Last night I attended the world premiere of Daniel Groom’s Alternate Ground to a sold-out crowd at Chunky’s Cinema Pub in Nashua, NH. Although Dan has directed several short films, this was his feature film directorial debut. Alternate Ground’s combination of sci-fi and horror worked brilliantly in this UFO abduction film. While watching Alternate Ground unfold, I was reminded of some classic sci-fi and horror films from the 1970s and 80s that I adore. I don’t know if that was his intention or not, but from a marketing point of view it was a brilliant combination of classic film with contemporary storytelling. Suffice to say it was well done.
Prior to the film’s start, Dan remarked to the audience about the importance of independent film and the filmmakers that bring them to life. The word “sacrifice” doesn’t even begin to describe what the filmmakers, cast and crew do to bring art to the silver screen. I promise you the passion in a truly independent film such as Alternate Ground is 1000x more than any studio could achieve. Last night you could see that passion on screen and from those attending. It’s that passion that drives the independent filmmaker to continue pushing forward to do one thing – create.
Some years ago, I was asked by someone why I work so hard on my film projects when the promise of a return is nebulous at best. I simply responded, it’s a story I need to tell. This person continued to press me on the subject until I finally said something on the order of, it’s people like me that create what you see on TV, in the theatres and the books you read. Without creatives there is no substance to society. Without creatives life is just black and white with no color. The person that was pressing me was someone who, sadly, works a terribly boring job. And while I can say I’ve worked many boring jobs in my life, you must find the time to be creative, to express yourself in whatever medium that brings you, and hopefully others, some joy. To Daniel Groom, his cast, crew and partners, you brought a great amount of joy last night.
Liftoff of the trailer for First Signal went off without a hitch. To put in in space terms, we are now in low Earth orbit. A special thank you to WMUR, Athol Daily News, Greenfield Recorder and Britflicks for reporting on the trailer. We’ll continue orbiting until First Signal is released and we venture into deep space. OK, enough with my outer space analogy on releasing a trailer!
Two weeks ago I had several browsers open with the trailer ready to be published. Did I spell the title of the trailer correctly? How does the formatting look for the email newsletter? Once I proofed everything for what seemed like a tenth time I finally entered the commands to go live. When the time came everything worked. But it wasn’t for a lack of planning. The organizing and release of the trailer took about three months. It wasn’t just about the actual video file of the trailer but all the marketing around it.
When you are an independent filmmaker your team is small if not but one. There’s no marketing communications group to handle this effort. Oh sure, you ask people to read this or double check that, but at the end of the day the responsibility is yours. Like it always happens before I launch something, I think of the steps it took to get to that point. It all started as an idea at the Naval Justice School in Newport, RI in 2017.
Up until that point I honestly never thought I would be revisiting this First World Universe I created. First World, the script, came out in 2006 with the short film version following in 2007. With the global financial crisis in full swing, it was next to impossible to get a film financed. At one point, just before the collapse, the financing and production teams were in place. But then, seemingly overnight, financing fell out of the markets and that was the end.
Slow but sure the markets recovered. A filmmaker friend of mine knew about my frustration with getting First World made and challenged me to write something that I could film on a true indie budget. A moment that involved mind reading in the sequel I wrote for First World turned into Justice Is Mind. The rest, as they say, is history.
Shortly after the trailer was released, I started to receive interest from sales agents and distributors I didn’t meet at AFM. I have to say that was very encouraging. The whole goal of a trailer is to “sell” the feature. As I can well appreciate how inundated these representatives are, the fact that they are even interested at this point bodes well for the project. What kind of deal will ultimately emerge? That’s really impossible to tell as there are numerous factors involved.
While post-production continues with an end of April (early May) completion date, marketing of the trailer continues, while I plan for the release of the feature and presentation to sales agents and distributors.
On a closing note, I’m aiming to have a draft of the sequel to First Signal completed before the film is released. To turn a military phrase, it’s about preparedness.
I cannot begin to thank the actors, crew and location partners enough for making First Signal possible. When I started to write the script a few years ago, I really had no idea that the story was actually going to be produced. Then moment by moment, meeting after meeting, First Signal became a reality.
There were so many fits and starts during the pre-production phase I wondered if we were ever going to lens those first scenes. But through patience, perseverance and planning, principal photography started last May and wrapped in July. The post-production team of Daniel Groom, Daniel Elek-Diamanta and Adam Starr have been working feverishly to bring First Signal to life.
While pre-production and principal photography are obviously important, the real magic happens in post. It’s in post that one takes the time to insure that quality is always top of mind. For it’s quality that distributors are looking for. When I was at AFM the discussion wasn’t so much about “stars” but about the on screen production value. In essence, how does the film look and sound.
Now that the trailer is out, marketing begins again in earnest. The months of planning for this day are now here. Marketing is something I truly enjoy. If you believe in what you’re selling you can pitch it to anyone. This is where the three P’s (patience, perseverance and planning) come into play. If someone you pitch your project to says no, you just keep moving down the line. For Justice Is Mind, I must have pitched over one hundred theatres, in the end twelve screened the film. Had I given up after I heard what seemed to be the endless “no”, the limited theatrical run never would have happened.
Given the challenges independent filmmakers face on a daily basis, the release of a trailer is another reason to celebrate. It proves that like-minded people, with very busy schedules, came together for a singular purpose – to create a motion picture – to create a piece of art. Over the next few months the final pieces to the feature film puzzle will be completed. In ocean liner parlance First Signal is being “fitted out.”
