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.”
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 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.
I’ll never forget the day Adam Starr brought his drone to the set of Justice Is Mind. When I wrote the part in the story that called for a drone, I count myself lucky that Adam had one. In those days (2012) a drone for an independent film was a novelty. Adam had recently purchased a drone for a commercial shoot so thankfully he had one. As you can see from the image below, he did a great job. And with his VFX skills he transitioned from drone footage to special effects seamlessly.
Last weekend was a bit of a drone adventure for me. After my successful shots at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center earlier in the month, I went to a WWII event at Battleship Cove. I go every year, but this time I brought my DJI Spark. Although I’ve been working with the drone for a few months now, I never really put it through the paces. The image above was from the drone’s maximum height (without the remote controller). Yes, “Big Mamie” is a big ship! To watch the video, click this link.
The next day I went to Newport, RI and toured The Breakers. Although I took a picture of Marble House with the drone when I was at one of the “Cars & Coffee” shows, I had yet to video one of the Gilded Age “summer cottages.” After the tour I started to envision what I wanted to see from this great mansion that was the home of Cornelius Vanderbilt II. For those that remember the opening credits of Dynasty, that was my motivation. To watch the video, click this link.
To answer what some of you may be thinking, yes, I always get permission to film at museums and the like. The drama you hear about drones is pretty much nonsense. Operating a drone is like driving a car. It’s called practice and being responsible. If I’m not sure about something, I’m not going to try it. One of the cardinal rules is pretty simple—always be able to see your drone. Today’s drones have so many wonderful features built right into their programming. For mine, I can just tap “return to home” and that’s exactly what it does.
As part of SOS United States takes place on the USS Massachusetts, I’ve always wanted to do some filming at the museum. My interest in The Breakers was obvious. What filmmaker wouldn’t want to film such a grand residence? Because these two locations are so unique, my aim was to get two different looks if you will. But there are those moments when you kick yourself. I was approaching the low battery warning and had one more chance to get a shot at The Breakers. I hit “tap to fly” and the Spark was moving forward nicely. After a few moments I hit return to home. But I forgot to hit record when it was flying! Thankfully, I had enough footage.
Of course I originally purchased this drone for First Signal. Although actor and crew scheduling conflicts meant moving the film to 2019, this actually gives me more time to experience the capabilities of the Spark. There’s lots to shoot in the region!
As for First Signal, SOS United States, and my other projects, I always have a plan b. This November I’ll be traveling to the American Film Market. I haven’t been to Los Angeles since Justice Is Mind had its west coast premiere in 2014. It will be great to make new contacts and visit with friends and colleagues from my days in “Hollywood.”