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.
From finishing the latest class at the Naval Justice School to National Guard role playing exercises at Joint Base Cape Cod, the last six weeks have been a whirlwind of activity. But perhaps the most anticipated was last weekend’s auditions for First Signal.
Every film has its origins. First Signal can trace its back ten plus years ago when I wrote First World in 2006. After three screenplay nominations, the production of a short film version, over twenty screenings at sci-fi conventions around the world, that project was at the twelfth hour of funding with a production company attached only to see the economic collapse in 2008 hit the entertainment industry like a rocket explosion. Anyone that was around at that time and working in the industry knows what it was like. But in the end it’s called survival.
It was First World that gave birth to Justice Is Mind. The psychological sci-fi courtroom thriller with mind reading at the center of the story. When I was writing notes on a sequel story to First World, it was the development of a mind reading computer called CENTRAL (Computer Encoding Neuro Transmission and Library) that found its way into Justice Is Mind. In Justice the computer program was called FVMRI for Functional Video Magnetic Resonance Imaging. The rest, as they say, is history when Justice Is Mind was produced in 2012 and released in 2013. My goal since 2006 was to create a new sci-fi franchise around the “First World” universe. With First Signal the aim is to do just that.
Like Justice Is Mind, I wrote First Signal with the intention of producing it myself. Sure, one can pitch to “the industry” and wait…and wait…and wait. Or, take the bull by the horns and get it done. The key is to find enthusiastic actors, crew, location partners and a host of others to see the vision through. To say I am pleased with the auditions from last weekend would be an understatement—I was thrilled.
But first and foremost I want to thank actress Patience McStravick for inspiring me to write First Signal. If it wasn’t for our conversations last fall during our time at the Naval Justice School about a story that largely takes place in one room, I doubt this project would be where it is today. Then it was her introduction to talented filmmaker Daniel Groom. Patience starred in his film They Don’t Know (highly recommended!). With Patience and Daniel on board, First Signal was moving forward.
Auditions commenced last Saturday at the Nashua Library in Nashua, NH and then moved to The Verve Crown Plaza in Natick, MA on Sunday. Some I cast in my past films (and were good friends), some I recently worked with between the Naval Justice School and National Guard. Others I didn’t know. But prior to all this, some parts were already cast. There are times as a director you just know you can offer a part to someone without an audition.
Kim Gordon as the President of the United States was my immediate first choice for this role. Her portrayal as District Attorney Constance Smith in Justice Is Mind was brilliant. I wrote the Major Ellen Sampson role specifically with Patience McStravick in mind (Patience is an Army veteran as well).
But there was one actress that I wanted to bring back to the “First World” universe. It was in 2006 and I was getting ready to produce the short film version of First World. The short called for a Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. An actress by the name of Lindy Nettleton submitted. She arrived at the same time actor Jeffrey Phillips did who was auditioning for the role of the President. They both read for the parts together outside an elevator bank at the hotel I was staying at while I recorded it on my Palm Treo! During their reading I truly thought they were heads of state (Jeffrey also appeared in Justice Is Mind as George Katz). Although I stayed in touch with Lindy throughout the years, I had no idea if she would be interested in reprising this role after a decade plus. When she said she would play Allison Colby I was beyond elated! First Signal was coming full circle.
But the circle was complete with last weekend’s auditions. I could not be more excited to work with such talent. I invite you visit to First Signal’s IMDb page to learn about the talented group of actors in this project. For those that know how I promote, you’ll be learning more about them the weeks, months and years ahead.
This past Friday I finished my fifth class playing an NCIS Special Agent in the Naval Justice School’s mock trial program. When I first started in this program back in December 2016 I was simply cast as an actor, given background information to learn and literally jumped into the deep end of the pool. For those of you that have been following this blog for the last year, you know how much I enjoy this assignment. It’s important work. Not just for me as an actor, but for the school, the students and the military.
Now that I direct and supervise this program for the government contractor the responsibility level elevates. It’s not just important that I do my job as an actor, but I need to insure that others are doing their job as well. As a director my goal is that they present a strong performance on stage and off.
