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Posts tagged “screenwriting

Next Phase

Both First Signal and First Launch start at the planet Shinar

With post-production on First Signal coming to an end, it seemed fitting that I finished a draft of the sequel early last week. Titled First Launch, the story picks up two years after events in First Signal.  While First Signal introduced the First World Universe in a very contained environment, First Launch is entirely the opposite. With the majority of primary characters returning, the logline “The President faces a military coup and extrasolar war when a covertly built second generation space shuttle reveals a worldwide military destined to confront an alien presence on Earth,” sets the story shortly before the 2016 Presidential election.

While I’m glad to have finished a draft to the sequel of First Signal, my priority is to see that First Signal properly exits post-production as I plan for general marketing and distribution. As for distribution, this past week I was approached by a theater to have First Signal screen in July. While I normally would have jumped at the opportunity, I honestly can’t commit one way or another until we learn when restrictions are being lifted. I do know one thing, so long as mask requirements (something I vehemently disagree with) are order of the day there’s no point, or joy, in having a theatrical screening. While our governor may employ Orwellian powers in Massachusetts, he has no power or jurisdiction of its citizens outside this tiny state. Thus, I’m looking at screening opportunities outside of New England and the country.

As today is Mother’s Day, here I am with my mother Eleanor on the MS Queen Elizabeth

I am, however, considering “attending” the virtual Cannes Marché du Film in June. As the fees are negligible, it certainly doesn’t hurt to try and see what comes of it. There’s no question that by the end of the summer, theaters worldwide will be open and the markets will endeavor to return to some sort of normalcy.

While the large theater chains can tap into a variety of reserves and credit lines, it’s the independent theaters that are most at risk during these perilous times. As their only source of revenue are ticket sales, the real concern in the industry is that some of them just won’t make it and that a vital link for independent films will simply disappear. Unless you have a robust concession, ticket sales alone just don’t carry theaters. Simply, the box office percentage that’s shared with the distributor just varies too greatly between films.

But with every economic upheaval, there is always a revelation of something new or in this case a return. How many of us remember drive-in movie theaters? I remember the days when we would all pile into the car, drive up to a parking spot, place a speaker on the side of the car and watch a film unfold on a giant screen. It’s no surprise, that moviegoers are starting to look at the drive-in as a solid alternative while the traditional theatrical experience is sorted.

Opportunity.


Right down the street from me, the entrance to the former Edgemere Drive-In


First Edit

Heads of state meet in First Signal

As a filmmaker there’s nothing quite like seeing that first rough cut in post-production. You wonder what it will look like. You wonder if the years you’ve spent pulling it all together was worth it. A film is not a play where things can generally be adjusted because you change your mind about something. As Bill Sampson said in All About Eve, “There’s nothing you can do, you’re trapped, you’re in a tin can.” If the 18 minutes of the first rough cut are any indication, First Signal isn’t trapped!  

Building a film in post-production is akin to the prefabrication we see today in the construction world. Have you ever seen how a ship is built? Sections are built elsewhere, shipped and then assembled in one location. That’s pretty much how a film is born. Shots are created offsite and assembled in one location according to the script (the blueprint).  I have one cardinal rule in post-production, we don’t deviate from the script. The shots are created for the script, not the other way around.

A drone shot in First Signal.

When Justice Is Mind was in post-production, I remember receiving emails from some of the actors wondering if their scenes were being cut.  My response was generally always the same, why would I cut something that I wrote in the first place? In the end, nothing was cut. The result was a complete story.

Some years ago I was cast in an independent film. The script was solid and all of us associated with it were looking forward to the end result. Well, the end result was an over-edited product that didn’t resemble the script we were handed a year earlier. A completed film is just that a product—one that must be promoted and marketed.

A stock footage sample in First Signal

With the 6th anniversary of Justice Is Mind tomorrow, I can’t help but think of the promoting and marketing I did for that film. I still, whenever an opportunity presents itself, market that film wherever I can – why wouldn’t I? I see so many projects being hyped during the production process just to wither away in post-production. For me post is the most exciting. Not only are you building a product but you are laying the groundwork for its release.

For First Signal that groundwork includes the completion of the first 11 minutes of the film in the next few weeks. Why so quickly? Just over a month prior to AFM is when I start my pitch process for meetings. Although AFM is in November, time moves quickly in post-production and meetings are set about a month in advance. The idea with this footage is to show prospective buyers what the film will look like.

Although First Signal is in post-production, I still had some casting to do – a voice over artist for a newscast. There are so many services for voice over artists, but I found Fiverr to be the best.  Although there is just one newscast in First Signal, it opens the film. I needed a voice that “broadcast” as a newscaster and sounded believable. Needless to say, we found that voice.

Next Edit

Six years ago tomorrow will mark the 6th anniversary of Justice Is Mind

Last Days

37550551_640759909613857_1545604007928528896_nAs 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.

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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.

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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.

2019.

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My AFM

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The Lowes Hotel in Santa Monica.

For years I have followed the film markets, but none so closely as the American Film Market (AFM). As an independent filmmaker and screenwriter, I think it’s important to stay informed on the latest trends and news. As we are “indie” it’s too easy to operate in our respective vacuums without the benefit of new voices. That ended last week when I attended AFM in Santa Monica, California.

As this was my first AFM, I followed their how to work AFM guide.  Several weeks prior to the start of AFM, I researched companies that might be interested in hearing more about my projects. I curated a list and then sent an email of introduction that included a brief (title/logline) of my projects for consideration of a meeting. By the time I arrived in Santa Monica, I had several meetings confirmed. In addition, I made sure my Cinando profile was completed along with the MyAFM section of AFM’s website. The completion of my profiles and subsequent postings in MyAFM conversations resulted in a few companies reaching out to me for meetings.

My industry badge granted me access for four days that began on Saturday. But as the director in me wants to get the lay of the land prior to “arriving on set,” I landed in Los Angeles on Thursday and picked up credentials on Friday.  I knew that the start of the market for me on Saturday would mean putting on my acting hat. The days and weeks of memorizing the loglines and synopsis of my projects along with talking points was soon going to be put to the test. As an actor, I wouldn’t think of arriving to set without knowing my lines, attending a film market is no different. If you don’t take the time to know your own projects, why should anyone else take their time? As attendee’s schedules are booked up well in advance, AFM is all about maximizing time.

The Lowes Hotel is entirely converted for the market (you can’t enter the hotel without the proper credentials). When you enter the lobby you are soon greeted by representatives of the industry trades with the dailies, see throngs of attendees going to and fro and banners representing the myriad of companies that are bunted on the multi-floor balcony railings. What were hotel rooms before the market, are now offices. You have arrived at AFM.

