INTERVIEW: Joseph Negra of “Venus Rises”

Republibot 3.0
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Some of our readers may recall that back in May I posted an article on the site asking for any information about the "Venus Rises" web series that was in development a few years back, but seems to have kind of fallen off the radar recently. ( http://www.republibot.com/content/what-ever-happened-%E2%80%9Cvenus-rise... ) The same day that story went up, we were contacted by Joseph Negra, an actor from the series, who gave us a heads up on the state of the project, and he's kindly agreed to be with us today for an interview. Joseph, thank you very much for being here!

JOSEPH NEGRA:
Well, spank you very much for having me!

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
Before we begin, I have to congratulate you and the entire Venus Rises team on the sheer audaciousness of what you're trying to do here. There are zillions of fan films on the web, most of them copyright-infringing things set in other people's well-known universes. There's a ton of Star Trek projects, a ludicrous number of Star Wars projects, superhero fan films, even some Firefly-based ones, and a lot of these are really, really good, but there's a surprising lack of *original* projects like yours that tell *original* stories in an brand-new fictional universe that *isn't* based on an old TV show or movie. Why do you think there are so many fan films and so few original startup stories like you're doing? I mean, the basic investment and time would be the same in either case, so why do you think it is that so many people are willing to spend all that time and money and effort to 'play in someone else’s garden' but so few people are willing to plant their own like you're doing?

JOSEPH:
I have to say that a lot of “fan”, “tribute”, “cover” (or insert your own insert appropriate description) projects get a lot of flak for not being original, including from myself in the past. However, I have to admit I would rather see a GOOD “copy” or “tribute” of something rather than a BAD rip-off. Take tribute bands vs. cover bands for instance; I hate to get dragged to see a cover band that just performs poorly executed rip-offs of popular bands just as I hate to sit through a C-Movie rip-off a popular sci-fi film. I would rather see a well executed and precisely performed tribute band who puts the time and effort into emulating their heroes just as I would rather see a true to form fan film of a popular sci-fi film or series.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
Fair enough. Point taken.

JOSEPH:
We also underestimate fans and their commitment to things. Where would Star Wars or Star Trek be without the hardcore fans? Yes, they were both successful in their own right (‘Wars more than Trek if you took out the hardcore fan aspect and went on filmmaking or ratings alone) but the longevity in mainstream news and media would’ve been far less without the fans.

With all of that being said, I think original (though, what’s original?) writing and performing is definitely more from the heart and soul with greater criticism from self and others. You take a chance planting your own garden and sometimes don’t reap what you sow but it’s much more rewarding than playing in someone else’s garden and ripping off the fruits of their labor.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
I feel that way too. I want to make a B5 fan film, but then I think, “For that time and money and effort, I could just make my own original show.“ And then I don’t do either option, which just makes me appreciate what you guys are up to even more. I think I first heard of "Venus Rises" about three years ago. When did the whole thing start, and how did you decide to make your own original SF universe? What was the genesis of that?

JOSEPH:
Well, speaking for Writer/ Director J.G. Birdsall; he had the VR idea and the scripts swimming around in his head many years before the cast selection in December of 2004. I know he tinkered with filming family and friends for a little while as well. Jason was also doing CG fan films by creating the ever popular battles between spaceships from different science fiction shows and movies.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
Oh, yeah, I’ve seen those! I didn’t realize they were his.

JOSEPH:
When I met Jay through a friend who was originally cast as Aeriana, He explained to me his love for the Sci-Fi genre and how he always wanted to write something and film it. I can tell you that my personal belief as to the genesis of an original script - as opposed to a fan film - was Jay’s desire to implement elements of himself and his own character into the writing which is what true artists do. However, we all know how things change when people are cast and the characters gravitate a little towards the person playing them rather than the writer’s vision.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
No doubt. You play Sargent Nathan Griggs in the series. Have you been with Venus Rises from the beginning? What can you tell us about your character, without blowing any surprises?

JOSEPH:
I am the only original cast member and have been with the project from VR’s incarnation in 2005. He is devoted to Private Sam Reegan not only because he is his subordinate on a space station but also because of personal obligations and friendship. The good Sergeant is committed to his career as well as his race. He is a working man but also a classist who dislikes anything of Venusian origin and even refers to the people of Venus as “Venutian Trash” or “Diggers”. (Even though the proper term is Venusian, Nathan purposely refuses to say it and calls them Venutian because he believes they don’t even deserve that) He will not listen to anything not laid down by Martian or Directorate law even though his own past experiences along with demotion and embarrassment in the military should tell him otherwise.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
Interesting. So there’s a caste system? That’s not something you see much of in SF these days, is it? Kind of refreshingly Anti-PC and Non-Trekian