This round was particularly special for me when a recently retired NCIS Special Agent joined our group as an actress playing an “NCIS Special Agent”. Obviously, she brought a wonderful perspective to the part and was a joy to work with. But when she presented me with an “official” NCIS challenge coin, well that just made this round all the more exciting. But rewarding for me came at the end when I was getting ready to leave on Friday. One of the students walked up to me and thanked me for the work I did. Likewise, I thanked him for his service and the work he is doing. In the end, that’s what this is all about.
But as for out and about, it wasn’t all business. I had time in my schedule to visit the Audrain Automobile Museum to see their latest exhibit. If you find yourself in the Newport, Rhode Island area, I highly recommend a visit.
In regard to visiting, I will be at the Joint Base Cape Cod for a National Guard training exercise on April 6-7 and 10-11. To quote from the registration link for those interested in being a Casualty Role Player, “The training exercises will simulate an emergency response to a manmade or natural disaster including a structural collapse and/or nuclear, biological or chemical incident.” I will be there in a production capacity. To learn more, and to be considered as a Casualty Role Player, please visit this link.
It’s hard to be believe that auditions for First Signal will soon be here. With auditions set for April 14 in Nashua, NH at the Nashua Library and April 15 in Natick MA at the Verve Crowne Plaza, we have some great talent scheduled.
With First Signal being the first installment of what I hope to be a franchise in this “First World” universe I created a decade ago, the challenge is finding the right actors for the right parts. I’ve been fortunate over the years to work with some wonderful talent. Actors that are not only great at what they do on camera, but a joy to be around when the cameras turn off. That’s vital when casting a film. Because long after the last “cut” is heard and the cameras are turned off, it’s on to promotion and marketing.
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.
Last week I had my first pre-production meeting on First Signal. That meeting was with an actress friend I met last year at the Naval Justice School who inspired me to write the story. She will be playing one of the starring roles. At some point this week I will be posting for actors relative to a table read.
As we both talked about last week, what’s exciting is building a project from the ground up. I fondly remember the days when I first heard actors saying the lines I wrote for First World. But it’s when it all comes together for a feature that project takes on a different scope. Those pre-production meetings for Justice Is Mind were involved to say nothing of the number of auditions. While it’s important to cast the right actors for a role, I believe it’s equally important they are enthusiastic about the story.
When one considers the number of projects looking for attention, enthusiasm is critical. Anyone that has been part of my projects knows that I push them (and everyone involved) as far as possible. As leadership starts from the top down, so does enthusiasm. Let’s be honest, nothing is worse than working with someone on a project who is a Debbie Downer. This isn’t about drinking the Kool-Aid, it’s about having a positive attitude.
Speaking of positive developments, all the actor contracts came through for the next class at the Naval Justice School in March. I’m looking forward to a class reunion with some as well as working with new actors I cast in the project. What’s particularly exciting is that we have a retired NCIS Special Agent that will be playing an NCIS Special Agent. As I said to her this week, your resume reads like a Tom Clancy novel! But in all seriousness, it will be great to work with someone so knowledgeable on the subject.
As for knowledge, I’ve been seeing a wide variety of reports relative to First Signal. From buildings on the Moon to alien spacecraft taking off, it certainly helps when you see mainstream media reporting on a project you’re developing.
What I think is great about the independent film world are the sheer number of opportunities and distribution outlets now available to filmmakers. But that doesn’t mean putting all your eggs into one basket. Case in point The Sundance Film Festival. This article in Variety pretty much summed up this year’s festival and market.
I honestly can’t imagine producing a film in the high six or low seven figures and counting on a festival to bring in a distribution deal. When you consider how fractured audiences are now, producing something esoteric or polarizing isn’t going to secure a mainstream distribution deal. As I mentioned in an investor pitch this week, “while it’s easy to source the past performance of other films, we know there are simply no guarantees in this industry when it comes to a financial return.” And while there are no guarantees, why limit yourself geographically when there’s a whole nation out there looking for unique stories? That’s what audiences want, a solid story.
SPACE – LAGRANGE POINT TWO
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.
This month marked one year since I was hired for a role playing character at the Naval Justice School (NJS) in their mock trial program. Since that first class last December my character and responsibilities have grown. There’s even been a change in the government contractor that administers the contract. But through it all, it has been an amazing experience.
