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.
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.
If you’ve seen Justice Is Mind, First World or Serpentine: The Short Program, you know I don’t shy away from using multiple locations to tell my stories. I’ve been very lucky with my productions to secure some unique locations.
Each one of those projects had one or two critical locations. For Justice Is Mind it was a courtroom and MRI facility. For First World it was a presidential suite and a horse farm. For Serpentine it was a figure skating complex. Each of those locations brought gravitas to their stories.
For this new project, my aim is a simple one. Keep the story largely contained to one interior room and one outdoor scene. My goal is both for story and cinematography. With the primary story taking place in a windowless bunker one of my inspirations is Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder. For those that have seen this classic, the story primarily takes place in an apartment. As that film was first produced as a play, it largely makes sense that it would be confined to one location.
This new story is a prequel to First World and revolves around one particular meeting. While I would obviously love to see First World produced, I also know that it’s a science fiction epic that would require, while maybe not an “epic” budget, certainly one in the seven figures. For this project, the aim is to contain production costs for independent production.
While Dial M for Murder is one inspiration, another is Fail Safe. The scenes in the Pentagon’s “war room” worked on a variety of levels. What I particular liked was the rear projection that was used to display the military crisis between the United States and U.S.S.R. Because this type of “special effect” was produced while the movie was being photographed, it saved time in post-production.
With a good amount of my research completed, I’ll shortly start the writing process. The fall and winter months are my favorite time to write an original story. Believe me, it’s the cold weather that will set the mood for this piece!
This story will revolve around a particular signal intercept and how certain government and military officials are responding to it. To give you an idea of the conflict in this story, I’ll borrow a quote from Valkyrie, “This is a military operation. Nothing ever goes according to plan.”
With the crew coming together and over 100 actor submissions this past week, pre-production on Serpentine is moving along. With Northstar Ice Sports confirmed along with a private residence, the last location I’m working on is a conference room that will serve as an FBI meeting. Filming dates have gone out for one of the last days in October to the first few in November. To say there are a thousand details when putting together a film is an understatement.
When Justice Is Mind formally went into pre-production in May of 2012 I had three months to organize what ultimately became securing 15 locations via trade arrangements, 100 plus actors and a crew of over 17. Thankfully every star in the universe lined up correctly and those that worked on the project went above and beyond the call of duty. But make no mistake about it, there were issues that came up. Things that needed to be dealt with on a day to day basis. There’s no such thing as a perfect world in filmmaking but resilience and innovation has always been the key.
The one thing that I always find rewarding about this process are those that come out wanting to help. For First World it was the securing of a horse farm, for Evidence it was being allowed to film in a house, for Justice Is Mind it was the LAST MINUTE securing of an MRI center, for Serpentine it was an ice rink. As a filmmaker the one thing that drives us all forward is enthusiasm. Nobody is saying you have to come to set with pom poms and break out into a cheer, but there should be the want to create and be part of something. To quote the IMDb videos, there are “No small parts”.
What I have learned over my twenty years of experience is that everything we do in this industry is cumulative. Some parts are small, some are starring roles. Some parts pay extremely well, some cover gas (maybe). But when you put them all together it’s what you call a body of work.
All my work resulted in the production of Justice Is Mind. This past week I was reminded about the many theatrical screenings we had for my “freshman” feature. When I look at the pictures of us from those screenings and recall the work and dedication of so many, it’s events like those that make the journey all the more worthwhile. Yes, making a film takes time, dedication and resources, but it’s knowing what you create will far far exceed the time to produce it in the first place.
As for time, today I looked at the past 12 weeks of minutes watched on Amazon. When my three films have been watched for over 120,000 minutes in that period it further justifies what I do as a storyteller and filmmaker. While making a film is exciting, the joy comes in those that watch it.
Last Sunday my friend Kim Merriam and I went on a day trip to Newport, Rhode Island. Aside from knowing Kim since we first met as teens at the local figure skating club, Evidence and Justice Is Mind were both shot at her house. As I’ve toured every Newport Mansion at least twice, I left it to her to pick which one to tour. She selected my favorite mansion – Rosecliff.
Rosecliff is particularly special to me. Having first visited the mansion with my mother in the early 1980s and being the location for The Great Gatsby and other films, we photographed Nancy Kerrigan there for the cover of the figure skating magazine I used to publish. It also gave me some additional ideas for the political thriller around the sport of figure skating that I will be formally announcing this week with the launch of the website.
In the story there are two starring characters, a champion figure skater and the president of the national governing body. While the former has been struggling financially, the latter, in addition to her skating responsibilities, runs a multi-national industrial concern. The setting for her estate should be a grand one like a Rosecliff. On a side note, in early 2017 Rosecliff will be featuring an exhibition to all the films that have been shot at the mansion. That will be a must see!
As an independent filmmaker, it’s about laying the foundation for all aspects of a new project well in advance. From visiting possible locations to talent, crew, etc. This week I began reaching out to colleagues I used to work with regularly in the sport to introduce them to the project before the announcement. It was one thing when I went to World’s this year in Boston telling people I had an idea, it’s another to send them a completed script.
