Once Upon a Time…

… a group of fellow travelers, with much aide from their good neighbors, set about creating a film …

Ember Days” is a fantasy/action, community-powered art project, shot in Washington in the fall of 2010 as the brain-child of writer/director Sean-Michael Argo. The project is the result of an awesome effort from the pagan and arts community in the Pacific Northwest, Arkansas, and Texas too. Made for less than $35K, Ember Days is a true micro-budget film, daring to tell a story much bigger than its budget.

… and now …

Our story is told with limitless imagination, ripped free of all budgetary and worldly constraints. Go deeper into the world of warring gods, angels and the faerie with the novelization, exclusively on Amazon!

Ember-Days-Cover-Only-1-300 Make Your Choice.

 

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Wizards, Jedi Knights, and Superheroes

… and Space Marines?

When it comes to the world of books, video games, films, and merchandise we certainly live in what you could call the Golden Age of the Expanded Universe.

The entire premise of the new film Star Wars: Rogue One is predicated on a single line of dialogue from Return of the Jedi – “Many Bothans died to bring us this information.”

And I think that is amazing.

Everywhere you look it’s Marvel Comics, Harry Potter, or something equally vast. You would not believe how many Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Star Wars branded  items are in my house right now. Being an old hand when it comes to fandom myself, there are plenty of Warhammer 40k and World of Darkness novels and games sitting on my various shelves and awaiting me in a few stashed bins. This isn’t a new sort of phenomenon, though I’d say we have firmly moved into territory where ‘expanded universe’ is the standard now for most entertainment.

There is a strong economic incentive to be sure, as a single product like the video game HALO can become a franchise that presents consumers with not only video game sequels but apparel, toys, board games, novels, and movies. In fact there are many video games that are working with this idea, and again it isn’t an old one, it’s just that it has now become the standard operating procedure. Didn’t get enough from the video game? No problem, we have a few novels you can read while you wait for the blockbuster film to hit theaters in the fall. On and on it goes, so shut up and take my money!

The creative incentive cannot be overlooked, and honestly I think this is where the desires of fandom have really blended well with the world of entertainment commerce. As fans we want an immersive experience, and other than we happy few who have been playing Dungeons & Dragons since we could read this wasn’t much of an option for people who had interests outside of Star Wars, comic books, and bad 80’s cartoons. Once we devour what you’d call the ‘core material’ we fans want to start experiencing the world and the characters from a multitude of perspectives, in whatever form those take (novels, films, games, comics, toys, etc). With the long-term franchises, like Star Wars, there’s always the discussion of what is canon and what isn’t, and that’s unavoidable with things like Star Wars, which as undergone so much change. The same could be said for Warhammer and Warhammer 40k, as those creative lines (originally miniatures games that became a full entertainment empire), even if on a smaller scale (ha!).

The franchise and expanded universe that has my engine purring is J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter universe, predominantly because there has been a single creative mind at the helm of the franchise since the beginning. Certainly she has worked with many collaborators through the years, but unlike a film, which is by its nature exceptionally collaborative, the novels (which are the core material) are hers. Much the same could be said of the works of Tolkien and his Middle Earth.

The idea of creating an expanded universe for NECROSPACE is a relatively new one to me, as I had originally intended for Trade War (released this week by Severed Press) to be the third and final novel in a trilogy. As I started work on another story I thought perhaps it would be the start of a new trilogy, also set in Necrospace, though that story went in a different directly entirely. After that I’ve started two different novels, and have many notes for a third, that are unrelated even if somewhat interconnected. There are just so many stories I want to tell in the Necrospace universe that exist outside the tale of Samuel Hyst, for his I believe is done. In some ways deciding to make a Necrospace expanded universe (using the first trilogy as my core material) was something of a survival tactic. I was around 10,000 words into the parallel story of a stranded Augur Corp special operative on a wasteland planet and a Red List mech-warrior trying to stay one step ahead of the law when I realized that it did not belong in the same book as the 15,000 words that followed the Dire Swords mercenaries as they brawled with other contractors over alien WMDs. I’ve got notes at a chapter or so that I originally cut out of Trade War that are likely going to be shaped into a story about the life and times of a Helion battle trooper, as I have used them as antagonists often in Necrospace and its high time we saw the world from their side of the rifle.

It could be awhile before there are any Necrospace video games or comic books, and I do have other genres to explore (as evidenced by how I took a break from space marines and crafted a novelization of Ember Days), but I do want to finish those stories, and I like to believe that there are folks out there who enjoyed the adventures of Samuel Hyst enough that they’ll give a few new protagonists a chance.

In the meantime?

I’m going to finish watching A New Hope with my son… his first time seeing it!

 

 

 

Bubble Boy

I was reading the Wild Hunt post today and the following quote really resonated with me: 

“The Pagan and polytheist corners of the internet foster conversations that require so much context as to be nearly unintelligible to outsiders.”

And it got me to thinking about my filmmaking choices over the last several years, and how this was a consistent criticism that I received in the past, and yet praised for it in recent times. On older films, key among them Voodoo Cowboys, I struggled to create a film that engaged the subject matter I wanted to deal with (vodoun and zombie apocalypse) in a very detailed and (other than the zombies) realistic way. If it wasn’t for my cinematographer Leo Smith constantly asking what I thought were silly questions (they weren’t) I would have forged ahead with a 60-70 page script that required the viewer to do all of the heavy lifting with regards to prior knowledge of voodoo religion & hoodoo sorcery. Thanks to Leo the script ended up being about 120 pages once I’d explained at least the basic concepts, and yet when the film was finished there were still so many vodoun pre-requisites of understanding for the audience that many people only barely scratched the surface of the story, and as a result viewers rejected the film as just another bad movie. 

