’s easy for the casual observer to think that all innovation in the entertainment industry originates out of Los Angeles. Indeed, “Hollywood” is the entertainment capital of the world, and while proximity to the city certainly has its advantages, innovation truly comes from the four corners of the world.
Here in New England (Massachusetts to be specific) we have some terrific talent on both sides of the camera. Probably because I’ve lived here most of my life, I find it easier to get projects off the ground. But there are times when I have discovered that while we have solid talent, the pool is limited. Knowing that, sometimes it takes a bit longer to put together the right team.
When I saw First Man yesterday I was reminded what originally brought me into the world of film – the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon. Director Damien Chazelle assembled a dynamic team that wonderfully brought this historic story to life. Not only did Ryan Gosling deliver a solid performance as Neil Armstrong, but visually Chazelle created a film that brought the viewer back to those iconic moments in time.
Talking about teams, there is no team greater than those that work at NASA. During Apollo, it took “400,000 engineers, scientists and technicians to accomplish the moon landings.” It was a time when nothing seemed impossible. Those that say the moon landings were a hoax are just ignorant fools that suffer from denialism.
As I prepare to present my projects at AFM, one could say, in a small way of course, that it’s my very own Apollo. It’s about putting together the right team for the next project.
In this industry there is always the word “next.” For us creative types we yearn for the next project to be better than the last. Whether it’s an acting performance or directing your next film to higher acclaim, it’s about exceeding things you’ve done not simply repeating yourself. Of course I speak for myself, not others. Some are content with just another gig. There’s nothing wrong with steadiness and consistency, but for me there needs to be an improvement.
Every year I seek to accomplish at least one project that I’ve never done before. On the acting front there was a PBS documentary that was shot entirely on green screen. That production recreates a post-civil war America. From the outtakes I’ve seen, the creative is simply stunning. That show will premiere next year.
On the filmmaker front, I continue to prepare to attend the American Film Market in November. As I’ve never attended a film market before, it will be an interesting experience and one that I’m looking forward to. For me, it’s about hearing new voices and expanding my network. While I’m most certainly a creative, my business side needs to know where an industry is trending.
I was reminded just yesterday of how far the industry has come over the last several years. In the morning I received my quarterly statement from Justice Is Mind’s distributor. There is that feeling of accomplishment when you know your film is being watched domestically and internationally. But resting on one’s laurels is never a good idea as this industry changes like New England weather.
When I pushed First Signal back to spring due to scheduling conflicts, it gave me some serious time to reflect. Justice Is Mind went so well on so many levels, my next film simply has to exceed it. If I’m going to invest my time, money and name it has to execute at a certain level. I haven’t invested what I have to date without being committed to the project, but I found myself settling on certain matters when the better part of me said, “Why are you doing that?” Thankfully, I listened to my other self to make changes going forward (it helps being a Gemini).
Yesterday, I attended the Ghost Ship Harbor event at the USS Salem. My friend Sheila and I had a great time at this well produced night of fright. Yes, I screamed more than she did! The production values alone are worth the trip…if you dare.
A few months ago while searching for First Signal locations I came across The McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center in Concord, NH. A museum that honors Alan Shepard and Christa McAuliffe with a “mission is to inspire every generation to reach for the stars, through engaging, artful and entertaining activities that explore astronomy, aviation, earth and space science” is right up my alley of interests.
Last Sunday I took a day trip to visit the museum. When you first arrive you are greeted by a 1:1 scale model of the Mercury-Redstone 3 (Freedom 7) that launched Alan Shepard to space. When you see a life size replica of the space program standing in front of you, it puts those early years of the space program into perspective.
For space and science enthusiasts, this museum really gets it right. You’re first greeted by a NASA funded tribute wall to Alan Shepard and Christa McAuliffe before proceeding to the main exhibits. Some of the exhibits include the experimental XF8U-2 Crusader Jet, the Mercury capsule and developmental path and images of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. The resolution of the images this satellite has captured make you feel that you are actually on the Moon. Stunning doesn’t even begin to describe what you’re staring at. Considering that part of First Signal’s story revolves around satellites, I found the CATSAT story to be particularly interesting.
Of course no science museum is complete without a planetarium. The Discovery Center’s 103 seat theater did not disappoint! I arrived just in time for the Take Flight show that brilliantly animated the history and science of aeronautics. After the show, there was the space shuttle simulator (it’s not easy!) that was very engaging. But I felt like I was in a scene from The Andromeda Strain when I took a picture of myself in infrared. Between the static exhibits and the interactive, the museum really has something for everyone. One thing I enjoy the most about developing new projects like First Signal is the research. It takes you to places that you might not normally go.
