By G. Robert Frazier
In the small corner of the galaxy known as Nashville, Tenn., writer/director Mark Naccarato hopes to make big waves with The Romulan War: A Star Trek Fan Production. Mark recently shared his story behind the film, his love of filmmaking and screenwriting with the Tennessee Screenwriting Association, of which he is a member.
What got you interested in writing and filming movies?
MARK: In a nutshell, if you’ve ever seen the sitcom The Goldbergs, I was kind of like Adam Goldberg. I was pointing an 8mm film camera or a VHS camcorder at people all the time growing up and made a bunch of stupid kid films that are now in a landfill somewhere. In college, I studied communications with an emphasis in film and video production. When I moved to Nashville, I worked at multiple TV stations, production houses, and post-production companies as a full-timer and as a freelancer.
And even though I’d always written scripts or ad copy for projects, I never took a whack at actual screenwriting until I found out that the Star Trek franchise was accepting unsolicited scripts from writers without an agent. So I took a screenwriting class at Watkins College – it was actually the first year they had offered a film program – wrote a spec script for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, mailed it to the studio, and that was that. I never expected to hear from them again – they received about 2,000 submissions that year. A couple of months later, their production office called me and I was on a plane to L.A. to pitch Trek stories on the Paramount lot!
The very first pitch I threw at them – they had a story just like mine already in development! Producer Hans Beimler literally told me, “if you’d have been here a month ago, we’d have bought that story from you.” Anyway, they were impressed and asked me to come back when I had more material and I ended up pitching to Star Trek: Voyager three times over the next year. One of the Voyager stories, which I pitched to a young writer on the show named Bryan Fuller (who would go on to be a showrunner for Hannibal, American Gods, and Star Trek: Discovery) came close to being bought but they said no literally at the last minute because mine was a comedy and they’d already hit their “quota” on comedies that season. That’s TWICE with the near-misses!
Anyway, after my Trek experiences, I decided to make a short film, so I wrote/produced/directed The Crusader. It was made on a shoestring budget but looks like it cost a lot more than it did because I called in a lot of favors with friends and co-workers that I’d worked with over the years in the local TV/video scene. The Crusader was very ambitious. It had fight scenes, stunts, gunplay, and a couple of big crowd scenes that, frankly, I have no idea how we pulled off. It was also pretty ahead of its time. I made it in 2002 and it was a superhero movie framed as if you were watching it as an episode of a true-crime reality show! The Crusader is one of the only films I’ve made that I will actually let people watch and we actually sold a ton of copies of it out of the old Tower Records on West End.
After I finished The Crusader, I got married, got a whole new career, and had a bunch of kids – which means that I didn’t have time for anything related to filmmaking for about a decade… until I started dabbling with The Romulan War.
Obviously, you have a deep love for all things Star Trek. What is it about Star Trek that excites you so much that you’d want to make your own fan film?
MARK: Well, I’ve been drawn to Star Trek since I was a kid watching the original series in reruns back in the ‘70s and what initially drew me to it were the cool ships, costumes, and the colorful characters. When I got older, I grew to appreciate Trek more based on its ideas about peaceful solutions to problems, logic, and what humanity could be if we could get our act together.
For the uninitiated, let’s start with a brief overview of The Romulan War and where it fits in Star Trek’s continuity.
MARK: The Romulan War takes place in the “prime” Star Trek universe we know from all of the TV series. It is the year 2155 when our story begins, which means it takes place during the era of Captain Archer from the series Enterprise. As die-hard Trekkers know, the Earth-Romulan War is the pivotal event that leads to the creation of the Federation, but the actual war itself was never depicted on the series. In theory, the story we are telling would have been seasons 5-7 of Enterprise if that show hadn’t been cancelled.
Rather than film a narrative feature about the war, you’ve decided to tell this in a sort of documentary fashion. Tell us how that approach came about.
MARK: A few reasons. The first is that when I came up with the concept for TRW, the idea of an “in-universe documentary” hadn’t been done before in Star Trek – even in the fan film community. The second reason I went with a documentary format was because I had been editor in the TV and film industry for years and knew all the ins and outs of that kind of storytelling. The Crusader, for example, used a variation on the documentary format. But the biggest reason I went with a doc approach on TRW was so that I could control production costs with a small cast and crew and limited sets and locations. I could also keep things episodic where stories could change or be added without major disruption in the rest of the production.
You’ve had several people step up to assist in various phases of this project, from screenwriting to acting to costumes and special effects. Can you elaborate on some of that?
MARK: Principal photography was done in Nashville at 1085 Studios with a skeleton crew. Our Director of Photography was Denise Kerlikowske who worked with me on The Crusader, but whom I also used to work with at a local TV station. Local film pro Sheri DiGiovanna did our costumes and I think three other things I didn’t know about until after the fact! Our production crew was rounded out by the amazing Aubrey Erin and my daughter Sophia, who was on her first film set. We were also lucky to have fellow TSA member Elvis Wilson lending us his considerable talents and charm to The Romulan War.
We have over a half-dozen people working on our CGI and FX work and nearly all of them are based overseas. Leading the team is Samuel Cockings. Sam lives in England and he’s a fixture in the Star Trek fan community as the co-host of “Trekyards,” a web series that explores all the ships and design from Trek and other sci-fi franchises. We also recently added a Second Unit led by Aaron Vanderkley – a fellow fan filmmaker. He and his team are based in Perth, Australia, and they did some amazing work for us that raised the bar on the scope of the project.
All of our main cast members are based in Middle Tennessee. That includes actors Rob Wilds, Jeff Allen, Ethan Jones, and Katherine Morgan. Actor Marc Mazzone – also from The Crusader – plays the Romulan emperor and he is a delight to watch.