Over the course of two days, meetings with producers and production companies in the United States, Canada, Germany and Romania resulted in positive experiences. Then there were the various film commissions from Russia, Georgia and Japan that also asked for meetings. On Saturday night at the official carousel cocktail reception, casual conversations resulted in meeting two producers with substantial credits (there was a specific request for China related stories – First World anyone?).

But what I do want to stress is that you can’t go into the market thinking “what can you do for me” it’s more about “what can I do for them.” Think about it, is the screenplay I have going to be a good fit for “X” production company or producer? One company I met with wasn’t interested in science fiction, but wanted to see my political thrillers. In the reverse, one producer was very keen on developing science fiction franchises and requested information on the “First World” universe. In both those cases, they asked for scripts. It pays to have a variety of projects to offer.

These meetings are also about building relationships for the long haul. All the meetings and interactions I had were positive, with the exception of one. In that case, it didn’t take long for me to realize that one was just playing the posture and poser game (he didn’t even have a business card). Yes, while AFM is all about meeting the right people and developing a network, you do have to be judicious on who you interact with.

But here’s an interesting twist of fate. Years ago I pitched Justice Is Mind to a distributor that passed on the project. For AFM, this company reached out to me about First Signal. When I was meeting with them and Justice Is Mind came up and their original pass, they presented a new division for digital distribution and asked me for a screening link. As for First Signal, the number of companies looking to get involved at the script stage is a market trend. This is an industry about product and intellectual property and that’s exactly what AFM is all about.

Now it’s about the follow up. The continuation of introductions, conversations and presentations that started at AFM. One thing that’s always excited me about this industry are the possibilities of what’s next. Because for this filmmaker, there will be a next AFM next year. As for AFM, a special thanks to Jonathan Wolf, Managing Director at AFM, for creating a welcoming atmosphere for first time attendees and his informative presentation at the AFM Orientation.

After AFM I had the opportunity to visit Eastern Costume.  I was introduced to Eastern by the costume supervisor on Madam Secretary regarding Air Force Uniforms for First Signal. Another special thanks to Ian Brown, Military Technical Advisor, for a three hour tour. Whatever you need for your film, Eastern Costume has it!

Of course, my trip to Los Angeles wasn’t all business. I had some great reunions with friends along with some requisite touring. Seeing the Endeavour Space Shuttle and the King Tut exhibit at the California Science Center was truly exciting. But my favorite place to visit is the Griffith Observatory. From the wonders of science and space to its expansive views of the city, it was wonderful way to spend my last night in the city at…

…the top of the world.

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At the Griffith Observatory


The Presentation

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Testing the active track feature on my DJI Spark drone.

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.

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A drone shot at Marble House in Newport, RI. The Cars & Coffee car show. Yes, my Solstice is way up front. In front of a Rolls!

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.

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Needless to say it was a beautiful day in Ogunquit, ME when I took this drone shot.

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.

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First Summit

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The table read is set in the Jupiter room at The Verve Crowne Plaza in Natick, MA.

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.

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Patience McStravick and Adam LaFramboise.

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.

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Kim Gordon, Lindy Nettleton and Yefim Somin.

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.

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Stephanie Eaton and Kim Gordon (that’s me in the back).

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.

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Vernon Aldershoff and Paul Noonan.

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.

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Phoenyx Williams enters the scene.

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.

Action.

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Testing the drone with Patience McStravick at the location of the field.


First Drone

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Not a bad shot of my car!

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.

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The DJI Spark.

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.

Next flight.

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With Carlyne Fournier who played Dr. Eve Pullman in Justice Is Mind.


The Revelation

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First Signal starts in 2014 at the 40th G-7 Summit. As soon as the President arrives in Brussels she meets with an Air Force General who discloses an alien satellite in Earth orbit.

This week I completed a first draft of First Signal. I have to say there is something immensely satisfying about completing a script. From the moment I get the idea for a story it’s weeks and months of research, notes and random thoughts.

For me writing doesn’t start and stop at my computer. While I don’t believe in writer’s block, there are those times when after I do a bit of writing I just see the story stop for a moment. Sometimes it just takes a change of air to get the characters and storyline talking to me again. In my case, it’s generally a trip to the gym or watching a movie that brings me back to the computer.  In fact, after I saw Darkest Hour last weekend I was inspired to write a critical speech in First Signal. If you can’t get inspired after watching Winston Churchill there’s a problem!

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What did Air Force Space Command discover in Earth orbit?

Like Justice Is Mind I wrote First Signal to independently produce, not to submit to production companies or agents. While my other projects are in various stages of review or consideration by the latter, First Signal is not part of that mix.

It is ironic how this whole project came to being. Here I am at the Naval Justice School talking to one of the actresses. Suddenly, the idea for a limited location drama that largely takes place in an underground bunker came to mind. After talking with her about the idea, I just started to write it with her as one of the new characters in the “First World” universe.

Great Britan and Russia.

What does Russia and the United Kingdom have to do with this?

While I love acting and performing, I think my greatest joy comes from creating projects and original stories. Although it has been some years, I remember the days of Justice Is Mind and the dedicated cast and crew that made it possible. Unlike a play, when you create a motion picture it’s out in the world forever. As I often watch films from the 1930s and 40s, I wonder who may be watching my films in say the year 2088. From that era I count Gone with the Wind, Rebecca, Laura and Now, Voyager as some of my favorites.

Although I plan to reach out to a variety of actors and crew I’ve worked with in the past, the next step in this process will be a casting notice for a table read (one part is already cast).

First Signal—When Air Force Space Command receives a signal from an alien satellite in Earth orbit an emergency meeting with the President reveals a government conspiracy.

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The first draft of First Signal.


The Field

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What one of the locations may look like.

This morning I finished up the notes for the prequel to First World. The next step is to place it in Final Draft and iron it out. That’s generally the process I use when writing a script. I write out the scene structure and dialogue in Word first. I just find it 10x easier to make quick adjustments in Word before formatting in Final Draft. But when I take that next step in Final Draft that’s when the final story starts to take shape.

I’ve written a variety of scripts over the years. Some produced, some waiting for a deal, but this is one that I specially wrote to produce independently. In the end I’ve stayed with three locations and what will be a liberal use of stock footage. But unlike First World, I think this story has given me the opportunity to really create a solid backstory for two of the main characters. It also examines a presidency in crisis along with an out of control military leader.

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A scene takes place in NATO.