Welcome to the First World Universe!
Yesterday I ran into a colleague I hadn’t seen in few years. The first thing he asked me was “How’s the writing going?” I told him about First Signal and a few other things going on. As he runs a successful business in Worcester, I asked him how the salon was. He responded “Busy.” I really didn’t have to ask him that because I know his salon is always busy. He’s been working on building his brand for years.
It took some years to build my brand in figure skating and equally as long as a writer and filmmaker outside of the sport. Building a brand isn’t something that happens overnight. It builds from one project to another. However, we now live in a world where people think that having a large social media following is a brand. Social media, in my view, is great for amplifying what you’re doing in the real world. But without a foundation of something, it’s just likes.
When I started to revive the First World Universe to write First Signal a few years ago, I realized after reviewing all my original material and the media we had at the time, that I created a unique brand. One with its own voice. With First Signal I finally had the opportunity to present this world as a feature film. The first in what I hope to be a series of films in the First World Universe.
With the trailer nearly complete, the marketing train will soon be leaving the station. Once it leaves it can’t come back. While post-production has been going on in earnest with countless notes with the editor, composer and VFX artist, I’ve been working out the marketing plans for the trailer and ultimately the feature. All of us on the post-production team know how important it is for the trailer to present the film. At the end of the day it’s about selling the feature.
As for the First World Universe, I’m just over the thirty-page mark for the sequel. This is the story that takes place before the events in First World. In my view, writing a sequel is no easy feat. You must balance the established characters and their stories with something new. I think one of the most interesting sequels was 2010 from the legendary 2001. Starring Roy Scheider, John Lithgow and Helen Mirren, 2010 created a wonderful “what if” possibility.
In the sequel to First Signal the following dialogue happens in the Oval Office
“Exactly. Now he’s operating covertly and illegally. If you lose and Reager legitimately controls the military and his commander in chief is complicit, history books won’t judge your actions today, because they’ll be none left. It will be the end of civilization.” – Elisabeth Seward, National Security Advisor to President Helen Colton
That dialogue derives from actions around Operation Troy in First Signal.
“General if I sign this. What’s the objective of Operation Troy?” – Helen Colton, President, United States of America.
“Identification.” – General John Reager, Commander, Air Force Space Command
This week I write the draft press release and email newsletter to announce the trailer. As for when the trailer will be released? Sometime in February
On Thursday I returned from my second attendance at the American Film Market (AFM). By all accounts, it went well. This year I was accompanied by Daniel Groom, First Signal’s director of photography and editor. He was also representing his own feature film Alternate Ground.
My attendance at AFM in 2018 was generally a fact-finding trip and learning how a film market works. Yes, I had meetings, but it was more to promote projects in development, like First Signal, and to represent my first feature film Justice Is Mind. It’s important to note that AFM is not a film festival. Yes, AFM has screenings, but they are mostly for buyers and sales agents. AFM is one of a handful of film markets around the world. Simply put, these markets are where deals are done for independent filmmakers.
Preparing to attend a film market is the same as pre-production on a film – preparation. You research who you want to meet, make a pitch and hope for a meeting. Like an actor preparing for a part, you rehearse, memorize and have talking points. If you can’t articulate your own film, it’s hard to expect sales agents and buyers to take any interest. In a curious twist, I was in a meeting when someone wanted to present their film regarding locations they were looking for. Oddly, they couldn’t really present the logline or what the general concept was.
I would say my last meeting at AFM was the probably the best one of the market. First, they were specifically looking for films like First Signal. I met with the principal of the company and two representatives. In their suite, I was able to make a complete pitch for First Signal. From development, production to goals for a series of films in the First World Universe. I stressed the importance of marketing and kept an open mind on their points, some of those points being working with them to plan for a rollout in upcoming markets.
There is another point that’s stressed at AFM and that’s professionalism. From scheduling meetings in advance to how to introduce your projects when you don’t have a meeting scheduled. All in all, my experience was positive. But here I was in a booked meeting with a sales agent when another filmmaker arrived, interrupted my meeting and pretty much insisted the agent give them a few minutes. The agent mentioned they were in a meeting, but this filmmaker didn’t care. I just looked at this filmmaker blankly taking it all in. When the agent returned and apologized, the first thing I said was you don’t need to apologize for someone else. I’ll just say this—it’s all about first impressions.
In the end, AFM 2019 was a great market for what I was representing. This industry is rapidly changing from an economic point of view. The differences between 2018 and 2019 were apparent and stark. It’s truly about being adaptable and going with the flow. Having worked in the publishing industry, I’ve seen the advent of digital change. I knew some years ago that VOD/streaming was going to truly be the primary revenue driver for most independent filmmakers. That reality is now here.
But as you will see from my pictures, my trip wasn’t all business. From the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, to the Queen Mary, Griffith Observatory and the USS Iowa, I always enjoy my visits to “Hollywood.” I also discovered a new navigation app called Waze. Given the traffic challenges in LA (although I think they’re worse in Boston), I highly recommend it!
The one thing about preparing for a film market is that it makes the process of filmmaking all the more real. It compels you to organize your marketing materials and position your film for the market, from building a website, to sales cards, to online profiles, stills and any other materials that showcase your film. The adage, if you build it they will come, doesn’t work in this industry (or any other for that matter). It’s not enough to make a film, you have to tell the world about it.
