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.
While the submissions continue to come in for the next class at the Naval Justice School, this past week took an interesting turn when I was cast as a policeman in an upcoming TV pilot. What was originally one day turned into three days on this production.
I always find these large scale productions interesting for a variety of reasons. Am I learning something new? Did I have a good time? And did I meet interesting people? I would say the answer was yes on all counts.
For me I always look at these “large-scale” productions with two different hats on – as an actor and filmmaker. As an actor I had to learn pretty quickly how this director worked. He gave me direction once and then returned on a couple of occasions to rehearse it without any verbal cues. He would appear, I would do what he directed and then he would leave. It must have been OK because after one rehearsal and two takes it was done. I guess we will see if that moment makes it in the final cut.
As a filmmaker, what I appreciated was the level of detail on the built sets. The desk I was sitting at was complete with period files, notes, etc. Even the wording on the files was specific to the era. As we live in an age where movies and TV shows are constantly screenshot, the last thing you want is something on camera that shouldn’t be there.
But this week it’s back to my own projects. In addition to the handful of actors to cast in the Naval Justice School (NJS) project, I start meetings on First Signal. This will be my fifth class with NJS and it’s great to see so many actors return from previous classes.
After my first meeting this week on First Signal, my plan is to post for actors in regard to a table read. The goal is to have a read sometime in late February or early March. From there I move on to locations and then crew.
And just when I think I’ve heard every excuse in the acting book, today there was a new one. I scheduled an interview with an actor days ago this morning in regard to the next NJS class. I couldn’t believe when I received an email this morning asking to push the interview back because, “I’m just trying to run some errands before the football games today and wasn’t sure if we could push back to 11:30.” Obviously I declined to do so. To every aspiring actor out there read these next words carefully – an actor declined to keep a scheduled interview for a paid gig because of football.
Here in Massachusetts (and New England in general) there is an obsession on football that borders on near hysteria. It’s all well and good that you have your passions, but when they interfere with work you have a problem. When you ask a producer/director to reschedule an interview because of your passion for a sport, I have two words of advice – don’t submit.
Can you even imagine for a minute if the day after I committed to this pilot that I emailed the casting director and said, “I can’t work tomorrow because I need to watch XX” I don’t even want to know the note that would go in my file. But I do know what that casting director would do after crossing my name off all their lists.
Ever since I was a kid I’ve been fascinated with flight. Growing up in the 70s the Boeing 747 and Concorde were all the rage. But my first glimpse of the United States military came from the 1980 film The Final Countdown starring Kirk Douglas. That film was a brilliant combination of a narrative science fiction drama with the U.S. Navy and Air Force demonstrating real world capabilities. With this interest you can well imagine my excitement when I learned the Westfield International Air Show was returning to Massachusetts.
From the “static” display of a C-5 Galaxy to the F-16 U.S.A.F. Thunderbirds, the air show programmers really outdid themselves this year. The show was appropriately titled “A Century of Airpower” as it featured such planes as a restored Douglas C-47 and B-25 bomber. In fact there was a whole cadre of planes from World War II.
What was particularly moving for me was watching the C-47 perform the same mission it did 73 years ago when it dropped troops in the invasion of Normandy. Watching this reenactment I can only imagine what it was like during the height of the war itself. It’s almost impossible to comprehend the sheer bravery of everyone involved in that mission.
But mission is what the United States military does better than any nation on this planet. One only has to attend one of these air shows to see the demonstration of these great aircraft and the men and women that make it all possible.
Yes, as an American, there is a great sense of pride seeing this all in action. But to be honest, it’s also about national and world security. Sure that last sentence may sound a bit over the top, but there needs to be a military superpower to insure that such global travesties like World War II never happen again or at minimum are contained. As President George H. W. Bush would ask when our security was threatened, “Where are our aircraft carriers?”
With a reported 50,000+ people attending over a two day period, of course I had to know someone at the show. In the early morning hours on Sunday I ran into Monty Lyons. Monty was featured in both Justice Is Mind and Serpentine: The Short Program. Great seeing you Monty!
If you haven’t attended an air show I encourage you to do so. We see and hear so much about what the military does but don’t generally have the opportunity to see it up close in such a setting. Of course the actual air show itself is something to see, but it’s the static displays where you can really learn and experience something new. From lectures on their technical capabilities to what they do on missions. Yes, some of this research has wound up in my screenplays such as First World and SOS United States.
