The Martian

aldrin“We have to go to Mars, and this his how we do it,” Buzz Aldrin said with intensity, his eyes boring into me, riveting me to my chair.  I was interviewing the 2nd man to walk on the Moon for a “Star Trek” television special.  We wanted a reaction from NASA astronauts on the impact of the famous sci-fi series on our culture.  Mr. Aldrin graciously offered a few choice comments for us.  But he was more eager to explain his Mars plan, and spent 20 minutes on camera doing so.  He convinced me it could happen in our lifetime.  Back then, I thought he was a little off his rocker. But today, it’s no joke.  Serious plans are in the works.  In an August 2015  U.S. News report, Aldrin announced that he’s joining the Florida Institute of Technology to develop a ‘master plan’ for colonizing Mars in less than 25 years.

Over a dozen films have imagined a trip to Mars, and some with real scientific theories embedded in the storyline.  But nothing compares to The Martian, starring Matt Damon and directed by Ridley Scott.  NASA was on board to provide facts about space travel, ultimately contributing 50 pages of script material.  Also, the flight mirrors many aspects of actual planned missions.  Jessica Chastain met with real astronauts and various personnel from JPL in preparation for her role as a female space traveler.   Andy Weir, who wrote the book the film is based on, spent serious research time watching space documentaries and scouring the Internet for information.  The plot deals with a marooned astronaut (Damon) determined to survive Mar’s harsh environmental conditions.  He must find ways to grow food, find water, and withstand one calamity after another.   Weir admits that some plot points were not accurate, including depicting an intense sandstorm that wreaks havoc on the stranded astronaut’s habitat.  Based on inertia in the atmosphere, “even a 150-km-an-hour sandstorm on Mars would feel like a one-mile-per-hour breeze on Earth,” Weir said. “But this is a man versus nature story, and I wanted nature to get the first punch in.”  Planetary scientist Dr. Jim Green praised Ridley Scott on his attention to detail. “He wanted to make it realistic and I’ve appreciated pulling together teams of people and answering questions that he asked,” said Green. “And the more that happened, the more I got excited about that, because the film does indeed look very realistic. It has a lot of real elements on it and that’s appreciated from a NASA perspective.”  As a marketing strategy for The Martian, Neil deGrasse Tyson devoted a special episode of his program Space Talk on Mars, exploring the potential dangers of visiting the planet (cosmic radiation, solar flares, etc.).

Buzz AldrinIn recent years, Mars has become a hot news topic.  Mars One, a non-profit organization, vows to create a manned colony on the planet, and volunteers have signed up for a one-way ticket to the Red Planet, beginning in 2026.  In a 2010 speech, President Barak Obama said, “By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow. And I expect to be around to see it.”   Hopeful words indeed.

pia19916-main_perspective_2And on September 28th, NASA reported that they’ve discovered evidence of water on Mars.

“It took multiple spacecraft over several years to solve this mystery, and now we know there is liquid water on the surface of this cold, desert planet,” said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. “It seems that the more we study Mars, the more we learn how life could be supported and where there are resources to support life in the future.”   This is an amazing news story for two reasons.  One, water equals potential life on the Red Planet. Two, this comes –mysteriously — days before the release of The Martian, which may be a sneaky public relations ploy (was NASA holding out until the movie came out in hopes of riding on its marketing heels?).  Then again, this may prove problematic for the film, since its story premise depends on the absence of water.

Other films featuring Mars:

Red Planet

Total Recall

Mission to Mars

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Unscorched Bridges

How long ago was it? 5 years? 10 years?  No matter. The fact is, a former colleague found me, rang me up, and asked if I still wrote and produced promos.  Out of the blue.  Doesn’t matter how they found me (LinkedIn, Facebook, Google, other friends).  The thing that matters is they remembered me.  I must have made a good impression on them.  Somewhere in the dark catacombs of their memories in a fast-paced, what-have-you-done-lately world, my name shined a light. Why?  In part, I chalk it up to bridges that were not burned.  We went our separate ways on good terms.   I know so many employees who dis their former bosses and their co-workers.  Rightly so in some cases. But be careful.  Word of bad mouth gets around and one day you’ll wonder why no one is answering your calls.