The majority of projects I have worked on the last twenty years have largely been one day or multi-day projects (particularly for film projects). But this recurring opportunity is not only important work for NJS but greatly contributes to our acting experience and respective networks.
While a few of us are original to the program, the majority have been part of the program since March. For me it feels like a traveling troupe of actors with our audience being the students and our stage being the courtrooms of the school.
For this round I was directly responsible for bringing on new actors. As I mentioned to some of them this past week, when I receive a resume I always try to find some sort of six degrees of separation or similar project. One of the actors had previously done a mock trial program at Harvard, so that was a no-brainer.
In my view it works when an actor is open minded to the process of one of these role playing characters and gets along with other actors. The latter may sound a bit obvious, but it’s probably the most important because we spend so much time together. When I think of the amount of socializing we did this time it confirmed that we had a solid group for this round.
The one thing I can’t emphasize enough is the networking part of it all. When I was doing background on a film earlier this year, one actress and I hit it off and she was the first one I thought of when filling one of the larger roles. With another, I came up with the idea for an original story with her in one of the starring roles. Another one of the actors has been enjoying a successful run in Rhode Island theater circles and some of us plan to see him in his latest play next weekend. But there is one actress that I’ve worked with since last December, that sadly won’t be returning this coming March as her husband has been transferred to another military base.
When I first met Helen last December, she was so positive, with a constant smile and eagerness to help others. It didn’t take long for us to become fast friends and when I was in Newport this past summer we caught up over lunch.
So many of us are coffee drinkers with constant walks to the kitchen or the Starbucks on base. Helen, who isn’t a coffee drinker, suddenly arrives with a coffee maker, filters and coffee! As we were all struck with amazement and gratitude her response was along the lines of, to make our day easier. On our last day this week Helen wrote each of us a personal note. This wasn’t email, but a handwritten note!
Helen’s generosity, kindness and talent is something all of us should strive for.
Last week I hit page 30 on this prequel story to First World. The title and logline came to me about halfway through this initial draft. With notes for the next two acts generally outlined, I’m aiming to have a first draft completed in January.
It’s always interesting how these new projects start. The idea came to me in September when I was at the Naval Justice School (NJS) talking with a couple of the actors about developing a new story. For the last two weeks I’ve been back at NJS with most of the students returning for this next class.
For me it comes down to motivation. If I’m not motivated to write a story, it just won’t be written. I firmly believe that environs make all the difference. When you are around other creative types and engaged in the kind of work you enjoy doing, it’s amazing how ideas start to generate with collaboration bringing new opportunities.
Of course it’s one thing to write a screenplay, it’s another to produce it. This one is being written in the same fashion as Justice Is Mind, to produce independently without pitching to the industry. While there’s obviously nothing wrong with the industry pitch, that process goes in fits and starts. Hot one day, cold the other. Ask anyone in this industry and that’s just the way it is—if you take the traditional route.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, it’s one thing to produce a feature film, it’s another to promote it. I have to know if I’m OK devoting the next 2-5 years of my life developing and promoting a project. Justice Is Mind was literally a five year commitment. From screenplay (2010), short film version (2011), production of the feature film (2012), release of the film (2013) and marketing (2013-2015). I still promote Justice of course, and I continue to pitch the sequel, In Mind We Trust, as the basis for a TV series.
The “First World” project is about developing a franchise. It always has been. But commitment is important in this industry. It’s not just about making the film, it’s about staying with it for the long haul. As I learned with the short film version of First World and Justice Is Mind, you never know where a project can take you. It was a series of pitches that saw First World have a premiere in India at their The First Ever National Discussion on Science Fiction and Justice Is Mind having its international premiere on Cunard Line’s Queen Elizabeth.
The creation of a new story is always an adventure, a journey into the unknown. Believe me when I tell you, it’s a trip worth taking.
The weather in Newport last week could not have been nicer. On the drive home Friday, I was reflecting how fast time flies and the weather we had last December and March. Let’s just say it wasn’t very cooperative from black ice to blizzards! But this round could not have gone smoother. From the trials at the Naval Justice School where fourteen of us participated as role players in their mock trial program to evening festivities and touring, it was a great time all the way around.
