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.
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.
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.
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.
There is something to be said about arriving at a theater and seeing not one but two of your films on the marquee. Yes, it’s like being a kid in a candy store. Because it is in that moment that all the work that has gone in to making a film is celebrated.
And celebrate we did. One by one family, friends, actors and crew started to arrive. Some I saw as recently as a couple of weeks ago, others it’s been a few years. But in the moment it feels like it was just yesterday. And heavens knows there were many yesterdays to get to this point!
After a reception in the lobby of the Strand Theatre, I made my opening remarks and then Justice Is Mind began. I was sitting next to Vernon Aldershoff and he said to me, “It never gets old.” No it doesn’t. And seeing the film in its highest resolution in a DCP format was another highlight.
Of course the highlight of the evening was the world premiere of Serpentine: The Short Program. This is one project that was particularly close to me for a variety of reasons. The moment the film started I was reminded about my days as a skater, teacher, magazine publisher and the TV work I would do around the sport. But it’s not about me, it’s about the product. One that you want audiences to enjoy.
And it was the next day that audiences around the world were able to stream Serpentine: The Short Program on both Amazon and the Ice Network. So far the numbers look promising and early reviews have been encouraging. But like First World ten years ago, this is an industry of the long haul. Or as we say in figure skating, the long program.
While VOD is a savior to the independent filmmaker, there is nothing like the theater. Because there is that one moment you’re hoping for that can only happen in a theater. To again quote from All About Eve, it was Eve Harrington that said it best, “If nothing else, there’s applause.” And they did when Serpentine: The Short Program faded to black.
This past week I have received some curious inquiries on why I checked in on Facebook to the Naval Justice School in Newport, Rhode Island a couple times this week. Over these next few weeks the school is conducting mock trials as part of their student training. I’m playing an NCIS agent. When you consider my interests in the military (the Navy in particular) and having written and directed Justice Is Mind, you can imagine my enthusiasm in being part of this project.
This is not like a stage production or even a film. In those mediums you generally stay in character for a set period and memorize a script. There is no script here. Instead, you are given a substantive background on your character and their actions during a particular time period. And, like any legal proceeding, you are given a variety of statements and other evidence to take in and, yes, memorize to the best of your ability.
In one example, I was in front of a class of students who asked me countless questions over an hour relative to the case. By example, “What were your impressions when you interviewed X” “When you interviewed X about X, what did they say?” Again, there is no scripted answer. Of course, the key is to be consistent in your statements as the students can reference what you say.
I believe these role play opportunities are some of the best training actors can have. Not only do you have to create a world for this character, but background elements as well that fit into the narrative facts of the story. I’ll say this, it has helped that I’ve done live television and public speaking in the past. With this opportunity, I’m speaking to anywhere from five to fifty of various military rank as well as civilians. The atmosphere itself compels you to take the process seriously. There are, however, some moments of levity and the staff and students at the school are very welcoming and supportive. You can learn more about the Naval Justice School at this link.
To put this in an entertainment context, most have heard of the TV series JAG and the movie A Few Good Men. But as those projects had a Director this has a Captain that directs the process. It’s been pretty cool learning what an NCIS agent really does. On another movie note, I can’t help but be reminded of the court martial scenes in The Caine Mutiny.
As for entertainment, Serpentine is in post-production with the same team that delivered Justice Is Mind. At this stage of the process, while they are doing their work, I’m planning the marketing program and distribution plans for the film’s release in early 2017.
It’s Saturday morning and tomorrow starts the first day of principal photography on Serpentine, The Short Program. Tomorrow a new world goes from script to screen. The months, weeks and days leading up to the start of principal photography is a journey unlike any another.
One would think that with the number of events, commercials and film projects I’ve been involved with it would just be another exercise, but it isn’t. For me because I always seek to raise the bar from one project to the next, there’s always a unique set of situations that come up. From logistics, to locations to the sheer number of people that are involved.
But honestly, if it wasn’t for the challenges, why do any of this. I’ve never been one to settle for status quo and doing the same thing day in and day out boors me to death. Yes, we all like to have some sort of routine to keep us grounded, but it’s bringing a new project to life that really inspires me.
