Monday, October 29, 2012

Science Fiction Land Interview

In my seemingly never ending quest to seek out and discover new Kickstarter projects I came upon a seemingly timely one in the Science Fiction Land Documentary.  A documentary going into the details of the failed movie and theme park that was the cover story for the film ARGO that was theaters at the same time?  How could I not want to learn more?  

My journey lead me to Judd Ehrlich over in Brooklyn, New York.  Reaching him was a bit more difficult than my usual interviewees for the simple fact that he’s quite the busy man living with that New York lifestyle!  After some phone tag and interrupted meals on both sides we were able to have a wonderful, if a bit broken up, conversation over Skype.  

Greetings Judd it’s great to finally speak to you.

You to James. 

So you’ve brought us “Science Fiction Land: A Stranger than Fiction Documentary.”  Can you tell us a bit about it?  

Sure, this a project years in the making.  It started with a researcher doing research for Errol Morris for the documentary series “First Person” on Bravo.  They did a story about a CIA agent named Tony Mendez who had a kind of crazy story about using a science fiction script to help free hostages during the hostage crisis in Iran. Tony talked about the script that he used and the designs that formed the cover he used when going to Tehran.  Well Diane Bernard was the name of the researcher and she thought it was a really interesting story and decided to dig a little deeper.  She found this fully formed script and these incredible drawings and designs that were done not only for the film but for a science fiction theme park.  It was to be the largest theme park in the world and it was going to be called “Science Fiction Land.”

The story kept interesting her so she kept digging and discovering how the the theme park had grown out of this script called “Lord of Light.” It was based on the 1967 best selling, Hugo Award winning, novel by the same name written by Roger Zelazny.  These drawings were done by none other than Jack Kirby; known as the “King of Comics” he was co-creator for such classic super heroes as Captain America, Fantastic Four, the X-men and the Hulk.  Basically he’s the reason the comic book industry is still around.  

All her digging eventually lead her to this one guy, Barry Ira Geller.  He’s this kid from the Bronx who ended up moving to Hollywood. He bought the rights to this Zelazny book and was trying to make this blockbuster science fiction movie which was going to be the most expensive science fiction movie of all time.  Barry had gotten Kriby on board as well as John Chambers who won an academy award for Planet of the Apes, the famed Ray Bradbury, and futurist Buckminster Fuller.  So he had assembled this all-star dream team cast of characters but then everything went horribly wrong and up in flames.  

Only one week later Tony took the script and the drawings to Tehran.  The only thing Tony did was change the name to ARGO.  So everywhere it referenced “Lord of Light” they changed it to ARGO.  Everything else was the same including the drawings, which let this provide their cover.

As I said we had been working on this for years when we learned about the movie ARGO coming and knew about the overlap between our work and this new movie we realized this was the perfect time to try and get this film made.  In fact Ben Affleck plays Tony Mendez in ARGO and we had already interviewed him for our work so it fit together quite well.  We’re not a big Hollywood film, and we don’t have big stars, so what better thing to do but to go straight to the fans through Kickstarter? Comic book fans, Kirby fans, sci-fi fans, espionage fans, and fans of ARGO are coming out of the woodwork to support us. Also we’ve gotten tremendous press attention from Entertainment Weekly, Wired, and Slate thanks to all the interest in the movie ARGO and how well it’s being received.  The movie says its “based on a true story” but what is true, what is fact, and what is fiction in such a complicated tale such as this?

In fact the idea of the blurred lines between fact and fiction, reality and lies was such a key central part to our film that we wanted to explore it.  Many of the key players involved blurred those lines between reality and fiction that it can be hard to keep it all straight.   With this big Hollywood movie of ARGO coming out it’s just adding another layer of fantasy mixed with fact into the telling of this tale.  People are going to see ARGO and some of them are going to think that’s the reality and the facts, which makes it even more important for us to get our film out there to explain more of the details.  I don’t think there’s an “objective truth” out there on this story so we just want to get many different versions of the truth out there as we can.  There are certainly a lot of people in this story that aren’t in ARGO so we want to get those people.  

