From the Trenches- Trials and Tribulations of Fan Production

Browncoats: Redemption’s Writer/Director, Michael Dougherty, brings us a post about the trials and tribulations of fan production from the perspective of someone who has lived it.

The Cast And Crew

The Cast And Crew, photo by Bart

The crew over here at Unstoppable Signals asked if I would be interested in writing a post about the trials and tribulations of fan production from the perspective of someone who has lived it. As the writer/director/producer of Browncoats: Redemption, the completely fan funded/created unofficial sequel to Serenity which has Joss Whedon’s blessing, FOX’s ok (provided we remain 100% not for profit), as well as a return of some Firefly/Serenity Alumni in familiar, and not so familiar roles, they know I’m a good fit to discuss this topic. I really appreciate that Unstoppable Signals gave the chance to get these questions out there.

Rather than go into a long back-story of the whole project, I’ve asked a few people in the community for questions they’d like to see the answers to. I selected 14 of the best that I get asked the most frequently and that I thought might help other people interested in doing their own Fan Funded Production.

Before we begin, let me get the biggest critique out of the way.  Let me be clear, no one on this project viewed it as a replacement of Firefly/Serenity, but, like the comics, we viewed it as a temporary band-aid on the wound that is the loss of Firefly while we wait for the Big Damn Heroes to return. We want them back as much as anyone else, but until that time…we wanted more of the ‘Verse. If no one else was going to give it to us, we were going to go give it to the community, and we were going to do something mighty with it.

Fair warning, Browncoats, this is a bit long, but I get asked these questions a lot so I hope the answers will help you.

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1 ) At what point did you realize you believed in both yourself and your idea enough to pursue it? Is there any advice for a person with an idea of their own who has yet to realize their own potential?

Talk to me for about five minutes, and you’ll know once I set my mind on something I’m going to see it through hell or high water.  I am a firm believer in “if you want something bad enough, for the right reasons, nothing has more power than your desire.”

We live in this beautiful age of technology where, if you’re like me and have no previous film or TV making experience, you can find damn near everything you need online. And if you have a solid plan, and find people just as passionate as you are, you can change the world.

But realize, no one is going to just give something to you because you think you deserve it or you think you have a brilliant idea. You have to earn it, prove you should have it, and work to show that the person who gave even a small fraction of their time can see that you respect their effort/support/donation enough to work your ass off to make it come true. This isn’t about you…it’s about them. I think when you work from that perspective and let your passion for the project drive you forward, you will push yourself to places you didn’t know you could go.

2 ) Given all the hurdles you had to jump in order to get approval for this production…what was the most difficult one?

One hurdle was getting our plan in order. Because it’s for charity, I didn’t want to do this without having the consent we needed. I wanted to make sure that when we got on the phone with the studios or Joss’ people we were clear in our intent, our strategy, and our outcome. I wanted to have very clear answers for why they should trust us with something like this when most fan films are created without permission. It was a big risk, not the biggest on the project, but I was really amazed that when we came to the table prepared.

Another hurdle was that we established Browncoats Big Damn Fan Films, Inc, a 501(c)(3) charitable organization in 2008. The amount of paperwork this took was impressive, but worth it.

The biggest hurdle was waiting for an answer for anything.

3 ) What did you anticipate from the beginning would be the biggest challenge? Was it in fact the biggest? Why or why not?

I thought the biggest challenge would be getting permission, but as I mentioned above, it wasn’t. I’m really sorry to disappoint you by not having a “we had to fight the man” type story, but the reality is that when we came with a clear plan the rest was just a matter of being able to afford the attorneys to make sure the i’s were dotted and the t’s crossed.

Money really was the biggest obstacle. I wrote the script from the place of knowing I had a very tight budget. I thought another challenge would be the lack of experience, but hard work and research overcame that. Everything came out of pocket and when people saw we were working our asses of they asked “how can I help” and “what can I get for you”.

From my experience, on a fan based production, getting people to give you money up front without having proved that you can do it once before is more difficult than getting studio approval.

4 ) With life and everything else you have, how do you take that first step? It seems so daunting.

With the same thing that Book asks Mal to have…faith. I’m not a religious guy at all, but I believe faith is not just a religious term. I also know myself very well and in doing so, from serving in the military; I know I am better than the limits I set on myself.

You have to believe in what you’re doing with all of your being. You have to be like the Operative was and how Mal became at the end of Serenity. You have to be willing to go to unbelievable lengths to protect and do the thing you are passionate about. If you can’t commit to that…help someone who can.