As I discussed with one of the newer actors to the program, this is probably one of the most unique acting gigs they will do. It’s one thing role playing a character, it’s another interfacing with over sixty students, instructors and leadership at the school. It’s that depth of involvement that has many of us returning for every class.
But with another class over, it’s time to return focus on to other projects. That new idea I mentioned in my last blog post means I will be firing up Final Draft this week. While I won’t go into the premise just yet, it will largely be a one location drama. The genre—science fiction.
As a writer my ideas come from a particular moment or experience. With Justice Is Mind it came from writing the sequel to First World. For this story, I had a basic idea for it last year and wrote down some thoughts placed in a folder called, brace yourself, ideas. But it was over the last four weeks at the Naval Justice School when I started to think about it again and talked to one of the actresses who I already have in mind for a part. Perhaps it was also the fact that fourteen of us are either in a classroom or a courtroom that the idea started to blossom.
Like I told this actress, I generally can’t start writing a story until I have an ending in mind. I need to know where the journey will eventually end. Now, that may change at some point, but it’s something to work towards.
As for the genre, the numbers I’ve been gathering over the last several years just reaffirm the market interest in science fiction. Ten years after its release First World is still generating revenue. The psychological sci-fi of Justice Is Mind, combined with a dramatic story arc through a courtroom, is what brought audiences to theaters and now online.
But for this weekend it’s time to decompress from the last four weeks. However, I will leave you with one word that will be mentioned in this new story…
The hotel is booked. The luggage is packed. Around noon I’ll be leaving for a week. This is the week of the mock trials and are the “performance” days. But unlike a theatrical or film premiere, no tickets are sold. There’s no public audience. But when all is said and done, all of us involved take our performances out into the real world.
Having played this character for the third time, there’s always something new to learn. Some new process, procedure or training an agent will need to know. Or an area of law that will be focused on. It’s one thing writing a legal drama like I did with Justice Is Mind, it’s another to be on the witness stand being questioned and cross examined by an actual lawyer. In a screenplay I know where the dramatic arcs are. I never know when they are coming in this setting!
So often I hear about this acting class or that acting class. This technique or that technique. I see actors obsess about learning this secret or that secret to acting. In my view I’ve always liked the way Anthony Hopkins has described the process, “I just learn my lines.” In the case of the NCIS Special Agent I play, I need to know my background and statements. I then research certain areas of law and procedure that may apply and then visualize the setting.
As for settings, while I’ve worked with most of the actors and staff from the school before, it has been great working with Monty Lyons. As some of you may remember, Monty played a police detective in Justice Is Mind and did an excellent job in the role. In this program Monty and I play the same character. Owing to the structure of the program we don’t often see our characters performed by other actors, so when I saw Monty play the role the other day, it was interesting to see his take on it. If I was to score his performance from the old figure skating scoring system, I’d give him a 6.0!
Finally, reuniting with some of these actors has brought forth some new ideas for projects down the road. Looks like I’ll start writing a new screenplay next week.
Although fall doesn’t officially start until the 22nd, for most of us in New England, it starts after the Labor Day weekend. While I like the summer, I love the fall. It’s also the time of year when I tend to be the busiest.
This week starts another class at the Naval Justice School. In addition to falling back into my character as a Special Agent of NCIS, I’ll also be directing the mock-trial program on site for the agencies that retained us. I have to say this is one acting job I always look forward to. As the majority of the same actors have returned from the previous class, I think the same can be said for all involved.
What makes this a unique gig for actors is the ability to play a character for 11 days. As these are role-playing parts, once you have the situation memorized it makes for a great opportunity to really bring a character to life. The atmosphere of the school alone is what makes it engaging as a performer.
As for law and engagement, I learned this week that Kinonation, our distributor for Justice Is Mind, secured another outlet with Udu Digital. From their email to me, “Udu is an ad supported (AVOD) streaming service available on the Roku media player that’s used by over 13 million people every month in the US.” It’s always nice to see another outlet picking up my first feature film!
And feature film is what the fall is also about. With the Toronto International Film Festival in full swing it’s always interesting to see what deals are struck. One film that did great was Chappaquiddick with a $20 million commitment. As a Massachusetts resident most of us know of the story chronicled in this film. It will be interesting to see how this film does in the state versus the rest of the country. At the end of the day the Kennedy name is nationally known. So that alone will carry some of the marketing.
