First draft done

Over our vacation in Orlando (lows in the 60’s, highs in the 80’s; such a nice change from the dreary weather at home), I wrapped up all the scenes I originally envisioned when I wrote the synopsis for Treasure Hunt. However, the script turned out to be much shorter than I intended (that seems to be a chronic problem for me). My goal was 100 pages, once formated (I use Fountain). That, I felt, would give me some cushion from the movie being too short, while making it unlikely I’d wind up too long (the sweet spot is 90-120 minutes; there being approximately 1 minute per page of formated screenplay). When I said all I intended to say, though, I wound up with 68 formatted pages (a bit more than 14.5K words; it’s heavy on dialog).

The minimum length to be considered a feature is 80 minutes (this is very important when it comes to festivals), thus I’m running 12 pages shy of the minimum length (again, assuming filming and editing result in 1 minute per page). In researching the minimum length, I discovered that, to my surprise, beginning and end credits are counted in determining the official length of the movie. I already have plans for putting a critical poem to music for running over the end credits, so that adds a couple of minutes, and I have a (PG-13) love scene that’s described in three sentences, which will surely run at least a minute or two, but that still leaves me well short of my goal.

I sent the draft off to one of my screenplay editors for her review (now I wait two long weeks). I have confidence she’ll have suggestions for scenes I can enhance and likely new scenes I haven’t thought of (or did think of, but felt would slow the pacing down; I have notes scattered through the screenplay just for her). I work with her because I know she can provide invaluable insight for just such things. The other editor I like to work with doesn’t have an opening until the end of May, but hopefully I’ll have less to make up before she gets to it. I’m confident she’ll also have suggestions for making it longer (as, I’m sure, both will for making it better; why I trust them with my ideas in the first place).

My next job is to focus on creating storyboards and floor plans (the former being sketches of what I want the viewer to see, the latter being camera placements relative to actors and props). Naturally, my brain spends endless effort on anything NOT related to TreasHu and I instead wrote the ‘inciting incident’ for my follow-on to RedDom this morning, as well as mentally fleshing out scenes for a couple of other movie ideas I’ve been making notes for (for example).

I decided to take each scene from the TreasHu script and turn it into an individual web page, so I can put the created images right next to the relevant script elements. I began doing that manually, and after a half dozen scenes realized I could automate it with a program, so slipped into that rabbit hole for a few hours (spread over two days). Once again, I’m running out of excuses, so here I am, blogging instead. I believe I’ve decided, since I suck at drawing, I’d first start writing down what I have in mind. Initially as a way to try and develop momentum, but also as a way to try and at least have some record of what I have in mind (I deliberately try and avoid ‘directing to the script,’ so it’s easier to read). I also have mentally struggled with a way to keep the screenplay as it evolves in sync with the images I produce (I also need to take pictures of the various locations; all this is to have as raw material when I start to talk with DP candidates, ideally starting no later than May (and we’re already in April!)). So I focus on those issues rather than actually doing the drawing. I suspect it won’t be so bad when I get started, but, as I believe I’ve said before, I don’t have much control over my brain and have to sort of cajole it into performing for me.

I do feel good about the draft, though. I earlier sent it to two women who have been helping me as subject matter experts (SMEs) on the Civil War. They both felt the elements I mentioned were accurate, though one of them clearly envisioned something more ‘period’ when I first approached her, and it took her a while to get used to the modern take (period pieces are expensive, and I need to avoid expense at all costs). As is often the case, the SMEs gave me 100x more information than I could ever use, but it was an interesting learning experience. Just this morning my wife and I were watching a segment of “Aerial America” that focused on Virginia. When they were talking about Stonewall Jackson, I was telling her about some of the things I’d learned, only to have the narrator repeat them. Just like learning about how Dominatrix‘ work for my murder mystery, I got to learn a whole lot about the Civil War. Fun stuff. Now I’m really looking forward to researching my other scripts.

Signing off now, to try and get motivated to storyboard, but have a sneaking suspicion I’m going to wind up in front of the TV once again…

Director’s Statement

My goal with Treasure Hunt is twofold: first: to learn, by doing, how to assemble and manage a team to produce a feature-length film that’s engaging and entertaining. Second, but no less important, to evaluate if making movies is as intellectually challenging and entertaining as I envision it to be. If both of these are satisfied, then, for me, the project will be a success.

Though this will be done with a micro budget, where cast and crew are compensated with reel, beer and pizza, I intend to carry out operations as if it were a well budgeted film working under professional conditions. Even though it will be a non-union operation, I intend to act as if under those constraints. Thus, a well-fed crew operating no more than 10 hour days as often as possible.

I intend to hire cast and crew that’s talented, but also caught in the Catch-22 situation of needing experience to get jobs that require experience. My goal is to create a rising tide that lifts all boats, and want to foster a close and supportive working environment where we can look forward to working together again in the future, with a full budget and production staff.

As such, I’ll be looking for teammates that can work collaboratively together and understand that small budgeted indie movies need people willing to pick up the slack sometimes when everyone else is busy doing their job.

When writing Treasure Hunt, I made my decisions based around the idea of a small ensemble cast, few locations and as many of those as possible on our property in the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia. There isn’t a budget for more than a few unconventional shots, though I hope to find a DP who has the imagination necessary to make the best out of the limited resources.

The filming will all need to be done over weekends. However, it may be possible to rehearse during the week (I live in Silver Spring, MD) as I expect to pull most, if not all, the cast and crew from the DC metro area. To keep the budget under control, I’ll be offering cast and crew accommodations at our house in Virginia. As a hook to entice collaborators, we have an indoor pool and I intend to supply dinners as well as breakfasts and lunches.

Post production, I intend to search for and apply for local film festivals, as well as any that have interest in the Civil War. I believe it will be possible to make back some of the budget by four-walling the film in select locations. I hope I can count on cast and crew to help create demand for the film. I expect the film to wind up in IMDB and will have a website where information about the film is available, along with stills, trailers, cast and crew bios and/or interviews. I will most likely make the film available on a streaming service as well.

I expect this film, and the experience making it, to establish us all as professionals. And that we will all go on to long and successful careers in the making of motion pictures.