In summary a special thanks to the 104th Fighter Wing and organizers of the Westfield International Airshow for another spectacular event. But more importantly it’s to the men and women that serve in our armed forces, the veterans and those that have made the ultimate sacrifice, that have protected this nation and our way of live from its inception. Without them there is no United States.
And so the new season started with a bang—literally. Yesterday I attended the Massachusetts Military History Exposition in Orange, MA. This is the second year this group produced this show. While last year focused on World War II, this year’s outing represented a timeline of military history. My favorite group was those representing the 16th century.
The group from the year 1528 called “Das Geld Fahlein” offered an excellent history on how troupes from those days were organized, compensated and fought. Imagine you are a knight in “shining armor” on a horse galloping towards several hundred of these 30 foot long spears and other types of sword defenses. It may have been low-tech even by 1528 standards but it did what it had to do—stop the enemy.
Another area of interest to me has been about communications and infrastructure during World War II. I talked to a few reenactors at the German camp about some technical aspects of how they communicated back then. The distance limitation in radio communication and the shelf life of the field batteries was very interesting. Needless to say, there’s always something new to learn at these events.
Of course the highlight of these types of events are the battle reenactments. While “Hollywood” would have multiple takes over a period of days if not weeks to shoot something like this, this is a one take moment. Once the action starts it just keeps going until there’s a victor. Yesterday was also the first time I used Facebook Live. I broadcast the World War II battle and had viewers all over the country. You can watch the video at this link.
But through all the uniforms and equipment of wars long past, there is the educational component of these events that’s so important. It is through events like this that one learns about the issues of those times and what brought yesterday’s societies to conflict and then peace. Like my experiences last year attending these events, it’s the reenactors that bring them to life. Their depth of knowledge and passion is what makes for a most enjoyable experience.
As so many of my projects have some sort of military component to the story, while I have a great time at these events, it’s all about networking and learning about the talent involved. Why on earth would I seek to hire actors, get costumes and source equipment from the ground up if I could reach out to one of these groups?
I am pleased to announce that Serpentine will have its world premiere at the Strand Theater in Clinton, MA on March 6, 2017! Serpentine will premiere after an encore screening of Justice Is Mind. For Serpentine this will be a first, for Justice Is Mind this will mark our 22nd screening. But it is the Strand Theater that give us our first theatrical break.
It was in 2012 and I was looking for a theater to screen Evidence, the short film version of Justice Is Mind. It was the Strand that gave us the opportunity to screen after J. Edgar. Over a year later Justice Is Mind had its Massachusetts premiere at the Strand. The same model is being employed for Serpentine: The Short Program.
A theatrical screening marks a starting point. A launch pad, if you will, into a greater marketing program. Everything in this industry is timing. It’s about striking while the iron is hot (even though the rink is cold!). For Serpentine the launch will take place between national and world figure skating championships. The goal, as it was with Evidence all those years ago, is to develop as much interest as possible to produce the feature film version this year for a 2018 release. Why 2018? The Olympic Winter games take place in South Korea next year. It’s about riding a wave of popularity post games.
With a running time of just over 12 minutes, we will be presenting the first 10 pages of the feature length screenplay. Serpentine not only features several of the actors and crew from Justice Is Mind and First World, but introduces actors making their debut performance. In the world of film it’s all about performance, what we see on the screen and how it comes together behind the scenes.
As for debut performance, it reminded me of a recent conversation I had with an aspiring actress and model. This week I signed with Dynasty Models & Talent for New England representation. Yes, it’s an exciting step as I continue to lay out some personal plans of my own. During my visit at the agency, the owner asked me if I had any words of wisdom for this actress. I first offered her the back story on how I was cast in a TV show some years ago but then went on to say how you have to want to be in this industry more than anything. No matter what you want to do, it takes a one hundred percent commitment and being able to weather continuous rejection. As I’ve stated before, this is an industry of no (or no response). But when a yes does come, it makes you appreciate your hard work all the more.