But name and marketing will be key with one other film that is gaining substantial traction at the festival. That would be I, Tonya starring Margot Robbie. While the film has been well reviewed, it has been reported that the film arrived to the festival without distribution. Of course that may have already changed, but the real question is this – what are the commercial aspects to one of the darkest moments in figure skating history?
In addition to being at the event in Detroit in 1994, I know some of the players involved (Nancy Kerrigan in particular). I was also interviewed for ESPN’s The Price of Gold documentary in 2014 about the incident. Part of me says this story has already been told…countless times. Is this the only story that figure skating can tell or could this mean a broader interest in movies around the sport? It’s impossible to tell at this point. And, you guessed it, I’m monitoring these developments because of Serpentine.
Finally, I wrap up this week’s post with a great piece of artwork from Daniel Elek-Diamanta. This is the sound wave from Justice Is Mind, Daniel’s first composing gig. He wanted a unique wallpaper for his computer. I’d say he struck the right chord!
This past week served to be an interesting one not only working with a variety of actors on the set of a movie filming in Boston, but in the selection process for the third outing at the Naval Justice School in September.
When the inquiry came in from the casting company about background work, I was interested because they also wanted to use my car in the film. My first Pontiac Solstice appeared in Justice Is Mind. My second, if it makes the cut, will appear in I Feel Pretty. I particularly liked how they “dressed” my car with New York State tags.
But like the first time I did background work, it’s an opportunity for me to meet new actors and crew. I also wanted to see how they staged and used cars in a large scale production. With the camera setup, it didn’t take long to figure out why the cars were parked across the street.
As a director of course I take this all in on numerous levels. For me it’s like a vacation. I don’t have to worry about anything except showing up and doing what I’m told. Sure I felt a bit like Captain Kirk in Star Trek: Generations, but this wasn’t my ship I was just part of the crew. I will say this, the catering was excellent. Yes, I will judge your production, film or whatever by the type of food you serve. And if it ends with a great cup of coffee, that’s another star in my book.
But booking is where things turned for the next class at the Naval Justice School. As Site Supervisor, sort of like director, I don’t make the final casting decision but I do recommend. As I mentioned to an actor earlier this week, “Those decisions are made in Washington.” It wasn’t gravitas on my end, the agencies that book the actors are based in the D.C. area.
I am always happy to recommend talent for other productions. If I’ve worked with you and the relationship was a positive one, those recommendations come easy. But if someone I know recommends an actor I haven’t worked with, I’ll forward the information if I like what I see with the caveat that I’ve never worked with this person before. This entire industry is a network. You never know who knows who and it is a terribly small world. It is that small world of industry contacts that had me sign with a new talent agency in New York this week.
While I have representation in the Boston market, I’ve been looking for a national reach for a few months. Let’s just say that some of the conversations and meetings have been beyond interesting and make for great cocktail conversation. But in the case of this new agency, we knew the same talent from a show I worked on over ten years ago, FOX’s Skating with Celebrities.
My point is this. It’s important to be nice whenever you can. Yes, there are sometimes difficult if not impossible people in this industry, but no gig lasts forever. This is an industry of moments and you only get one chance to make a first impression.
In this industry it’s all about building a brand. It’s when to say yes to a project and when to say no. And while we all like to get paid for our services, there are some things that transcend remuneration and that’s awareness. When I’m approached about a project my first consideration isn’t money it’s about building my brand. I always ask myself if this project is going to help build towards something bigger down the road.
Yes, there are plenty of “exposure only” opportunities. There are many times I’ve said yes to these types of projects because I knew it was going to be another building block on my brand. I knew by doing it, I was either going to get some great exposure, tape for my reel or some other solid representation of my work that I would be proud to promote. But of course not all these projects are the same. Like those with a narcissist director who is only interested in promoting their own agenda while ignoring those that helped along the way (they’re called actors and crew).
When I set out to produce a project I’ll be the first to say that sometimes they don’t pay much, but what the actors and crew get in return is sizable promotion in addition to a copy. From traditional to social media, if someone is going to throw their hat in my ring, it’s important that I bring them as much promotion as possible. Everyone knows the deal from the start and you are either on the same page or you aren’t.