For those that are involved, when all is said and done, there is not only a credit but a product. A film that can be looked at years, if not decades from now. Something that you look at and say, I remember when. And for those that watch the end result, they know that for a period of time people came together to create something unique, something original.
As some may have seen in the press release that went out earlier this week, tomorrow reunites some actors and crew from First World, Evidence and Justice Is Mind along with my earliest days in an ice rink. But just as important it’s about bringing fresh voices to creative works. I believe what makes the process of filmmaking such a unique experience is that combination of the familiar and unfamiliar that yields the best results. It was that combination that resulted in a test video this week that I posted to Serpentine’s Facebook page (click this link to view).
This past week was another busy one as pre-production moves along for Serpentine. But today was a visit to The Collings Foundation production of “Battle for the Airfield”. To quote from their website, “There will be over 300 re-enactors representing several branches of Allied and Axis military participating in an amazing re-enactment.” The event did not disappoint.
Although it was raining, the announcer reminded us all that wars are not always fought on warm sunny days. Indeed, it was like watching a conflict in real time. Unlike a movie set with constant calls of “action” and “cut”, there was no stopping once the action did start. When the tanks started to roll the re-enactment was just as good if not better than any Hollywood production. The filmmaker in me wished I had cameras recording it for some upcoming production. All I could think of was the battle scene in 1953’s War of the Worlds!
Just prior to the start of the battle, the national anthem was played. I’ve heard our anthem played in many venues, but there’s something special to hear it against a military backdrop with veterans present. When I think of the tens of millions that have sacrificed themselves for this country, this American proudly stands and turns to honor our flag and all those that have defended it.
Speaking of old glory, the flag will be part of the set dressing for our FBI conference room scene at The Verve, Crowne Plaza. On Thursday I visited the hotel for a site visit. The room looked just as great in real life as it did in the pictures I saw prior to my visit.
A site visit is another one of the critical components to pre-production as there are usually things that need some sort of adjustment or that may have changed. In this case, a couple of posters to cover up artwork on the opposite wall and a movie screen has replaced the TV screen. Actually the movie screen is better as it gives us more room in post-production for images that our VFX specialist will put in. A special thank you to Lynne Luongo, The Verve’s General Manager, for the personal tour!
Earlier in the week I was reading the script again for other creative components. One scene has a character leaving in a car—a car that will be getting a fair amount of screen time. As this character comes forward to sponsor a skater in the story, I wanted something high end that said wealth.
Although there are countless dealerships in the area, there is only one luxury dealer I wanted to approach to see if they might be interested in working with us. When I visited Foley Motorsports website, I was thrilled to see that they have direct staff contacts, including owner RJ Foley. After his review of my presentation, I’m delighted to report that Foley Motorsports will be providing a luxury vehicle for Serpentine. Now, here’s fate for you, his daughter used to be a figure skater and will be appearing as an FBI Agent at The Verve!
As for figure skating I visited Northstar Ice Sports again this week to work out some additional details on our upcoming shoot and to skate again. Yes, I’m getting the skating legs back underneath me to assist in the production when we start to shoot the on ice scenes. It is interesting being back in a rink again and on the same ice as my first coach Denise Marco, who is not only the Executive Director of Northstar but will be playing Elizabeth Rogers in Serpentine.
On Thursday Serpentine’s final location came through via a marketing partnership with the The Verve, Crowne Plaza Natick in Natick, MA. Our “FBI” conference room scene will be shot in their stunning Aquarius Boardroom. This location in terms of looks and geography is perfect. As Serpentine’s cast and crew is coming from all over the state, and southern New Hampshire, a Metro West location is ideal.
The day before I paid a visit to my friend Al Mercado’s home. His house will serve as Suzanne Wilson’s residence. Although I’ve been to Al’s house many times, now I’m looking at it literally through a different lens. For the story I needed a ranch house on a corner lot with a front door and back door on opposite sides of the house. Now that all our locations are secured, the next step is to complete a shot list.