The TSA basically scratches my networking and creative itches at the same time, so I keep going back whenever I can. Plus, I think that under most circumstances, the group offers some great feedback that you might otherwise have to pay a lot of money to a script consultant for. — Mark Naccarato
What’s the status on filming? Are you getting close to the finish line?
MARK: Well filming is done but we are knee-deep in post-production. That means editing, sound recording, color tests, graphics, art, and scoring. And the CGI special effects. Wow, those effects take a long time! Samuel’s team is moving at a good clip, but it’s a LOT of work. We’ve got a bunch of new starship models that are original for our production, so that’s a lot of hours of design. The FX shots have to be storyboarded or pre-visualized before we light them properly, animate, and render them. We are going to end up with, I think, around 150 CGI shots by the time we’re done… that’s about as many as you’ll see in an entire season of “real” Star Trek! And then we also have everything that goes with the green screen footage: the virtual sets, compositing, color grading, etc.
So to answer your question… YES, we are getting to the finish line, but it’s a major undertaking for the amount of time and money that we have been working with. Having said all that, I really do think we can be ready to release the film in the spring if everything goes as planned.
You did some online fundraising, right?
MARK: We were on Indiegogo and are very proud of the fact that we were the first Trek fan film in about three years to raise over $10,000. We actually beat our Indiegogo goal, but since that happened we’ve had some other production costs come up that we hadn’t budgeted for. So yes, we are still gladly accepting contributions for TRW on our Indiegogo page! For the record, the Indiegogo campaign, believe it or not, was one of the most stressful things about this whole production. There are a lot of things I never saw coming and it takes an insane amount of time if you are going to actively promote the campaign. It is almost a full-time job for 30 days – not to mention all the prep work that has to happen first before you even launch, like making a pitch video, building your campaign page, planning out your perks and a hundred other things. I strongly recommend people do their homework and have a solid team helping you like I did on any kind of Kickstarter/Indiegogo campaign or you’re going to lose your mind.
You’ve posted a lot of extras to YouTube and to the web. Can you talk a bit about how those extras came about and where folks can go to see them?
MARK: We have produced several audio episodes that tie into our film’s story. These episodes are kind of unique in that even though they are audio dramas, there are also video versions of them that people can watch on our YouTube channel. We are also planning some other content that helps us expand the story which will be released when the film itself comes out. Our Indiegogo backers have been and will continue to get the first sneak peek at everything before we release it to the public. We have a Facebook page too and that’s usually where we’ll post all the latest updates.
CBS/Paramount has some strict rules about what can and can’t be done regarding fan films. What were some of the restrictions and what kinds of challenges have those presented to the story you want to tell?
MARK: Well, by their own admission, the folks at CBS have said that those are “guidelines, not rules” and in their defense, they have so far been pretty fair to the filmmakers – myself included – since the guidelines were put in place. The challenge the guidelines have presented to this project is their seemingly arbitrary restriction on the length of the project. They prefer 15-minute stories, but will allow two 15-minute segments to tell one story. TRW was written and filmed to be a feature-length project, which means making a lot of hard decisions that compresses what should have been about a 75-minute production into essentially 30 minutes! Aargh! A lot of the “extras” you mentioned earlier are really ways for us to tell these other parts of the story while staying in compliance with the studio guidelines.
And big question here, why are you dabbling with someone else’s intellectual property when you could be doing your own thing?
MARK: Good question. First, as a lifelong Star Trek fan, I’ve always wanted to see the origin story of the Federation. The Earth-Romulan War is arguably the most important chapter in the Star Trek “history” and yet, we’ve never seen it realized using pro-quality special effects and acting on a grand, epic scale. Star Trek has been a major influence in how I view the world and my hope for what humanity could become if we embraced the better angels of our nature and this was my love letter to it. I’d also like to think that when it’s finished, that TRW will be seen as the definitive version of that period of the Trek timeline. If not “canon,” then the next best thing.
Second of all, I actually do have other original projects I am working on that are completely unrelated to Star Trek or sci-fi! They are coming along at various stages of development – including the occasional false start that some TSA members have had the misfortune to witness at the weekly meetings! So yes, I have my own original material and hopefully you’ll be hearing about some of it before long.
You invited members of the TSA to write some of the extra pieces for the project. How did that go?
MARK: A few months ago, I did an “open call” for TSA members to submit their 3-5 page script using the TRW concept that we would try to produce as an audio drama and which tracked with our main story. I gave them some parameters about what kind of stories I was looking for and the format. Bob Giordano wrote a two-part mystery tale called “Sleep Is Hard to Find” which was performed by another TSA member, actor Drew Dunlop. That story has gotten some great feedback and we might produce at least one more of the stories that was submitted by a TSA member… we’ll have to wait and see. I have three of my own stories that are in the pipeline first and it is really just a matter of finding time to get all of this done.
And finally, what do you enjoy about coming to TSA meetings?
MARK: I enjoy the people who are there, I enjoy the whole concept of sharing creatively with other people to try and improve the work, and since I don’t work full-time in the video and film industry anymore and have a lot of time commitments, it’s the one time a week where I can “plug in” with local creative folks – even if I don’t always have something to read or to give feedback on. The TSA basically scratches my networking and creative itches at the same time, so I keep going back whenever I can. Plus, I think that under most circumstances, the group offers some great feedback that you might otherwise have to pay a lot of money to a script consultant for. You have to take everything with a grain of salt and factor in people’s knowledge and skill levels, but by and large, TSA members give solid feedback that’s useful if you’re willing to listen to it and internalize it.
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