JOSEPH:
In the Venus Rises universe the human race is divided by class and entitled by planets. In other words, you are Venusian if your ancestry is working class from Earth. You are Martian if your ancestry was upper-class. At this time it is no longer possible for someone from lower class to attain status academically or financially in Martian society. That opportunity passed when the two societies were established for some time so now only people from Mars have the right to it and if you are born Venusian you remain within that class. One of the only in-betweens is the Mars Defense Directorate which is essentially a military lapdog for Mars and interplanetary peacekeepers for the Trinary Region of space.
Some of this information will be seen in Series One or written into character description but further insight into Sgt. Nathan Griggs and his past will be in his “Interspace” episode tentatively entitled “Serviens”, written by myself, should we decide to greenlight its production.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
Recently, when we were talking to Sean Wang about his "Runners" comic he mentioned that fan reaction had been surprisingly odd - SF fans weren't interested in reading comics, and Comics fans only liked superheroes, and don't want to read straight SF stories. Have you guys had that kind of problem since Venus Rises isn't tied in to some larger pop culture phenomenon like Trek or Stargate or whatever? What kind of reaction from the fan community have you guys gotten?

JOSEPH:
Being an original, independent production we are hit by criticism from indy filmmakers, sci-fi fanboys/girls (ala Trek, ‘Wars, Firefly, etc), sci-fi and science geeks (term used affectionately), CG artists, and comic people who, like Sean’s observation, don’t care much for sci-fi. The overall reaction about the concept has been extremely supportive and many many people are chomping at the bit to see it. However, when VR was touted by web media who only read the story, saw set pix and rough clips and teasers as darker and grittier sci-fi such as Firefly and others, people were suddenly holding us up to expectations of budgeted productions.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
Ouch.

JOSEPH:
In turn, we got a bit of backlash for it. What’s great is that sci-fi other than the “optimistic outlook” “politically correct” “aliens” or “robes and wizards” genres gained popularity and even sci-fi with futuristic robots is now down to an achievable level factually with the human drama catapulted by shows such as Battlestar.

But we can’t get good reactions from everyone. One Trek fanfilm production that shall remain nameless mentioned us in their discussion forums and reviewed an Interspace episode they saw online. One of their female character actors started flaming and ripping us apart for making a female lead (Aeriana) deaf and subject her to sexual harassment in order to what she said “make her entire character weak.” (Insinuating we went backwards to a time in film where all women were household wives, prostitutes or rapist prey)
[She] never even got it that we made the harassers gross and creepy purposefully so the audience would be offended and wrote that stuff in because, guess what?... WE THINK THAT HUMANKIND WILL NEVER BE PERFECTLY “PC” AND SILLY, VILE PEOPLE WILL EXIST WHEN WE INHABIT SPACE FULLTIME.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
That’s weird that they wouldn’t understand you were depicting a bad guy doing bad things, and not a role model for how people should behave. That kind of says more about the person who can’t make that distinction than it does about your production.
Now as I understand from your teasers and stuff, the story is essentially a revolution: Earth is dead or dying, the Solar System has been partially colonized, and the colonies are being squeezed dry by the government, which leads to a revolution, on Venus, yes? But most of the action takes place on a mining ship out in the asteroid belt? Without any spoilers, what can you tell us about the story to whet the appetite of people who may not have heard of it before now?

JOSEPH:
Earth suffered a series of cataclysmic events including tectonic plate shifting, mantle pluming and depolarization of Earth’s magnetic field displacing civilizations and forcing governments to cut deals with the largest pharmaceutical, financial, industrial and technological corporations who have merged to institute a global monopoly. The “space race” is financed by the rich and the ultimate goal is to colonize Mars due to its stable crust. Mars is now colonized on the surface while working class colonies orbit Venus to mine the planet. For decades we are told Earth is uninhabitable and all that is left is the destitute who couldn’t make the trip that are either dead or have devolved from lack of food, toxicity, disease, etc… The Venusian social class is expected to work hard for the greater good of civilization and standards set by Mars via Megacorps and the Mars Defense Directorate. But Venus is tiring of servitude and “The Outcry has Begun!”

The main story of Season 1 is about Pvt. Sam Reegan who stumbles upon a plot of the Venusian resistance.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
One of the things that immediately grabbed me was that the story centers on Venus. As we’ve discussed on the site in the past ( http://www.republibot.com/content/mars-or-venus-which-better-home-humani... )I've generally figured Mars to be a pretty bad choice for colonization - Venus is generally closer, has earthlike gravity, and it's atmosphere provides all the radiation shielding you could want, whereas Mars gets tons of radiation, low gravity that might prevent people from having kids, and it's far away and cold - and yet Venus is almost "The Forgotten Planet" - no one does any stories about it. So how did you guys decided to center the story there?