With all these layers upon layers of lies, deceit, misdirection, fiction, and even a smattering of truth thrown in this story seems to be the perfect storm when it comes to being an interesting tale to tell.  Add to that the Hollywood movie coming out why did you need to come to Kickstarter in the first place?  Couldn’t this have been, if nothing else, a blu-ray extra with the release of ARGO?

That’s not ever what we wanted to do.  We’re not making a “behind the scenes movie” but something we’ve been working on for years.  It’s an incredible project in it’s own right and something completely different than ARGO. In fact Diane had been working on the project since 2000 with the documents have only been declassified in the late ‘90s.  The story came to Hollywood’s attention after an article in Wired in 2007.  

So basically you never wanted to be an “extra” to the Hollywood ARGO story as you felt your story stood on it’s own?

Yeah, it was such a wild story that combined so many elements like science fiction, comic books, I never really saw it as a linear story.  So much so I saw it as an opportunity to break out of the standard documentary format to try something new.  Everything from using old school special effects like what would have been used in “Lord of Light” in the ‘70s to more current computer generated effects.  I was always really excited about the storytelling aspects this project presented from the different disguises and masks we all wear in a our everyday lives and line between fantasy and reality that we all walk and the ways in which it’s hard to determine what the objective truth is in any situation.  At the same time we had these incredible characters and plotlines to explore.  

You know taking this project to Kickstarter really fit the content of the film and what Science Fiction Land was all about.  The underlying mission of Science Fiction Land, and I think the reason so many people jumped onto the project back then, was that it was this early form of “open source” development.  Really the vision was to give technology to the people and it’s really a theme of “Lord of Light” the novel as well. With technology comes power, and the idea was we had to take the technology out of the hands of a few corporations, out of the hands of patent holders, and give it to everybody.  The vision was to give scientists a place where they could come together and create things and immediately put it out there in an amusement type setting.  Then kids could come, the next generation could come and get excited about this thus creating the next generation of inventors and scientists.  It really was this grander, utopian vision of really this 99% idea but all through technology and science.  

Kickstarter has really allowed our film to be showcased right along with ARGO.  Here we are with our independently funded film against this huge Warner Brothers film with this huge budget and yet I don’t really see us at odds really.  It’s great ARGO is coming out because it’s bringing a lot of attention to our film.

They do seem very complimentary to one another.

Absolutely.  I think it also brings into focus the other parts of the story.  The Hollywood film vs the Independent film which I think exists in a lot of art forms.  Be it music or publishing there are some projects that get backed by big money and big corporations and there are others that individual artists have to struggle to make.  Kickstarter is just this incredible thing that’s come along through technology that allows us to do, in a way what Science Fiction Land wanted to, which is bring these ideas out to the public directly and get support that way.  It’s really perfect that way.  

This is my fourth feature length documentary and my first one here on Kickstarter.  I’ve been completely overwhelmed by the support and messages we’ve received for the project.  We’ve made some great connections thanks to the campaign including folks who want to work on the project and help with the film from all over the world.

So as you say this is your first Kickstarter, what did you do to prepare for the campaign?   What have you done to bring your film to the Kickstarter community?

Well, thanks to all the work we already had put into the film we had a lot of film already shot and a lot of research we could bring out on day one of the campaign.  We didn’t want to show the whole film obviously, but we did want to put something out in our video that made sense at the moment.  So we went out in the middle of the night very “gorilla style” to the site of the 1964 World’s Fair in Flushing Queens at the Unisphere in my hometown of New York City to film me talking about the project and about ARGO.  Just to talk about some of the things relevant to our project that weren’t discussed in the movie ARGO.  We also wanted to show some of the shots we had of Barry and introduce him to the Kickstarter community as well since he’s such a major part of the film.

After we did the video we really had to work on the rewards so they would be interesting to the community.  We also worked on the copy of the campaign itself so that we could share the whole project with the community in such a way that they felt like they were a part of the whole project.  I really feel that the community is fully part of our project.  Our 416+ backers are all people who are helping to make, and are part of, our project.  
That’s actually one of the greatest advantages of Kickstarter and successful Kickstarter projects.  The ability to bring the backers “inside” the project really keeps them motivated and connected.  I see another way you’re doing this is that you went to Comic Con in New York, how did that go?