When I was organizing my home office yesterday, I found a variety of sales materials from last year’s AFM. I found a sales card for one film that at the time was in post-production and represented at the market by a well-known production company. When I looked the film up on IMDb, it was still in post-production and that production company was no longer affiliated with it. There could be a thousand reasons as to why this film is still in post or the company that was representing it no longer is. The one thing I do know, is there needs to be a Plan A, B and so on.
I was reminded through Facebook memories this week about the numerous screenings we had for Justice Is Mind. The year following our release in August 2013 was a very exciting time. Not a month went by when there wasn’t some sort of activity, be it a theatrical screening or media report. The apex of Justice Is Mind was our international premiere on Cunard Line’s Queen Elizabeth ocean liner. There was a moment during that cruise when I was standing on deck reflecting on the journey Justice Is Mind took to get to that moment. Suffice to say, it’s important to stay focused, believe in your project and move past any and all naysayers.
With First Signal now past the halfway mark in post-production, I see what opportunities lie ahead. But I can’t help but think of the journey it took just to complete principal photography. Despite the substantial challenges we faced in pre-production (too many to list!), First Signal eventually found its dynamic locations and talented cast and crew. If this process was easy everyone would be doing it. To quote President Theodore Roosevelt “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.”
To the outsider, they see a film and think it comes together magically. They generally have no idea what it takes to go from script to screen. When I attend the American Film Market in four weeks, I’ll come across hundreds of films each with their own unique story in various stages of production—all looking for a home. For me, this market will be one of many interesting ports First Signal visits.
With this post, I’m pleased to present two additional stills from First Signal and The Ashton Times AFM 2019 poster representing my projects.
This past week the pitch process for First Signal began in earnest. As long as you follow the process outlined by the American Film Market (AFM), it’s pretty straight forward. There is so much that goes into getting ready for a market. For the last few weeks it’s been about updating my websites, building First Signal’s official website and preparing other marketing materials. They say you only get one shot at a first impression, so why not give your best one.
Post-production is moving right along. The film is nearing the halfway mark with a rough cut, with the first twenty minutes generally scored and color corrected. It’s these twenty minutes that’s being pitched to interested parties at the AFM. I can’t say enough good things about the post-production team of Daniel Groom, Daniel Elek-Diamanta and Adam Starr. The post-production process is highly detailed exacting work. It requires organization, patience and diligence. Traits, I’m happy to say, that we all have. But there’s something else none of us have, an ego that gets in the way of working together. To turn a phrase from McDonald Walling (William Holden) in Executive Suite, “In your own words, Shaw, I have only one interest around here – the good of this company.”
With this post, I’m releasing an additional still that introduces the mysterious Cedric Yonah and James Griffin. Titled “When Worlds Collide,” it follows the previously released still titled “Who are you?” In that still we saw General Reager and Major Sampson looking at someone. Now we know who they were looking at. It is from this point forward in the story that the tension in First Signal builds to a revelation that leads into the sequel.
It’s hard to believe that in six weeks I’ll be back in Los Angeles. It’s even harder to believe that it’s been over ten years since I lived in the city. Like so many of us that are part of this industry we are drawn to LA for its magnetism with the word “opportunity” in the air. While I loved my years living in New York City, it’s Los Angeles that always feels like my second home when I visit.
I was living in LA when I wrote my first screenplay First World. What was the genesis that gave me the idea? It may have been all my visits to the Griffith Observatory. For it was an event at that famed institution when I had the honor to meet Ray Bradbury. For the few minutes I talked to him and told him how much I admired his work, he asked me if I was a writer. I told him briefly about First World, he smiled, shook my hand and said graciously, “You keep writing.”
Now that First Signal is well into post-production it’s about the marketing plan. Part of that plan is the launch of an “official” website. Unlike social media that gets your news out quickly, I view a website as the central source for a brand or in this case a film. For those of you that followed Justice Is Mind, you saw how the website started and then built out during the post-production and distribution phases. When you consider the number of films looking for attention during any given year, you really need all the tools you can to make yours known. I am therefore pleased to announce the launch of First Signal’s official website https://www.firstsignalmovie.com/ Enjoy!
As I was telling a fellow filmmaker yesterday, when it comes to marketing your film you need to be relatively relentless. Unless your distributor is going to launch an aggressive marketing communications campaign to support your vision that responsibility is on the filmmaker—as it should be. Sadly, I see so many projects get released only to fizzle on the launchpad.
The job of a filmmaker is an all-encompassing one. It generally involves writing the script in relative solitude, to directing the project with cast and crew, back to solitude for post-production, then managing the release, distribution and marketing. I firmly believe that when you put the word “filmmaker” on your resume you can list your responsibilities in one word – everything. Frankly, that’s why I love this process. It gives me the opportunity to wear many hats.
One of those hats will be pitchman when I travel to AFM in November to represent First Signal and my other projects. With the edit at the 30 minute mark, the opening credits sequence nearing the completion stage and scoring well underway, so far everything is proceeding on schedule. Unlike last year when I waited to book my trip three weeks before the market and almost had to pay a premium, I booked my trip last week to get a good rate. In the next two weeks I start presenting First Signal to a list of sales agents and distributors I curated from AFM.
As for agents, I informed my talent agent yesterday that I was leaving their representation. While there are numerous reasons why I left, I was first reminded that my contract passed the one year mark. In addition, I took a look at my full page resume, and with the exception of one gig, I secured the rest on my own. With my on camera work largely reflective of domestic and international TV, I need representation that aligns with my experience or do what I’ve generally always done – represent myself.