As with Justice Is Mind, writing an original story is not easy. We receive our initial round of inspiration but then it’s up to us to figure out the rest. What I always aim to do is to have a beginning and ending in mind. Sure it may change some along the way, but if I have in mind the beginning of Act I and the ending of Act III, then I’m good to start. In my view an Act II should always be what I call “the mess” because that’s what the characters are trying to make sense of and resolve.

This story has a solid protagonist and antagonist. It was my goal to give each side not only a reason for their actions but the ability to carry them out. As a writer we wear many personality hats to create our stories. Many is the day when I thank God I’m working alone because I talk my dialogue out. I don’t think the strange looks from my cats qualifies as the need for being institutionalized, but if a neighbor randomly heard me talking like my characters I’d probably be visited by some sort of federal agency.

Once the first draft is done later this week I’ll be sending it to the actress that inspired me to write it. For me, it’s pretty easy to write a character when you model it on the actress that will play it. However, for the rest of the characters involved, one of my plans is for a table read. I never did that for Justice Is Mind owing to a variety of matters, not the least being the size of the cast, scheduling and time constraints. In the end that worked out fine. But with this project as the majority of the action takes place in a conference room and a field, it’s important to get the character interaction just right.

Next stage.

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The First World story centers around the Apollo space program.


Next Act

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In this prequel to First World, the story starts in Earth orbit.

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.

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Part of the story takes place at NATO headquarters in Brussels.

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.

Next page.

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The First World story begins on July 20, 1969 when Apollo 11’s Eagle landed on the Moon.


Original Stock

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This opening shot in First World was created by the director for another program. As he owned the footage, he used it for this scene.

Writing an original story is by no means an easy process. There are times when I think and rethink various elements to make sure they flow. Does this transition from that transition make sense? Am I carrying the story forward and adding something with each moment? Even though I’m writing fiction, I always ask myself would people act and respond this way in “real life”?

But at one point it starts to click. For this story it happened around page twenty. While I have the general outline for act one, two and three (Yes, I believe in the three act structure), it’s the journey these characters take that will make the story what it is.

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This shot of the FBI in Washington, D.C. for Serpentine has also been seen in Madam Secretary.

But one thing that is easy, is creating worlds that are larger than they appear or you have the budget for.  With every film I’ve produced (and some commercials), I always use stock footage. From the White House in First World, to Reincar Scientific in Justice Is Mind to the FBI in Serpentine, it’s a simple purchase from one of the stock footage houses.

Most stock footage is very affordable. However, there are times when it can get pricey. Case in point was footage from the Nuremberg Trials after World War II in Justice Is Mind. In addition to the footage, I also had to obtain it at a certain aspect ratio.  But in today’s modern world of filmmaking, it’s amazing what’s available if you just look for it.

As this story largely takes place in one room, it will be stock footage that takes us out of the scene to illustrate certain moments of the story.  Why ask the Department of Defense if you can film a B-2 taking off from Whiteman Air Force Base if you can just acquire the footage for $79.

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In Justice Is Mind one of the characters is leaving Germany for the United States.

I remember after Justice Is Mind was released, I was asked by someone in the industry if I went to Logan International Airport in Boston to film planes taking off.  I remember jokingly responding that it was a real pain in the ass to get over all the fences and position myself with a cameraman at the end of the runway. I think they thought I was serious. Oh well.

As I dove back further in the First World story and archives, I came across a time in 2008 when certain funding commitments were imminent for the production of the film (it was going to be part of a slate of films with a particular producer). But then the global recession took hold and literally decimated the film industry (particularly on the independent side).  At the time it was disappointing, but everything happens for a reason.

It’s interesting how one is turned to a particular story. When the idea came to me during my moments at the Naval Justice School about developing a story in a one location environment, something drew me back to First World. Was it the military aspects of that story? The fact that I’ve already created these characters? Who knows, the one thing I never ask myself is why. I just write.

Next scene.

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Although Reincar Scientific is a fictional company, this building actually exists in Berlin, Germany.


Next Chapter

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With fellow actors on our last day.

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.

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Out and about with Evan and Patience in Newport.

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.

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With Monty and Bruce. We all played NCIS Special Agents.

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…

…Lagrange.

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Celebration dinner at Midtown Oyster in Newport. It’s now a tradition.


Motion Monday

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A motion hearing scene in Justice Is Mind. Paul Lussier (l) and Kim Gordon (r) returned in Serpentine.

Tomorrow is a motion hearing in court. Not a real court. But the mock trial program I’m in at the Naval Justice School (NJS). While I can’t go into specifics for a variety of reasons, it involves my character as an NCIS Special Agent to be informed on matters pertaining to “my training” and certain actions I took. Sorry I can’t say more.

As an actor it gives me the opportunity to create a character. As this is a role playing part, as long as I know my background, there is a certain amount of leeway I can bring to the performance. The goal is to create a realistic environment for the students in the program. Because when this program is over, these students go out into the real world.

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Paul Lussier and Kim Gordon in Serpentine: The Short Program.

Creating worlds is what the fall is all about with the film markets. Toronto just finished with AFM coming up in early November. Some of the discussions that I’ve seen on filmmaking sites talk about the importance of having a teaser to represent a project. I couldn’t agree more. It honestly doesn’t take too much effort to create a sample of what a project could look like. Although I love reading a good script, being able to see some sort of visual does help bring it to life.

As for bringing a project to life, I firmly believe not going broke in the process. Yes, we all want to see our written word come to life, but it seriously isn’t worth emptying a bank account or maxing out credit cards. About a month ago I learned that an indie film that was in post-production hell finally climbed out of it when a producer mortgaged their house to finish it. Seriously.

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Vernon Aldershoff (r) with Herbert Fuchs in Serpentine: The Short Program.

But whether it’s a teaser, short or feature film, you want to work with actors and crew that do their part. Let me be clear, professionalism has nothing to do with union status and everything to do on how you comport yourself during a project. Are you prepared? Do you know your character? Do you show up on time? Are you contributing to the project or taking away from it?

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Vernon Aldershoff and Richard Sewell in Justice Is Mind.

There are people I’ve worked with on both sides of the “camera” over the last ten years that I wouldn’t hesitate to work with again. If you look at my projects you see many similar names. But sadly, there are those that I just won’t engage with on a future project. Nothing is harder on a production than an actor not being prepared or a crew member not doing their job.  Simply, there are too many people looking for an opportunity and to prove themselves in the process.

The one thing that I enjoy about this industry is discovering new talent. And that truly is what this industry is all about—talent.  Because there’s a “talent” in bringing a project to life.

Call time.

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Jeremy Blaiklock my Director of Photography on Justice Is Mind and Serpentine.