They say you are only as good as your last performance. While I agree with that to a point, I believe you are only as good as who you surround yourself with. This is an industry not lacking in advice, particularly from those you never asked. In my view it’s about working with those that want to showcase their efforts with you. I’ll just say this, it is not a coincidence that I’m working with a lot of the same people from Justice Is Mind and First World to bring Serpentine to life. This project also marks a reunion of sorts with a former business partner. More on that development later.
As for development, as an independent filmmaker, theaters like the Strand are important for our continued success. That being said, the Strand has established a GoFundMe campaign to restore and upgrade their wonderful marquee. For our screening on March 6 all ticket sales will be going to the Strand (no share of box office). As a filmmaker there is something special when you see your film in lights.
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.
There is nothing more exciting as a filmmaker than seeing your film come to life in a theatre. It is in that moment that the memories of its development and production come to light. The months you spent writing the script and the time it took to raise the funding to make the film. And just after you hear “that’s a wrap”, more work begins until you have a completed project. Oh yes, then there is marketing and distribution. Welcome to my world.
This past Thursday was the DCP screen test of Justice Is Mind at Cinemagic in Sturbridge, MA. Although I was more than pleased with our theatrical DVDs, the clarity and crispness of the DCP was incredible. We’ve screened at two of their theatres before, but this was the first time I saw a DCP of the film. Some of you may be asking, what the hell is a DCP?
A DCP is a Digital Cinema Package. It’s what theatres now generally receive from the studios, distributors and filmmakers. While I have yet to come across a theatre that cannot play a DVD, the default standard now is DCP. And my thanks again to the Chatham Orpheum theatre for making our DCP.
On August 18 Justice Is Mind will celebrate its 2nd Anniversary with a special event screening at Cinemagic. Although this will be our 21st screening, I treat each screening like it’s the first one. I still feel like a kid in a candy store when I see Justice come to life on the big screen. The day I don’t feel that way is the day I set sail from this industry. I was particularly reflective when I was reviewing the last five minutes of the film and the credits started to roll. When you see over 200 names and companies, you quickly realize it takes a small army to make a film.
But this is an industry that never rests. Since the world premiere of Justice in 2013, I have written the political thriller SOS United States and In Mind We Trust, the sequel to Justice Is Mind. The pitch process is just as much on the front lines now as it was when I was presenting Justice in 2011. Just this week, I pitched First World to a producer that I thought for sure would have been interested (Chinese investor). It was a quick pass. Instead he asked what else I have in my slate and is now looking at SOS United States and In Mind We Trust.
Just as Justice Is Mind came together, the same formula and efforts apply to my other projects. At the end of the day, not only do you need to find the right producing partners, but almost literally the planets need to line up just right. It’s one thing to follow a film market like Cannes, AFM and Toronto and read about X projects that got picked up, funded or whatever. What is never talked about are the countless projects looking for some sort of home. Thankfully, Justice Is Mind has found a home.
So as I ramp up marketing plans for the 2nd Anniversary screening of Justice Is Mind, writing Winds of Fall continues while presentations move forward on SOS United States, First World and In Mind We Trust.
This past week was a particularly exiting one for Justice Is Mind. Although we have been screening Justice at various venues since our world premiere in August, this is the first time we had two screenings in one week. One was our state premiere in New Hampshire at a theatre chain (Cinemagic) and another was our second screening in Maine but our first matinee (Railroad Square Cinema). For the first time since our premiere, I felt the enthusiasm the audience had for the film.
Admittedly the audiences at our previous screenings have been enthusiastic and very supportive, but for me it was simply a shift in what I was paying attention to. In New Hampshire it started when I saw Justice Is Mind on the digital marquee with a time slot under Hunger Games. And then while pictures were being taken with actors, crew and guests suddenly there it was – ticket holders were lined up to see Justice Is Mind. Believe me, seeing customers come in to buy a ticket to watch your film is very rewarding.
The same thing happened in Maine yesterday. I arrived early and was just chatting up the theatre staff when I picked up a mailer they had at the ticket counter. And there was Justice Is Mind’s write up right next to Philomena. No sooner did I finish reading the mailer then people started to arrive to see Justice Is Mind.
I can only speak from my own personal experience with this process, but this was the point in time when I felt we had arrived so to speak. Are we in a wide national release? No. But we are in a traditional limited release and gathering press along the way. Another great article appeared in the Union Leader this past week.
