INTERVIEW: Scott Cummins talks about his work on the Starship Exeter fan film, “The Tressaurian Intersection.”
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON 9/8/09
With us today, we've got Scott Cummins, who directed the Starship: Exeter episode, "The Tressaurian Intersection." Now, there's a zillion different Star Trek fan films out there, but I admit I've always had a special fascination for Exeter, and I've always wanted to know more about it. Scott, thank you very much for agreeing to speak with us today!
SCOTT CUMMINS: Thanks. I'm very proud of the show and I'm glad people have enjoyed it.
REPUBLIBOT 3.0: First off, Scott, can you tell us a little bit about yourself? Who are you, and what's your day job?
SCOTT: I live in Portland, Oregon where I make a living managing a department responsible for about 40% of a small business' revenue. That pays the cat's mortgage and maybe a few things for myself. My Big Expensive Hobby is in filmmaking, and I've done several projects throughout the years that lead up to 'Exeter' and beyond. Maybe one day, my hobby will turn to paying the bills, but I haven't had that pleasure yet. Beyond that, I'm just another American forging ahead and enjoying the simple life of friends, family, outdoor adventures and miscellaneous geekery (you've gotta be a little geeky to partake in something like Exeter, after all.)
3.0: For me, personally, when I saw "The Savage Empire" for the first time in 2002, I felt like it scratched an itch that I hadn't realized was nagging at me. All this modern Trek stuff - the prequels and sequels - that was fine, but what I really wanted without knowing it was more TOS, episodes I hadn't seen a zillion times over. Like I said, there's eleventy-jillion Trek fan film projects out there now, and some of them are even pretty good, but Starship: Exeter was one of the first *and* as far as I know, it was the first TOS-era fanfilm, the first one to actually commit to the idea of doing a 1960s-format episode. Despite some obvious problems with the first episode, I was blown away by it. Now, I understand the first episode was before you came on board with the project, but can you tell us anything about the genesis of the whole thing? How it came together initially?
SCOTT: I know exactly what you mean by "scratching an itch." I believe you're correct in that it was the first TOS-era fan-film, at least one that became almost a "cult-hit" online. There have been other films out there--one from the 70s that I saw recently, and another that's become relatively famous from the 80s, but they never really were as big of a "hit" as Exeter seemed to become. Most of the past stuff were parodies rather than actual attempts at making something serious, so Exeter has the honor of being one of the first outside of that, as well. That's not to say there wasn't other stuff out there. "Hidden Frontier" is one example that was being done before Exeter came along, and I'm sure there are a few others, but Exeter was the first that had practical standing sets and made an effort to be somewhat mature about what they were trying to do with production values and shooting style. Basically, as I understand it, the brothers-Johnson, Josh and Jimm, wrote and produced most of "Savage Empire" when they both lived in Minneapolis. Eventually, Jimm moved to Austin, Texas, where he met a gentleman named Joel Sarchet, who convinced him to finish the show and even spice things up a bit. Joel participated in producing an enhanced version of the fight between the characters of Captain Garrovick and Chang (parts of that fight were shot in Minneapolis and other parts in Austin). Jimm finally finished his edit, and it was released online in December 2002, after having caught a little bit of attention with various "teasers" that he had posted to the website prior. But when news of its release hit a website called "Slashdot," it exploded. The videos were hosted on apple.com's public servers at that time, and there was so much traffic that Apple eventually shut it down. Jimm got it back online, hosted by a very nice Exeter fan (still hosting the videos today even when there are other options like YouTube out there), and its popularity just continued to grow. Eventually, they decided to do another show because of the response.
3.0: How did you first get involved with Starship: Exeter?
SCOTT: After they announced that they were going to make another show, I wrote an email asking if they'd be interested in having a director come shoot it. As a filmmaker, I had always fantasized of directing an episode of Star Trek, and figured I'd give it a shot, since this would likely be as close as I'd ever get. I was surprised to receive a positive response, and after speaking with both Jimm and Josh, and sending them some of my work, they agreed to have me come direct their show.
3.0: The second episode of the show, "The Tressaurian Intersection," was vastly more ambitious than the first in terms of story, characterization, use of sets, cinematography. The released portions actually felt like a long-lost late-sixties spinoff of the original Trek. Given the massive increase in quality, it seems like it must have been a pretty grueling shoot. How long did the whole production run for, and what was the most daunting part?