The one thing I have learned over the past twenty plus years, is you need to market yourself—continuously. If you don’t market yourself, never mind your films, you will either be forgotten or passed by. There is simply too much talent out there competing for the same thing. The chance of you being discovered on a roster of talent or your film in a catalog is slim to none. I’m not saying you have to hire a personal publicist, but social media marketing (without looking like a narcissist), a press release targeted to the media and a quality email newsletter, go a long way in recognition.
On those notes, I plan to release First Signal’s second still next week.
Capturing the essence of a movie usually starts with the one sheet (poster), followed by stills and then the trailer. It’s about developing the film’s brand and the PR campaign around it. For First Signal, the first official one sheet was designed by Daniel Elek-Diamanta (who is also our composer). The poster represents the famed “Earthrise” photo from Apollo 8 along with some sort of alien satellite or ship between the Moon and Earth. As the First Signal story is rooted in the Apollo space program, I thought the blend of science fact with fiction would make for a compelling picture.
With editing well underway, the next step in the branding process is to tell First Signal’s story through carefully chosen stills. Quoting Arthur Brisbane from an article in 1911, “Use a picture. It’s worth a thousand words.”
Our first “picture” tells part of the First Signal story with Air Force One arriving in Brussels, Belgium. To the casual observer they just see Air Force One over a newscast. But for those that are following First Signal, they will see much more. Not only does the still lend to the logline, an emergency meeting with the President, it represents the arrival of Earth’s most well-known plane. I say Earth’s because something else arrives later in the story. The rotating planet Earth in the chyron graphic is later identified as another world. But it’s the crisis in Ukraine that leads to a government conspiracy to thwart an insurgent military action that’s at the heart of the First Signal story.
Over the weeks and months ahead, the idea is to create a campaign to bring awareness to First Signal for its release in 2020. When you consider the tens of thousands of films made in any given year, the marketing and communications efforts need to be just as well thought out and planned as principal photography was. For First Signal it’s about building off our early press.
As for building, next week I start the research process for AFM. But prior to AFM, I’ll be presenting First Signal next week to some interested parties that are traveling to Toronto.
Finally, I’m re-presenting First Signal’s one sheet now with credits. As you will see, it truly does take a village to make a motion picture. While a director has a vision and acts as conductor, they are only as good as their orchestra.
It’s hard to believe that First Signal is nearly at the halfway mark in principal photography. The dedication of the actors, crew and staff at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center has been unprecedented. Producing a feature film is no easy task but when you work with a dedicated group of professionals, the process doesn’t actually seem like work. Of course the one thing I won’t do is get complacent. There’s still several weekends left of filming with half of them being outdoors.
Along with principal photography, our public relations efforts are also well underway with our first press release announcing First Signal (click this link). I’m also delighted to report that The Hippo published a great article this week about our filming at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center. The Hippo does a wonderful job with their Q&A formats.
Now that we’ve had some press, I’ll be reaching out to the distributors and sales agents that I met at the American Film Market (AFM) this past November, particularly those that expressed an interest in First Signal. As AFM is all about planning, it’s never too early to start conversations about projects in production.
One of the next steps in the process is how the film will look from a color point of view. It’s something I need to start thinking about as we will soon be releasing stills. While it’s a process that shouldn’t be rushed, it shouldn’t be delayed either. Like the building up towards the release of the first trailer, I believe the releasing of stills should be given equal weight. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.
With principal photography resuming next weekend, Daniel Groom (Director of Photography) and I will be doing some test photography tomorrow in a field. This location encompasses the last scenes of the film. While the scenes we are shooting indoors are obviously important, the outdoor scenes will be involving a substantial amount of special effect work in post-production.
Although the making of a feature film takes quite a bit of work while you’re on set, that doesn’t mean that we don’t have moments of frivolity. From Patience McStravick (Major Sampson) and Conor Timmis (Cedric Yonah) in a Space Shuttle simulator to a birthday celebration for Daniel Groom. One of the highlights from last weekend was when Sarah Beattie, who works at the Discovery Center as an educator, treated us to a wonderful planetarium show about the constellations. I never knew there were so many! But what was very touching to me, was this lovely blog post that she wrote last week.
For me there is truly no more rewarding of a process than seeing a film come together. It is a form of art like no other. Long after I call the last “cut” this film will live on forever. A film is a testament to the dedication of so many to realize a vision. When you watch a film and see the credits role know that every person, company and location played a vital part in its creation. While the adage for actors is “there are no small parts” that also holds true to those that sit behind the camera. As I conclude this blog post, I want to say a special thank you to Patience, Dan, Sarah and Linds for believing in First Signal.
The train has left the station. I’ve often used that phrase to describe what happens on the first day of principal photography. There is nothing quite like that first day. You wonder if you’ve missed anything in the planning process because film production is all about details. Every day of principal photography is an event unto itself. But after months of pre-production, the First Signal train left on schedule.
I always arrive early to any set, but particularly so when it’s my own project. I view it as my job to have everything at the ready for the cast and crew. Last Monday our call time wasn’t until 9 AM, but I arrived at 7:30. One thing I had to do was to turn my “United States” car into a “Foreign” one. That meant changing my Massachusetts license plates into Belgian (First Signal takes place in Belgium).
After one of the staff at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center arrived early, I was able to load in my stuff and wait for the crew and actors to arrive. It didn’t take long for 9 AM to approach and then one by one they started to arrive. Before I knew it, we were ready to go with our first shot.
By the end of the day we largely accomplished what we wanted to. All the necessary indoor scenes, promotional photos and some key outside drone footage were shot. Although we still have a couple of drone shots to complete, the day by all measures, was a success. I can’t thank the crew, cast and staff at the Discovery Center enough for making First Signal’s first day a positive one.