As some have noticed, I tend to work with the same people. We see this all the time in the industry. A producer or director that has their reliable stable of actors and crew they can count on. Of course, we always expand our network with each project. There were some outstanding actors I worked with last month at the Naval Justice School that I hope to work with in another project.
I believe this is why when some projects are announced (particularly independent films) most of the key parts are already taken. It’s not because a director isn’t interested in new talent, it’s because limited resources means they need to be able to count on tried and true talent on both sides of the camera. This is where building a reputation is just as important as awareness. Some years ago it was a culmination of awareness and reputation of national TV appearances that eventually led to a starring role on a network TV show.
If you’re going to choose one of the hardest industries to break into, I think it’s important to build your brand to be known for something. Because once you are known for one thing, you can build it into another.
As the venerable Hannibal Lecter said, “Shall we say dinner and a show?”
Before we finished working at the Naval Justice School (NJS) several of us agreed to get together to see a play one of our fellow actors was in. Phoenyx Williams was certainly pulling double duty. Playing an NCIS Agent along with me during the day he would then travel back to Providence for nightly performances in the “Post-Electric Play” Mr. Burns (by Anne Washburn). Williams played the “electric” Mr. Burns.
But before the play, we met up for dinner at the excellent Federal Taphouse & Kitchen. Although it was exactly a week since we last saw each other at NJS, it was great catching up with new friends and sharing some interesting stories. I’ll just say this, lots of laughs! Of course the director in me is always mindful of the clock and we were soon on our way to the Wilbury Theatre for a 7:30 show.
Although most of us had been briefed on the synopsis, we honestly didn’t know what to expect. The premise from their website states, “After the collapse of civilization, a group of survivors share a campfire and begin to piece together the plot of “The Simpsons” episode “Cape Feare” entirely from memory.” It started at the campfire and then went on to two additional acts with two intermissions. I have to confess, I’ve never watched The Simpsons.
As a writer, producer and director I’ve certainly created experimental work. But with experimental work comes risk. While the story wasn’t for me (as one of the actors in the play said to me this play is either for you or isn’t), the acting, writing and production itself was excellent. Although I didn’t care for the story, the execution was brilliant and the actors are wonderfully talented. The “fun” highlight was when the actors moved the audience (we were on risers with wheels!). In conclusion, the third act was owned by Williams. He nailed it.
Whether it’s stage or film, this entire industry is an experiment of some sort or another. I applaud anyone that creates an original work and doesn’t try to duplicate someone else’s efforts. I hear time and time again from filmmakers and actors who try so hard to be like this filmmaker or this actor. How about creating your own brand? You can be sure that I want to see what Anne Washburn comes up with next and I’ll be following these actors!
As for next, this past week was also about reorganizing my projects. With Serpentine: The Short Program released, my focus goes back to promoting that project along with In Mind We Trust (the sequel to Justice Is Mind), First World and SOS United States. I say now what I’ve said before, projects do not come to fruition overnight. It takes abject dedication to bring a work to life. Whether that be a play, movie or performing career.
But with every new experience comes a new idea.
A visit to an estate. Military trials at a naval base. A meeting with the Prime Minister. No, this isn’t the plot for a new screenplay (although I have some ideas), but what my last couple of weeks have been like in Newport, RI.
I discovered Newport back in the early 1980s when my mother first brought me down to the seaside city. Touring the mansions and learning about the Gilded Age was something to see for someone who grew up on a farm. It was two decades plus later when I struck a deal with The Preservation Society of Newport County to photograph Nancy Kerrigan at Rosecliff. It’s hard not be awe struck at the majesty of these great “cottages” and imaging the grand parties of days long past.
Although I’ve toured all the mansions, I haven’t visited The Elms since those early days. The self-guided tour is a nice improvement from the live tour guides. It lets you go at your own pace and learn about additional details that time doesn’t permit with a guide. It seemed fitting to my Newport visit that The Elms was built for coal baron Edward Julius Berwind who supplied coal to the Navy. Because back to the Navy it was for the last few weeks.