JOSEPH:
Well, it was the composition and conditions of Venus which made a perfect parallel to the power struggle of the story. The composition is better for mining ore (working class job) and Venus (feminine vs. masculine Mars) is roughly 450 degrees Celsius hotter than Earth and makes for that “bustin my ass in the heat” scenario. Haha. Honestly, Jason wrote the initial story/script and I think he had an affinity for Venus so [he] decided it and its people [were] the perfect underdog to root for. In my opinion, hype has always been centered on Mars in our science history classes and tons of sci-fi movies so I am glad to see the girl get penned. I have a love for mythology, art and writing about Venus as well.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
Very cool. You've got three or four episodes filmed, and just waiting for the CGI, right? Are these a series of standalone episodes, or is there a story arc involved here? Is the story open-ended, or is there a solid ending in mind for the whole thing?

JOSEPH:
Season 1 was to be 4 episodes at 22 minutes each as a complete story arc. Filming took a turn and some people could not continue so it is now ending open ended. When things were in limbo we began writing and filming the interspace episodes to be interjected throughout the season 1 episodes to fill it out more. When production came to a halt from problems, we had an interspace done and the choice (mistake) was made to put out the interspace episode “Ikarus” first for some to see but people thought it was episode 1 of the series. That episode is to the VR season 1 what the Battlestar webisodes are to the real Battlestar series or what Blood Trails is to the 30 Days of Night film. It was a quick shoot, edit and put out.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
Ideally, how many episodes would you like to make?

JOSEPH:
Two seasons of 4 episodes each were pre-planned. Now, season 2 is shelved. Rob Ferreri has written a Demille Onaar interspace episode and I have written a Nathan Griggs interspace. They will both be backstories of the characters. We do not know when we will film them. Sam Reegans interspace, Graduation Day, is filmed and waiting on CG. No Kylara interspace has been written and Aeriana’s is “Ikarus”.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
When you say "Shelved" does that mean there won't be a season two? If that's the case, does the Season 1 story reach any kind of resolution, or is it all open-ended?

JOSEPH:
Season 2 has been put on hold until we see how the first few episodes go. Thats all we can say right now. As far as Season 1 goes, we have some options and are deciding the proper route to go with it.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
So not counting putting in the special effects, about how long does it take you to write and film an episode?

JOSEPH:
As I said, Jason wrote Season 1 as a complete story arc and came to film it years later. The filming took FOREVER because of countless recasts, dropouts, timing, travel and personal issues with cast and crew.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
How many standing sets do you have? I understand you're building them in the cast and crew's homes? What kind of sets are there?

JOSEPH:
I love to tell this… There were 7 standing sets at one time built in Jason’s and another of his family’s houses!! Jay’s house- Ikarus cockpit in a rec room. Moonbase in garage. Smallcockpit in a bedroom. 2nd house- space station and a cargo bay in garage. Pipe room and holding cell in a bedroom. They can’t stay up for much longer but we may use some for the interspaces. Jason also rents them out to production companies and also local schools to teach filming in actual sets to students.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
Are you wearing any other hats in the production besides acting? Are you involved in producing or writing or editing or whatever?

JOSEPH:
I did more early on. Jason and I have always had open conversations about directing cast, story direction, writing and language, editing and all aspects of VR. My input is strewn throughout but ultimately it was his decision to use whatever ideas I had. Jason asks me for feedback and suggestions but he is the writer/director for Season 1. I’ve worn many hats including Sound, Writing (non-script), Some script rewrites w/ Jay (on set), 1 full script (Nathan interspace), location scout, personal makeup plus blood/scuff etc., supplying some props and costumes, promotion, editing suggestions, camera, and all kinds of general production jobs.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
Based on all that, then, what kind of advice do you have for the people reading this who have a story in the back of their heads and want to make their own original film like you're doing?

JOSEPH:
Get funding and don’t rely on people donating their time.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
Heh heh. No doubt. So what kind of video equipment are you using?

JOSEPH:
Panasonic 100-B, baby! Hahaha. About 2 years of filming with one camera only. Rob and I have them too and he’s used his for second camera but set size made it hard for multiple camera use so sometimes it was easier to just get shots with one cam then get more from different angles with same cam.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
You don't need to answer this if it's an uncomfortable subject, but just off the top of your head, what is your per-episode budget like?

JOSEPH:
WE HAVE ABSOLUTELY NO BUDGET AND NEVER DID! All things were paid for by Jay’s day job and out of pocket expenses of cast and crew to donate their time, work, talent, transportation and services.

What many don’t realize is that this whole thing was a labor of love done by friends and others who signed on. It is beyond grassroots. It started as Jay getting a few people together to shoot something small and whether it grows is just gravy.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
Finally, I know you're re-launching your website soon. The big question on everyone's lips is "When are we going to get to see this?" When do you anticipate having Episode 1 online?

JOSEPH:
We're hoping to have episode 1 out soon and thats all I can say

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
Well thank you very much for being with us today! We're all pretty excited to see what you've put together, and I for one can't wait to see it.

NOTE: Since we did this interview, the official Venus Rises website has gone back online, and you can check it out here: http://www.venusrises.com

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