It was great working with Adam Starr over the last few weeks to create the first concept poster of the project. In addition to being an Emmy Award winning cinematographer, I’ve worked with Adam since my days as a magazine publisher. From producing my first corporate video back in the day to his special effect work on Justice Is Mind, he really knows how to take an idea and run with it.
When he created the official poster for Justice Is Mind, my idea for the concept was pretty straight forward. I wanted to incorporate an MRI scan along with a picture of Henri Miller looking towards the future and the reincarnated Wilhelm Miller looking towards the past. He pretty much got it on the first pass.
Writing an original story takes time. It is not something that is just thrown together for the sake of rushing a project to market. For me it’s about developing and creating a project that’s long remembered after its initial release. Isn’t this the whole reason why we get into screenwriting and filmmaking – to tell original stories?
For those that follow me on social media you’ll see me post a “Now watching…” comment usually followed by a film produced between the 1930s and 1970s. I gravitate towards those decades as that’s when original stories were told to great fanfare without the special effects being the story. Thankfully with the democratization of the film industry from production to distribution, filmmakers have the opportunity to tell their stories outside the Hollywood system.
INT. ICE RINK – OPENING CREDITS
As I prepare to release a clip from Justice Is Mind, I was reminded again this week that the entertainment industry is yet again going through a transition. With another VFX production house leaving film, state tax credits in flux, online streaming pioneer Hulu up for sale and companies like Tugg and Gathr gaining traction for theatrical release of independent films, the word transition seems appropriate if not nearly descriptive enough of the change sweeping through the industry locally and throughout the world.
In today’s day and age of real time change with social media, it seems like everyday someone is presenting a new way to finance, produce, distribute, market and publicize a film. There is a race to embrace it all, to discover that new magic formula, to make money, to reinvent the wheel of a century old industry. But in the end, you do have to produce a quality motion picture and be cognizant of the real world. I honestly wonder who is involved in some of these new backward film “ventures”. In a leading industry trade this week, some moron actually said with bravado in an overly produced video presentation it’s harder to distribute your film than get it financed. Seriously? And you live on what planet?
Bottom line, if the industry survived United States v. Paramount Pictures in 1948, it will survive anything being thrown at it now. For me, I believe this is one of the most exciting times to be a filmmaker. In our hands we have the power to produce and distribute economically. Our work can be seen by audiences. Of course that doesn’t mean that there aren’t challenges when evaluating all these new transitional ventures. For me it comes down to being practical. If I’m going to actually pay you, what are you going to do for my film? Don’t give me smoke and mirrors, because I’ll bring one of those large wind machines and you will be…I’ll just say it…Gone With the Wind.
With Justice Is Mind I see the premise of the story itself going through an interesting transition from science fiction to fact. As most know, I was inspired to write the story after seeing a 60 Minutes broadcast about ‘thought identification’. Once I put the feature into pre-production and spoke to Dr. Marcel Just at Carnegie Mellon University (the scientist who was interviewed on the 60 Minutes show), he mentioned that they have been quite “busy” since that 2009 taping and that the science fiction I postulated in Justice could be reality “within seven to ten years.” My reaction was the same as Constance Smith’s in Justice, “Now that’s fascinating Dr.”
But when I read this week that researchers in Japan have built a mind reading machine using MRI technology and the Obama Administration is seeking $100 million to unlock the secrets of the brain, suddenly I’m seeing a favorable “market” transition towards revenue. Naturally, I’ll be sure to send President Obama a DVD screener of Justice Is Mind. You think I’m kidding? I did send Laura Bush a copy of my first book Frozen Assets in 2002 and received a lovely letter from her. To quote a former president, let me make this perfectly clear, it’s not about politics it’s about promotion.
And that really is what this industry has always been about – promotion. From the studio system of yesterday to social media today, it’s all about promoting your film. Thankfully, in today’s electronic world independent filmmakers have those economic tools to promote (For a fleeting moment I’m imaging what David O. Selznick would have done with a Twitter account!).
So while the physical product of film may be made up of stills, we know this is an industry that doesn’t sit still.
It was Saturday, October 13 in the middle of the afternoon. I was sitting in the jury box at the Massachusetts School of Law thinking to myself for a few moments as I watched the scene unfold in front of me. For this particular scene I didn’t need to sit behind the cameras, I wanted to watch from another angle. The actors and crew knew what they were doing. But for this moment, I wanted to see the story I wrote two years ago come to life.
About a week earlier I reorganized the production schedule to end principal photography of Justice Is Mind with this scene. I wanted to conclude our weeks and weeks of work with a pivotal moment in the story that involved as many of the actors as possible. For anyone who has worked on a film set, there is a certain camaraderie that builds between the actors and the crew. I believed ending with a scene of substance was in order.