Whaza Critique Partner?

A critique partner (CP) is sort of like being alpha/beta reader to each other. Good ones are hard to find. I’ve only got one after trying a dozen or more times. There are a number of authors I regularly beta read for, and expect to do so as long as they continue writing, but their feedback on my work hasn’t been useful. Alternatively, some people will provide a little feedback, then nothing. While it isn’t required to be friends with a CP, I believe it’s beneficial, as you become each other’s cheerleader. But the most important thing is you need to be honest and open and be willing to say the things you feel are important. Both need to be someone who will look at ideas, snippets, revisions, etc. with a critical eye of an author, but who also understands what each are trying to do with their writing. Mine is really good at providing ideas for making my stories stronger, without necessarily trying to put her stamp on it. Another woman I read for, who writes lovely stories I hope get published sometime (and has some great steamy romance as well), is terrible at only being able to see her concept of what I’m talking about. Because we’ve become friendly, I have to actively remind myself not to ask for her opinions. They’re a waste of both our time.

CPs are two-way streets, which is why finding the right one is rare. You have to be interested enough in each other’s writing styles and goals that you’re willing and eager to read and reread, have enough ego that you take the feedback that inspires you and leave the rest, yet also be able to accept your advice being ignored. Some people just don’t have the personality to be CPs. Others are too sensitive to criticism to remain friendly after they’ve heard something they didn’t like. And some just don’t have the energy to stick with it. If it becomes a chore to communicate, clearly there’s no ‘partnership’ in it.

It’s great if you find one, but don’t feel it’s a requirement. You should still work with beta readers even if you have a great CP, as you need independent eyes to go over it (just like you need independent eyes of editors). Just remember, you don’t have to take your CP’s advice.

Editing Epiphany

I just finished watching “The Cutting Edge, The Magic of Movie Editing.” I already knew I needed a good editor. I’ve read a book on it, not to mention books on directing, all hammering home the importance of the editor. But watching this 99 minute show (it felt much longer, perhaps because I was so hyper aware and tuned in) transformed my thoughts on editing. I know I need a good DP (cinematographer) and expect that to be the next biggest challenge (after getting the damn script done). I know I need someone who understands sound, but haven’t (yet?) internalized how important the right guy (or gal) would be. But this show explained how some pivotal scenes I know and love from movies I cherish were entirely the product of the editor. Many of these scenes were not written or filmed (intentionally; obviously, for them to be edited they had to be filmed) and only exist because the editor saw the little nuggets of gold scattered around and collected them into an artistic tapestry.

Now I need to add finding a good editor to finding a good DP in order to feel the confidence to find good actors. That being said, the prospects excite me, rather than cause any sort of dread. Maybe that manic part of the manic depressive (which, btw, I like better than boring bipolar; so much more expressive) that has me so convinced I can not just assemble a team capable of making movie magic, but to do so with a $2K budget, essentially asking all these people to pour their hearts out for free.

I guess if I weren’t crazy, I’d never take something like this on. Only time will tell if my crazy is actually genius.

Poetic map

I decided, part way through the design process of the story, to have instructions on finding the treasure hidden in a poem instead of a conventional map with an ‘X’ on it.  It sounded like such a great idea, but now I’m tasked with coming up with poem-like prose (the instructions are in another poem, so, thankfully, don’t have to be perfect).  I’ve struggled with coming up with the proper words.  It needs to be obscure, but not so obscure that the clues can’t be solved.  It’s taken me a while (I’m moving much more slowly than I’d like, I’ve only got around 40 pages (8K words) written so far), but I’m starting to make progress.

Part of that progress has been actually working with a map.  With the help I mentioned earlier, I’ve got a map from the era when the land was originally settled (by Europeans, of course).  That map, coupled with many discussions with my consultants, has given me enough ideas to get about two thirds the lines I need.  I have ideas for the last third, just need to find ways to actually type when I sit in front of the computer with my hands on the keyboard.  If I hadn’t already shown that I can write, I’d have a serious crisis of conscious, but, fortunately, my massive ego shields me.

The Sketch that Started it all

Below is the character sketch I produced when I first got excited about the Diary of  a Contract Killer concept.  At first I intended nothing more than a few notes, but then thought to write it as if the character was talking to the reader (which did wind up in the final format (and continued for the series)).  I didn’t intend for it to run as long as it did (over 6.5K), but because it flowed so easily I gained the confidence that I could turn it into something readable.

You may notice that the tone changes somewhat (assuming you read the first couple of chapters I have online), as does the conceit that the stories are ghost written, but there are lots of the elements preserved.  I only lightly edited the prose, for instance to remove my patented runon sentences, so it’s pretty close to what I first wrote.  The few people I proudly showed it off to complained that there was no character arc, no growth, which is what caused me to elaborate on the the “Ziva” aspect and turn it into a love story.

A few chunks made it directly into the novel wholesale, but, for the most part, the information served as my own background for the character as I made creative decisions.  The other two books in the series reveal some additional parts of the sketch, so, conceptually, I probably have used it all.

Enjoy!


Diary of a Contract Killer

Keith Alan

Feb 13, 2015

This is a ghost written document, I’m not much of a writer. I found someone who I felt I could trust and to whom I could tell stories. He could then convert our conversations into prose. I did my best to not reveal anything specific regarding dates / times / targets / etc., and then asked my writer to take liberties to further obscure events. Because he has agreed to romanticize our conversations and invent dialog wherever he thinks appropriate, nothing that follows refers to actual people or events.

I grew up with parents in the foreign service. It seemed we were always moving and I got very practiced at learning new cultures and languages. I appear to have a gift for being able to hear accents and being able to reproduce them, and have often been told I sound more authentic than the people who actually grew up in the given environment. I’m also blessed with excellent memorization skills (very handy in school, let me tell you!) so I can quickly pick up enough of a language to pass in casual conversation. I’m not terribly fluent in a lot of languages, at least what I consider fluency (to be able to carry on a conversation for hours without any mistakes), but I know enough so I can generally move around pretty much anywhere an average white guy can go without attracting undue attention.

