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Creating The Third Age: The Spark of an Idea

In addition to writing about films for Blogcritics, I make my own films. You can check out my past work at my website Respect! Films. I’ve done a whole bunch of shorts, but last summer, I started thinking about a bigger project, a story that would be feature length or longer. Over the past six months or so, I’ve been working on turning the idea into a reality, and I’m currently about a month away from the launch of the first episode of The Third Age. This column will take you behind the scenes of the project’s creation, from inception to realization, and follow it as episodes start to go live and I try to promote the series.

It would probably be more interesting to hear all this after you’ve seen the first couple of episodes and have an idea of what the series is about. However, I’m going to do my best to tell the behind the scenes story of The Third Age to date, without spoiling major plot points.

People say that every story begins with an idea, a spark of inspiration. I don’t know if that’s how it works for me; there’s usually not a spark, there’s a coalescence of images and moments in my brain. The first thing I saw on this project was a closeup on a woman’s face emerging in a series of brilliant flashbulbs. She was an operative from another dimension fighting for freedom, bringing change to our world. But, what world did she live in, and what brought her here? These are questions that floated around in my brain for a while, until I presented the idea to my friends Jordan Rennert and Steve Deluca.

We’ve known each other for years, and have worked on a number of films together. Hit up my website for a full history of our past work. We went to high school together, and there, we always wanted to do film projects, but rarely wound up doing anything. However, Jordan and I have done a whole bunch of projects over the past five years or so, and now that we had both graduated, we had the opportunity to take on something bigger and more expansive than was possible before.

During the summer, we’d sit out on Steve’s porch and talk about ideas. It was a non-linear conceptual discussion that frequently strayed from the story into various aspects of our own lives, our memories, and also the then airing TV series, John From Cincinnati. Though it’s less overt now than it was then, the DNA of John is ingrained on this project; it feels like a work that takes place in the same universe as Milch’s series.

What I loved about Milch’s series was the fact that he has all manner of crazy sci-fi concepts in the work, but doesn’t treat it as sci-fi — it’s just something that happens to people. Even as a huge fan of the genre, I can understand why people have issue with sci-fi. There’s frequently a distance from real emotion, an emphasis on cool concepts and action over characters. John is a very character-centered show, and I’m hoping that The Third Age will feel the same way. Our structuring point in terms of the narrative isn’t so much a plot as it is the various character arcs, following these peoples’ lives and finding interesting ways for them to interact with each other.

The way we work, there’s not a clear line between real life and the movie. Discussion flows all around, and out of various tangents and digressions, a story slowly emerged, raw ideas evolved into specific characters who got names and backstories as we went on. "Girl God" became Morning, "the Han Solo character" became Zinone, "scientist leader guy" became Jerrod. This was the process.

As we talked about the story, it became clear that it was a pretty big tale, at least feature film length. Looking at a project so large, I began to think about ways to make the project work. I didn’t want to labor for a year with no finished product. I also realized that most of the people who see my movies watch them on the web, so why not run with that? I came up with the concept of the webseries, serializing the work online in a series of five minute episodes and then putting out a collected feature version at the end.

With this structure in place, the project became a bit more manageable. It’s still a huge thing, but it’s easier to conceive when it’s broken up into episodes. The webseries concept gave us a jumping off point, and by the end of the summer, we had a pretty solid conception of the whole story, as well as the various characters involved. But, there was still more work to do.

I think one of the biggest misconceptions about filmmaking today is the idea that to make something you need to max out your credit card, quit your job, and devote your life to a project. Yes, this project takes up a ton of time, but I'm able to fit it in around a full time job, and not spend that much money in the process. Digital cameras have totally changed the game; the movie that used to cost $30,000 in film processing alone now costs virtually nothing. It's a welcome democratization of the medium, but it also means there are a lot more films out there. How can you make your film stand out against the mass of content available? Why should someone watch your movie instead of a multi-million dollar Hollywood production?

There's no easy answers to these questions, I certainly don't have them. Ultimately, I'm just trying to tell the kind of stories and make the kind of films that I'd like to see. If I'm happy with the final product, does it really matter if anyone sees it? I go back and forth on this. I don't want to put all this time into something and have it go nowhere. Hopefully I won't have to face that, but even giving your film away, it's still an uphill battle.

Next time, I'll discuss the audition process, and how we were able to find a great cast of actors despite having little to no budget. In the meantime, check out this trailer for the series.

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