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.
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.
For those that have ventured down the road of producing a film, there are numerous details to attend to. But one thing that is truly paramount is character and story background. This week I sent the actors and crew a multi-page document that provides not only the character backstory but terminology associated with the “First World” universe.
While Justice Is Mind was about mind reading, I honestly can’t expect actors or crew to read mine. First, I find the phrase “motivation” to be terribly overused. Rather, I like to give the actors and crew the big picture. It’s easy for a director to drone on about this or that or whatever. But when someone reads in black and white what the backstory is or universe they are in, it makes the process so much easier. It also fosters thoughtful creative input.
As for creative, this week also yielded some interesting conversations regarding costuming. In First Signal, four of the characters have very specific looks. Two are outfitted in Nehru styled suits, while two are Air Force officers. It’s the latter that saw the progress we were looking for. From discussions with an Air Force base military store to a costume company that outfits the military in my favorite TV show, the aim is to have these actors outfitted accordingly.
Speaking of actors, I received a call a few days ago from an actress that was beyond frustrated with the fact that she hasn’t secured representation. Is she talented? Yes. Does she have a solid resume? Yes. The one thing I stressed in this industry is that nothing is simple or easy. There are no shortcuts. And the one unwavering thing you need is patience. But comparing my work to yours or another actors is not the route you go. And when you start tuning out the advice you sought because you aren’t hearing what you want, you might need to rethink your career. This industry is waiting for no one, but it may respond if you have talent, a viable idea or a unique project (film or TV). I say may because I will quote the late Maximilian Schell, “This an industry of chances and luck.” Even after all his years of fame from Happy Days, Henri Winkler still auditions.
I do seem to be having good luck with the DJI Spark. I have to say this is a very smart drone. It takes a bit of getting used to operating virtual joysticks (there is an optional controller you can buy), but there’s so many flight options that are brilliantly automatic. At the end of the day all a filmmaker wants is a great shot.
Finally, I just finished reading James Comey’s A Higher Loyalty. No matter what side of the political aisle you’re on, this is an important read. In the hyper partisan, media obsessed world we live in, it’s too easy to make snap judgments without knowing or caring about the facts. That’s really what our country comes down to does it? Facts, truth and loyalty to the constitution of the United States and those that defend it.
Whenever I start the process of preparing a project for pre-production I start to breakdown the script. Every filmmaker has their own process, but for me I start on page 1 and list what’s needed apart from the characters themselves. Aside from the three locations and uniforms, the majority of the breakdown notes for First Signal is stock footage.
I’ve posted about stock footage before and its importance in film production. Without stock footage First Signal would only come to light with a significant seven figure budget. One scene calls for a “Helicopter Taking Off From Roof”. In the days before stock footage, such a scene would have to be produced. Now, it costs about $50.
For me the breakdown of a script brings the reality of production that much closer. Once that list is done, I just start to pull all these pieces together and check them off one by one. Of course, there’s always things that come up that seem next to impossible. With Justice Is Mind it was the 11th hour securing of an MRI center to shoot the pivotal scenes of the mind reading process.
The one thing I’m adamant about when producing a film (or anything for that matter) is organization. Nothing is worse than arriving on set and disorganization (or incompetence) seems to be the status quo. I honestly don’t understand it.
When I’m cast on a project I just do as I’m told. But I’m also observing everything. The one thing I have observed with these “large productions” is that there are simply too many cooks in the kitchen all trying to out maneuver each other. On a set there is only one cook, the director. It’s pretty laughable when a production assistant gives you direction opposite of what the director just gave you. Their look when I say, “Well the director wanted me to do it the other way” is priceless.
As for communication, next weekend I’ll be posting a casting notice on Backstage and New England Film for the characters in First Signal that have not been cast. Auditions will be in April. These next two months are going to very busy. The next Naval Justice School class starts on Friday for the next few weeks, then it looks like I’ll be casting for a major military exercise in April and May.
This morning I finished up the notes for the prequel to First World. The next step is to place it in Final Draft and iron it out. That’s generally the process I use when writing a script. I write out the scene structure and dialogue in Word first. I just find it 10x easier to make quick adjustments in Word before formatting in Final Draft. But when I take that next step in Final Draft that’s when the final story starts to take shape.
I’ve written a variety of scripts over the years. Some produced, some waiting for a deal, but this is one that I specially wrote to produce independently. In the end I’ve stayed with three locations and what will be a liberal use of stock footage. But unlike First World, I think this story has given me the opportunity to really create a solid backstory for two of the main characters. It also examines a presidency in crisis along with an out of control military leader.