Regarding “average”: I’m specifically well suited for my job because I have pretty much dead average looks. I’m generally totally unmemorable and that works very well to my advantage. My general “disguise” is actually to make myself more distinctive in some way. That way, any description focuses on the distinctive element rather than my average-ness. Perhaps ironically, being average in school never was a problem for me; I was always the exotic outsider and attracted a lot of attention that I enjoyed.

My childhood was, other than having to remake friends every 18-24 months, very comfortable. My parents took very good care of me and I still see them regularly. I never burdened them with my source of income; I have a cover story (several, actually, but I’ll get to that later) that entails lots of international travel. They know about my facility with language, and, coupled with my direct experience growing up, they’re very comfortable with my cover.

I joined the military as a youth. I’d always been interested in guns and the idea of being a sniper, but due to our regular movements and the wildly different legal/cultural environments we experienced, I had very little direct involvement with them as a child. It turned out that I was pretty damn good at shooting from a distance, and had no problems getting accepted into sniper school. I did well, but not anything spectacular. I did excel, though, at the scouting aspect. The ability to get in and out unnoticed with my “intel.” That got me attention from the special forces recruiters (they only recruit from the “inside,” they never recruit from civilians) and when they found out about my language skills I had my pick. As a sniper, I actually had very few kills. Of course, the average sniper might spend a decade crawling in the bush and only shoot a handful of people, so again, that doesn’t make me stand out. I did get very popular, though, regarding my ability to blend in and become essentially invisible in plain sight. That allowed me to do all sorts of scouting in urban situations, to place bugs, to observe and report (I learned to read an entire newspaper or magazine by occasional glances while surveying the area; that way if anyone asked me about an article I could give cogent responses). I enjoyed the military training, but they really aren’t looking for cold-blooded killers, they want people who actually feel something when they kill. The average sniper either has to be convinced that the specific target is a bad guy or learns to demonize the target’s group. I guess this makes them easier to control, but it seems to me that these guys are more likely to suffer PTSD and wind up living under a bridge when they get home.

Getting Started

I learned I had no problems killing people before I joined the military. Of course I didn’t tell my recruiter that! I also learned early on that I was not moved by blood and guts. As a youth, I was very close when a bomb went off in a cafe and was first on the scene to help people. Of course, back then I wasn’t aware of the “double tap” procedure (where you set off a second bomb to take out the rescuers) or I never would’ve got that close, but it was a single bomb and I found myself very level headed and with clarity of thought. I helped people, who were clearly going to die, to be a wee bit less uncomfortable in the last few moments of their life. It was amazing to me how many actually seemed to relax just before the end; I guess shock helps with that. Anyway, a friend of mine at the time had a family friend who lost someone during that event. The mother of my friend evidently had some connection to some sort of intelligence organization and I overheard her talking about how they knew exactly who was responsible, but given that person’s lofty political position, there wasn’t enough evidence to lead to an arrest, let alone a trial or conviction. I guess I wasn’t thinking about the wider implications, I just said something to the effect about taking care of things outside the court system, which seemed to attract her attention. I have had several people remark about my “killer eyes” (I have no idea what that means) and perhaps she felt that looking at me and, likely on impulse, asked me how I would take care of it. I described what I had in mind and she said she’d think it over.

It was several days later when she engineered a bit of time for us to be alone in an area where we couldn’t be overheard. She asked me if I were really serious and would I go through with it. Sure, I said, what’s the big deal? She told me where to find the target, when would be good times and to go ahead. Thinking back, I should have been surprised or shocked, but I guess kids think they’re invulnerable; I recall no thoughts at all about being unsuccessful or having any problems.

The target (at one point I made up names for the targets but found out that, I guess through Freudian slips, I was leaking information, so stopped) regularly had an evening drink on the roof of his house (in this part of the world just about everyone has flat roofs; too hot during the day, but perfect in the evenings). Since I was a kid, and since Parkour was popular at the time, I’d developed a lot of skills in running, jumping, climbing, etc. and very easily made it up to the top of the several story building. I hid amongst the potted plants on the roof until it was quite dark. The target had been having a drink with dinner, something I’d planned on, and eventually, as it cooled off, decided to head down inside the house. This was exactly what I was waiting for and as he got up and headed toward the door, I moved quietly behind him, and when he started down the first step I jumped on his back and rode him head first down the stairwell. I made quite sure his head hit as he went forward and gave his neck a bit of a twist intending for his neck to snap. It went off without a hitch (I’ve since learned that was largely a matter of luck, but of course then I was sure it was pure skill), he never even twitched after he hit. I headed back the way I came, after making sure I hadn’t accidentally left any traces, and went about my normal evening activities. The news the next day remarked about how the target had had an accidental fall and how tragic it was his political career was over. My friend’s mother was very nice to me thereafter, though we never said another word about it.

I was a teenage punk at the time and thought I was superman for handling it. I’ve since realized how lucky I was, I had no fallback plans and didn’t appreciate the risk that I could have been discovered or seen getting in or out.

Reasonably Priced

Since I knew I was a “consciousless killing machine” before I joined the military, I’d already given thought to the idea of a career killing for money. My reason for going in the military and attempting to become a special forces sniper was to get exposure to how experts did it, and develop contacts (I have subsequently worked with my friend’s mother on some other jobs; there are so many benefits to having an excellent memory). I did my hitch and was in the process of getting out when I was approached by a couple of TLAs (we collectively call them “three letter acronyms” because so many have exactly three) about coming to work for them. Since I was intent on a career on my own, I was careful to make it seem that I was no longer interested in the ‘biz. I’ve worked with the TLAs since then, but always through intermediaries. One critical element I have is to be well at arm’s length from the client. I never want the client to think they can clean up loose ends by cleaning me up, so work to ensure they never know who I am. Nominally, I don’t know who my clients are either, though due to the nature of my business (so much being personal), I’m often able to figure out who has the most to gain and thus who my client likely is.