Of course there are still many days to go until principal photography is over. Today, I’m putting the final touches on our shoot for next weekend that involves Senator Hadrian and General Reager. Weather permitting we will also be shooting a scene in their Observatory. Then there is the pre-planning for the primary conference room scenes with the majority of the actors the following weekend.
The one thing I want to reference from our shoot last Monday were the actors that played Secret Service agents. I’ve worked with two of them before on my own projects and as an actor. The other three I met through our casting notices. For one, this was his first film. For another, he was in the army. For another, he had a great eye for costuming. It was through their collective experience and efforts that brought an authenticity to their scenes.
There is nothing more exciting as a writer than seeing your words come to life through the process of film. When you combine great talent on both sides of the camera, against the backdrop of an ideal set, that’s when magic is made.
On a closing note, I want to particularly thank Patience and Dan for your efforts, dedication and friendship. I remember that day at the Naval Justice School when Patience and I first talked about a story that would largely take place in one location. Then, on her introduction, our first meeting with Dan at a Starbucks to talk about the possibilities.
The days are long, the lists are endless, but in the end there is a product everyone involved in can be proud of—a feature film.
The email came in on a Thursday afternoon. A producer from station KABC-AM 790 in Los Angeles wanted me to do a phone interview on Friday with Jillian Barberie and John Phillips for their popular morning drive talk show. The subject was figure skating. The topic was an incident between two skaters at the World Figure Skating Championships in Japan.
I co-starred with Jillian on FOX’s Skating with Celebrities. She was a skater and I was one of the judges. No sooner did we meet on set than we became fast friends off the ice. Needless to say I was very excited to do the interview. First, it was Jillian but second she’s a great interviewer. It was a reunion of sorts as we haven’t seen each other since I moved back east in 2008. The moment the interview started we picked right back up where we left off all those years ago. You can listen to the interview at this link. Those few moments on air with Jillian brought back so many great memories from my time in LA.
As for the world of entertainment, last year I was cast in a documentary titled Reconstruction: America After the Civil War. As you see in this still, it was shot entirely in green screen. In the production these shots will be animated to recreate areas of the documentary for which no photos or film exist. From what I’ve seen, this looks like a brilliant documentary about an important part of American history after the Civil War. The documentary airs on PBS April 9 & 16. To learn more click here.
In just over a month principal photography begins on First Signal. Since I wrote the script in late 2017, it’s amazing how fast time has gone by. It was becoming real enough over the last month when certain props arrived, but when the Air Force Uniforms started to arrive last week it was then that we all could feel the day coming.
I decided to buy the uniforms rather than rent. Not only was it about the same price for the weeks we needed them, I look at the uniforms as a smart investment. First, we’re not constrained to a limited amount of time with them. What happens if we need to reschedule shoot dates past the rental period? What happens if after we wrap we want to do some pickup shots? With this acquisition, the budget is locked down.
With cast and crew complete, final props being created and actors going through fittings, it’s this moment in pre-production where things are fine-tuned and coordinated. One could say we’re rolling out of our Vehicle Assembly Building.
No sooner did we finish our first pre-production test on January 26 at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center did we plan our second one for March 4. This was going to be more than a handful of shots and walkthrough. Our second test would involve lighting, sound and set construction.
I believe pre-production is the most important aspect of planning a film. It is this phase where even the slightest detail gets ironed out. How does the set look? Is the audio clear? What lens will work best for this shot? Because before you know it, the first day of production has arrived and you can only hope you covered all your bases.
When we first arrived, the main room we were going to shoot in was empty like a clean slate. One by one we brought the tables in and configured them to the set I had envisioned. There is that surreal experience as a screenwriter when you see a set coming to life that until that moment has only existed as words on a page.
One other critical component to our test was in camera special effects. So often in our modern world of filmmaking when we see a screen or monitor in a movie it’s shot with the actors without an image. The image, or special effect, is then put in during the post-production process. That was largely the case with Justice Is Mind when all 170 special effects were put in during post-production. In camera special effects for Justice wouldn’t have been practical as the majority had to be custom designed. For First Signal, the presentation that takes place during the primary scene is largely a slide presentation of still images. Thankfully that portion of the test was successful.
When we go into production I want the actors to actually look at something real. Not only does it help them get into the moment of their character, but it greatly assists with eyeline and saves an enormous amount of time in post-production. There is also something authentic about the lighting from a projector that can be used to enhance a particular character or moment.
The idea for doing in-camera special effects for this scene came from the movie Fail Safe. In the scenes at the Pentagon the image we see is rear projection. But in the command center it’s actually front projection. I can only imagine what the pre-production process was like on that film never mind the timing the actors and crew had to accomplish on set as that effect was film not a still image.
With our interior work completed we moved outside for a combination of drone and ground based photography. This is the scene where one of the major characters arrives at a “military base.” I’ve previously taken drone footage of the Discovery Center, but this was my first time tracking a vehicle. It’s all about practice!
Suffice to say First Signal’s second test went great. None of this would have been possible without the expertise and dedication of Daniel Groom, the Director of Photography; Patience McStravick, one of the producers who stars as Major Sampson and Paul Noonan who stars as General Reager. And a special thanks to the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center. To turn their phrase, thank you for having us in your “universe.”
As we plan for an end of April start date with one dress rehearsal prior, some critical components of the production started to arrive this week…
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.
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.