As with Justice Is Mind, writing an original story is not easy. We receive our initial round of inspiration but then it’s up to us to figure out the rest. What I always aim to do is to have a beginning and ending in mind. Sure it may change some along the way, but if I have in mind the beginning of Act I and the ending of Act III, then I’m good to start. In my view an Act II should always be what I call “the mess” because that’s what the characters are trying to make sense of and resolve.
This story has a solid protagonist and antagonist. It was my goal to give each side not only a reason for their actions but the ability to carry them out. As a writer we wear many personality hats to create our stories. Many is the day when I thank God I’m working alone because I talk my dialogue out. I don’t think the strange looks from my cats qualifies as the need for being institutionalized, but if a neighbor randomly heard me talking like my characters I’d probably be visited by some sort of federal agency.
Once the first draft is done later this week I’ll be sending it to the actress that inspired me to write it. For me, it’s pretty easy to write a character when you model it on the actress that will play it. However, for the rest of the characters involved, one of my plans is for a table read. I never did that for Justice Is Mind owing to a variety of matters, not the least being the size of the cast, scheduling and time constraints. In the end that worked out fine. But with this project as the majority of the action takes place in a conference room and a field, it’s important to get the character interaction just right.
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?
On Thursday one of the most interesting projects I’ve been part of came to a conclusion. As I mentioned in my last blog post, I have been playing an NCIS special agent in the mock trial program at the Naval Justice School in Newport, Rhode Island. In all honesty, I can’t remember when I had so much fun on a project. Given a personal event I went through a couple of weeks ago, it was great having this project to stay focused on something else.
The very nature that this was a role play character in “Agent Ashburn” meant that I did a variety of research, from what NCIS actually does, to inspections on Navy ships to certain military procedures and associated lingo. And as the mock trial was about a sexual assault case, I needed to know what was involved in a SAFE kit, trauma, etc. Let me just say this, watching Law & Order: SVU helped!
There were numerous times when the students, whether trial or defense counsel, asked my character questions that generally weren’t in our background information. At some point in time these students will be practicing law in the real military and civilian world. With these mock trial programs counting for a significant part of their grade, I thought believability was important so having an additional knowledge base helped. As an actor it also challenges you to learn something new and to expand your horizons.
Another highlight was working with the other actors. This was most certainly a diverse group of talented people from all walks of life. Imagine fourteen actors who never met put in a room with no WiFi. While I know people that can’t fathom being disconnected, there was, ready, conversation and cards. From the mutual support of our respective characters to numerous card games, the days passed pretty quickly. At any moment a student would come in to take us out for questioning or testimony or the captain overseeing the program would check in and give us some additional background. I haven’t played cards in years, but one of my new favorite games is bullshit.
As for the personal event? A couple of weeks ago when I was driving to Newport my car hit black ice, went into a guardrail and then did a 180 degree turn back into the guardrail. Yes, in an instant I saw my life pass in front of me. While I thankfully walked away unscathed, my car was totaled. The support I received on my Facebook post was unbelievable. Black ice is terrifying, it doesn’t discriminate between a tank or car.
The ten year history with my Pontiac Solstice began when I bought the “Starship Voyager” in Los Angeles in 2006. At the time I was working on a national TV show. Suffice to say more than one well known personality has been in the passenger seat. I drove her across the country and she saw me through a variety of life events. But one thing is a guarantee, she is immortalized in Justice Is Mind.
On a closing note with the Naval Justice School, it’s always great to leave on a positive note expanding your network and making new friends. Something tells me I’ll be working with them again sooner rather than later.
As for Star Trek one of the actors discovered that I was in a Star Trek fan film some years ago and found the link on YouTube. For those that follow Star Trek there is that one word that sums up the status of a character.
When I was living in New York City in the 1980s there was ship docked a couple of avenues away that I would sometimes notice. In those days it was a dawn walk down 10th avenue in the morning on my way to Sky Rink before I went to work at Time magazine. That ship was the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid.
Last week I traveled to the city to spend the day at The Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum. I’m not sure if there is another museum in the world that offers an aircraft carrier from World War II, the Concorde, the Space Shuttle Enterprise and the Galileo shuttle from the famed TV series Star Trek. Needless to say among the array of exhibits there’s plenty to do!