What I know all of us associated with Justice who were present at these screenings did enjoy were the numerous questions not only about the story but about the process of how a film is produced, marketed, etc. These were very enthusiastic audiences that not only want to watch an interesting story unfold on the big screen they want to know how it was all put together. Of course you can’t please everyone. I did hear someone say they didn’t like the ending. Oh well. In each of these two screenings I was sitting in the back of theatre just listening to the audience. When do they laugh, comment and gasp. I know from yesterday most didn’t see the ending coming…good!
With our next two screenings in Massachusetts on January 11 and 24 (with Connecticut on the horizon), the long range plan for Justice is a simple one – developing an audience so when we go to VOD/DVD and foreign markets we have a base of enthusiasts and a digital footprint.
That next step in the distribution chain isn’t one to be taken lightly and needs to be taken seriously. This past week I had to tell one distributor (and one pretending to be one) I wasn’t interested in doing business with them. The reasons are various but the point needs to be made – these are people you are going to be in business with for a long time just owing to the contracts involved so mutual respect is important. I can emphatically state, we are not desperate to do a deal simply to have a deal.
When I was at both of these screenings this week I was also reflecting on the number of people involved in making this project happen. It was probably because I was being asked by so many how a film comes together. In all honesty, and as I’ve mentioned this before, creating a film does take an army. This is why filmmakers are so passionate about their work because we know the legions of people that are involved in the process. This process isn’t restricted to those of us that created the film – it’s the theatres and their staffs, our event photographers, the media outlets and the audiences that breathe life into our work.
This past week there were a variety of reports locally and nationally about the industry. In the Hollywood Reporter there was a story about how the major studios don’t actually pay to make movies anymore they are more facilities, marketing and distribution companies. It has been true for some time. The studios mitigate their risk by partnering with production companies, investment funds, etc. This practice particularly picked up steam when capital was flush pre recession and especially post recession. As the majority of the major studios are divisions of multi-billion dollar companies, risk avoidance is what they now do best.
Here in Massachusetts, there were new reports on the building of film studios in Devens and in Westborough. For any of us in the region that is even remotely tied to the industry, we all remember the grand plans of Plymouth Rock Studios. Having recently just moved back from Los Angeles at the time I knew Plymouth was never going to happen. First, even with the tax credit benefits of the state (and they are nicely generous), there were simply too many empty stages in Los Angeles and unless you signed contracts with the production companies that supplied TV programming where on Earth was the revenue going to come from to support such an ad-venture?
Anyone that has worked with me knows that I am the consummate optimist. I strive to push the envelope until it gives, but in the end I’m a realist as well (I’m a New Englander after all!). When I see with these “studio” projects and the bravado of one person who claims mysterious sources of capital with a “build it and they will come mentality,” I just shake my head. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work that way in this business or any other business. If you don’t build a solid foundation to a business how are you going to support it?
The one thing we have in the New England region is great talent on both sides of the camera. This talent deserves to be involved in major projects not reaching for the crumbs when a BIG film comes to town. What film projects need is capital. Can you imagine instead of building all these buildings, a few million dollars in capital were raised to produce independent films with varying budgets? Sure as the budgets grow, you need to attach bankable (usually out of town) talent to sell your project domestically and internationally. But that doesn’t mean that after you secure bankable talent at the top (say 1-3 actors) the rest can’t be cast locally between talent and facilities in the region. Imagine a talented actor who is leading an independent film produced for under $50K and the project does reasonably well in sales. As that actor’s profile starts to rise at some point they may be the “anchor tenant” of a larger film. Just like in the studio system days long past, an actor, a cinematographer, a writer all had to start somewhere. The studios had smaller films to test talent before moving them to larger projects.
For anyone that’s produced an independent film you basically need to create a virtual studio to make it work anyway. Someone handles casting, locations, editing, marketing, distribution, etc. Why not seek to formalize it by raising capital to produce films under one virtual roof rather than build buildings and wait for product to come?
With the digital age we live in a virtual studio system is possible. Once enough films get into the distribution pipeline and the revenue stream starts, the foundation is there to eventually build a studio. When I started a magazine I launched it on the dining room table and eventually got an office once we had revenue to support it. It’s not a foreign business concept it’s a practical one.