Scene 74 was the bail hearing of Henri Miller. Played by Vernon Aldershoff in the short film, Evidence, and having reprised his role for the feature, I could not be more proud of his performance. The complexity and depth he brought to this character is what truly makes a writer/director smile. Sitting behind him was Henri’s wife Margaret Miller. Played by Robin Rapoport in the short film and back for the feature, this is an actress whose performance range is inspiring. I should know, I played opposite her in a film last year and didn’t even recognize her when she auditioned for the short film version!
In this same scene were the other two co-stars of the film. The wonderfully talented Kim Gordon who played District Attorney Constance Smith brought a dynamic to the character that had me wishing I wrote more dialogue for her. And then there was Paul Lussier who played Henri’s lawyer and friend John Darrow. The passion he brought to his character made you feel for his client who appears all but guilty of the crimes he was charged with.
Behind the cameras (we generally used a two-three camera set up) were two of the most talented people I know. Jeremy Blaiklock, our director of photography, who I worked with on Evidence, set the example through his dedication and creative approach to photographing the story. And then there was Jared Skolnick who while originally signed on as our still photographer brought his artistic talents to bear with additional angles. Suffice to say, the coverage we achieved was impressive. I’m also happy to say that Jared is serving as our editor.
So it was at the end of Scene 74 when a voice inside me said “Cut!” rather automatically for the last time. It was then that Kim Gordon turned to me from her desk and said, “Well, the magic words!” For a fleeting second I just looked at her in confusion then said “Magic words? Oh…That’s a wrap!”
And with that, Justice Is Mind wrapped principal photography. I know I can speak for all of us when I say, what a ride it has been! 15 locations, a crew of 16, 35+ speaking parts and well over 50+ extras. Justice Is Mind is independent film at its finest. We proved that when outstanding talent on both sides of the camera come together, anything is possible.
But in addition to the cast and crew of Justice Is Mind there are the locations and sponsors that made this endeavor not only possible, but will present a quality on screen that will put this film on the same playing field of any studio level production.
As we enter post-production you can look forward to stills, posters, the trailer, the launch of the website and all kinds of promotion as we build up to the world premiere of Justice Is Mind in 2013.
To the actors, crew, location partners and sponsors, I say thank you again for not only believing in the story, but in me. I know how much time you gave up and how many schedules were reorganized. But on that last day of principal photography, we didn’t just pull a rabbit out of a hat with what we accomplished; we brought magic to the world of independent film.
As some of you may remember, I was cast in a short sci-fi film last year titled Approved by Durjaya. Set in a dystopian future in which people are segregated by their job, I am pleased to announce that Approved is having its premiere in Boston this evening. I look forward to catching up with the actors and crew and seeing the final result of this work.
In regard to screenings, Justice Is Mind: Evidence will have its fifth presentation at Balticon 46 on May 25. I’m delighted to announce that Vernon Aldershoff, who plays Henri Miller, will be joining me at the screening and for the Q&A immediately after. I always enjoy the Q&A sessions after a film an what an audience sees. When you are part of producing a film you see the end product one way, but an audience can have an entirely different “take.” But at that point to quote Bill Sampson in All About Eve, “…you’re in a tin can.”
For so many reasons I’m looking forward to Balticon and my visit to the Washington, DC area. At Balticon I’ll be speaking on and moderating a variety of panels. Prior to the screening of Evidence on Friday, I’ll be reading from some of my past works. I think I may read from First World: Covenant the prequel novella I published last year. As First World had its first screening at Balticon five years to the day of Evidence, bringing back First World seems appropriate.
On Saturday May 26, Balticon attendees will find me on the Self-Publishing, Casting Calls, Screenwriting/Directing, Low Budget Filmmaking, Hi Tech v Low Tech panels and an autograph session in the afternoon. I’m excited about these panels, because I know there is so much talent out there that wants to get their product to market. Unfortunately, the entertainment industry doesn’t make it easy and there are countless misconceptions that I think sadly preclude many from putting dream to paper. As Gerald Simmonds, former executive of the World Space Commission in Space: 1999 said, “The impossible just takes a little longer.”
Regarding science fiction, I was talking to one of the country’s leading neurologists last week about the sci-fi in Justice Is Mind where MRI technology can read memory in video form. As he stated to me, “Your timeframe is pessimistic.” My response included a bit of a pause when I said, “Well from today how long do you think it will be until MRI technology can read memory in video form?” When he responded 7-10 years I was simply amazed. But on hindsight, it all makes sense. In my view, mankind is reaching towards an apex of understanding when it comes to not only the science of inner space (the mind) but that of outer space as well. One does not have to be a neurologist or rocket scientist to see that as we come to better understand our universe, there is a clash with those groups (often religious based) that are frightened of the truth. I seem to recall the Vatican having a field day with some guy called Galileo.
Of course, before Galileo there was another wonder called Leonardo da Vinci. One can only imagine what that great mind of his envisioned when he designed an early glider. While he may not have imagined the glide of the Space Shuttle Discovery, I can say with all fact that I can’t wait to see Discovery at the Smithsonian.
As for a longstanding dream of my own, I learned last week that nothing is impossible it just took a little longer.