SCOTT: I was in Austin for three weeks. The first few days and the last few days were doing set-up and clean-up, and the middle two weeks were doing the actual shoot. You're right in that it WAS an incredibly grueling shoot. It was the middle of July in Texas. If you've ever been to Texas in July, you might understand how uncomfortable that can be, weather-wise. It was incredibly hot. I'm not sure there was a single day where the temperature was below 100 degrees. To beat the heat, we thought it'd be a good idea to shoot at night, rather than during the day. It may have helped a little (I'm not sure because we slept during the day), but it was still nearly unbearably hot. The studio in which we were shooting wasn't air-conditioned, and we were working with all of the hot lights. There was a day where I shot my cameo appearance (that's me getting vaporized by a lizard in an Exeter hallway), I put on the costume and thought for sure I wasn't going to make it. Those costumes are very, very warm. It's like putting on a sweater when it's 100 degrees out. I was glad to go back to my t-shirt and jeans, but I'll tell you that I had a whole new respect for the actors that were wearing those things for 12 hours straight every night.
3.0: There's a rumor that you had very limited soundstage facilities, and couldn't have any standing sets as a result. Allegedly, you'd set up the bridge set, shoot all the bridge scenes, tear it down, set up the hallway set, shoot all the hallway scenes, tear it down, set up the transporter room set, shoot all the transporter room scenes, tear it down, and so on. Any truth to this? If so, that must have played merry hell with continuity and so on.
SCOTT: I loves me a juicy rumor as much as the next guy, but this one isn't *totally* true. The show was shot at a place called "Austin Studios," which was basically the old Austin airport whose buildings were converted from storing large jets into sound-stages. They were HUGE buildings. To say we had "limited" facilities is certainly not the case. Our main limitations were money and personnel. Our budget was tiny, and we couldn't afford to have all those sets standing around not being used, so we would set up, shoot, tear down, and repurpose the set pieces for the next set. All of this was brilliantly coordinated by our Production Designer, David Weiberg, who came down to oversee this process from Minneapolis. There were several evenings where our "day crew," who were building sets, were not able to keep up with our shooting schedule (sometimes there were only 2 or 3 of those guys, after all), and we had to put our production people onto the task of finishing up certain sets before we could shoot that night. Luckily, they never seemed to mind, and I even believe it helped us all "gel" into a tight-nit group. The transporter room set was the last set we built, and the last principle photography set to be shot. It went up in such a hurry that I'm amazed it stood for as long as it did before we wrapped. Up close, it was pretty awful (no offense to all the guys that worked so hard on it), but it did the trick, and on-screen it looks beautiful! Almost perfect, even. Continuity wasn't really a major problem since most scenes were independent of others. it's not like we had to build and re-build the same sets over and over, of course--everything was shot out of sequence. For example, we shot all of the bridge scenes during the first week, then moved onto the briefing room set, then the Kongo engineering alcove, then the corridors (which were redressed to serve as the Kongo corridors of course), then the Kongo cargo bay, then, finally, the transporter room. The script called for sick-bay too, but we decided very early on, to abandon the attempt and re-wrote that scene to take place on the bridge instead (the scene was when the doctor returns B'fuselek to duty, and it was easy enough to switch, especially since it was such a quick sequence).
3.0: Where and when did production actually take place? Where were the location shoots done?
SCOTT: We shot "Tressaurian" in July of 2004 in Austin Texas. The location shoot (seen in the teaser) was done in a place called "Big Bend National Park" near the Texas/Mexico border.
3.0: Ok, the big question that everyone wants to know: what's the deal with the final act? "The Tressaurian Intersection" first started showing up on the Web in installments in 2005, and the conclusion still hasn't been released. Obviously, there must have been something that happened to semi-permanently halt production, but nobody seems to know what it was, and the third-hand sources I've spoken to over the years all have mutually contradictory explanations - the video was ruined, or it was never filmed at all, or somebody died, or everyone had a big falling out, or the money ran out, or whatever. Please, please, please, if you can do so without betraying any personal confidences, please tell us what happened.
SCOTT: I'm surprised this is buried all the way down in Question #7!
3.0: Well, I didn’t want to scare you off by jumping straight to it…
SCOTT: None of the 3rd-hand sources are correct, I'm afraid. The video is fine, yes it was all shot back in 2004, no one has died, and sure there were a few people that dropped out, but no one that has really affected the project. Once post-production began, money wasn't really an issue, but real life is. I'm pretty frustrated by the lack of progress too, but I CAN assure you that it WILL be finished and released eventually. I really don't know when, but I'd guess sometime before 2009 takes a bow. Jimm is in control of the final edit, and he has his reasons for the delay. One big reason for some of the delay was that, back in 2004 when we were rushing towards production, the script was continuing to be polished and we ran out of time for further enhancements because we had to start shooting. This had the unfortunate side-effect of causing a few unanticipated difficulties with the story that we then had to try and fix in post-production (never easy to fix once everything's been shot). However, the final rough-draft edit was completed about a year and half ago, and we all really love how it came out. The problems were fixed brilliantly in a huge team-effort between those of us remaining in post-production: David Weiberg, Jimm, myself and Dennis Russell Bailey, our screenwriter. But real life intrudes. Jimm has a wife, two kids and tries to live a life just like we all do. He's also a perfectionist, sometimes, to an extreme that I would not have pursued, even when I consider myself to be somewhat of a perfectionist too. But he's the boss, and he needs to do what he needs to do. Yes, it'll be out, and yes it'll be fantastic. :)
3.0 Thank you! I’ve waited for nearly half a decade to find out anything solid about that. So…uhm…The long-rumored follow up to "Tressaurian" was to be an episode called "The Atlantis Invasions." Are you connected with that? Is it still a going concern? What can you tell us about the story, without spoilers of course?