In this industry there is always the word “next.” For us creative types we yearn for the next project to be better than the last. Whether it’s an acting performance or directing your next film to higher acclaim, it’s about exceeding things you’ve done not simply repeating yourself. Of course I speak for myself, not others. Some are content with just another gig. There’s nothing wrong with steadiness and consistency, but for me there needs to be an improvement.
Every year I seek to accomplish at least one project that I’ve never done before. On the acting front there was a PBS documentary that was shot entirely on green screen. That production recreates a post-civil war America. From the outtakes I’ve seen, the creative is simply stunning. That show will premiere next year.
On the filmmaker front, I continue to prepare to attend the American Film Market in November. As I’ve never attended a film market before, it will be an interesting experience and one that I’m looking forward to. For me, it’s about hearing new voices and expanding my network. While I’m most certainly a creative, my business side needs to know where an industry is trending.
I was reminded just yesterday of how far the industry has come over the last several years. In the morning I received my quarterly statement from Justice Is Mind’s distributor. There is that feeling of accomplishment when you know your film is being watched domestically and internationally. But resting on one’s laurels is never a good idea as this industry changes like New England weather.
When I pushed First Signal back to spring due to scheduling conflicts, it gave me some serious time to reflect. Justice Is Mind went so well on so many levels, my next film simply has to exceed it. If I’m going to invest my time, money and name it has to execute at a certain level. I haven’t invested what I have to date without being committed to the project, but I found myself settling on certain matters when the better part of me said, “Why are you doing that?” Thankfully, I listened to my other self to make changes going forward (it helps being a Gemini).
Yesterday, I attended the Ghost Ship Harbor event at the USS Salem. My friend Sheila and I had a great time at this well produced night of fright. Yes, I screamed more than she did! The production values alone are worth the trip…if you dare.
August 18, 2013. Five years ago today I was in Albany, NY for the world premiere of Justice Is Mind. The idea for Justice came to me in 2010 when I came across a 60 Minutes story about Thought Identification “mind reading.” I was researching mind reading “computers” when I was writing the sequel to First World. Yes, I finished writing the sequel. But no sooner was my Final Draft software cooling down and it was fired up again to write Justice.
I’ve often written about the development of Justice. The endless pitch to producers and financiers started at the script stage. Then I produced a short film version Evidence to develop interest in the project. After a couple of theatrical screenings and media the financing came together to produce the feature. Let me just say that 2012 was a whirlwind of a year. But in the end, over 10 crew, 100+ actors and 15 locations came together. Even post production into 2013 went relatively smoothly. Justice enjoyed a limited theatrical run, screenings at law schools, science fiction conventions and an international premiere on Cunard Line’s Queen Elizabeth (yes, that was a highlight!). The film is now available worldwide on VOD.
When you’re an independent filmmaker the completion of a feature film is a milestone that should be enjoyed and celebrated. As I see with so many in this industry, they worry incessantly about the next project when working on the current one. There were only a couple of occasions during Justice when a few people tried to get out of commitments because of an audition or other project they wanted to be part of. I’ve always believed in giving your maximum to every project you’re involved in. You worry about the next one after the fact.
It’s one thing to attend a film premiere for someone else’s project, it’s entirely another to attend one for your own. For nearly two years after our world premiere, so many of us attended the screenings together. For a while we were like a traveling road show! These weren’t film festivals, they were theatrical screenings. There is nothing more gratifying as a filmmaker than seeing your film on a marquee next to mainstream “Hollywood” productions. You work like hell to make the film, but seeing it in the market is in one word – gratifying.
A feature film isn’t about the “cool” photos behind the scenes of making it, it’s about creating the world around it so when it’s released there’s a place in the market for it. An acting friend of mine last year coined the phrase “the milk carton movie” for those films he was involved in that never saw the light of day. There were essentially “missing.” I couldn’t even fathom making a movie that sits on a shelf waiting for someone else to decide its fate. Film festivals are fine enough if you get into the top tier from an awareness point of view, but as a filmmaker you don’t see ten cents of box office from them. More importantly why would I want to share the public relations spotlight with other films? I remember only too well when we had a screening for Justice at a major university and, unknown to me, there was a small film festival in town that weekend. A reporter said to me they only had so much space and simply couldn’t accommodate everyone. Well, thankfully our screening went well because it was marketed internally and had some scientific personalities attending. That was a lesson to be learned.
As I now venture into the world of First Signal, I look back on the days of Justice Is Mind with great fondness and realize what’s possible when the right team comes together. I’ll never forget what one of the stars of Justice said to me at our last theatrical screening in March, 2017 “This never gets old.”
No, it doesn’t.
July 20, 1969. The 49th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission – “we came in peace for all mankind.”
Although at 4 years old, I was too young to remember the historic event of the Eagle landing on the Moon, I fondly recall the later Apollo missions in the early 1970s. Those grainy black and white pictures being transmitted from the Moon to our television sets was a remarkable achievement. Indeed, it truly was “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” In those days the world watched in wonder as the impossible was achieved, not once, but several times.
When you think of the new technologies, sciences and discoveries that resulted from the space program of the 1960s and 70s, it’s clear that a giant leap was achieved on numerous levels. You can’t bring together that many scientists and engineers and focus them on a single end goal without achieving breakthroughs that were literally out of this world. Of course, another result of the space program was the motivation it gave to so many.