While hiring someone like me isn’t cheap, you might be surprised how inexpensive it is. I generally charge the equivalent of $100K a month, though add in any expected expenses as well as a premium based on the target specifics. I charge $50K just to evaluate the job. Only once the money is deposited (I have a rat’s nest of accounts I move money around, and some of the banks I use I’ve had professional relationships with giving me extra confidence that the money will never be traced back to me) do I even evaluate how much I will charge for the job. I find this eliminates those who aren’t serious. I’m totally fine with only working a few months out of the year, so happily pass on jobs where the client won’t adhere to my principles. Once I start to consider the job I do a lot of investigation on the target. Just because someone isn’t a household name doesn’t mean that they’re an easy target; I want to be damn sure of what I’m going up against before I commit. Sometimes the client is very specific about how they want the job done, which can have an impact on the cost. Either they specifically want it to look like an accident (about half the cases; I’m proud to note that about a third of my kills never even lead to an autopsy (not that that would have mattered)) or they are intent on sending a message and want a gorey visible kill. Occasionally they don’t care and I usually go with sniping, since I generally prefer to minimize the chance of the unexpected. So after I’ve evaluated the target, which often takes a week or more, I provide the client with a price. I’ve only had a couple of clients turn me down at this stage; generally if they have gone this far they are in it for the duration. I wait for the rest of the money to be paid (I always work with all the money paid up front, that way there’s even less chance that I become a “loose end”) then give them a cancel code (used exactly once) and tell them an approximate timetable. I never give absolute timetable because I always want to leave room for flexibility, but I generally give a 3-5 day window so the client can do whatever the client feels is necessary in preparation.

The biggest challenge I see in this business is being patiently alert at all times. The vast bulk of my time is spent waiting attentively. I believe I’ve mastered the art of looking totally absorbed in something (sometimes music, generally a book or magazine) while using all my faculties to observe the environment. Many of my peers in the military found this boring and would often get restless or careless. I never found it so; I’d be spending most of that time working through detailed scenarios in my mind for fall back positions, alternatives, what-ifs, etc. I haven’t been surprised very often; generally I’ve already worked out a counter scenario for any event I come across.

Exploding Bullet Theory

I once had this contract where the client wanted to scare the hell out of the target community (I’m 99% sure it was a government, not that I care that much). There was this group of rather vicious “wanna-be” drug lords who were making a name for themselves. The client figured that if something spectacularly gory happened to the 5 leaders the rest would simply abandon the enterprise. After some research, I figured the ideal situation would be if the leaders mysteriously exploded in very short order. Because of their chosen location, I had a very nice sniper location that gave me excellent coverage of their compound. I figured if I engineered a bullet that would make the target explode, I could take out the 5 from the same vantage point in less than a minute. If one or more got wise, I could fall back to plan B and take out their vehicles as they tried to get away.

The first part was to design a new bullet. For most of my long-range sniping I use the trusty 50 caliber round. The shell always makes me think of a banana, perhaps because of the brass color. Anyway, the 50 cal bullet is already a very formidable and deadly round, but I wanted something more, so worked on something that could deliver 100% of its kinetic energy into the target. I decided on a fragmenting round with a small amount of explosive in it. The bullet would maintain its shape as it flew through the air, so I wouldn’t have to relearn how to shoot it, but as soon as it hit something it would trigger the explosive which would cause the bullet to fragment into a couple of thousand pieces flying off in different directions. I lost a rifle testing the bullets; I initially had the explosive trigger too sensitive, but that’s why we test and test in a safe environment, eh? After a month or so of work I got the bullet such that if I hit a gallon jug of water the spot where the jug sat was just a bit damp, the jug and the water in it had vanished. A board put behind the target, meanwhile, had nothing but a few small fragment impacts, so it was quite feasible that someone could be behind the target and still survive with minimal injury.

Since I had already invested some time in scouting, I knew the target’s overall habits to a certain degree. I spent a few more days observing from my sniper post and listening to the bugs I’d planted in their working areas. After I was pretty sure I’d have the correct conditions, I hauled my rifle and the suppressing mechanism up to my selected location and set up. I was intending to hit them right after lunch; they had a regular meeting at that time and could be counted on to all be outdoors and walking toward the same location. My suppressing mechanism is a rather bulky thing, but it absorbs almost 100% of the muzzle flash (not so critical in this case, but a major issue when operating at night!) and swallows essentially the entire explosion of the fired round. While the bullet itself is supersonic (actually a couple of times the speed of sound) and therefore makes a racket as it travels through the air, because people tend to react to the closest location the round comes near them, it generally means no one ever looks toward the gun. Of course, I’m camouflaged as well, but it’s always best if no one ever looks at you.

When the time came I was ready. I could see where each target was going to exit their building and figured on taking the one that was least visible from the others first. I was relying on the average person not having the reflexes to immediately duck and cover when something unexpected happens and further, I was expecting the leaders to be even more reluctant to react and look foolish to their underlings, so I felt I had a good chance of taking them all out. I am happy to report that the gig went off pretty much without a hitch, though either one of the underlings got lucky in his wild fire or happened to be looking in exactly the right location when I fired, as I did take a few rounds in my direction. The results were quite spectacular. It looked exactly as if a small bomb had gone off inside each target. The underlings surrounding the targets literally got an eye and ear full of the target and while many of the underlings started to react, ducking and taking cover, the leaders, just like I expected, were too cool to do so and made very easy targets. The last one finally did start to move, as I believe he saw two of his compatriots get hit, but he moved in the exact direction I was herding him and once he crouched down (he even drew his gun, but was pointing in entirely the wrong direction), I popped him (literally) as well. I waited for the chaos to wind down, then made my way back to my vehicle and left the area. I never bothered to research to see if the group fell apart as my client expected, but I’m pretty sure I had the expected psychological impact and for sure any remaining people were a lot more cautious.