When I was researching and writing both First World and SOS United States there was so much at the museum that touched on these stories. Not only do both involve aircraft carriers, the basis for First World is the 1960s space program and the return of the Concorde in SOS United States as Commonwealth One for the Prime Minister of the UK. It’s one thing researching a subject, it’s entirely another to experience them in real life.
Of course, being a Star Trek fan, I know the museum is getting a Star Trek exhibit in July. What I didn’t know is when I walked into the Space Shuttle pavilion I would see the Galileo shuttle from the TV show! I had just watched a documentary on the group of fans that saved this storied piece of TV history from a piece of discarded junk to a restored prop of broadcast quality. Yes, it was a total geek out moment seeing this iconic prop.
As for history, I remember seeing the Space Shuttle Enterprise on TV when it did its atmospheric tests in the 70s. Although I saw the Space Shuttle Discovery some years ago at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, the way the museum has the Enterprise displayed along with its related history and exhibits made the pavilion one of the highlights of my visit.
When I was at the museum I took two guided tours, Pacific War: USS Intrepid in WWII and Concorde a Supersonic Story. For the respective price of $15 and $20, they were wonderfully informative and were essentially private tours. For WWII it was another guest and myself. The tour was all the more interesting as the other guest was a veteran of the Korean War. If it wasn’t for those brave men and women that serve in our military, we would be living in an unrecognizable world today.
Having always been a fan of the Concorde, I saved what turned out to be a private tour until the end of the day. If you grew up in the 70s the Concorde was all over the news. Simply put she was so far ahead of her time that just to see the plane was a cool experience. I first saw Concorde in 1985 on my first trip to London as she was taxing at Heathrow. As I understand it from the terrific guide I had, this is one of the few Concordes in the world that you can actually go into. When I was sitting in the passenger seats I was just thinking to myself about the amazing conversations and deals that went down in the cabin during her time in service.
As for time, I met up with my former business partner Lois Elfman for a wonderful dinner at Bistro Citron (highly recommended!). I first met Lois during my days in New York City at the offices of the Ice Theatre of New York (for insiders Moira’s loft). As many know we went on to launch a newsmagazine for the sport of figure skating that we proudly built into the world’s largest with an “intrepid” team.
Speaking of building, I just completed the second act of the political thriller I’m writing around the sport of figure skating “If she skates the way she did at sectionals she’s going to worlds. And the Federation can’t stop it.”
In a few short weeks, Justice Is Mind will have its International Premiere on Cunard Line’s Queen Elizabeth. Indeed, for more reasons that I can count, I am looking forward to this trip. And with my PowerPoint filmmaking seminar completed and all the other details attended to, it just comes down to the final organization before I leave for Rome.
Justice Is Mind is now in the international market. Since our arrival on, VHX, Viewster and Amazon (with other VOD platforms to follow), our film has left its domestic home for an international audience. Our screening on the Queen Elizabeth will be the launch event. I cannot think of a more fitting setting than an ocean liner in the Mediterranean Ocean. For the first time in the history of the film, those in the audience will have no direct connection to the movie other than their interest in seeing it. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about as a filmmaker. Introducing your work to new audiences.
The process of marketing Justice Is Mind internationally started back in 2011 when the short film version was produced. Did I know where Justice Is Mind was eventually going to go? No, of course not. No filmmaker has a crystal ball that can predict the future. What we do have is hope, ambition and determination and work tirelessly to accomplish what we do.
But as I’ve learned from our theatrical screenings, reviews and articles, every film needs to have some sort of hook to target and reach an audience. Theatrical screenings have been pivotal to Justice. With each one I learn something new whether it be demographics or areas of the film that resonate with an audience. Live screenings give a filmmaker a chance to interact with an audience that VOD will never really be able to do. While VOD is the revenue generator for independent film, it’s the theatrical audiences that are the driving force.
There have been so many discussions on the pros and cons of theatrical and VOD, particularly when it comes to windows. I can easily see the point of the theatres. Why would they want a film to also be available on VOD the same day it’s released in theaters? From a filmmakers point of view, it comes down to revenue and getting a maximum return on a limited marketing budget. This is a conversation and debate that will long continue.
This past week I made a variety of presentations for First World and SOS United States. And while making these pitches, I offered a hook on why I think they are marketable commercial projects. For First World, there is a new space race between governments and corporations. For SOS United States, we have a global military coalition targeting a variety of worldwide situations.