Last Thursday I finished working at the Naval Justice School as an actor in their mock trial program. This was my “second tour” at the school. While I’ve been fortunate to have a variety of interesting opportunities in the industry, this by far offers not only the ability to act but to learn something in the process.
First, there are generally no set lines per se rather a scenario for your character with action points that must be adhered to. In my view it takes role playing to a whole new level. While there’s a highway and destination for each character, it’s the exits along the way that give the character and the entire scenario depth.
But for me it’s the atmosphere and the importance of the assignment. Yes, I’m working with other actors, but our primary interaction is with the officers, students and staff at the school. In other words this is real life. The students that attend the school are generally all lawyers and graduate from this program for military postings all over the world. Suffice to say we take it seriously. You can learn more about the Naval Justice School at this link.
What was nice about this “tour” was not only working with some of the same actors from the first assignment but meeting some new talent as well. The actors I’m pictured with here at the school are extremely talented. I had the opportunity to see some of them perform their character and they had me believing they were living that person.
Of course I was watching with my director hat on. Because who knows what project I may be working on next or have the opportunity to recommend an actor that is both talented and professional. Just as when I produce my projects, I want to work with actors that understand the word “team” without striving to become the center of attention off stage.
As for talent, I had the wonderful opportunity to visit with Lindy Nettleton who invited me to her play reading group. Lindy, as some of you may remember, played the Prime Minister in First World. I’ll still never forget her audition. She arrived with the actor who was auditioning to the play the President. We couldn’t find a quiet place for their audition, so what did these two professionals do? They got into character outside an elevator bank and read their lines…brilliantly!
Finally, for those of you that are car enthusiasts, I highly recommend the Audrain Auto Museum. A must see!
Whenever I secure a theatrical screening, one of my goals is to obtain local press to bring awareness to the event. Sure, there’s the requisite social media engagement and Facebook event. But there’s nothing like securing media placements. This week the Sturbridge Villager wrote a terrific cover story on Serpentine and our upcoming premiere at the Strand Theatre on March 6. Not only did reporter Olivia Richman capture the essence of the film, but my background in the sport and passion for filmmaking.
It is about passion when a theatrical screening is on the horizon. For the thousands of independent films that get made every year only a sliver receive any sort of theatrical release or even one time screening. To fully capture that exposure I always seek to have the events “officially” photographed. I’m delighted to report that David Bruno of David Bruno Event Photography will be our official photographer for the evening.
Further to the above it also simply comes down to organization. By the time the day of the event arrives my aim is to actually enjoy the evening rather than running around at the last minute trying to rectify something. This is why I no longer participate in some third party events unless they are produced by professionals. I recall one science fiction convention I was at five years ago when despite my assurance that they had a DVD projector, screen and speakers set up, they didn’t. Compounding the issue was some volunteer lecturing me that their failure was my responsibility. Understand these words, if you dare to put on the hat of producer it is your responsibility to make sure things run smoothly.
As for distribution, next week I transfer Serpentine: The Short Program to the Ice Network. I have to say it will be great to see Serpentine on both Amazon Prime and the Ice Network. With Amazon being available to over 60 million and the Ice Network reaching figure skating enthusiasts around the world, the VOD distribution plan will bring the awareness this project needs to develop as a feature film.
Of course all these efforts with Serpentine remind me of the days when I first produced Evidence which led to production of Justice Is Mind. In some ways it seems like it was years ago (it was), in others it seems like it was yesterday. Because if it’s the one thing I endeavor to do is to promote my projects at whatever stage they are in. There are regular updates to Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, pitches for development, media and presentations for distribution and screenings.
Over the course of any given week I get Google Alerts on various subjects I track. One of them, no surprise, is for mind reading. When I received an alert for a recent article in MustTech News I pitched them Justice Is Mind for coverage. I was delighted to receive an email from them about a wonderful review they posted yesterday – “A must-watch film for those in love of thrill and science fiction!” That works!
And it’s back to work next week at the Naval Justice School in Newport, RI. I have to say I’m looking forward to falling back into the character of an NCIS Agent and working with some new actors and JAG students. Out of all the performance work I’ve done, this is the most unique. Not only is this a great acting opportunity from a role-playing point of view, but you learn something in the process about how the legal services work in the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard.
Back to base.