True story:  in the span of two weeks during the spring 2015, three people I’d worked a LONG TIME AGO contacted me, seeking my expertise.  They sought me out in a sea of hundreds of other qualified writer/producers.  And it led to some decent gigs.  In one case, there was animosity between us that dissolved over time.  In another, the caller was oblivious to wrongs done to me (in that case, it’s a judgement call whether to work with that person. Can you forgive and forget?  Is the project worth burying the hatchet?).

So, before you gossip, trash, and blast that person sitting in the cubicle next to you, take a beat.  Weigh the good with the bad.  If the person is truly despicable, they may deserve your scorn and so, be done with it. If you think their tolerable and might be useful down the road, hold back the nasty barbs.  Keep that number in your cell phone.   You never know…

Look who’s at the door: Opportunity

“And… action!” I yell, as a huge wind machine blasts manufactured falling snow at two actors, who pretend to be chilly.  Is this a big Hollywood movie production? Not quite.  But exciting nonetheless. EPSON MFP image

Weeks earlier, my power-hungry boss came to me with a major opportunity disguised as an assignment.  “We’re taking over the  Movie Trailer Show and you’re doing it,” he said to me.  A cocktail of excitement, fear, glee, and dread swirled in my stomach. The company I worked for was handling a majority of the promotion on a fledgling new network, and my main duties involved writing and producing weekly spots. But there was also this Saturday afternoon movie, including short hosted segments .  “Just do something better and different,” my boss added, as my only instructions.  Hmm. The existing show wasn’t half-bad, shot on an insert stage with a pair of young, hip hosts and an Airstream as part of the backdrop.  How was I going to radically change the format?  That’s opportunity knocking, delivering a package saying ‘You’ve won! What are you going to do with the prize money?’   For the first time I’d be wearing three hats:  writer, producer, and director.  More responsibility, more chances to show off my creative juices. Or fall flat on my face.

I chose to reach high.  First, dash the set, hosts, and any resemblance of the prior format.  I opted to pick a new location each week– specifically a Hollywoodesque or moving-making environment.  We visited a special effects company, a prop house, the Petersen Auto Museum, the Gene Autry Museum– even Merv Griffin’s game show warehouse, filled with an odd assortment of set decorations.  I also chose two different hosts each week, selected from the network’s line-up of shows.   The challenge:  filming a dozen set ups, writing a dozen scripts, choosing a dozen different looks– all inside of eight hours. On a Saturday.  We pulled it off, often with hilarious results.  I wrote humorous bits for the actors, filled with trivia on the movies; directed without a manual, always thankful for a helpful D.P. to help frame scenes; raced against the clock to make my day; added amusing graphics, quirky music in post… in essence, totally digging this experience.  One of the highlights: filming our actors in a fake snowstorm (see photo above).

The lesson here is when something seemingly daunting lands in your lap, go for it. Even when you may feel less than experienced to handle the job.  Learn on your feet.  Dive in.  Enjoy the adrenaline rush of tackling new territory.  Makes you a better professional in the long run.  And you can offer more creative options to your future clients.

 

Rip-a-matics: The Fine Art of Cheating.

Sometimes there’s a pilot.  Perhaps a script.  Maybe only an idea. But most often you have NO FOOTAGE WHAT SO EVER to promote a new series or special program.   You have to create magic –out of nothing.   In the promo world, I am often asked to rise to the challenge of pitching something with little to go on.  Big bucks can be thrown at these projects, which are presented at large, highly-publized Affiliate Upfront meetings or before studio’s big decision makers.   To achieve a great presentation effectively requires plenty of research… and a bit of ignore-that-man-behind-the-curtain trickery.