Feature Presentation

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There is that moment in a theater when the words “Feature Presentation” come up just before the picture starts. Certainly as a theatregoer we’re excited to see the film, but as a filmmaker it’s a rush—particularly when it’s your movie.  That rush happened for me when Justice Is Mind and Serpentine: The Short Program screened together at The Strand Theatre in March. Ask any filmmaker and they’ll tell you, there’s nothing like seeing your film on the silver screen.

But for all the accolades that come with making a feature film, there are significant challenges that theatregoers don’t necessarily concern themselves with. The recent articles on Broad Green and Open Road chronicle the times ahead for some. While the capital to produce is there, it’s the net return that’s the issue. Thus consolidation or, in the case of Broad Green, production shut down. In my view it comes down to a reasonable budget with a solid marketing plan tied to distribution. To turn a phrase from Ron Popeil you can’t “Make it and forget it”.

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Producing my first film First World back in 2006. At the Commonwealth Hotel in Boston.

I met with a colleague a few weeks ago who wants to make his first feature film. He’s a talented filmmaker who has made some award winning short films. A short film is one thing, a feature is an entirely other animal. His concerns were numerous—completing the script, managing a crew, finance and distribution. Basically it comes down to taking that leap of faith. You have to believe in yourself and your own capabilities. Yes, you rely on others, but as Luc Besson said you have to be the General of the Army. Look at any film in production from the low budget independent to the major studio release, the entire project revolves around the director. This isn’t to say that the director acts unilaterally, they too have to report to someone or at least adhere to a structure.

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Behind the scenes of Serpentine: The Short Program.

As for structure and directing, I’m looking forward to returning as site supervisor for the Naval Justice School’s mock trial program in Newport, RI. Yes, it’s directing of a sort, but it’s just as much as adhering to the structure of their program. What I enjoy about this program is that it’s neither film nor stage, it gives me the opportunity to roleplay a character over multiple days without a set script rather a set of circumstances and situation. As director it’s generally to make sure that the actors have an understanding of this process as it’s not stage or film. There’s no call to action and cut, rather you are in character when in the school. My supervisory role is essentially making sure everyone shows up on time, answer related questions and to follow the rules of the base and the agency that has hired us.

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From behind the scenes to on screen. This scene is one of the primary media stills for Serpentine

One thing about this industry that I enjoy is the variety of opportunity it affords. Whether directing a film, writing a screenplay or working on a military base, it’s about being well-rounded. The one thing that has helped enormously with my work in Newport was the years I spent doing TV interviews (many live). While there was no script, there was a subject matter and certain facts I had to adhere to. My point is that whatever the work is, it’s about the accumulation of experience because who knows what that next part will be.

Casting.

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Back to Newport next month!


First Decade

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The view of Earth from Lunaria in First World.

Although I wrote a screenplay when I was in grade school (I wonder where that is), First World was my first “professional” effort. Aside from my passion for all things NASA and my love of science fiction, I’m not sure where the initial idea came from. It was in 2006 and I was living in Los Angeles at the time. Before I knew it I purchased Final Draft and just started to write. Many months and drafts later First World was born. Great, I finished a screenplay now what do I do with it.

Just because I was living in Los Angeles it didn’t guarantee any more access than if I was living on a remote island. So I started to submit my screenplay to film festivals and by my shock it was being selected. When First World was nominated for Best Screenplay at the California Independent Film Festival in 2007 I figured I was on to something. Did I win? No. But being nominated was good enough for me.

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In First World China launches Tsien One to the Moon in 2018.

In so many ways I think it’s good to start out in this industry being a bit naïve. But one does learn quickly. Raising money for a feature film was harder than writing an original story, much harder. But I wanted to at least introduce part of the story to develop interest in the concept. So, I condensed the story and produced a 25 minute short film version with my friend Adam Starr. Since First World Adam has been part of all my films.

After the short was produced in 2007 I found myself presenting it at sci-fi conventions around the world. It soon found itself in India as the only film at the inaugural First Ever National Discussion on Science Fiction. As a magazine publisher, I knew distribution and promotion. This was one area of filmmaking that I didn’t shy away from. Suffice to say I was relentless in introducing this project to anyone that would take the time to read what I was pitching. Some paid attention, most didn’t, but those that did just continued to build awareness for the project. In the end First World screened at 21 sci-fi conventions.

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Getting ready for a First World screening in Los Angeles in 2007.

Some years later when the VOD world started to emerge an upstart website called hulu was born. Through my distributor IndieFlix I got First World on the site. There was something quite glorious to see First World run on VOD with ad interruptions. Remember, it’s either advertising or a subscription fee that pays for these services. Filmmaking and the VOD platforms are not a free enterprise!

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After the hulu run I placed First World on Amazon’s Create Space. It was a relatively new service, but I was all about experimenting. Soon after Amazon ripped First World from our submitted DVD (yup that’s the way they got it on their system in those days). It took about three months but then it happened…my first payment from Amazon. Every month since I’ve been paid something from Amazon Create Space for First World.

But then something else happened in 2016—Amazon announced Amazon Video Direct. Short of it, filmmakers could now take advantage of the same system that distributors did. All we had to do was enter the required data, upload poster, film, trailer, closed caption file and presto we are worldwide across all of Amazon’s platforms. It took quite a bit of doing, but I was able to render a large enough file for First World.

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First World on Amazon Prime in the United States, United Kingdom, Germany and Japan.

First World has been on Amazon Video Direct for a year and has generated 464, 172 viewed minutes—translation this short film from 2007 has been watched over 17,000 times in the past year.

Since First World I have gone on to write, produce and direct three other films – Evidence, Justice Is Mind and Serpentine: The Short Program—all of which are on Amazon Video Direct. But like this article that recently ran about Amazon Studios, I also believe in theatrical distribution. While VOD is a godsend to filmmakers, a theatrical release showcases a film.

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Some special effect work with closed caption file.

Am I still waiting to turn First World into a feature? Yes. But as Evidence brought forth my first feature film with Justice Is Mind, time will tell if that happens with First World and Serpentine. The entertainment industry teaches us patience and that it is ever changing and sometimes volatile. But there is one thing that this industry looks to when considering a project…

numbers.


Center Ice

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Denise Marco as Elizabeth Rogers and Isabella Ramirez as Suzanne Wilson.

Last Sunday principal photography on Serpentine, The Short Program wrapped! After eight months of writing and two months of pre-production planning, I was more than pleased with the end result. A special thanks to the cast, crew, location partners and sponsors for making this possible. After taking the past week to organize the video and sound files, the hard drive will transfer to our editor on Monday to begin the post-production process. It’s this stage that turns a puzzle into a completed print.