Relationships

Not that many people in my line of work have long-term stable relationships. It’s hard to protect loved ones when you come home to them every night; everyone makes mistakes and if you make a mistake coming home to one of dozens of locations that can be easily burned, it’s difficult for any pursuit to become problematic. However, if you have something at a single location, “home,” that’s near and dear to you, then you’re vulnerable. I always call my parents from other countries on burner phones (they expect me to be calling from an unfamiliar number; sadly it means they have plenty of experience hanging up on telemarketers) so it should be impossible to connect me to them. I don’t visit that often, and when I do I take elaborate measures to shake off any tails, change my look and ensure I’m not tagged with any bugs. Imagine if I had to go through that every night just to get home; how many times would I make a mistake over the course of a career? As a consequence, I haven’t formed any long-term relationships. I take my physical pleasure in an ad hoc manner. Generally, I prefer college girls. As a group, they seem quite open to one night stands and, at least in my experience, not clingy at all when I get up to leave. Even though I’m past college age (not that I ever actually attended), because of my average, everyman looks, I’m easy to mistake for being younger (or older) than I am with just changes in posture, cloths and the bare minimum of makeup. Usually, I slip into a college bar, observe for a while, then select an appropriately exotic accent for the area and start chatting with women who appear to be there for a pickup. Because of the nature of my job, I work very hard to stay in excellent shape, the kind of shape that also attracts the sort of attention I desire in these situations (on gigs I tend to wear baggy clothes and a strap around my gut so I look even more like an average white guy), so I generally don’t have to put in too much effort.

I’ve spent some time with peers, though those relationships don’t last either. One I remember in particular, I call her my “Ziva” (from NCIS). Easily as deadly as the one in the show and even more beautiful and sexy; her specialty is in getting guys to follow her around so she or her group can extract information from them. She and I cross paths from time to time and twice we had a chance to spend several days together between jobs. However, she’s a patriot and always feels obligated to get back to work (I’m self employed specifically so I can set my own “hours” and would cheerfully take an extra few weeks between jobs), so it doesn’t go on. Because our gigs tend to take quite a while (I often take weeks, sometimes months, on a gig) and we trot the globe, we don’t get a chance to hook up very often. And, due to the nature of our careers, we don’t make special efforts to arrange times (doing so creates a weakness that can be exploited; such is our life). I confess, though, that I often select women for liaisons because they physically remind me of my Ziva, though the thrill isn’t quite the same.

Spies vs Contract Killers

There is a big difference between spies and contract killers. As an outsider, you might reasonably think that we do the same thing, but spies are patriots and contract killers are decidedly not. While my reputation is extremely important to me, I’m not about to risk my life carrying out a contract, while spies risk their lives all the time. I think they’re crazy and many I know rarely seem to have a plan, just relying on their native skills, and as far as I can tell, luck. I like to have everything worked out ahead of time, though I feel I’m also good at improvising, but spies, at least most of the spies I’ve worked with, seem to feel that improvisation is the way to go.

Though I have known a couple of “James Bond” type spies that rush about always on the verge of disaster, yet always managing to salvage things at the last moment, generally they’re a little more cautious. I haven’t found any close to my level of detail, though. Perhaps that thought happens “back home” with the “higher ups” and the spies have a support system. Since the vast majority of the time I’m working totally alone, I can’t afford to be in situations where unexpected things happen. Do that often enough and the odds will certainly catch up. Without any sort of backup, you’re done.

Back when I was in the military and more properly could be called a spy (if you kill for “Queen and Country” and get a regular government paycheck, I guess you aren’t a contract killer) I often did have a backup I could call on if necessary, but I never felt the need to do so. Perhaps that’s why I sneer (only in my mind, of course, I would never express that openly; why make enemies for no reason?) on those who plan on needing the backup. I watch TV like the rest of the human species, though sometimes it’s difficult to keep up with my favorite shows as I run around the world (sometimes I just wait until the season comes out on DVD) and enjoy watching the spy shows and movies. Every now and again I get some inspiration, but a lot of the stuff is just silly. Of course, if someone tried to make a movie about how I actually do my job, I’m sure watching paint dry would be vastly more enjoyable. I like being detail oriented and enjoy what’s probably the tedious process of envisioning the multitude of what-ifs and building counter scenarios to adjust. I guess that’s what makes me good at my job.

This Might Surprise You

Slightly more than half of my contracts aren’t to kill anyone. As I mentioned before, I excel at hiding in plain sight and as such do make a good spy (notwithstanding the above; I am no patriot!). I’m often hired to plant bugs, to intimidate people (not the muscle bound “Guido” kneecapping intimidating, more psychological), to get information and a couple of times to kidnap people. I don’t care for kidnapping because I don’t like to get that physically intimate with a target (it leaves too many things to chance) but if the price is right I’m willing to take on the work. I’m generally hired for spy-type work when a government needs plausible deniability or a corporation wants something that requires a physical touch (they can hire Russian hackers if the work can be done remotely). I use only high-end products for bugs (I pass that cost onto my client) and specialize in bugging people who never know they’ve been bugged. Occasionally I’ll simply do an insert, meaning I take the client’s bugs and put them in, then that’s the end. The client may never retrieve them. When I put my own bugs in I almost always retrieve them; I don’t care to leave any signs of my activity. I have to know a great deal about locks, alarms, surveillance, etc., I probably could make a good living doing security consulting, but this is a lot more fun (and allows me to take several months of vacation each year).

Many Covers, Each with their own Fingerprints

As I mentioned before, I have several deep covers (I have dozens of passports and other IDs and plenty of different, legitimate, credit cards) that I work to maintain. Each cover has its own disguise and even has its own fingerprints! I would give each one its own DNA if I could figure out a reliable way to do so, but so far I have only had a small handful of DNA traces left, each in a different country and half with no obvious crime associated with it. I also have a number of covers that I use exclusively when on the job. These covers are also deep, but they’re specifically designed to be burned in the event I get caught up in any investigation. When I’m on a gig and ready to do the dirty deed I put on one of my “burner” covers, complete with the burner fingerprints. That’s paid off a couple of times, most noteworthy in my Murphy’s Law story outlined below.

My deep covers include jobs that have actual paychecks with actual companies (invariably the work is independent and requires a great deal of travel, a bit dangerous to have such a pattern, but any other sort of deep cover would be too difficult to maintain). This means, of course, that I have to show up for “work” from time to time. Even when I have a relationship with the owner, I still need to show up so the other employees have a memory of me that any investigator will be able to verify. One of the reasons why I only take a handful of gigs each year is that it takes time and effort to maintain my covers, generally a month or so a year. Foreign sales is generally the sort of “work” I take and it is generally quite trivial to actually engage in legitimate sales as I travel. I do, however, have a couple of “jobs” where I pay the company rather than the other way around. I still make myself visible to the other employees of the company, but the owner knows full-well that I’m not actually contributing anything. Each cover has different pluses and minuses associated with it and I’m always careful when I use them so they’re consistent.