As I am a person who lives and dies by lists, nothing is more sacred to me than the shot list. For those of you that follow this blog but don’t necessarily know the process of filmmaking, a shot list is a list of the shots that you need to shoot for coverage of a scene. From wide to mid to close ups to inserts, etc., it’s making sure you have everything before principal photography “wraps”. And with each shot consisting of 2-4 takes (sometimes more), that’s why a seemingly simple scene on paper can take some time to film. But before the shot list is implemented on that first day of principal photography, there are the inordinate number of things that need to be done in pre-production. One of these are test shots.
Also on Thursday I met Jeremy Blaiklock, our Director of Photography, and Liz Carr, our Assistant Director, at Northstar Ice Sports for some test shots. For more reasons than I can count, the Northstar shoots will be the most involved. Between the scope of the facility and on the ice shooting requirements, it was important to run through some tests with Isabella Ramirez who will be playing Suzanne Wilson. Filming two actors standing stationary in a room is one thing, filming a skater execute jumps, spins and footwork is entirely another. But in the end we were all very pleased with the tests.
It seems like it was just yesterday that I came up with the idea for Serpentine and then attended a World Figure Skating Championships after a ten plus year hiatus. But here we are less than a month from filming the first ten pages of the script. Yes, it’s very exciting.
In so many ways it reminds me of those early days when I was preparing First World for production. I was living in Los Angeles at the time and had just struck a deal with a hotel in Boston, MA to serve as the Secretary of State’s residence. Like Serpentine, that deal for First World was the last location I needed to secure for the production.
While creating a new production is both exhilarating and challenging, I am also reminded that this is where a project goes from script to screen. Seeing a project develop from one dimension to three is why we love what we do.
Yesterday I did something I haven’t done in well over 20 years. I went skating. I realized some weeks ago that if this project was going to move forward, it might not be a bad idea to get my skating legs back underneath me. So into the basement I went and I found my skates in busted box. I was thankful that my cats didn’t use it to….nevermind. To my surprise the boots weren’t bad, but the blades had a fair amount of rust on them. Just as I did in days long past, it only took a visit to “Cooke’s” to get them in relative working order.
It seemed oddly fitting that on my first day back on the ice after two decades my first coach Denise Marco, who normally doesn’t teach on Saturday, was there. Not only is Denise the Executive Director of Northstar Ice Sports but she will be playing Elizabeth Rogers in Serpentine with one of her star students playing Suzanne Wilson.
I remember the days in the late 1970s when my mother would drive me to Denise’s house at 5 in the morning (we lived in the same town) to ride with her to the rink for a 6 AM skate before school. Who possibly could have thought that we would reunite in 2016 to make a movie!
What’s also fitting about the Serpentine project is the number of people from First World and Justice Is Mind that will be joining this production. While this will be a great reunion, there’s some terrific new actors and crew members that have joined Serpentine. My plan is to still formally announce the project by October 1.
As of this moment, there are just about 30 people involved in Serpentine. And this is just a short film. I remember with Justice Is Mind, when all was said and done, that number was just over 200. Producing a film is no easy feat. From scheduling to organizing to execution, it is not for the faint at heart. But what it does require is a commitment. And not a lackadaisical one.
I know of so many that want to be part of the industry but they seek instant gratification or worse fame. This industry is about hard work, consistency, sacrifice and dedication. Each project builds some sort of value for the next. It all has to start somewhere. Did I ever think that those first days on the ice decades ago and that first high school play would lead to being on a network TV show or directing films? We can’t predict the future, but we can plan the present.
As for the present, it looks like a great conference room for our last needed location has come forward. The phrase “Location. Location. Location” is often used in real estate. The same holds true in filmmaking. For me, once the locations are secured, I start to visualize the story from script to screen.
With the crew coming together and over 100 actor submissions this past week, pre-production on Serpentine is moving along. With Northstar Ice Sports confirmed along with a private residence, the last location I’m working on is a conference room that will serve as an FBI meeting. Filming dates have gone out for one of the last days in October to the first few in November. To say there are a thousand details when putting together a film is an understatement.
When Justice Is Mind formally went into pre-production in May of 2012 I had three months to organize what ultimately became securing 15 locations via trade arrangements, 100 plus actors and a crew of over 17. Thankfully every star in the universe lined up correctly and those that worked on the project went above and beyond the call of duty. But make no mistake about it, there were issues that came up. Things that needed to be dealt with on a day to day basis. There’s no such thing as a perfect world in filmmaking but resilience and innovation has always been the key.