But until those projects get funded, the marketing focus is on Justice Is Mind. Just yesterday a great mini-feature was published on Fraking Films. Always nice when a story starts, “Today I’m excited to share with you a great looking indie film called Justice Is Mind.”
Since Justice Is Mind premiered last August I’ve been interviewed by a variety of reporters. Whether they were about the legal aspects, the loss of privacy or the science fiction of the FVMRI procedure, each one of these interviews had a particular angle. For the record, I am beyond thankful for each article. As a former magazine publisher I know how inundated editors and reporters are from the countless pitches they receive. When they take the time to write about our independent film it makes this journey all the more special.
This past week I was interviewed by a reporter who asked me what my motivation was to make Justice Is Mind given how hard this industry is. My answer came quick, “To see it accomplished.” When one thinks of the numerous obstacles one must overcome to produce, complete and distribute a feature film, there is an innate sense of satisfaction seeing a project years in the making go from thought to screen. I remember sitting next to my best friend and her husband who backed the film in Albany, NY at our world premiere, and being beyond excited to see the start of Justice Is Mind on the big screen. Indeed, I know this excitement was shared with the over 200 people involved to make Justice Is Mind a reality.
As I’ve said before, I’ll say again, navigating this industry is not easy by any stretch. No matter what side of the camera you are on, the competition is endless. I shudder to think how many times we all heard the word “no” throughout our respective journeys. A couple of weeks ago when a parent asked me what advice I could offer his son who wanted to be an actor, I offered the same answer a producer gave me when I was 18, “You have to want this industry more than anything.” Watch the movie All About Eve when the character Bill Sampson sums up what it takes.
The next two months will be nicely busy for Justice Is Mind. With our Cape Cod premiere on September 18 at the Chatham Orpheum Theater, the Viewster Online Film Festival from September 11-25 and our international premiere on Cunard Line’s Queen Elizabeth on October 29, the journey continues. Part of this journey was the Chatham Orpheum Theater’s press release. Check it out at this link.
And while Justice Is Mind is introduced to new audiences, I continue to present First World and SOS United States. When I set out to write a screenplay, I write a story that’s interesting to me. Who would have thought that when Justice Is Mind was released that mind-reading and loss of privacy would be so front and center in the news. With First World it has been interesting to see where China is today with their space program versus when I wrote the script in 2006. As for SOS United States, who could have guessed that the military situations I presented in that story are so prevalent now. But putting that all aside, if it’s one thing I learned about investors, the pitch process is never the same as they all have different motivations. Adaptability is key.
The voyage continues.
I wasn’t at all surprised last week to see the news reports that the United States military was finding counterfeit electronic parts in its supply chain that have been made in China. Our politicians shouldn’t be surprised either.
America’s politicians are so busy worrying about, yet again, another election that the business of the United States and its position as a world power are quickly eroding to second world status. It’s automatic with our two-party system – we just can’t have a politician talk about the importance of the business of America we have to have their party affiliation tacked on. Guess they aren’t worth listening to unless you can identify them as a D, R…or maybe even…dare I say it…I.
So what’s happened these past couple of weeks? China has not only launched a military reconnaissance satellite but successfully accomplished its first “space docking” in Earth orbit. Sure, the United States and then Soviet Union accomplished these great feats in the 1960s, but we can’t forget why they succeeded in the first place. Both our countries were knee-deep in the Cold War and were determined to best each other no matter what the cost. The result? Through our paranoia of each other and our ideals, we developed technology and related advances in science that have greatly benefitted all of mankind. History is being repeated all over again.
Why are we, the United States, not fully cooperating with China? Oh, wait, that’s right. China has that awful record of human rights violations. Sure, I’ll give you that China fails on a variety of fronts in that arena, but is the United States any better? Let’s see, we have unyielding unemployment, poverty, riots in the streets, protestors in most major cities, our veterans that defend our democracy are treated horribly and in the center of it all a two-party political system that is driving a knife through the very fabric that made this country great and a world power in the first place – innovation.
America it is time to innovate again. Not just domestically, but globally. It’s time to abolish this ridiculous sanctions limit on aeronautical engineers cooperating with the Chinese. Is our country so naïve to think that the thousands of engineers that have been furloughed from America’s space program are going to wait around for a D, R or I to get things moving again?
America you can have your cake and eat it too. You know you are capable of negotiating anything and everything when you want too. You’ve done it before you can do it again. Remember what President Reagan said “Trust, but verify.” That’s all we need to do with China.