Each of my deep covers (including my burners) have a specific disguise and set of fingerprints. It’s so nice to have my excellent memory to keep track of all of them, otherwise I’d have to have records somewhere making myself quite vulnerable. I make sure that my disguises are distinct enough so that if I’m in one I’m not mistaken for another. When I’m on a gig, I never use my own fingerprints, I always use a set of burners. Even when wearing gloves! I guess some might think all this effort is tedious, and sometimes it does feel so, but for the most part I enjoy the process. I trust it makes me so difficult to trace that even if someone catches on to my work my regular habits of switching identities will throw them off my tail even if I’m not aware of their interest.

Murphy’s law: “That That Can, Does”

The above level of caution once paid off in spectacular fashion. I was on a gig relatively early in my career when it seemed that everything that possibly could go wrong did. I was identified during my initial surveillance, spotted again when I hit the target, was pursued afterwards and was actually in police custody and interrogated for two days. It was a fairly simply gig: take out the target making it look like an accident. The target didn’t have any particularly special protection and wasn’t any more paranoid than anyone else in her position (I’m an equal opportunity killer, gender doesn’t matter ;-). I’m pretty sure I didn’t treat this job any different than any other, rather I think it was just bad luck. One reason I spent two days with the police was in an effort to try and understand what they knew and only after I felt sure that my capture was an accident did I move on (I keep a raft of lawyers on retainer for just such events, though in this case I was able to make do with the public defender assigned to me).

The job was to take out this female “captain of industry,” I guess one of her rivals (almost certainly male) felt vulnerable or whatever. I did my usual investigation prior to setting a price. As I was slipping out after planting my bugs, I was seen by several people in the building. I have no idea why they were there that late and while I had deliberately disguised myself as a janitor and had all the appropriate IDs, I’m always uncomfortable when I’m seen unexpectedly. One of the group came to ask me what I was doing in the boss’s office. I had had the forethought to have a bag of trash to display (I whipped some broken English on them; I made myself up to look Hispanic after all). The guy backtracked to the office as I was walking away, I guess to see if I had stolen something, but it was a sign of things to come.

After I took the job, I decided to have the accident look like food poisoning. The target was a “foodie” and was always trying something new. She was also a fan of sushi and was well known to prepare her own from time to time. I felt that she would be perfect to “accidently” try some Fugu, that deadly (if not prepared properly) puffer fish so popular in Japan (why people like to tempt fate, I don’t get; outside the military I have never jumped out of a perfectly good airplane). I knew she liked to experiment cooking on her own and felt quite sure that no one would question her being silly enough to try something like this on her own (like so many in her position, she had enormous ego). I get the fish, prepare it “wrong,” and slip into her place while she’s at work on a day I know (via my bugs) she’s planning on doing some kitchen experimenting. I mix the “wrong” fish in with some fish that looks the same (and contaminate some of the other fish for good measure) and get ready to leave. I’ve developed some in-depth skills with lock picking over the years and as a consequence generally don’t bother with keys, just use the picks (even on my own).

I was locking the deadbolt on my way out, after having reactivated the alarm, and had my back to the hallway. Someone came out of another apartment, saw me and thought I was breaking in and gave chase. Very noble of them, also incredibly stupid; what if I really was a desperate person and took them on. Anyway, I had no problem outdistancing them on foot, but they were clever enough to call 911. By the time I got to the lobby the cops were already rolling in. When I was doing my research the cops always took at least another 30 seconds to show up, more than enough time for me to get to a place I could take my disguise off (if I took it off while in the stairwell it would be obvious I was in disguise which would blow my cover of a common burglar). Since I had done extensive walk arounds, I knew intimately the surrounding roads, alleys, parks, etc., so took off toward the back, hoping the cops had responded to the front only. That supposition was only partly true. As I exited the rear of the building a car was pulling in the alley. I felt confident I could beat these guys on foot, so took off the other way toward a park. It’s harder to hide in a park in the middle of the day, but I felt that there would be enough people to blend in with. Surprisingly, one of the cops turned out to be an Olympic sprinter (well, it sure seemed that way as he gained on me!) and was hot on my heels as I headed into the park. I didn’t want to get physical with the cops, nothing sets a town on edge like a cop getting roughed up or killed, so I started to think that the better course of action was to get caught.

I allowed the cop to catch up with me and he did what I hoped he would and Tasered me. Of course, that meant I got bashed in the face when I went down and had the “joyful” experience of those amazingly painful cramps, but I was careful to hide my grin. By that time I had tossed my professional lock picks and only had the crude ones you might expect to find on a common burglar.

While I didn’t pass out, I did make like I was totally incapacitated. They stuck me in the back of a car and drove me back to the building and had the witness ID me. Then they took me to the station and booked me. After dumping me in a holding cell, I got a chance to relax for a while. It was a couple of hours later when they took me for interrogation and now I was curious to know if my cover would hold up. My skin was darkened along with my hair, of course I spoke with a thick Hispanic accent (and was fluent in Spanish when they brought in an interpreter) and the fingerprints I had matched up exactly with someone in their system that looked exactly like me. At first I denied that I was in the building and tried to make out like I was unreasonably attacked in the park. Then “reluctantly” agreed that I had actually been in the building, but wasn’t trying to break in, just innocently walking down the hallway. But when pressed, I eventually “gave in” and admitted I was trying to break in. As I had observed the place quite a bit, I knew that the rear entrance wasn’t properly guarded. And since they had lots of expensive residents in the building, they actually had minimal cameras once you got out of the lobby. Thus I fed them a line about how I had seen the back entrance open, so decided to try my hand to see if could steal something.