Boom Shadow

Taken for Boom Shadow, sound guy for Browncoats: Redemption, photo by Bart

5 ) I’d like to know more about how you managed the time that it took to produce, and shoot Browncoats Redemption, and if you could do it all over again would you do it the same way?

First, would I do it all over again? Yes.

Would I do it the same way? There’s a lot I’d change due to hindsight and learned experience, but I’d still do a lot of it the same way. The time was managed two ways.

First, I got a Cracker Jack team of Scoobies who were smarter than I was and better at the jobs they were doing than I was. Arrogance that you can do it all can really hurt a project and cause severe delays. I’m not the best delegator, yet I have the best intentions, and I have a team of people who I trust to take on most anything.

Second, I gave up any inkling of a social life. I came home from my day job, walked into my office, and there I stayed every night until 2am interacting with people, scheduling, meeting people about the film online that I’d meet in person later, researching how things were done on the show to make sure that we got as close to the tone of the series as we could.  I lived, and still do, this project 24/7. No one is going to give you anything…you have to earn it. And once you get it…you have to keep working for it. There’s the saying about “if it was easy everyone would be doing it” that works well here.

6 ) What did you regret not doing or felt that you missed due to actual or perceived time constraints?

Time was a constant issue. All of the scenes in the top part of the ship (mess hall to cockpit) were filmed last. I had a 102 degree fever all weekend and we filmed for two days at 18-20 hours a day for the last available days that the location would give us. I regret not being 100% and because of that I didn’t feel confident to have the camera off of the tripod as much as I had throughout other scenes. I would have liked to have some tighter shots and taken a few more risk, but that’s hindsight talking and I know how to correct that on the next one.

7 ) Why did you choose the story you did? Wouldn’t you want to use the characters from the show?

Please keep in mind, this is my personal belief and you are entitled to disagree (most of you do…quite loudly I’m proud to say), but no one can portray the Big Damn Heroes the way the original cast does. I didn’t want to try to do that. These characters are iconic and the ‘Verse is large enough that there can be new people without disrespecting the original roles.

I also am severely curious as to what happened after Mal sent out the Signal. How would Mal’s action to defend River really impact a set of complete strangers on the opposite end of the ‘Verse who are dealing with their own issues?

I’ve learned from talking with Scott Allie, editor of the Firefly comics at Dark Horse Comics, that Joss would ask his writers “what’s the Buffy of it?” Meaning, it’s not about the space battles or the cool things you can do to wow your friends, it’s about the emotional journey of a character and the people around them.

That’s why we don’t have Reavers. That’s why we don’t have huge space battles. They didn’t serve to tell you the journey that Laura and her crew have to go on throughout the film. That’s also why we love the characters in Firefly so much. We want to go on a journey with them. And hopefully, if we did our job right, you may want to go on another journey with the crew of Redemption.

8 ) How did you block the fight scenes, especially the one with Stevens?

This comes back to getting people smarter than you. I had a fight scene in mind where very specific things needed to happen and be said to move the story forward. After I explained that to Malachi McCoy, our fight choreographer, I stepped out of the control seat and let him create. What is three pages in the script turns into 5 minutes of two people, with no past film fighting experience, giving you more than I imagined.

From there I walked circles around them to figure out where the camera would be while they rehearsed. On the newest edition of the DVD & Blu-Ray we have the anatomy of the fight scene. You can see me walking around, trying to get the camera in some good positions, while not getting in the way of the fight, which the actors performed from beginning to end for each take.

9 ) What’s the difficulty of balancing operating costs with charitable objectives?

You can’t go into a Fan Funded Production thinking you’re going to make money for two reasons:  it’s illegal and, oh yeah, you’ll get sued. You’re creating something set in someone else’s world. Even if you get permission, you don’t own the characters you create once the fan film is done unless they tell you otherwise. Your creation becomes property of the studio who owns the world in which you set your story and characters in.

You have to go into this like Vegas. You put in your own money, take the risks and responsibilities, and know that more than likely you’ll leave with less than what you came in with. IF you can get approval, the most you’ll ever get out of it is the money you put into it. At the end of the day the balance sheet has to come out to zero with you making no profit whatsoever.

Add creating charitable objectives to a fan film, which has never been done before, and you now have a butt load of math which still means you come out with zero. You have to take each day as if the studio is going to come in at any time and ask you “where is this money coming in going?” It can’t go to paying actors, it can’t go to paying for locations, it can’t go to anything other than, in our case, the charities you choose, and repaying the money you put in if you have the approval to do that. Because what you define as a “profit” can often be very different from what a studio may view as “profit”.