While I was at the museum, I couldn’t help but remember the tragedy of the Space Shuttle Challenger that took the life of all seven astronauts (including Christa McAuliffe). It reminded me of a quote I used in First World from President Reagan’s memorial speech about the accident. In one line he summed up what the dedicated men and women in the space program represent, not only to the United States but the world.
“The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave.”
– President Ronald Reagan; Houston, TX; January 31, 1986
August 18, 2013. Five years ago today I was in Albany, NY for the world premiere of Justice Is Mind. The idea for Justice came to me in 2010 when I came across a 60 Minutes story about Thought Identification “mind reading.” I was researching mind reading “computers” when I was writing the sequel to First World. Yes, I finished writing the sequel. But no sooner was my Final Draft software cooling down and it was fired up again to write Justice.
I’ve often written about the development of Justice. The endless pitch to producers and financiers started at the script stage. Then I produced a short film version Evidence to develop interest in the project. After a couple of theatrical screenings and media the financing came together to produce the feature. Let me just say that 2012 was a whirlwind of a year. But in the end, over 10 crew, 100+ actors and 15 locations came together. Even post production into 2013 went relatively smoothly. Justice enjoyed a limited theatrical run, screenings at law schools, science fiction conventions and an international premiere on Cunard Line’s Queen Elizabeth (yes, that was a highlight!). The film is now available worldwide on VOD.
When you’re an independent filmmaker the completion of a feature film is a milestone that should be enjoyed and celebrated. As I see with so many in this industry, they worry incessantly about the next project when working on the current one. There were only a couple of occasions during Justice when a few people tried to get out of commitments because of an audition or other project they wanted to be part of. I’ve always believed in giving your maximum to every project you’re involved in. You worry about the next one after the fact.
It’s one thing to attend a film premiere for someone else’s project, it’s entirely another to attend one for your own. For nearly two years after our world premiere, so many of us attended the screenings together. For a while we were like a traveling road show! These weren’t film festivals, they were theatrical screenings. There is nothing more gratifying as a filmmaker than seeing your film on a marquee next to mainstream “Hollywood” productions. You work like hell to make the film, but seeing it in the market is in one word – gratifying.
A feature film isn’t about the “cool” photos behind the scenes of making it, it’s about creating the world around it so when it’s released there’s a place in the market for it. An acting friend of mine last year coined the phrase “the milk carton movie” for those films he was involved in that never saw the light of day. There were essentially “missing.” I couldn’t even fathom making a movie that sits on a shelf waiting for someone else to decide its fate. Film festivals are fine enough if you get into the top tier from an awareness point of view, but as a filmmaker you don’t see ten cents of box office from them. More importantly why would I want to share the public relations spotlight with other films? I remember only too well when we had a screening for Justice at a major university and, unknown to me, there was a small film festival in town that weekend. A reporter said to me they only had so much space and simply couldn’t accommodate everyone. Well, thankfully our screening went well because it was marketed internally and had some scientific personalities attending. That was a lesson to be learned.
As I now venture into the world of First Signal, I look back on the days of Justice Is Mind with great fondness and realize what’s possible when the right team comes together. I’ll never forget what one of the stars of Justice said to me at our last theatrical screening in March, 2017 “This never gets old.”
No, it doesn’t.
The development of a film property isn’t just about the actual filming, it’s about creating imagery, branding and a marketing campaign. Long after you type the first word of your script, it’s the first image associated with the story that everyone remembers. How many times do we read about a project in development or one that has long ago been filmed, until we see an image associated with it? First Signal is much more to me than just another film project. It’s about setting the right tone and creating the “world” of First Signal.
Although I had a general idea of what I wanted to see in a promotional poster, I had no idea that Daniel Elek-Diamanta was thinking along the same lines. Daniel, as some of you know, is an accomplished composer. He brilliantly scored Justice Is Mind and Serpentine. Unless he’s not available, he knows he’s always my number one. Weeks ago he agreed to score First Signal. In addition to his talent scoring films, he’s also a brilliant graphic designer. When he sent me a surprise draft of a promotional poster for First Signal it’s like he read my mind (Justice Is Mind?).
I am therefore pleased to present the first promotional poster for First Signal by Daniel Elek-Diamanta! Inspired by the famed Earthrise photo from Apollo 8, with a star field created by Celestia an open source virtual 3D astronomy program, the poster was released today on IMDb and social media.
Also launching today is First Signal’s official url www.firstsignalmovie.com. The site presently points to First Signal’s Facebook page, but will soon be directed to a custom designed website. The footage has already been selected with Daniel working on an introductory score.