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The FBI conference room scene.

But make no mistake about this process, as an independent filmmaker you are pretty much responsible for everything…even the weather. And while I believe organization and communication are critical to a successful production, it does come down to both diplomacy and flexibility. A film production, whether it’s a short or a feature, is unlike any other type of business. You start by yourself and then suddenly ramp up. For Serpentine that meant over 30 people and three locations (for Justice Is Mind it meant over 200 people and 15 locations). As a screenwriter there is a thrill like none other than watching your screenplay come to life. Isn’t this why we do what we do?

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The Assistant Director, played by Vernon Aldershoff, during the FBI conference room scene.

For me this production was both a reunion as well as working with some terrific new people. It started with the FBI conference room scene at The Verve, Crowne Plaza. When Michael Coppola arrived I was immediately reminded of First World where he played a secret service agent. But it was the night before that I wrote an additional new scene for Michael and Vernon Aldershoff (Assistant Director in Serpentine and Henri Miller in Justice Is Mind). Of course, the last thing I wanted to do was to tell the cast and crew about a new scene when we didn’t even shoot the intended one! I waited to see if we were ahead of schedule and we were. It worked out great.

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Paul Lussier as sponsor Philip Harrison and Kim Gordon as the President of The American Figure Skating Federation.

It was at Northstar Ice Sports that the word scope came into focus. First, I am beyond thankful to Denise Marco, the board and staff of Northstar for this opportunity. By scope I’m talking about the size of the set. It was about making sure all actors, cameras and crew were properly placed to make sure the scenes worked. For weeks I drew this out from the skating program, to camera and actor placements. What may not have seemed obvious to some would be very obvious in post-production.

Reuniting Kim Gordon and Paul Lussier from Justice Is Mind was a particular goal of mine from the beginning. Their on screen chemistry in Justice was what every director dreams of. So when they both signaled their availability for Serpentine I immediately signed them on to the project. As a director, there is also a comfort factor in terms of direction when working with actors that you know will deliver. In advance of our shooting I forwarded a detailed memo on character and scene development for all actors and crew. As time is a serious commodity on an independent film set, I think it’s best for everyone to understand the entire tone and feel of a scene when they arrive.

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Directing Paul, Denise and Kim.

As a director I don’t believe in grandiose demonstrations of direction to actors and crew just to prove a point. In my simple view of it all, the most that should happen on set are adjustments. There’s no time to teach someone how to act on set. (Side note: On Justice Is Mind one adjustment I gave to an actress was how to say a particular phrase of profanity. I’ll just say this, it’s an American thing in terms of word emphasis and slang).

Our last day of filming was at a friend’s house. It was a fitting end to the production after coming down from two days of intense work at Northstar and the fact that there was only one line of dialogue. As I said to everyone, these scenes are largely atmospheric and what composers live for.

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The MetroWest Daily News reported on Serpentine.

Another highlight of our week was when the MetroWest Daily News interviewed me about Serpentine and sent a photographer to our shoot at Northstar. Not only did they write an excellent article, but created a video as well. You can access both at this link.

Over the next few months I’ll be working on a variety of marketing and promotional efforts as we build towards our February release. During this time look for more stills, behind the scenes images and a trailer.

Cut.

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It’s not all serious on set. Isabella made a cake for Denise!


An Original Age

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With Kim Merriam at Rosecliff. Newport, Rhode Island.

Last Sunday my friend Kim Merriam and I went on a day trip to Newport, Rhode Island. Aside from knowing Kim since we first met as teens at the local figure skating club, Evidence and Justice Is Mind were both shot at her house. As I’ve toured every Newport Mansion at least twice, I left it to her to pick which one to tour. She selected my favorite mansion – Rosecliff.

Rosecliff is particularly special to me. Having first visited the mansion with my mother in the early 1980s and being the location for The Great Gatsby and other films, we photographed Nancy Kerrigan there for the cover of the figure skating magazine I used to publish. It also gave me some additional ideas for the political thriller around the sport of figure skating that I will be formally announcing this week with the launch of the website.

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Rosecliff’s backyard. In this new story one of the central characters reflects on a critical moment when standing in her backyard.

In the story there are two starring characters, a champion figure skater and the president of the national governing body. While the former has been struggling financially, the latter, in addition to her skating responsibilities, runs a multi-national industrial concern. The setting for her estate should be a grand one like a Rosecliff. On a side note, in early 2017 Rosecliff will be featuring an exhibition to all the films that have been shot at the mansion. That will be a must see!

As an independent filmmaker, it’s about laying the foundation for all aspects of a new project well in advance. From visiting possible locations to talent, crew, etc. This week I began reaching out to colleagues I used to work with regularly in the sport to introduce them to the project before the announcement. It was one thing when I went to World’s this year in Boston telling people I had an idea, it’s another to send them a completed script.

It was great working with Adam Starr over the last few weeks to create the first concept poster of the project. In addition to being an Emmy Award winning cinematographer, I’ve worked with Adam since my days as a magazine publisher. From producing my first corporate video back in the day to his special effect work on Justice Is Mind, he really knows how to take an idea and run with it.

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In this new political thriller around the sport of figure skating, part of the story revolves around North Korea.

When he created the official poster for Justice Is Mind, my idea for the concept was pretty straight forward. I wanted to incorporate an MRI scan along with a picture of Henri Miller looking towards the future and the reincarnated Wilhelm Miller looking towards the past. He pretty much got it on the first pass.

Writing an original story takes time. It is not something that is just thrown together for the sake of rushing a project to market. For me it’s about developing and creating a project that’s long remembered after its initial release. Isn’t this the whole reason why we get into screenwriting and filmmaking – to  tell original stories?

For those that follow me on social media you’ll see me post a “Now watching…” comment usually followed by a film produced between the 1930s and 1970s. I gravitate towards those decades as that’s when original stories were told to great fanfare without the special effects being the story. Thankfully with the democratization of the film industry from production to distribution, filmmakers have the opportunity to tell their stories outside the Hollywood system.

INT. ICE RINK – OPENING CREDITS

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The official poster of Justice Is Mind as designed by Adam Starr. Justice celebrated its third anniversary on August 18, 2016.


Design Plan

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Justice Is Mind on Amazon in Germany.

