I: How I Made an Independent Feature Film on My Own Terms

Part I  

“Creative Ideas and Genesis”


This is the first article of a multi-part series dedicated to the genesis and creation of the independent feature sci-fi film Mad Genius. It is both a personal expose as well as educational article series with the intention of sharing creative business lessons through the transparent obstacles and successes of the project.

 

Circa 2012.

“Digitally Mapping the Human Brain.” Now that was the concept I had been searching for.

“Reality is stranger than fiction,” I thought to myself, looking down at the Scientific American Magazine cover article about mapping a human mind. I immediately started thinking, “Imagine if you could rewrite the human brain like computer code, and fix all the problems happening around the world… Then, being a storyteller, I thought… what if that power was in the hands of a mad man?”

As I wrote down more ideas, the more excited I became. This was the story I had been searching for. A story that combined all of the interest points I had discovered in my quarter century on earth; Existentialism, Futurism, Psychology, Independent Filmmaking. I also knew it was a story I could tell on a small scale, on my own terms, simultaneously capturing the entrepreneurial spirit I had witnessed in my generation. A byzantine generation who can change the world from their bedrooms. I was a lover of cyberpunk, big ideas, and filled with questions. (Still am).  Cyberpunk had disappeared from mainstream film for several years and I felt this type of story was missing from the marketplace. For all these reasons, I knew this was the story I had to bring to life. I wrote a first draft script, and of course, thought it was brilliant.

I was 25 years-old at the time.

Then life happened.That’s what happens to us creatives isn’t it? I started getting better gigs as a commercial filmmaker. Bigger brands, bigger jobs, to the point I got to do a 7 part commercial series on Olympic Athletes. That was a life highlight for me. Then came Intel, Virgin America, Reebok, etc…

But like all creative industries things ebb and flow in the movie business. Two years later I found myself having hit a glass ceiling. I went from my best year to my worst, financially speaking. And it wasn’t based on any catastrophic event or action. More of a series of business miscalculations. It was just “one of those moments in life.” I fell into a bit of a depressed state. And any fellow creative person knows what I mean, when I say your self-worth comes from the things you are creating. And I wasn’t creating. So I felt like nothing.

Now I was 28. And I had a choice to make.

I looked back at my life trajectory, the plans I had made, the vision I had for my life. According to my younger self’s vision of the future, I should have been making a feature film by now. I dug in more. I remembered, that I never got into filmmaking to be a “commercial” filmmaker. To sell stuff. That was always a means to an end. A stepping stone, in which I was trying to recreate the career paths of Ridley Scott and David Fincher.

So, my choice was to spend my time and savings on creating a few new “commercial short films” to renovate my commercial reel appeal… or I could just make my damn movie.

I chose to make my damn movie.

Not only did I choose to make my damn movie, I chose to live my damn movie. From my years as a commercial filmmaker, one pivotal shoot location in the underworld of downtown Los Angeles changed my life.

It was called Dear Raymer Studio. And it was created and owned by the visionary production designer Jared Tate Johnson. Jared’s world, was where my film about hacking the human mind had to take place. I first encountered Jared’s studio on a location scout for a make-up company. We get to the location. The streets looked abandoned. Apocalyptic more like. Through the cage door to the elevator that looked like a tomb. Up the rickety shaft. Through the hall of flickering fluorescent lights, past the holes in the wall and the graffiti to a large black door with a massive thumb print painted over it. Through the door we went and stepped into a world I had only seen in fiction. A massive open warehouse space of brick and metal and wood. Floating platforms on the walls. Invisible stair cases. Secret passages. An underground world of real-life hackers, artists, and culture jammers. It was mind-blowing.

I wanted to “live in the world” of the film, and Jared’s world, was it.

I called Jared up, and he serendipitously had an open room. I moved in and started re-writing “The Mad Genius Project.” The first draft was set to page in July 2012. I began rewriting in January 2015. Forty one revisions later, we achieved enough financing to shoot it. And by “enough” I mean SAG ULB. Ultra-Low-Budget.

The film’s concept took many many versions to get right. I put myself through my own “development hell.” Sometimes what I wanted to do was too expensive. Sometimes, to confusing. I had so many ideas I was playing with. My manager Matthew Shictman at The Gotham Group was pivotal in helping men shape a story that would connect with broader audiences.

Ultimately, I wanted MAD GENIUS to be like a secret graphic novel, hidden on the shelves of the comic book store that unlocks the viewer’s imagination, thrills them, entertains them, and possibly opens their mind to new and interesting concepts that get them to think about the world in a different way. I wanted to create a fun, comic book-esque world, which also featured a real world concept that is happening this very moment. All those hopes, were now wrapped into a little script known as MAD GENIUS.

The story we finalized is about a young mad genius attempting to hack the human mind, in order to save humanity from it’s own catastrophic flaws. The only problem is, our protagonist is a mad man with more than one personality… He is a mad genius.

I am obsessed with disrupters, innovators, entrepreneurs, and technology. I find it fascinating how these “makers” make the “things” that radically change the world and our human potential, but simultaneously, human beings remain what they always have been… To put it bluntly… flawed.

Because there are many sides to the mind aren’t there? Some call it the Id, Ego and Super Ego. Some call it God and the Devil. Some call it the Cerebrum, the Cerebellum, and the Stem.

Ultimately these “sides” add up to a creature known as humankind, with the power to shape the world with it’s mind.

I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to make a story about a guy with an altruistic goal, yet has all the differing sides of his psyche competing against him?  A story that also represented a generation who is trying to change the world on their own terms, that speaks to the subconscious and conscious challenges they face. That was cool enough to make!

So that was the plot. But what was the theme?

To me, MAD GENIUS had to be a story about the inner conflicts of being a creator. It was about the creation process. The goods, the bads, the uglies. The voices in our heads pushing us, confusing us, mixing signals, and the mistaken evils which might come from actually accomplishing the goal. Add in peer pressure and love and sex and it’s a wonder we ever get anything done. I think this film represents those ideas. To me, the message really is, when ever someone tries to create something they will inevitably face all kinds of outer obstacles, but in the end, it is all about overcoming the obstacles within one’s self. And the solution to all of these problems is to turn one’s efforts into selfless acts. Beyond yourself. Otherwise, seriously, why bother? So in the end for MR. VIX’s journey is really about reconciling himself in order to do this great thing. He has to literally face himself in every way. And ultimately forgive himself and be willing to self-sacrifice to achieve something great.

Sounds good right?

All we had to do next, was make it.

 


How I Made an Independent Feature Film on My Own Terms

Part II “Things You Must Do Before Making Your Creative Project

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