Standing out in this industry is a herculean task. Sure, I go to my social media feeds and I see what’s going on locally. But it truly comes down to making a national and international push for a project. I’ve never had any interest in being a “popular local.” For me, it’s about someone discovering my films who lives far away from where it was created.
When Justice Is Mind had its international premiere on Cunard Line’s Queen Elizabeth back in 2014, nobody on the ship, aside from my mother, knew me or anything about the film. All they knew what was in the daily communique. Those passengers were my most important audience. Thankfully the screening was, I’ll say it, smooth sailing.
I also received word this week that the Department of Defense is formally reviewing First Signal for possible cooperation. As some of you may know, the military has entertainment liaison offices that work with the industry. Although First Signal is science fiction, there are numerous elements to the story that are based in the real world. And like the legal aspects of Justice Is Mind, I think it’s important to insure the military and science aspects are properly vetted.
July 20, 1969. The 49th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission – “we came in peace for all mankind.”
Although at 4 years old, I was too young to remember the historic event of the Eagle landing on the Moon, I fondly recall the later Apollo missions in the early 1970s. Those grainy black and white pictures being transmitted from the Moon to our television sets was a remarkable achievement. Indeed, it truly was “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” In those days the world watched in wonder as the impossible was achieved, not once, but several times.
When you think of the new technologies, sciences and discoveries that resulted from the space program of the 1960s and 70s, it’s clear that a giant leap was achieved on numerous levels. You can’t bring together that many scientists and engineers and focus them on a single end goal without achieving breakthroughs that were literally out of this world. Of course, another result of the space program was the motivation it gave to so many.
In my case, I developed an interest in astronomy which led to my passion for science fiction. When I combined these interests and wrote First World in 2006, I had no idea where that journey would take me. In the film world it led to the production of the short film version of First World in 2007, followed by Evidence and my first feature film Justice Is Mind. In the real world, I have been fortunate to see the space shuttle Atlantis land at Edwards Air Force Base, Discovery and components of the Apollo program at Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, the Enterprise at The Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum and Freedom 7 at John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.
In the world of entertainment, two of my favorite TV series that involved the Moon are UFO and Space: 1999 with my favorite sci-fi movie being War of the Worlds (1953). But over the last several years “Hollywood” has produced some excellent must see films. I could list many, but my two recent favorites have been Hidden Figures and Arrival. Two completely different films, but with compelling messages of the possible when faced with the impossible.
As for possible, progress continues on First Signal. With Daniel Elek-Diamanta designing our first promotional poster, the look of First Signal is beginning to take shape. With more location scouting planned over the next several days, I have no doubt that the right location will soon present itself. When a launch is planned, all the conditions need to be right. I don’t want to settle on a substandard location just for the sake of keeping a schedule. Not only do I need to be excited as a director, but I want the actors and crew to feel equally motivated with their surroundings.
Many…many…years ago I worked for someone that instilled in me the importance of preparing a solid presentation when making a pitch and a quality “leave behind” (the document you leave behind after a meeting for further consideration). In those early days I didn’t really know what all that meant, but it soon made sense. As they say you only get once chance to make a first impression. That couldn’t be truer in the entertainment industry where everything is about communication and visualization.
Since my last post, three First Signal presentations have resulted in solid location possibilities and interesting cooperation. We shall see where these communications go. But the point is, there are mutual communications.
When I first make a pitch I make every effort to provide as much information as possible with an equal amount of brevity. Why? Because not only is time short for everyone these days, but a pitch needs to offer something beneficial for the party you’re making a pitch to. I also believe it’s important to be clear in what you want and what you can offer in return.
Case in point, I receive at least one pitch a month from screenwriters wanting me to consider their screenplay. Fair enough they don’t know that I only develop my own work, but they could at least do some homework on what I’ve done. It’s pretty clear I’m only interested in science fiction and political thrillers. But what really stuck out like sore thumb with a pitch I received this week, was the fact that this writer didn’t include a phone number, web site, IMDb link or other external links so I could review who they were. This was almost as bad as the actor that submitted to First Signal and said “Google me.” That’s not the way it works.
But what is working beautifully is my DJI Spark drone. Over the last couple of weekends I’ve been to Ogunquit, ME and Newport, RI and have been able to capture some cool photography. I also tested the active track feature with my car. A couple of the scenes in First Signal require a drone shot to follow a vehicle.
So with the vast majority of all the pre-production work completed on First Signal, there is one organization we are waiting to hear from that is considering our presentation for locations and cooperation. They have a department that deals specifically with the entertainment industry.