The one thing that I always find rewarding about this process are those that come out wanting to help. For First World it was the securing of a horse farm, for Evidence it was being allowed to film in a house, for Justice Is Mind it was the LAST MINUTE securing of an MRI center, for Serpentine it was an ice rink. As a filmmaker the one thing that drives us all forward is enthusiasm. Nobody is saying you have to come to set with pom poms and break out into a cheer, but there should be the want to create and be part of something. To quote the IMDb videos, there are “No small parts”.
What I have learned over my twenty years of experience is that everything we do in this industry is cumulative. Some parts are small, some are starring roles. Some parts pay extremely well, some cover gas (maybe). But when you put them all together it’s what you call a body of work.
All my work resulted in the production of Justice Is Mind. This past week I was reminded about the many theatrical screenings we had for my “freshman” feature. When I look at the pictures of us from those screenings and recall the work and dedication of so many, it’s events like those that make the journey all the more worthwhile. Yes, making a film takes time, dedication and resources, but it’s knowing what you create will far far exceed the time to produce it in the first place.
As for time, today I looked at the past 12 weeks of minutes watched on Amazon. When my three films have been watched for over 120,000 minutes in that period it further justifies what I do as a storyteller and filmmaker. While making a film is exciting, the joy comes in those that watch it.
Setting up a new project like Serpentine is one of details. It starts with the script where you generally write in isolation. But when you make the decision to produce, that’s when a film takes on an entirely new dimension as it becomes project management with location partners, crew, actors and a variety of other participants.
This past week the location for the ice rink was confirmed along with the actors that will play Suzanne Wilson and her coach Elizabeth Rogers. The latter has a great backstory that I will soon share. Let’s just say that my experience in figure skating has come full circle from the time I first set foot on the ice.
Certain other actors have been confirmed along with crew. Over the next several days the aim is to confirm the rest of the crew while posting for actors and securing the final two locations. My plan is to formally announce the cast, crew and location partners via press release by October 1. Should our plans stay on track, the goal is to start principal photography at the end of October.
Like Justice Is Mind, and somewhat with SOS United States, when I started to write Serpentine my aim was always to produce the project. While it certainly helped that I had a background in the sport, when one decides to produce it’s a commitment. One that starts long before and long after the production wraps. Serpentine started in January 2016 and will continue long into 2017 and well into 2018 and beyond should the feature move forward. There are no shortcuts in this industry.
I’m reminded of this commitment every day with First World, Justice Is Mind and SOS United States. With First World and Justice Is Mind released, there is the regular social media and general promotion. Both are doing extremely well on Amazon Prime in all their territories while SOS United States is still being reviewed by a production company (one that regularly produces).
Filmmaking is not like the old Ron Popeil motto of “Set it, and forget it!” once a film is completed. Promotion, in the age of VOD, is ongoing. Take this week for example, Justice Is Mind just arrived on TubiTV. As all of us associated with Justice Is Mind are reminded, four years ago this month we were filming and yet the project continues to reach new audiences through platforms like TubiTV. Platforms that didn’t exist when we were filming Justice Is Mind.
TubiTV reminds me of Hulu in its early days. It’s an advertiser supported VOD platform that doesn’t require a monthly or annual membership like Netflix (or Amazon for Prime). What’s important in the world of film distribution is to give audiences as many choices as possible on how, when and where they want to watch a film. Today, three years after release, Justice Is Mind can be watched on your TV, computer, tablet, smartphone and an array of other devices and platforms.
Speaking of platforms of a different nature, it looks like after twenty years I’ll need to get my skating legs underneath me again for Serpentine.
With posts for crew on New England Film, Stage 32 and the official website (casting for actors to follow soon), the Serpentine project is moving forward. While it’s always great to work with new people, I naturally reached out to those I’ve worked with on Justice Is Mind and First World. As so many of us see in this industry, it’s about established relationships while expanding your network. Yes, there are those I have worked with for years, while I know there will be new people I’ll meet thought this project.