This past week Justice Is Mind went live on Amazon in Germany, Austria, the United Kingdom and Japan. Since the film was released in 2013, it has been my plan to get the film distributed in as many territories as possible. Considering part of the story takes place in Germany, and as our composer and sound mixer reside in the United Kingdom, it’s great to be able to bring the film to those markets. Also, it’s part of the long term plan to generate as much interest in the Justice Is Mind story as possible as the pitch process continues to further develop the project as a TV series. But, like all things in this industry, it’s about having more than one project in development as things take time.

When I was taking to a fellow filmmaker in England this past week, the one thing we talked about was distribution. As I’ve mentioned in my previous posts, as a former magazine publisher I directed the distribution and marketing of my magazines. The process has a variety of similarities.  You deliver your finished product to a central source and it’s delivered to the outlets. But as I learned all those years ago, for every middleman there is a percentage given back. Sometimes a middleman is necessary, sometimes not so much.

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This week I will start to reach out to ice rinks.

To quote from Amazon Video Direct’s website “Helping content creators and visual storytellers reach millions of Amazon customers across hundreds of devices with the same distribution options and delivery quality available to major motion picture and television studios.” Why, unless a distributor was acquiring your film for a fee, would you just give Amazon your film to upload? With the tens of millions of customers that Amazon commands, I certainly understand why some distributors require Amazon to be part of their VOD platform mix. But with “platforms like Distribbr, Quivver, and Bitmax – what’s the benefit of going with a more ‘traditional’ distributor over those?”

Honestly, by the time I release my next film, self-distribution may just be the way to go. Unless a distributor brings me a fee and a marketing plan, why would I bother signing away the rights to my film when I can just deal directly with the VOD platforms? I have heard too many horror stories from filmmakers that were all excited a distributor was interested in their project only to receive a fraction of return even though their project was available on countless platforms. It’s sad and frustrating to hear these stories, because I know how much hard work and years of dedication goes into making a film.

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Part of the story takes place at the Defense Intelligence Agency where one of the main characters worked.

As for new projects, the concept poster for my political thriller around the sport of figure skating is now being designed. With the script registered and URL reserved, the general plan is to formally announce the project in mid-late August. Nothing is more exciting than seeing those first images come to life. And for me that starts with the concept poster.

Of course, like building a house, this is the stage where the architectural plans are developed. In my view, a script is an evolving document based on a variety of factors until you lock it down just prior to pre-production when you lay the foundation for what you will ultimately see on the screen.

Blueprint.

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The Reincar Scientific building in Justice Is Mind is actually the Deutsche Bahn Skyscraper at Potsdamer Platz in Berlin, Germany.


First Draft

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The political thriller around the sport of figure skating culminates at a World Championships in Moscow.

After six months of research and writing I finished the first draft for the political thriller around the sport of figure skating. From the tranquility of local skating rinks to the power capitals of the world, the story centers around a champion figure skater, her mysterious new sponsor and the president of the “American Figure Skating Federation” as they traverse a Cold War mystery that has engulfed the skater’s family since the 1970s. While the title of the story will soon be revealed, the working logline is as follows, “A champion figure skater finds herself in a decade’s long government conspiracy involving her missing mother and a Cold War mystery that culminates at the world championships.”

Writing an original story takes time, at least for me. I move the process along, but don’t rush it. I let the characters speak to me and the settings they are in. While the story started and ended the way I had originally planned, I always find it interesting how suddenly the idea comes for this character to do this or that character to do that. In the end, I like to see characters evolve.

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In the story, an official draw turns into a media spectacle when questions are hurled at officials and skaters that nearly derails a sensitive negotiation between two world powers.

Since SOS United States went under review some months ago, I’ve had the time to devote to this project, a project that I’m planning to put into production the way Justice Is Mind came to market. Some have asked how this process moves forward. First, the script is now being read by my trusted attorney for the last twenty five years. In addition to trusting his judgment and comments, it’s also for legal purposes. Over the week the script will get registered at the Writers Guild of America and then at the U.S. Copyright Office. After WGA registration the script will roll out to a select group for their comments.

During the script review process a concept poster will be produced along with website registration and a preliminary design. The project will be formally announced once the concept poster is complete along with a synopsis. I usually let a project sit for a week or two after a first draft before I tackle the synopsis. It’s not so much as a challenge to write, but you need to decide what to write. I never like giving away the whole story because in the end the synopsis is also a promotional tool. In Justice Is Mind we don’t learn the outcome of the trial, just that the situation is dire. If you want to know what happens, I say watch the movie.

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The FBI has been investigating the skater’s family since the late 1970s following a Cold War incident in West Germany that concludes at the World Championships in present day Moscow.

But following the Justice Is Mind model, will be the production of a short film version to develop interest and present the production aspects of the intended feature, in this case, the first ten pages of the script that introduces the primary characters and their world. By the end of next week, or first of the following, I will be reaching out to several actors and crew that I have worked with on First World and Justice Is Mind. This will be in addition to reaching out to area skating rinks that I’m familiar with and other locations.

Of course, critical to the process will be the interest of a skater who can project the starring role on and off the ice. A tall order? We shall see. The one thing that will not happen is using a double. It was one thing in Justice Is Mind when an equestrian was used in the advanced riding scenes, but even the actress that played that part was a rider.  Yes, I’ll be looking for a “Lynn-Holly Johnson” type. On the production side, there will be the filming of the skating sequences and having them look as dynamic and exciting as possible. I already have color scheme in mind that will play out throughout the production.

Yes, this is a very exciting time but having been down this path before with Justice Is Mind it’s all about planning, production and execution.

On the ice.

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With Mary Wexler (Judge Wagner) at the Massachusetts premiere of Justice Is Mind in 2013. The short film version, Evidence, premiered at this theater in 2012.


New Territories

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Evidence, the short film version of Justice Is Mind, went worldwide this week on Amazon.

This past week I finished watching season one of The Man in the High Castle. Between the story, acting, production values and world building, it has to be one the best, if not innovative, shows I have ever seen.  This groundbreaking series from Amazon yet again demonstrates that the streaming services have arrived.  When you watch a “TV show” produced by and for a streaming service that exceeds the quality of cable TV, you can see how “cord cutting” has come into being.

But like so many TV series and films, it was interesting to learn that The Man in the High Castle was in development for years. It just demonstrates that persistence and patience is again the key to moving forward in this industry as nothing happens overnight.  When Evidence, the short film version of Justice Is Mind, went live on Amazon in the US, Japan, United Kingdom, Germany and Austria this week, I was reminded by one of the actors that Evidence was five years old. Justice Is Mind was written in 2010, followed by the production of Evidence in 2011 and the feature film version in 2012. Since Justice Is Mind was released in 2013 the marketing has been ongoing. Why? Because the next goal is a TV series around the concept. When will that happen? In this industry, that would be anybody’s guess.