From the World Figure Skating Championships to the Naval Justice School, 2016 has been a whirlwind of a year. And between these events was the figure skating political thriller Serpentine. From script, to production to media coverage, Serpentine has certainly set the stage for 2017.
I’m never one to make New Year’s resolutions. Instead I look at what was accomplished in any given year. For me, there needs to be at least the creation of a new project or perhaps some interesting acting or on camera work. Thankfully for 2016 there was a bit of both.
Of course we had this thing in the United States called a presidential election. But you can’t define your entire existence over who won or lost. Putting aside that it narrows your world and opportunities, the country goes on no matter who wins or loses. The great thing about the American presidency is every four years we change hands (sometimes). As Scarlett O’Hara would say, “After all, tomorrow is another day.”
As for another day, post production on Serpentine is moving right along and on schedule. We are into the second draft of the edit and I signed off on the opening credits VFX sequence yesterday. And generally speaking a good amount of the film has been scored. The post-production process of any film (short or feature), takes coordination. Are all the parties on the same page? Is communication flowing from one department to the next? I’ll say this there is a comfort level working with the same parties that brought Justice Is Mind to life.
In addition to Serpentine, 2017 will usher in some personal changes. I renewed my membership in SAG-AFTRA a couple of months ago for a variety of reasons. Let’s just say I see more trips to NYC next year. One of the benefits to membership is being able to vote in the SAG Awards and getting DVD screeners. Like the election, I’ll just leave it as what film isn’t getting my vote.
But for any given year it comes down to moving the needle just a bit in the direction I want to go in. I don’t try to push for the “all or nothing” approach as that can just set you up for disappointment. Do I outline goals for the near year? Certainly. Are they resolutions? No. Frankly, I’ve never understood those that proclaim with all the caps they can on social media at the start of any year that they’re going to quit X or move to Y! Um, how about just do it for yourself whenever and see where it goes. You won’t know until YOU try not when your “friends” approve.
Sure there’s been some disappointments this year. It wasn’t all champagne and caviar. But there’s no point dwelling on the past or those that tried to check all these bags of drama onto my ship (sorry we’re full up!). Like the car accident I was in. As I thankfully walked away, you just move on (cue Scarlett O’Hara again with score).
In closing it was great to see the reach of this blog across the world for another year. Your support of these words is very much appreciated. And to you and yours across this great planet…
Happy New Year!
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.
This past week I have received some curious inquiries on why I checked in on Facebook to the Naval Justice School in Newport, Rhode Island a couple times this week. Over these next few weeks the school is conducting mock trials as part of their student training. I’m playing an NCIS agent. When you consider my interests in the military (the Navy in particular) and having written and directed Justice Is Mind, you can imagine my enthusiasm in being part of this project.
This is not like a stage production or even a film. In those mediums you generally stay in character for a set period and memorize a script. There is no script here. Instead, you are given a substantive background on your character and their actions during a particular time period. And, like any legal proceeding, you are given a variety of statements and other evidence to take in and, yes, memorize to the best of your ability.
In one example, I was in front of a class of students who asked me countless questions over an hour relative to the case. By example, “What were your impressions when you interviewed X” “When you interviewed X about X, what did they say?” Again, there is no scripted answer. Of course, the key is to be consistent in your statements as the students can reference what you say.
I believe these role play opportunities are some of the best training actors can have. Not only do you have to create a world for this character, but background elements as well that fit into the narrative facts of the story. I’ll say this, it has helped that I’ve done live television and public speaking in the past. With this opportunity, I’m speaking to anywhere from five to fifty of various military rank as well as civilians. The atmosphere itself compels you to take the process seriously. There are, however, some moments of levity and the staff and students at the school are very welcoming and supportive. You can learn more about the Naval Justice School at this link.
To put this in an entertainment context, most have heard of the TV series JAG and the movie A Few Good Men. But as those projects had a Director this has a Captain that directs the process. It’s been pretty cool learning what an NCIS agent really does. On another movie note, I can’t help but be reminded of the court martial scenes in The Caine Mutiny.
As for entertainment, Serpentine is in post-production with the same team that delivered Justice Is Mind. At this stage of the process, while they are doing their work, I’m planning the marketing program and distribution plans for the film’s release in early 2017.