So while I work on establishing a crew and securing locations based on a general idea of when we are going to shoot, there is the casting of the skater to play Suzanne Wilson. This is unlike any other actor I have ever cast. Not only does this skater have to have a “nationals” or “worlds” quality, but there is also the interest and ability to act along with necessary enthusiasm of making a film.
As one elite skater I talked with this past week rightly asked, “How long does this take to film?” As this skater has been a part of a nationals and has competed internationally, sure they have seen TV cameras. But that’s a one take show. I explained the wide, mid, close and insert shots. The camera angles, lighting, sound and, depending on a variety of factors, several takes of the same scene (personally I don’t believe in more than four). In short, it can be a bit overwhelming for a novice as it is a repetitive process.
While the “Search for Suzanne” continues, my advice to anyone that wants to get involved in this industry is to visit a set. Perhaps the easiest way to get involved is to submit to student films at local colleges that offer film programs (they always need people). Some say to be an extra in a “big movie” but I don’t agree with that as the nuances of the process are lost when you are part of a cattle call. Student films can be a lot of fun and a real eye opener. Just remember as they are student films it can very much be learn as you go and the end result can vary widely and wildly. I’ve been involved in some excellent student films and others that I will never post!
But as they say it has to start somewhere. My first TV appearance was on The Montel Williams Show in 1994. A very nice production assistant knew it was my first time on TV and pretty much told me what to expect in terms of the process. I promise you, the more you see the process the more things you pick up. After a while you learn what everyone does and why they do it.
Speaking of acting, one of my favorite museums Battleship Cove hosted a World War II event yesterday with various exhibits and reenactors. Not only is it a great history lesson, but the passion these actors have for their craft are truly Tony worthy.
After seven months of writing and research, along with attending a World Figure Skating Championships this past March for inspiration, I announced my latest project on Friday. Serpentine – A champion figure skater finds herself in a government conspiracy involving her missing mother and a Cold War mystery that culminates at the world championships in Moscow. The official website can be found at this link.
The name of the project came to me the first week I started to write it. In figure skating the word “serpentine” is used throughout a variety of areas from figures to footwork, to spiral sequences and generally consists of an “S” type of pattern. Serpentine is also mentioned in cryptography and as a code word. For this project the title Serpentine links all aspects of this story.
For independent filmmakers it’s one thing to write the screenplay and come up with a title, but then there are numerous aspects that need to be addressed prior to launch – writing a logline and synopsis, building a website, sending the script to trusted sources for review and comment, registering the script with the Writers Guild of America and U.S. Copyright Office and submitting the title to IMDb and other sources (thank you Rotten Tomatoes!). Then comes development and bringing the project to life.
Those that follow me on social media or this blog, know some of the groundwork that I’ve been developing. In as much as it’s important to keep a public face, there are those countless conversations and presentations that go on behind the scenes that are not discussed publicly until they are a done deal. Remember Justice Is Mind’s international premiere on Cunard Line’s Queen Elizabeth? That was months in discussion before the approved press release. I could have announced Serpentine months ago, but I wasn’t finished with the screenplay and had to ascertain a variety of areas within the sport to see if I wanted to move forward. But forward we are moving.
I could not be more encouraged by the response Serpentine has received since Friday. But suffice to say the next couple of weeks will be inordinately busy. From developing location deals to securing talent, I plan to post this week for cast and crew. The goal is to produce the short sometime in October with an early 2017 release. If all goes well, the idea is to produce the feature in 2017 with release after the Winter Olympics in 2018.
Does this plan sound remotely familiar? It should. I produced a short film version of Justice Is Mind titled Evidence in 2011. The release of the short in 2012 led to the production of the feature film later that year with a 2013 release. In the case of Serpentine, the plan is produce the first ten pages of the script that introduces the primary characters and storyline.
Before I close this post, I want to thank those that have supported me in developing this story. Your words of encouragement and comments on the project have been greatly appreciated over the past weeks and months.
But foremost in those thanks goes to Adam Starr who designed the concept poster you see below. I have been working with Adam since 2000 on numerous projects. In fact, the first project he did for me was a corporate promotional video for my old publishing company. In terms of posters Adam designed First World, Evidence and Justice Is Mind. To learn more about Adam and the story behind the poster, please visit the website.
On the ice. Representing…