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From Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle.

An editor from one of the industry trades recently posted the following to their Facebook profile, “The hardest part about this industry is even when you find your champions, so much of your success is out of their control. They can work their asses off to help you, but they’re still climbing Mount Everest while dragging a dozen anvils behind them.” The point is obvious, this is an industry that works on teams. All you have to do is look at the cast and crew lists on IMDb to see the staggering number of people involved. For Justice Is Mind that number was well over 100.

A friend of mine recently said to me, that I write what I can produce. That’s partially true. Justice Is Mind was written exclusively with the idea that I might be able to pull this off within my own network of contacts. Whereas a project like First World requires substantial resources with my political thriller SOS United States falling in the middle.  Even the short film version of First World had a cast and crew of over 25.

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Since going live in the UK, First World has streamed 806 minutes.

Since First World and Evidence went worldwide on Amazon, it has been interesting to see new audiences discovering these projects. That is the glorious thing about streaming. Your project is discoverable. But in each of these projects, they had some sort of theatrical and exhibition push prior to their online premier. It’s this type of audience development that propelled them forward online.

The one thing I remember when writing Justice Is Mind is that I could visualize it happening. The same is holding true for this political thriller I’m writing around the sport of figure skating. Of course there are elements that raise the bar from my last feature, from filming on ice performances to “dressing” an arena to look like a “world championship”.  But like the Justice Is Mind project, the plan is to first produce a short film version to not only generate interest in the project, but to develop a team that can see it through.

Center Ice.

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A pivotal scene in the figure skating political thriller takes place in the “tunnel” where the skaters and coaches enter and exit.


Independent Audience

Worlds

Writing the final act of the figure skating political thriller.

“Not paying enough attention to the script.” I couldn’t agree more when I first read that statement attributed by Arnon Milchan of New Regency on The Tracking Board. Time and time again I read in the trades, or general consumer press, about the issues a film has faced because of the script. In so many of these cases it seems that a script was rushed to fulfill some sort of contractual obligation. But as I posted this past week on Facebook, no amount of A list actors can rescue an ill-conceived script.

The article that Milchan was quote in revolved around the dearth of the mid-budget movie. I fondly remember the variety of movies that studios used to distribute in mainline theaters that didn’t revolve around a comic book, endless sequel or rehash of something we already saw (like the latest Star Trek and Star Wars films). But thanks to determined filmmakers, great films like Trumbo, Spotlight and The King’s Speech are being made and, honestly, always will be. It’s just a matter of finding the right audience to support it from financing to distribution.

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First World on Amazon in Japan.

As I come up towards the end of the political thriller I’m writing around the sport of figure skating, there is the continued promotion of either projects completed or in development. In my post last week I talked about my “special relationship” with the UK.  A few days after my post, I was nicely surprised when Daniel Elek-Diamanta sent me a re-imagined look for the SOS United States concept poster. While I wanted the first concept poster to reflect the vintage era of the ocean liner, this one presents the same view but with a contemporary look. When developing a new project, it’s all about promotion and this concept poster really captures it!

In the world of filmmaking, particularly as an independent filmmaker, it’s all about promotion and getting the word out. It’s about exploring every avenue of distribution and pitching your project. We all look around to see what other filmmakers have done to promote their projects, but what works for one film may not work for another. But there are some distribution avenues that are just a no brainer – Amazon.

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Evidence, the short film version of Justice Is Mind, will soon be on Amazon.

When Amazon announced their new Amazon Video Direct program I could not be more excited. Although First World was available in the United States for some years, I now had the ability to have it in Japan, United Kingdom, Germany and Austria. Last week it went live in those countries. Yesterday, I uploaded all the necessary digital assets for Evidence, the short film version of Justice Is Mind (the feature is with a distributor). The process was painfully simple to reach an audience in the tens of millions.

But when I saw someone post on their Facebook page, “I fear my work will get lost in a sea of titles and get drowned out by larger studios.” That’s a defeating position to take. Once it’s live on Amazon it’s just a matter of external promotion through social media and other channels. Amazon operates on an algorithm of suggested films. All it takes is a few people to find your project on Amazon and it will just continue to grow. While there are other VOD platforms popping up every day, they rely on the filmmaker to bring the audience whereas Amazon already has the audience. Yes, you’re in a sea of films. But I’d rather be in an ocean than a puddle.

Now sailing.

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A contemporary concept poster for SOS United States by Daniel Elek-Diamanta.


Mixed Zone

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The mixed zone at the World Championships. This set will be seen at the “American Championships”.

Today I finished Act Two of the political thriller I’m writing around the sport of figure skating. With a story that traverses a season in the sport along with over 40 characters on and off the ice, this stage of the writing process is a point of reflection. It’s a point when I review my notes (there are 25 pages) and read the script from the beginning. I liken it to building a road. The “earthwork” has been done, but it needs to be paved. For me, the Final Act (or in this case Act Three and/or Four) is both the most exciting and nerve wracking. Why? Because the road has to lead to a destination — a conclusion.

Every writer works in their own way. And while books, seminars and industry experts dictate how you should do the process, I promise if you talked to ten different screenwriters you would get ten processes of mixed results. For me, I look at a character or story arc and see if it has evolved. Nothing is worse than watching a movie and not seeing a character or story resolution.  I’d rather take some extra time to get the last acts right than have audiences leaving disappointed or, worse, with a predictable ending.

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The witness for the prosecution in Justice Is Mind. The turning point into the final act.

When I wrote Justice Is Mind the initial premise was someone facing their own memory at trial. But for anyone that has seen the movie, while that may be the central core, there’s a conflux of other activities going around it. In my view, nothing is linear in real life and it shouldn’t be in film. For me, I always love a good twist at the end or a surprise ending. Two of my favorites with surprise endings are The Sixth Sense and Witness for the Prosecution. Both films couldn’t be more different in genre, but they brilliantly pulled off an ending that I don’t think anyone saw coming. As of this moment, I believe I have the surprise ending all set for this story, but as it’s not written yet that can certainly change!

As for a mix of things, there was a great practical article in Forbes titled How To Finance An Independent Film by Bryan Sullivan. While I’ve known about these steps for some time, it was nice to see a “drama” free article just present the facts.  Often with the trades or some of the bloggers I follow (or used to follow), there’s this air of judgment or bias in their reporting that does nothing but lecture. This is an industry of creatives that develop stories for an audience. And while there most certainly are standard ways to accomplish that, the last thing we need to hear are “You can’t do this” or “You can’t do that” when it comes to building projects.  Bottom line, all projects and their path to market take different roads.