In my case, I developed an interest in astronomy which led to my passion for science fiction. When I combined these interests and wrote First World in 2006, I had no idea where that journey would take me. In the film world it led to the production of the short film version of First World in 2007, followed by Evidence and my first feature film Justice Is Mind. In the real world, I have been fortunate to see the space shuttle Atlantis land at Edwards Air Force Base, Discovery and components of the Apollo program at Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, the Enterprise at The Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum and Freedom 7 at John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.
In the world of entertainment, two of my favorite TV series that involved the Moon are UFO and Space: 1999 with my favorite sci-fi movie being War of the Worlds (1953). But over the last several years “Hollywood” has produced some excellent must see films. I could list many, but my two recent favorites have been Hidden Figures and Arrival. Two completely different films, but with compelling messages of the possible when faced with the impossible.
As for possible, progress continues on First Signal. With Daniel Elek-Diamanta designing our first promotional poster, the look of First Signal is beginning to take shape. With more location scouting planned over the next several days, I have no doubt that the right location will soon present itself. When a launch is planned, all the conditions need to be right. I don’t want to settle on a substandard location just for the sake of keeping a schedule. Not only do I need to be excited as a director, but I want the actors and crew to feel equally motivated with their surroundings.
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.
Last week I talked about lists. Well this week I was able to cross off, or at least through, one thing on my list – uniforms.
Whenever I plan to put a script into production I go through it with a fine tooth comb to break down exactly what’s needed. For First Signal the Nehru styled suits for two of the characters have been secured for some weeks. Personally, I thought it was going to be a bit of a challenge to get the look I wanted with the budget I set for costumes. I soon discovered there were numerous manufacturers that offered countless styles and ranges in price. In the end I got what I wanted for that look.
But there was one type of uniform that was proving a bit elusive–Air Force officer service dress. Yes, a good number of regional costume shops had air force officer uniforms. They would have worked fine if our story was set in the early 1990s. But as First Signal is set in the year 2014, we needed a contemporary look.
To start I discounted contacting the big costume houses that work with “Hollywood” budgeted films and TV shows. My thinking was why on Earth would they want to work with an indie film on the scale of First Signal? So contacting the official uniform suppliers to the Air Force began in earnest. But in the majority of cases you need to be authorized military personnel to make a purchase from those companies. So short of purchasing items piecemeal on eBay and the like, this was a major item on my list that wasn’t budging.
When I saw the season finale of Madam Secretary and the number of military uniforms that were used on that episode, I decided I had to take a different route. I went to their listing on IMDbPro to see who was in charge of costuming. No sooner did I contact one of the wardrobe supervisors via LinkedIn did he get back to me with companies and contact names. Yes, these were the big costume houses on the west coast.
The welcoming reception I received from Eastern Costume put aside my preconceived anxiety about contacting one of these companies. To say they are knowledgeable about costumes would be an understatement. After sending them some pictures of the types of Air Force service dress uniforms I was looking for, they gave me a rundown on prices that will work for First Signal. Is it a bit more than I budgeted? Certainly. But in this case anything less than a contemporary look just wouldn’t have worked.
The search, however, continues for a suitable location. The one thing I have done with all my films is to secure locations via a trade marketing partnership. It’s a pretty straight forward process that works great for everyone. A location allows us the opportunity to film and I promote and market the location. Well after the actors and crew have left, a location sees themselves promoted regularly on social media, mentioned in the press, credited at the end of the film, on official sites and other entitlements that benefit all concerned long after “That’s a wrap” is called. I have no doubt that a suitable location will be secured. But there are always surprises in this business. Like when you believe you have a deal and suddenly it goes from trade to a $10,000 plus fee! Um no thanks, I’ll keep looking! The one thing I have long learned in this business is never be desperate to do a deal. I look for partners not takers.
Since First Signal’s table read last Saturday there has been a flurry of activity behind the scenes. From location scouting between Massachusetts and New Hampshire to waiting to hear from the Department of Defense on production assistance, the pre-production process of a feature film is a myriad of activity that gives new meaning to one word – lists.
With our aim to secure the final locations in the next ten days, those working on the pre-production side will see their respective lists grow exponentially. As I believe organization is critical to any production, keeping a well ordered list means that you’re one step closer to the start of production.
Speaking of productions, this past week was an interesting one from the acting side of things. When I was auditioning for a film in Boston, I ran into one of the actors that I cast in First Signal. I think we were reading for the same part! To quote Bette Davis in Now, Voyager, “The world is small, but Boston is big”. Suffice to say we shared some interesting stories while waiting to be called. The one thing I’ve learned about the New England market, is that there are a number of us that operate on both sides of the desk. Personally, I prefer it that way as it gives me a fresh perspective on the business.
However, it was all business on Friday when I was at Charles River Media Group. A few weeks ago I was cast in a book promo/trailer. The book is not a work of fiction, but fact. The story takes place in Austria during World War II. The producer, who is also the author, gave all the actors a personally signed copy. I started to read the book last night and it’s a page turner. I’ll write up the project once the production releases stills.
This was my first time working with this director (who was also the director of photography). From the costuming he sourced to the way he directed the shoot, his style was engaged and calming. The actors were tremendously professional and took their respective parts seriously. The end product should be stunning.
Indeed this market is a small one. No sooner did I arrive and I recognized one of the actors I worked with from the Joint Base Cape Cod exercises. Although another actor doesn’t know it yet, when the time comes I plan to reach out to him to see if he’d like to play one of the secret service agents in First Signal.
This week I also launched the Facebook and Twitter accounts for First Signal. Suffice to say I was encouraged by the response. These are only the first steps towards developing the overall marketing communications plan for the project.