CASE STUDY #1:  CBS and Paramount wanted to tease a new sitcom.  I had a rough pilot script that hadn’t been cast or shot.  What to do?  Sell what’s on the page: Brooklyn.  The 1950’s.  A sweet, Jewish grandmother.  First, we cast a female to read Granny narrating parts of the script, with some embellishing. We covered it with archival stock footage of New York –brown stones; street scenes; panoramas; kids playing; shop owners; etc..  But there were still gaps to cover the narration.  Solution:  film sections of a 50’s style apartment– without people. Open on a slow, tight, pan of a living room, discovering a hand placing a needle on an scratchy LP to cue our vintage soundtrack.  Dissolve to a scrapbook with generic black and white stills of a family.  In between stock footage, reveal a kitchen, moving across a counter with old appliances and kitchen table, set for a meal.  End on a hand caressing the scrapbook. Some sound fx, music, a little smoke and mirrors. All producing iconic warm, family imagery.   A simple storytelling device evoking the right emotions, pulling the heartstrings.  Result? A greatly satisfied client and a series order.

CASE STUDY #2:  For one unique television series proposal, I needed to write and produce a 5-minute sizzle with specific rules. Establish the franchise: Star Trek.  The setting:  a space station in deep space.  The characters: all fresh, new faces and no actors inked yet.   The trick: depict an exciting, richly detailed, never-before-seen futuristic adventure without showing any recognizable characters and imagery.  No Kirk or Spock.  Nothing that says: “I’ve seen that before.” I combed through every Trek film and sci-fi movie imaginable, carefully plucking out generic officers, space battles, and other-worldy phenomena.  Edited together to look completely brand new.  Result: high acclaim for ‘cheating’ and generating lots of positive buzz for a series that eventually lasted seven seasons.

Call them Rip-a-matics or cheats, but they require clever thinking, writing, and imagination.  They can make or break a potential TV series launch.  I’ve been lucky to help shepherd some good product on their journey to the airwaves.

Immersion

LOC Ice Yachting (Barr)Ice yachting.

Ultimate Dodgeball.

U.S. Skydiving championships.

I got to know these sports inside and out.

Exoplanets.  Wormholes.  Solar sailing.  Stellar Cartography. I delved into these scientific space age concepts head on.

To effectively produce non-fiction television and other media on subjects I’m unfamiliar with, I always IMMERSE myself into research. Tons of it.  It can be time-consuming, but most often….fun.

For Fox Sports, I helped produce a “Wide World of Sports”-type program, requiring heavy research into little-known sports.  For Ultimate Dodgeball, players bounce and pounce on trampolines.  The largest fresh water lake in the world hosted an ice yachting championship, with one-person sail-powered schooners zipping at 80-plus miles an hour.   The Carolina Turbos, Arizona Arsenal, and other top sky jumpers compete in categories like 4-man canopy formation, where parachutes literally stack on top of one another, peel off, and stack again.  Then there was sanshou, slamball, waterlining, and wushu, just to name a few odd sports.

For Paramount Home Entertainment’s release of a new “Star Trek” Film Collection, I pitched a documentary about ‘real’ outer space using experts at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab.  That meant boning up on many complex scientific concepts and space lingo to illicit easy-to-grasp comments from astrophysicists.  Fascinating, as Spock would say, but challenging.  As a result, I was able to contrast and compare Star Trek’s fictional world with cutting-edge technology.

Immersion into topics can be informative, eye-brow raising, and a kick in the pants.  Chart the history of Disco with a former Studio 54 Dee Jay (for the DVD of Saturday Night Fever).  Get the skinny on robotics at a Boston Robot Convention or U.S.C.’s Robotic Lab.   Uncover the grisly details behind John Hinkley, Jr.’s insanity defense (a Primal Fear DVD bonus feature).

IMMERSION. It’s more than researching a subject. It’s making sure the topic will work ahead of time. It allows a producer to know the subject backwards and forwards in order to achieve the ultimate goal — tell a compelling story.

The facts about JFK

jfk-posterMajor historical milestones, for better or worse, always make the headlines. The 50th anniversary of the John F. Kennedy assassination on November 22, 1963 is one such example. Whether the numerous TV specials, docudramas, and special news reports filling the airwaves are exploitative or well-meaning is up to public opinion. More than one major motion picture has brought attention to Kennedy’s tragic shooting and the conspiracy claims surrounding his death.

Read the complete post on my Film 2 Fact blog.

The facts about GRAVITY

Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson knows outer space.  That’s why when he weighs in on the accuracy of a film like GRAVITY, the world perks up.  Read the complete post on my Film 2 Fact blog.