At the end of the day, you’ve given to something greater than yourself. There’s no better reward for that.

10 ) How do I deal with or inspire or insulate the rest of my team from someone on my production team who seems to have a defeatist attitude about being able to complete our project?

First thing you do, pull that Negative Nancy over and find out what the hell is wrong. They could be pissed off for a very valid reason, and this is your chance to fix it. This could be your opportunity to inspire them to see the greater picture or reassure them that they are part of the team.

Or it could be time to thank that person for their hard work and send them on their way. I know this sounds really cold and really black and white, but you’re doing this on your free time where everyone else is volunteering their time to help. If someone doesn’t want to be there and is being extremely negative for the sake of being negative…they can do more damage than good. Take it on a case by case basis.

11 ) How do I deal with or insulate the rest of my team from people outside of the production who seem to have nothing but negative things to say because “it’s just a fan film”?

Hard truth time…you can’t.

People are going to say negative things on the internet just because they can. Whether they think they know what your end result will be, they’ve seen the finished product, they think the story in their head (but won’t have the balls to make) is better than yours, they just want the original cast back of whatever series it is, or a bazillion and one other things that I’ve seen over the past 2+ years…some people aren’t going to like what you do.

Everyone has opinions; they are fully entitled to them.  When the critiques are constructive, you can learn from them.  But at the end of the day you have to remember, the only people who will understand what you’ve gone through, and the work you’ve put into it, are the people who’ve made their own movie.

12) How can I help ensure that even though we’re a “fan project” that we still hold ourselves to a higher production standard than cardboard special effects and crayola make-up?

On set of Browncoats: Redemption

On set of Browncoats: Redemption, photo by Eddie Codel

That’s personally up to you. Keep in mind Star Wars had a very limited budget and improvised a lot for props, but you’d never know it. For me, on Redemption, I wanted to make sure we got the biggest bang for the buck. I read Robert Rodriguez’s book “Rebel Without a Crew” cover to cover a bunch of times. I watched each of the 10 minute “flick school” videos on the bonus features of his DVD. When you’re working with a limited budget, you have to get creative, but that doesn’t mean you have to look cheap.  For example, our total wardrobe budget was under $500.

13 ) Since you don’t have Joss Whedon-like celebrity, how do you grow the audience?

You work for it. From day one we were actively involved in the community and transparent about our intentions. People knew that they were interacting with me online. It’s not just going out there and talking about yourself; it’s talking about what other people are doing. Reciprocity is key, as is as building long term relationships. But as I’ve said before, you have to work for it.

14 ) If you could travel back in time to when you first had the idea for Redemption, what would you tell yourself now?

Dude…it’s going to be ok. You’re going to work your ass off. There are days where it seems like everything is going wrong and you make nothing but wrong choices. But at the end of the whole thing…you’re going to know that you are capable of so much more.

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The Browncoats: Redemption Fan Film Booth, photo by Bart

The Browncoats: Redemption Fan Film Booth, photo by Bart

Thank you for sticking with me through this. I hope there are some nuggets of wisdom that you’ve been able to pull out of them. If there was a question you want answered you didn’t see here, please comment below, and I’ll answer it.

All I ask in return is that you check out Browncoats: Redemption and consider donating for a copy. With Joss’ blessing on it, cameos from Adam Baldwin, Michael Fairman, and more, an original track by Greg Edmondson, FOX’s ok of it (provide we remain non-profit), and the charities we’re supporting…it’s the closest thing, in my mind, to a sequel to Serenity we’re going to see for awhile. At the very least, you’ve helped charity and are part of the history of something that’s never been done before for Firefly or for fandom as a whole.

If you would like to pick up a copy, please make sure Unstoppable Signals gets credit for your support, you can donate for one via our online store or via PayPal. For PayPal orders unstoppablesignals must appear in the “Add special instructions to the seller” for the transaction to credit or they need to email us at media@browncoatsmovie.comwith their receipt. Only PayPal donations that come through with that note will be credited for coming from this site.

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About Michael Dougherty

Just a guy who started out watching Firefly on TV in 2002 and, with the help of hundreds of amazing Browncoats, created Browncoats: Redemption, the Joss Whedon bless unofficial sequel to Serenity made to raise money for five charities created or supported by the cast and crew of Firefly which has raised over $47,000 combined to date. Learn more at http://browncoatsmovie.com and use code unstoppablesignals if you order to let us know you came from here.