Whenever I’m involved in the production of an event, I always arrive early. First, I hate to be rushed. Second, it’s about setting everything up. Finally, I like to just sit and take it all in for a few moments. I don’t meditate. It’s about quiet time. Because the time for this event was starting shortly before 11 AM – the table read for First Signal.
This journey didn’t just start when I wrote the script for First Signal, it started back in 2006 when I wrote First World. When you write a screenplay you never really know where it’s going to go or who is going to be involved. But when I was watching Lindy Nettleton reprieve her character of Allison Colby, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from First World, I was not only enormously thankful for her return, but the realization of the journey this project has taken since those early days.
As a writer, there is something surreal about watching actors bring your characters to life. I’ll admit, when I was writing First Signal I had several actors in mind for certain parts. There’s a reason why you see filmmakers work with the same actors because you know what you’re going to get in a performance. But then there is also the excitement about working with new actors and crew. They bring things to the table that you just don’t see. Not because you don’t want to, but as the writer you tend to have blinders on to keep the train of the story on a certain track.
Case in point when Vernon Aldershoff and Adam LaFramboise were in a confrontational moment. Vern suggested the line of “You can sit down” or “Sit down” before his character answers Adam’s. As I mentioned to the room, I have no problem with such additions (or deletions) if it adds to the vibrancy of the story. As a filmmaker you have to let a story breathe. The key, is to make sure it’s remembered by the actors and then noted by the director. Yes, I made a variety of notes from yesterday’s table read and will be following up with the actors and crew.
This is the first time I’ve held a table read and I’m glad I did. It wasn’t just about hearing the words come to life, it was about the actors and crew meeting each other and getting familiar with their respective styles. In the end it’s about chemistry for the next time we are all together it will be on set.
It’s impossible to thank the actors and crew enough for believing in First Signal. Your dedication and talent means a first rate production. And from their hosting of First Signal’s auditions in April to yesterday’s table read, my thanks is also greatly extended to The Verve Crowne Plaza in Natick. Indeed, a film has many behind the scenes partners. Each one of them is part of the production engine that finds its way to the silver screen.
One thing I’ve often talked about is testing. Whether it’s a screen test prior to a theatrical screening or testing equipment prior to a live event, I’m adamant about testing prior to production or going live.
I still remember to this day, that despite testing equipment the day before, a major live event I produced years ago ran into a major technical problem during the show. What happened? Someone behind the scenes decided to “think” and change the program without consulting anyone. The result? A total screw up. Thankfully the embarrassment was resolved in short order and the venue credited us $14,000 for their mistake.
Production is time and money. If you don’t set aside time to rehearse, test and think things through, the results can be disastrous if not embarrassing. In the past two weeks I have witnessed two major meltdowns with camera equipment during auditions. How does that happen in today’s day and age? And why don’t you have a backup system ready to go at a moment’s notice? It’s called preparedness.
As for preparedness, I attended the Memorial Day services at Battleship Cove last Monday. Not only does this museum do a wonderful job in organization and presentation, it’s the location itself that brings forward the meaning of this national holiday. When you are standing on the deck of a battleship that fought in World War II, it doesn’t get any more real than that.
I’ve been to Battleship Cove on a several occasions. There’s always something new to learn and discover. When so many are engaged in the here and now, it’s important that we take the time to never forget how and why well over 50,000,000 perished in World War II.
With less than two weeks to go until First Signal’s table read, pre-production continues on a variety of fronts. At this stage of the production it’s more waiting to hear from certain parties for confirmations, etc. I will say the DJI Spark continues to perform well for the required drone shots.
In all my years being involved in the industry the only “equipment” I’ve purchased was the screenwriting software Final Draft. Is that equipment per se? No, but if you don’t have a solid script all the equipment in the world doesn’t matter. As a filmmaker, I’ve always contracted with those that have their own equipment. We all have own way of navigating this industry and, as I’ve often said, you can’t do everything. Or more precisely, have everything. I believe the best projects come together through a myriad of partnerships where everyone brings something to the table.
But sitting right on the table next to me is the DJI Spark. While I’ve spoken about the technological improvements in the industry, it truly is incredible where the drone world has gone since we filmed Justice Is Mind in 2012. Of course drone technology has been around for some time, but in the world of true indie films I was just starting to see it used back then. Now it seems to be de rigueur.
In First Signal there are some particular scenes that call for drone photography. I suppose these scenes could have been done without it, but the point was to open up the visuals after we spend a good amount of time in a conference room. There’s a few other reasons for it as well, but I don’t want to give away the story!
This week was another National Guard training exercise at Joint Base Cape Cod. The exercise was formally called the Massachusetts and New England National Guard HRF and CERFP External Evaluations. Approximately one hundred casualty role players (actors) participated in this exercise. I was brought in as the Casualty Role Player Coordinator.
For those that have been wondering what’s involved in these exercises, it’s pretty straight forward. In the event of a disaster (natural or man made), the National Guard is called up. These exercises involve search and rescue scenarios along with medical evaluation, triage and decontamination from radiation exposure. Needless to say, they’re important.
As this has been the third time in a month I’ve participated in one of these exercises, it has been great to work with so many familiar faces. These exercises reminded me of some of the large scale film productions that come through the region. Just like a film the actors go into wardrobe and makeup and then proceed to “set” or what is called the insertion point of the exercise. If you have a chance to participate in one of these exercises, I highly recommend it. It’s not only a great experience on a variety of levels, but you are also providing a vital service to the preparedness of the National Guard.