It was great!  What was interesting was Kickstarter itself was at Comic Con since they were promoting the dozens of projects that were going on directly related to Comic Con and the community around it.  It was interesting to see how our film plugged into a lot of areas of interest at Comic Con.  For example we had the Sci-fi, the Documentary, the film, and with comics.  

Being at Comic Con for four days was quite the experience! We had Jack Kirby’s art out at our booth, original archival materials from the film, and other things that people had not seen before.  There are folks at Comic Con who are rabid Kirby fans, rabid Zelazny fans, and we were there the day ARGO opened in theaters so we were attracting attention from all sorts of fans.   It was interesting to hear from folks both before and after they saw ARGO which made for a pretty incredible experience since many of the Comic Con fans are also quite the film buffs.  So many of these folks knew the story behind ARGO, knew about Zelazny and Kirby which made for great conversations.  

In fact one of the comic artist who we ran into after they had done a lecture at the convention turned out to be a lifelong Kirby fan.  He liked our project so much that he’s actually started working on a poster for the film.  

Do you use Kicktraq at all?  The trend shows you coming just shy of making your goal. What are you doing to kick up the interest and get you across the finish line?  

Well first off through interviews with folks like you!  ARGO is just opening up in other regions so that’s generating interest and I have a few other interviews lined up in the next couple of days.  It’s interesting to see how the folks in the UK are getting interested in this story, especially the science fiction fans.  

We’re also continuing to update the community with different things like that poster design I mentioned before and interviews with those behind the scenes.  

Based on what I’ve heard before there is always a last burst of interest by those who have been waiting since they’re running out of time and would like to see it made.
Oh most definitely!  As I’ve seen in the past those last three days are going to be key for your success.  Did you have anything special planned for those last three days besides just that poster you mentioned?

Good question! We are most definitely open to suggestions, I know you’ve seen a lot of Kickstarters in your time.  As it stands right now we don’t have anything specific.  We have some possibilities of bigger donors coming in to do some sort of “matching” thing going on but nothing solid.  I’m not really sure at this point.  

Have you been disappointed at all that you’ve not been getting more activity at the higher backer levels? Or were you counting more on the lower level pledges from the word go?

I can’t say I’m disappointed at all.  In fact it’s great we have so many contributors in general even at the $25 level.  (Laughs) It’s funny it’s a bit like how Obama Campaign takes pride in having lots of small donors instead of a few large donors.  I think that’s something to be proud of because you want a lot people who are giving what they can instead of a handful of people who just happen to have a lot of resources to give more so you reach your goal and you’re done.  I’d much rather have this funded by small donors than just a handful of large donors.  I wouldn’t want to discourage large donations but I think it’s great the way we’ve gotten a lot of small donations.  

So as you go into the home stretch is there anything you’d like to say to the readers and backers who are possibly on the fence?

As everyone knows Kickstarter is “all or nothing” and these funds really are the bare minimum we need to complete this film and it’s a story that I think, now more than ever, that needs to get out there.  It’s only going to get made at a place like Kickstarter by the generosity of a lot of people who want to see stories that are not the big Hollywood stories but are really delving into the complexities of these issues.  The only way those stories are going to get made are to take them to a place like Kickstarter so that the people can be a part of it.  I hope we finish out strong and I’m really confident that we will! The support has been really terrific!
Well I’m really looking forward to seeing the film.  Is there anything else those who are interested can do besides just give you more money?  

Absolutely!  Spread the word through social media, Facebook, Twitter.  Talk to your friends, email your friends just get the word out.  Especially since ARGO is out there this is the perfect time to talk about the story behind the story.  To really educate people and say, “if you liked ARGO and want to know more check out this project.”  

Well I’ll do my part to spread the word.  I’d like to thank you again for doing this interview with me, this is a smaller audience than might be used to.  

As I said I don’t discriminate between the $1 contributor and the $1000 contributor  So anyone who is willing to talk to me about the project is enough for me to do it.  I really appreciate you taking the time and energy to talk and write about this as well.

Well you’re quite welcome!  Good luck and here’s hoping you can get across the line to a successful project!

Thanks again James!

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