Monday, September 23, 2013

Trooper: A film about what happens after the war

Welcome back to another Kickstarter Conversation!  I’m pleased to welcome Christopher Martini who is here to talk to us about his first Kickstarter project: Trooper.  Thank you for joining us today Christopher.  

Hi James, thank you for having me. I really appreciate the opportunity. Interviews are a very important way to spread the awareness of a Kickstarter campaign.

Trooper is an interesting sounding movie; can you tell us a bit about it?  

“Trooper” is the story of an Iraq veteran who returns from combat with a host of physical and psychological “invisible” wounds. His brother is in a different unit, and is still deployed. Upon his return, he discovers his father, a Vietnam veteran, is dying -- not the homecoming you expected. His father, also struggling with his own combat-related issues, has lymphoma (Hodgkins Disease), presumably from his exposure to agent orange in Vietnam. By showing the problems facing veterans, on this multi-generational level, we show that soldiers experience the same problems over and over again, over time, from PTSD, to TBI, to exposure to poisonous components in the weapons that we issue to our soldiers, from Agent Orange to Depleted Uranium munitions. The irony is that although our country likes to advertise that “we support the troops”, we find that when soldiers return from war, they arrive to an apathetic nation, that basically does not understand their sacrifices, and to a Veteran’s Administration health care system that is not giving back to them, after their sacrifices on the battlefield. Today there are 860,000 veterans awaiting benefits from the VA, 360,000 diagnosed cases of TBI. Arguably 70,000 to 130,000 veterans homeless on the streets of America on any given night. 22 veterans a day commit suicide. “Trooper” is essentially about father and son veterans, helping each other to get through each day and heal the wounds of war.

What got you interested in creating this film?  Are you or do you know a veteran whose story is similar to the one in your film?

“Trooper” started after I edited a documentary on Gulf War Veterans. It really opened my eyes to the challenges facing soldiers, upon return from combat. The editing of the documentary, essentially, became research for the writing of the screenplay, which happened very quickly, subsequently. But additionally, I felt like the story was an excellent vehicle for expressing the emotions that I was feeling at the time, and it was a great way to express my concern for where we are heading as a nation.

Since the film is already shot what brings you to Kickstarter?

The writing and the making of “Trooper” was essentially an experiment. It was my first feature, and after finishing principal photography, I literally had no idea what I had as a film. After our first screening at the prestigious Actor’s Studio in New York City, I realized that we in fact had a very good film on our hands. What followed after that were months and months of screenings for veterans and veteran groups all over the country. They loved “Trooper”. I had World War II veterans coming up to me after our screening for the 101st Airborne telling me that they had never cried during a movie before, but that they cried during “Trooper”. These were guys that survived D-day, and now they were telling me that they liked my little experiment. It was a life-changing moment for me. I learned that the best way to achieve your dreams is to “do it”. The dominoes continued to fall. We found ourselves almost getting into Sundance, the first time I ever got a personal letter to me from the head of the festival. He told me that he could not stop thinking about “Trooper”. Not getting in, was not a surprise. Sundance is not Sundance anymore as everyone knows. They did, however, recommend us for Tribeca. Tribeca wanted to know if we had the rights for these Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan songs that I had in the film. I didn’t. Since we thought we were getting in, I hired a music producer for 10 grand to clear the song for festival use -- she did. Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan each gave us personal permission to use their songs. Guess what, we didn’t get into Tribeca. The film did end up screening at other festivals and winning awards, however. Recently, the producers and I spent months contacting over 2,000 distributors in the U.S. and around the world. We got very little response. That led us to Kickstarter. There are so many veterans that want to see this movie. It is our mission to get it to them. We need money to self-distribute, so we launched a Kickstarter campaign.

While I don’t approve of the format of your campaign (too long and disjointed much of the story would be better told as a series of updates) there is quite a bit of good information in there.  One bit that caught my attention that reflects well on the project is that you went a refilmed the second half of the film due to veteran feedback.  What made you take this more difficult and costly path instead of just going with your original concept?