SCOTT: A script was written (by someone who has since become a good friend of mine, Maurice Molyneaux) entitled "The Atlantis Invaders." Our original intention was to shoot that episode's ship-board sequences simultaneously along with 'Tressaurian.' Unfortunately, when we got into production on 'Tressaurian,' we quickly realized that if we tried to do both, we would have finished neither, so we abandoned 'Invaders.' I don't really know what Jimm's plans are for further adventures of the Exeter crew. He's commented in the past that he wants to do another show, but I really don't know how realistic that is. It's such a tremendous undertaking, and costs so much money to do, that I fear this may be a one-time deal, but you never know. I do not believe I would be involved with another show, should it happen, however. 'Invaders' was an adventure where the Exeter is called, under false pretenses, to a planet called "Atlantis" where something valuable is being mined. There are mysterious disappearances taking place on the mining colony and Exeter investigates the mystery. There's a love story involving Garrovick, and some fun action; some rockin' hand-phaser battle stuff. It would have been fun to shoot. If it does get produced some day, I'm sure it'll be a fun episode for Exeter fans. I'm not sure if this episode will be the next one, or whether another story will be developed, if indeed another show is ever produced.
3.0: Would "Atlantis" have been the finale for the Exeter project, or was the team hoping to keep doing episodes after that? For that matter, is "Starship: Exeter" still a going concern, or is it a dead project?
SCOTT: 'Atlantis' was not written to have been any kind of finale. Jimm and Josh have discussed their ideas for a finale, but I'm not very familiar with that. No, Starship Exeter is NOT a dead project--the final piece to "Tressaurian" WILL be released--but I'm not sure about further episodes. That's up to Jimm.
3.0: One of the crew of Exeter - I forget who now - commented on United Worlds that he quickly got to feeling rather constrained by the limitations of the Trek Universe, and having to fit their story in to the confines of an already over-defined fictional universe. He'd said he had some new project he was working on, which sounded to be somewhat similar to Trek in format, but was set in a new standalone universe with new underlying rules. Do you know anything about that, and did you yourself ever feel a bit hamstrung by the strictures of 'playing in someone elses' garden' so to speak?
SCOTT: You're probably referring to Dennis Bailey, our screenwriter, who runs United Worlds (now located at starshippolaris.com, by the way). He's referring to the show he's trying to put together called "Starship Polaris" as a new standalone universe.
3.0: Yes, thank you, that’s it!
SCOTT: The problem with playing in someone else's garden, as you say, is that you never really "own" all the hard work you've put into it. We walk an extremely fine-line, intellectual property-wise. I mean, any day, Paramount COULD decide to flex their legal muscle and shut us down, along with all the other fan-films, and there's absolutely nothing we can do about it. While I don't think that's likely to happen (it's free advertising, after all!), I suppose I wouldn't be surprised. So, Dennis and myself and others involved with Exeter, are either moving onto their own independent projects, or getting out of "the business" altogether at this point.
3.0: You also did a short called "Secret Identity Crisis" a few years back. I generally try to find and watch everything by everyone I interview before I talk to them, but I wasn't able to track down a copy. What was that short about, and how did directing it differ from a large-scale production like Exeter?
SCOTT: My short, "Secret Identity Crisis," is a fun little film I did in 2007. You can't find a copy anywhere because it's not online. It is available for purchase (cheap!) on my website (http://www.riverscapepictures.com), and the DVD includes the film itself, some commentaries, and some behind-the-scenes documentaries. It's a fun little disc, and the film is a kick in the pants. It's about a super-hero who, after battling his arch-enemy that gets away (again!), he retires to the local watering hole where he meets someone new. It's a fun twist on the super-hero genre that's very simple, and if I do say so myself, is quite entertaining for an 8-minute film. It was written by Maurice, the same screenwriter of Exeter's "Atlantis" script. It was very small-scale in comparison to Exeter, at least as far as scope. But I had a professional crew and equipment for that project.