They read me my rights after they Tasered me and stuck me in the car, and I knew that as soon as any competent lawyer heard that I’d be out on the street with all charges dropped. I just wanted to be sure that they were sure I was just an incompetent burglar before I left. I spent the night in jail with some drunks and petty thieves. I kept largely to myself; I’ve mastered the ability to look intimidating when I need to; I only had to do so once to be left to my own devices. The had some news channel on the TV outside our cell and I was able to verify that my target was taken out when it came on the news. One small concern I had was that she would have a group of people over (my bugs indicated not, but people change their minds all the time) and there would be collateral damage, but this wasn’t the case, it was totally clean. I wanted to give some time to see if the cops ever associated her death with my presence, so stayed another day. The morning of the second day I “thought” to ask for a lawyer and in a few hours was telling my story to a public defender and sure enough, once she heard that my rights were read to me when I was “incapacitated” from the Taser, I was out in a couple of hours, all charges dropped.

It’s because of things like this that I engage in these elaborate layers of covers. I was able to get off, despite being essentially caught in the act, because of prior preparation. No one else got hurt or killed, the job went off without a hitch and no one knows I was involved. Despite seemingly everything going wrong, it was still a near perfect job. Yes, I took extra precautions after that, but I went over all the steps in my mind and felt sure I wasn’t being lazy or taking shortcuts. Just had a bit of bad luck.

Thank you for taking the time to read my story. I hope to share more with you in the future. My writer friend will probably take a bit more control over the content and it will read less like an instruction manual.

Treasure Hunt Poster and Research

I’ve been working, once again, with Daria Brennan, at http://beegraphica.com/, to develop a poster to give a visual idea of the vibe I’m hoping to go with for the movie. Here’s what she came up with (click on the image to get a larger version):

 

I’ve asked her to add “Inspired by Legends” to create more of a hook.

Last weekend (hard to believe it’s only been a week) I contacted a lady who has done extensive research into the Civil War in general, and the Shenandoah Valley in particular. She’s snowed me under with responses (more than 32 emails so far), with so much detail that I’m actually worried about tying my script too close to reality and triggering knuckleheads running around digging holes all over the Valley. I’ve called her ‘amazing’ but that seemed inadequate, so I just Googled synonyms and came up with these:

astonishing, astounding, surprising, stunning, staggering, shocking, startling, stupefying, breathtaking; awesome, awe-inspiring, sensational, remarkable, spectacular, stupendous, phenomenal, extraordinary, incredible, unbelievable; mind-blowing, jaw-dropping; wondrous

All of those words also feel inadequate, singly, in pairs or even en masse. Now I feel even more pressure to develop my script to try and live up to her efforts. I did manage to start writing last Sunday, cranked out a whole 1K words, then her feedback started to trickle (deluge) in and I got lost in learning about history. I’m fortunate she understands that only a tiny fraction of what she’s offered can make it into the script, but I have a real challenge picking a choosing what elements to put in. I don’t want to create a history lecture, but I’d like to put as much actual events into the script as possible. I’ve learned a few ‘tricks’ to making an infodump palatable, and intend to put them all to work in this case, but it will be a challenge to create a captivating screenplay that’s nonetheless educational and (largely) truthful.

I’ve been reading a small pile of books on storytelling for movies, directing actors, working with nano budgets, etc. and am now torn. A strategy I really like, and one I intend to follow if I carry this to the next level and start a production company, is to use social media to test the waters of a movie idea before it’s been filmed, or, indeed, the script has been written. The idea is twofold: first, to test a marketing concept and see if it actually reached the target audience, and that audience is large enough to profitably pay for the movie. Second, to use that success (if it fails, either rework the marketing or move to another project) to approach investors to pay for the production. I’d dearly love to pay my cast and crew, and, further, to film it in a couple of weeks instead of on weekends spread over months. But there’s no way I can afford that now, and I’m reluctant to dilute my already diluted focus (I still have a regular job, still need to be a present husband and father, not to mention exercise this blubbery body) and drag this project out longer than I expect to already take.

On the other hand, I’m really starting to feel that it’ll be possible to generate enough interest to make some money ‘four walling‘ and marketing directly to the local area. Not to mention marketing directly toward Civil War enthusiasts. Heck, I was envisioning setting up a table in the theater lobby selling DVDs, soundtracks (a very good friend is going to put me in touch with a young composer who might be willing to work for the exposure), T shirts, etc. as a way to make a few more bucks above and beyond any ticket sales. I’m also looking into local and regional film festivals and researching those related to the Civil War. All these feel like very viable and realistic ways to make some money, though how much I can’t really get a feel for. And, with the idea of making ‘real’ money, paying cast and crew feels like something I should do.

Though I’ve researched deferring compensation for cast and crew, after reading extensively about it, the conclusion I’ve got is it’s not fair to everyone involved. If the chance of making money is a gamble, it’s cleaner to just be up front with the cast and crew and let them know that reel (and beer and pizza) is it. Besides, it might realistically take years before (if) a movie starts to make money, particularly if it has to slowly build interest.  And my investor needs to be paid back as well; deferred compensation happens before investor compensation and can really make that complicated.  While the cast and crew would be putting in lots of hours, I’ll probably have a couple of thousand hours in it by the time it’s something anyone would want to watch, and I feel me getting a few thousand dollars will make it a lot more likely that I’ll have the motivation to take on the challenge of a fully-funded movie, whereas if it took years to dribble in the deferred compensation to cast and crew, I might lose interest.  Of course, anyone can get struck by lightening, but I think the balance of probability is very much in favor with the movie being lucky to earn back it’s (nano) budget.

But I do dream…

My Directing Style

Or, rather, I should say, the style I intend as I become and grow as a director.  I feel a movie is made (or screwed up) five times: when the script is written, when it’s directed, as it’s filmed and acted and when it’s edited.  Since my intention is to direct what I write, I feel it’s incumbent on me to give extra space for the other elements, and intend to act more as a guide while directing, rather than as a task master.

The script is but one vision of the film. The one I have as I labor creating imagery I feel will be interesting and entertaining.  Writing is a lonely thing, so the images I have are, necessarily, myopic.  I do ask for feedback from people I trust, so get some help with some of the images, but the bulk are mine.  Sometimes they come easy, other times it may take days, or even weeks, to develop.  But I view them as a starting point, not an end in and of itself.  The script, as written, is intended to entice producers, investors, cast and crew to sign on, but once the team has been assembled, I lose ownership of the script and it becomes property of the team.