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Marlene Dietrich and Charles Laughton in Witness for the Prosecution.

I’ll admit there is a certain satisfaction in creating an original story. In the case of this story around the sport of figure skating, it’s worked out well so far that I was involved in the sport in so many different areas. From skating (I passed that Junior Free before the rule changes!), to teaching, to publishing a magazine for the sport to TV analyst work, I can say that this story travels from learn to skate, to receptions to the world championships with the FBI and NSA steadfastly involved that builds a story that takes us around the world.

Representing the United States.

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Haley Joel Osment and Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense.


The Trades

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In this new political thriller, the climax of the story happens at a world figure skating championships.

Being a filmmaker, I’m an avid reader of the industry trades. From The Hollywood Reporter, Variety and IndieWire to several email newsletters (SSN Insider is my favorite). In general, I look to get a feel for the industry and where it may be going. As I’ve written about in earlier posts, navigating this industry is like being on the bridge of a ship and deciding what port to sail into. The choices are numerous and in some cases smartly promoted. One of these choices was a film festival.

I attended my first film festival back in 2007 when First World was nominated for best screenplay out of over 80 submissions at the California Independent Film Festival. Having placed in the top 5 for this contest it was a total thrill to attend, network and then hear the title of my first screenplay announced as a finalist in a theater.  I didn’t win the Slate Award but it was honor enough to be nominated. It was at this festival that I realized I had developed a new trade.

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Robin Ann Rapoport and Vernon Aldershoff (seated right) starred in the short and feature film version of Justice Is Mind.

In this industry it seems just natural that you start to pick up new trades. You may start as a writer or an actor and before you know it you may be producing and directing your first short film. You start to get into some festivals, perhaps some theatrical exhibition and then score some media. Soon thereafter you realize you want to make your first feature film. Every level of this industry takes time and patience and despite what one might read in the trades, none of this happens overnight.

One thing that never happens overnight is film financing. It doesn’t matter what your station is in the industry. Film financing, in particular, is very nuanced. As for my projects, I’ve fully funded some and have had investors (public and private) in others. In one case I used crowdfunding. Larger projects, if they can attract the right talent, can also achieve pre-sales. But that’s being challenged owing to certain bankable “A” list availability to commit to a project before one scene is even shot. But one area that I’m particularly excited about is equity crowdfunding. There have been numerous articles on the subject, so I would do your own searches. That being said, it offers filmmakers yet again another option–and port?

With First World, In Mind We Trust and SOS United States in various stages of review and development, the one thing I have committed to is producing the first ten pages of the political thriller I’m writing around the sport of figure skating as a promotional vehicle. As some may recall, I made a short film version of Justice Is Mind titled Evidence. The point of that short was to not only develop interest in the project but to bring together an initial cast and crew to insure that various aspects work.

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In SOS United States the story starts and ends around the ocean liner SS Leviathan. The ocean liner is modeled after the famed liner SS United States.

What are the primary challenges with this new project? A figure skater that can do a couple of triple jumps and can act. No matter how it has been done before, using a double for either the extreme close ups of a jump or distance shots just doesn’t work. A skater has a particular way they stand on the ice along with body type.  The other part of this short is developing some new techniques to film a skating program that truly captures the grace, style and power that a skater projects. In essence I want the audience to experience the program not just see it.

Perhaps the greatest challenge of course is developing an original story. As I enter the closing of the second act to this political thriller, I remember where I was at the time when writing Justice Is Mind. At this moment I’m literally living with the characters and all the plots and subplots. But rather than taking the easy way out on their resolution, I will let the story sit for a few days and let the story speak back to me.

Revelation.

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From First World the city of Lunaria on the Moon.


The Surprise

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With Vernon and Jackie Aldershoff.

It was back in 2011 and I was casting the short film version of Justice Is Mind titled Evidence. The starring character of Henri Miller was pivotal. He had to have an air of sophistication and mystery, while also being an “everyman”. As a director, you are auditioning for me the moment you walk into the room. And god help you if you submitted a headshot from the last century or to quote a colleague of mine, “generously photoshopped” the way you want to look. Neither was the case with Vernon Aldershoff. He looked like his headshot and was the look I had in mind for the character of Henri Miller. Of course, the next question rolling through my head was, “Jesus, I hope he can act.” Well, the rest is history. He starred in both the short and feature version of the film.

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Vern’s audition in 2011 for the part of Henri Miller.

This past weekend I attended his surprise 50th birthday party at a golf club. While Vern was playing golf with his son Dmitri, who played his on screen son Gary Miller, Vern’s wife Jackie turned the clubhouse into a Hollywood theme along with posters of Justice Is Mind and a step and repeat (red carpet). On the golf course I heard that Dmitri faked a hip injury to get Vern to bring him back to the clubhouse.  As I see Vern and Dmitri pull up to the clubhouse in the golf cart, Dmitri is going through the only act of injury with Vern buying it. I wanted to yell “Cut!”. Let me just say that Dmitri’s acting was beyond excellent. Talk about a long take!  But the look on Vern’s face when he entered the clubhouse and realized he had been taken was priceless!

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With Robin Ann Rapoport (l), Michele Mortensen (c) and Richard Sewell (r) in Justice Is Mind.

During the celebrations Vern was talking to family and friends in attendance and referenced how much the entertainment industry is about rejection, but that it only takes one person to say yes. In regard to Justice Is Mind, that person was me. But in as much as I said yes, it was also Vern and the countless others that said yes to me and to an untested project.

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With Kim Gordon and Paul Lussier in Justice Is Mind.

The Justice Is Mind project is now over five years strong. Through the writing, production and distribution, so many of us have become friends and have kept in contact. Yes, I’m looking forward to working with many of the actors and crew from Justice on my next project. In fact, with one project I’m working on now I don’t even know if auditions will be necessary. Why? Because I plan to offer parts and positions to those I’ve worked with previously. I don’t need to worry about on screen chemistry or whether or not these folks get along.

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The opening scene in Justice Is Mind. Father and son in the movie and in real life.

When I read these stores on IndieWire about Tribeca and Cannes that discuss distribution and the market, I am reminded about the challenges this industry faces. But nothing is more challenging than casting the right actors or securing a solid crew. I don’t care how great the screenplay is, without them breathing life into it your project goes nowhere.

Of course you always bring new people into the fold. That’s what this industry is all about. Meeting new people and expanding your horizons. It’s an industry of risk and chances but more importantly opportunity. If you look at my projects from First World, to Evidence to Justice Is Mind, you will see some familiar names.

The Company.

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