3.0: Are you working on any projects now? Can you tell us about it? What's next for Scott Cummins? Well, I'm being filmed for HGTV's show called "My First Place," which has been documenting my first-time house-buying process. It's an unusual experience having a camera follow you around when you're doing such a life-changing activity, but it might be fun to see my mug on television when the show airs. I've tried to sneak in a mention or two of Exeter, but you never know what will (or will not) make it into the final cut of the show, of course. More information about the show here: http://www.hgtv.com/my-first-place/show/index.html Alas, I'm not working on any film projects at the moment. I'm about to close on my afore-mentioned first house, and after I move in, I suspect I'll be busy with house-related stuff for a while. I'm always looking for opportunities, but I think I'm about done self-financing my projects. My next film project I'm hoping will be a feature, though I'll find someone to act as a producer on such a feat, and find us money to go do it right.
3.0: A fairly technical question: As a fan film director, working with an unpaid cast, what methods did you develop to get credible performances out of amateure actors?
SCOTT: For the most part, I had to be pretty specific on inflections and intonations to get what was required for the scene. I wouldn't normally do that, and let the actors find their moment, but when you have people that aren't really actors, you have to try to get them to give you what you need by asking for it directly. This doesn't always work, and sometimes performances fall flat, but it is what it is. Overall, I think the show is fine, and while the acting is arguably some of the weaker parts of it, it still works quite well.
3.0: On that note, what about crew-wrangling? Obviously, you found some way to get fairly professional performances out of a (presumably) volunteer crew. Scads of fan film productions fall apart before they get anywhere near completion, simply because the creative team can't seem to hold them together. Do you have any advice for them?
SCOTT: I can't say enough great things about the crew we had for this show. These guys, while also amateurs, didn't let it show, and they really gave it their all. On the first day of filming, we had somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 people show up. Some were lookee-loos, some were there to be background actors, and some were people volunteering to help with production. After the first week of shooting, we had things widdled down to a solid 20 or so people that would show up consistently, and they were absolutely fantastic. I still speak to some of them from time-to-time, and during a recent trip back to Austin, I met up with a few. Great people--the best memories I have are of working with those guys. We totally lucked out, but I think part of our success was that we didn't pick people that wanted to go make a Star Trek fan-film. We picked people that wanted to be filmmakers. I'm convinced that's what made a HUGE difference in the quality of what we ended up with. The other mistake that fan-films make, I believe, is that they futz too much with getting the props and costumes right and fail to work more on the story. It's the story, after all, what good films have in common--and Star Trek is always so much better when it's telling a great story.
3.0: Amen to that. What kind of equipment were you using on "Tressaurian?"
SCOTT: We shot the show on Panasonic DVX100. It shoots with the film-rate of 24-frames per second, rather than the video rate of 30ish. We were the first fan-film to do this, which I think really helped the "look and feel" of our show. Unfortunately, it's a standard-definition camera, and while I'd love to have the resolution of HD, it wasn't yet practical for our budget back in 2004.
3.0: Did your production have any contact with the other TOS-productions - Farragut, and the "Phase 2" people? Is there any kind of TOS-fanfilm production community, or are you all more-or-less insular?
SCOTT: Jimm, Josh, and Joel had some contact with the "New Voyages" people (now called "Phase 2") way back in the beginning, but that relationship fell apart, and the two projects went their separate ways. I get the feeling that fan-films are largely insular ('Exeter' certainly is), though I understand there's been some cooperation between 'Phase 2' and 'Farragut' to some extent. People that do fan-films often get bogged down in politics, technicalities of the show, or even, oddly enough, egos. I suspect this has a lot to do with why so many of them don't end up being completed.
3.0: Finally: TOS fan films have become sort of an accepted fact of life on the web, and some of them have even become semi-official, but you guys were really the first to do it, to do it well, and to prove that it *could* be done. I have no doubt in my mind that "Phase 2" and a bunch of other projects would never have happened if your team wasn't there to show them the way. Any thoughts on this?
SCOTT: Starship Exeter certainly seemed to have sparked an interest and demonstrated that there was a hunger for such a thing. I'm thrilled to have been a part of it in some small way, and I'm proud to have contributed to a quality production.
3.0: Well, that about does it, I think. Again, Scott, thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us about all this, and answering a bunch of questions that have been bugging me for four or five years now. I feel like I'm in your debt, somewhat. Thank you, and please let us know about your future cinematic endeavors!
SCOTT: I'm proud of the show, and I'm happy to speak about it any time. Thanks for the opportunity.
[EDIT 9/10/09: Though it's kind of implicit in this review that no one had ever revealed this information online previously, Dennis Bailey has made it clear that he's given much the same information to several different sources at several different times. I was personally unaware of this when I did the review.]