Since I had a clear goal for each scene and each character, it’s easy for me to reflexively say, this or that is ‘correct’ while the other thing is ‘wrong.’  Please ignore that.  I’m a born asshole and have a rude and unfortunate knee jerk (emphasis on ‘jerk;’ just ask my wife) response to things that don’t fit in my world view.  However, my goal is to build a team that, individually and collectively, are smarter and better at their jobs than I could ever be, so please call me out when I’m being an asshole and telling you how to do your job.  While I would like to capture a take close to my original vision, I also want to have lots of material for the editor, and fully believe that the scene I originally envisioned can be made better by others.  This is why I’m starting down this path as a director, to have the joy in serendipity, when the smarter-than-me cast and crew take my scripted raw material and make something far better than I originally envisioned.

From a cinematography point of view, I favor the idea of getting coverage by having multiple cameras running with each take.  While there will certainly be times when the cinematographer and/or editor feel shots are needed that preclude this possibility, I feel the actors can give a more authentic performance when they’re playing off each other.  Hopefully, I can find a DP that will share my vision.  But I intend to hire a DP that’s much smarter than I am (which shouldn’t be that high a bar; though I understand the physics of what’s going on and have studied integrated circuit fabrication, have some understanding of optics and studied glamor photography in some depth, I don’t pretend to be a cinematographer any more than I pretend to be an actor or editor), so will yield to the DP’s expertise.

I’ve read about acting and intend to be an actor friendly director, but I don’t have the guts to be one.  That doesn’t mean I won’t demand the actor do their job, and I expect them to internalize the character such that they don’t have to recite their lines, the dialog flows naturally from the interactions.  My intent is to minimize rehearsals, beyond blocking, because I want each take to be fresh and spontaneous.  I want the actors to interpret the characters, to own them.  While each scene can be done any number of ways, and I would like to see them all, there’s a timetable that needs to be adhered to.  Having said that, it takes much longer to set up for a scene than to shoot it, so I want to spend extra time capturing any favored alternative interpretations the actors have for each scene.

These extra interpretations are fodder for the editor, the last chance to salvage (or ruin) the movie.  My intention is to begin working with the editor before production and with the DP, to discuss options before schedules are set in stone.  I would like to have the editor working with material as it’s being made, so they can identify any missing pieces when it costs almost nothing to fill them in.

I view being a director like being a dungeon master in a role playing game: I create the world and the set pieces, the players (cast and crew) bring the game to life with their choices and interactions.  Making a movie is a partnership and everyone involved contributes to the completed result.

My qualifications as a director

This post is intended to show how my eclectic background makes me an ideal candidate as a writer/director.

Though a biochemist by education and experience, my efforts to turn toward biotech management after I got my MBA were thwarted by events and I turned to programming. I’m almost exclusively self-taught in programming and information security, something that’s lead to a career of more than 20 years.

Using knowledge gleaned from hundreds of sources, I designed, and my wife and I built, a 2,600 sqft house. Then, with an engineer, I designed, and my wife and I built most of, a 5,000 sqft indoor pool / greenhouse with a pavilion that serves as an additional kitchen.

These two elements demonstrate that I can successfully take on long-term, complex projects based on book learning. Switching careers to programming, after investing a decade into biotechnology, also shows that I can quickly adapt to changing circumstances.

I’ve been a manager at several levels, in IT and in manufacturing. My IT career started “backwards” with project management. Programmers, as a group, have an artistic temperament, in that they’re often driven by creative energies and usually have to be cajoled rather than instructed. I believe this experience will help me in pre-production, working with cast and crew during filming and in post-production.

While I’m always open to advice and suggestions – my intent is to make as good a product as I can – I understand that “the buck stops here,” and easily make decisions. Once made, I won’t consider altering my decision unless events change or someone convinces me of a superior approach.

I enjoy collaboration and am quick to include others input and to recognize them, but also understand that some decisions develop momentum and can’t be changed without incurring significant expenses.

As a testament to my creative ability, I have three novels, a novella and a series of short stories, as well as the several scripts I’ve created (two are adaptations of my prose). While I have very clear ideas of what I want for a scene, I also believe in serendipity and want input of cast and crew with each take. My intention is to capture my original intent for the scene, then ask the cast and crew for improvisation to provide the editing process with maximal raw material.

I’ve studied movie making and understand that it’s on par with watching paint dry or grass grow. I look forward to the challenge of working within constrained resources; one of my programming areas of interest is problems that exceed the hardware capabilities and how to achieve success despite the limitations.

With a very strong background in IT and information security, I bring lots of embedded knowledge necessary for modern digital film making. At an instinctive level, I’m aware of the vulnerable nature of the data, how important backups are, and keeping the backups separate and secure.

My business education has given me the tools to evaluate and manage budgets, to establish critical paths and track dependencies. I understand the goals of the producer and am very sympathetic to the need to satisfy investors.

Though patience is not my strong suit, I understand projects like these can take many years. I’m persistent, and will circle back to stalled projects from time to time to see if circumstances have changed.

I believe I have a lot of the necessary requirements to be an effective director and feel, if teamed with an experienced crew, any deficiencies can be caught early enough they won’t impact the time line or budget. As a beginning director, I’m also prepared to be flexible and tie some compensation to investor success.

Trez You

I usually shorten my titles, I shortened this one to TreasHu and hear it in my mind as Trez You.

Treasure Hunt” is the name I’ve come up with for my directorial debut.  It may also be my last movie, only time will tell.  My goal with this is to film it with a ‘nano’ budget of just a couple of thousand dollars, over weekends, with a cast and crew paid via reel, beer and pizza (and the lure of an indoor pool).

I plan to document my trials and tribulations, along with, I hope, my successes, so be sure to check back here if you’re interested in following the adventure.

I’m hoping to write the screenplay such that each 10-20 minute portion can be viewed as if an episode in a TV show, while the feature length (my target is around 100 minutes) can be successfully viewed as a coherent whole.

As I write this, I have a couple of page synopsis written. My intention is to, very soon, begin fleshing that out into the full screenplay.  My tentative timeline is to begin filming this summer (2018) and finishing this fall.

If you’d like to participate in some way, feel free to contact me.