I am new to Kickstarter and I went a little crazy with the writing of our page. I decided to go with it since, even if we didn’t hit our goal, which it is looking like we won’t, it would still make for an entertaining story about filmmaking, which it is. But as you mentioned, maybe better suited for a novel or book about filmmaking. Regarding re-filming the second half of the movie; my belief is that when you make a movie, every day that you spend working on it must be spent advancing your idea, creatively. If you learn new things about your subject matter along the way, it is your job as an artist to keep reshaping  and reworking the idea to coincide with the evolution of the thesis. In this case, my character, was supposed to “fight the government”, and demand justice for their denial of treatment.  After screening the film over and over for veterans, and becoming close friends to this day with many, I learned that veterans don’t do that. Most are very patriotic and just “accept their fate”. When you go in the military you are trained to suppress your emotions. So when you come back from combat, veterans have a very hard time asking for help, much less speaking out against the military and the government establishments that they so hold dear. If the story changes course, you have to follow it.

What is the release plan for Trooper? What happens to this film if you don’t reach your goal?  

We are not going to reach our goal, unless a mystery investor comes in in the next 9 days and donates 50k. One thing veterans have taught me; actually, it is something that I knew, you learn it quickly as a filmmaker, but they reminded me; is -- never give up. I have a very close Vietnam veteran friend who reminds me of this daily. You just can’t stop. You have to keep going, regardless. We will get the film to veterans and the public, regardless of what happens with Kickstarter. I never put all my faith in the Kickstarter process for “Trooper” to begin with. I may be too skeptical. It was something that I wanted to try, I knew I had to try, and I tried it.

How did you discover Kickstarter?

As a filmmaker it is very hard not to know about Kickstarter. I heard about it almost immediately, after the website was launched, as filmmakers started getting on there to fund their projects. I never did it until now though.

A key part of successful Kickstarters is backer participation and how to convert a potential backer into a full backer.   How are you engaging your backers?  What kinds of things do you have planned for updates to give notice to those who just hit the “remind me” button and surf on?  Interviews?  Videos?  Stories from the project?

I think email updates were an important part of of the campaign. I have a very big emailing list. I would email people periodically and would remind them that our film was about real issues that veterans were facing. I would also include recent comments from veterans, from Facebook, and from Youtube, after viewing the trailer. I noticed that always after my emails, we would get a surge in donations. I turned potential backers into backers by continuously reminding people that this was a real subject affecting and about the lives of many people.  I had a plan and a schedule for the updates but what I realized after was that you have to improvise and so I threw away the plan. I felt like I would base my next update or notice based on what I had previously done, sometimes doing the opposite on purpose, based on the response I was getting. For example, after an emotional plea from a veteran, I would follow it up with a link to a TV or radio interview that I had done. I did a lot of press interviews, but I should have probably done video updates on the Kickstarter page, I just felt like it was a little invasive. We did a lot of work before the campaign, to get ready, but obviously not enough. I should have spent a year to prep for the campaign, but honestly, I don’t have that kind of time. I have too many scripts to write and too many more films to make. We have raised close to 16K, so it is not like we failed, but we did not meet our goal.

What kind of media attention have you received with your project?  How are you spreading the word?  Facebook?  Twitter?  Google+? Youtube?  Advertising?  Are you using Kicktraq to track your progress?  

“Trooper” has a huge veteran following. The veterans love the film and they always tell everyone they know about it. The best thing that came out of our Kickstarter campaign is that it helped get our film to thousands of new fans, planting it in their mind, so that when we do release the film, they will be there ready to buy the DVD, or download it. It got me to start self-promoting my movie again, where I had abandoned it for a short time.  We took out Facebook ads, promoted our posts; they didn’t bring in many pledges, but one of our posts was viewed by over fifty-thousand people and got over four hundred “likes”. I also payed for a press release through prWeb, that was successful in blasting our film out to hundreds of media outlets all over the country, making over a thousand impressions. Through Facebook and twitter we attracted a huge following with the public, veterans, veteran groups. It is these same groups and people that will help spread the word about the DVD. I did numerous radio and TV interviews. Because our subject is timely, with veteran issues at the top of the headlines, continuously, I found many media outlets very willing to interview me.

Do you have any tips/advice would you give to anyone looking to start a Kickstarter?

I am not sure if I can do another Kickstarter campaign. I’ll know if I ever consider doing this again, but it requires a great deal of effort and I am not sure how many times people will want to support you in the same way. It seems like a one-time kind of thing.  If you have not done one yet, if you have a year to spend building an audience and planning what you are going to do, then do it. Keep your goal very low. Be realistic in determining the amount you think you can raise. Honestly, in retrospect, I should have launched our campaign on Indiegogo (did I just say that?)

Thank you for spending your time with us!  Do you have any final thoughts for our readers?

Keep an eye out for “Trooper”. Kickstarter or not, you will see it soon.

Thanks again and I hope to hear good things from your Kickstarter!

Thanks James.

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