Today I am enjoying a very different, in fact opposite, reaction from general viewers. The film Ember Days is a complex soup of myths ranging from Fallen Angels & Nephilim, to Greek Gods, to the Faerie Courts, all of them interwoven and in conflict. This was a 45 page script, with very little in the way of exposition about who these mythic entities were, and only marginal exposition about what their motivations were, and yet the general audience for the film not only understands the story but loves it. 

The difference between the two films is that I tried to present Voodoo Cowboys to a broad ‘over-culture’ audience, and with Ember Days we specifically presented it as “by pagans for pagans”.  Reading the above blog post really hammered home the realization that my problem with Voodoo Cowboys was presenting the film outside of the pagan bubble, and the success of Ember Days has been due in a large part to presenting it within the bubble. 

What this seems to imply for me as a filmmaker is that when I have a story to tell, it is part of my job to determine whether or not it belongs inside or outside the bubble. And I agree with the author of the Wild Hunt post, in that I’m not sure what the bubble means for us pagan folk going forward, though for now I am rather happy to have identity and success within it. 

The Day After and the Days To Come

Wikipedia defines the word “career” as a person’s journey through learning, work, and other aspects of life, while the Oxford Dictionary defines it similarly as the course or progress through life (or a distinct portion of life).

I find that especially encouraging today, the idea that a career isn’t just your work, its also your life, the learning process… a journey unto the whole person. Taken from that perspective, I can say with resounding happiness that my Career as a Storyteller is going rather well. I have worked for many years to gain the experience, comrades, battle scars, and perspective that I enjoy today. The film Ember Days was released on DVD yesterday, and has been met with a strong positive response. The journey of that film is far from over, though I feel that yesterday was a powerful start. People believe in this movie, with all of its flaws and all of its awesomeness, the whole epic melodrama. I am moved by this, to see my tribe and my community support the film and the people who worked to make it happen. Success is about so much more than money, though for the first time in my career as a storyteller, there is money present in the mix. Though I take much personal fulfillment in the simple acts of working as an artisan storyteller, be it as an author or filmmaker, there is a tangible measure of progress in the packing & shipping of DVDs to people who cared enough about the project to pay for a copy. It emboldens me to dare to dream of the next community funded & created film project, a transformative journey story we are presently calling ‘Werewood’, and I find myself filled with confidence and renewed determination to keep carrying the fire that filled us all during the Ember Days.

Confessions from the Writer/Director

This is a re-post of a “filmmaker’s confessional” that is available on the Ember Days film site. I wanted to post it here for your reading pleasure. 

 

Ember Days: A “Pagan Epic” On The Cheap

In the summer of 2010, I was riding through the misty mountains of the Olympic Peninsula with SJ Tucker. We were on our way to explore the driftwood beaches of La Push. I was already overwhelmed with the beauty of the landscape, and then the song “Come Down”, by Ginger Doss, started playing through the speakers. I found myself daydreaming-in-cinema about a group of faeries called The Wild Hunt chasing a lone warrior through these primordial forests. Then as the song continued, I started to wonder why they would chase one of their own, and it came to me that he was possessed by the spirit of a fallen angel. The song finished and our adventure continued, but the daydream images stayed in my mind. The seeds of a story had been planted, and over the next several months I articulated the story as the shooting script for the film ‘Ember Days’. I then was fortunate enough to be offered $30,000 of private financing to create the film.

For most people, $30,000 is a significant amount of money. You can do lots of things with 30K, but you might be surprised to learn how dramatically the power of that money changes when it is translated into a film production budget. (For example, 30K is basically the “toilet paper budget” of most Hollywood movies you’ve seen. Or, to think of it differently, the salary of a single crew member.) If I had made the attempt to shoot a small commercial, a music video, or perhaps a short film, employing only working professionals for the cast & crew, then the $30,000 would have been an appropriate budget. However, I wanted to make a feature film, and I wanted to make it without creative compromises (even if that meant that I’d have to make a great many technical & financial compromises). If I were to take the script to Hollywood and attempt to arrange financing through distribution & production companies, they would have rejected the project due to its complex story, presentation of a multi-layered reality, and the blending of myths from a variety of cultures. Hollywood wants “point A to point B” sorts of films, that are easy to understand in any language, and that are easy to sell through the use of buzz words, celebrity actors, and parroting existing film trends. If grindhouse action movies and teen sex comedies are IN this year, then don’t bother bringing anything that doesn’t fit perfectly into one of those two genres.

There are positive elements and negative ones when you strike out on your own to make a micro-budget film. I don’t mean “indie film” or “low budget”, since low budget films (according to the Screen Actors Guild) still have budgets ranging from $1,000,000 to $5,000,000. Most people who even attempt feature films with budgets under $250,000 (what Hollywood calls micro-budget) do not typically attempt to create myth-blending fantasy/action films like Ember Days, much less with only $30,000. They stay within the comfort zone of things like spoofs, or comedy, or single-location-thrillers. As such, I get that it was crazy for me to think that I could pull off this kind of movie on such a tremendously, laughably, abyssmally micro-budget. The truth of it is that I am a storyteller, and this was the story I needed to tell at that time, so I would have attempted to make this movie with two dollars, a flashlight, and a cellphone camera if that’s all that was available. Crazy or not, this movie was going to happen.

Enter Sherry Kirk. She was a retired non-commissioned officer (first sergeant) who had created an intentional community space called ‘Sidhehaven’ in the small town of Yelm, Washington. I had stayed there over the summer and fallen in love with the place, and we had talked at length about my filmmaking plans for Ember Days. Sherry was intrigued and offered the use of the property for the film. Let me just say it was the key reason we ever completed the shoot. The house is a 3bd/2ba building, with a cozy front porch, hot-tub, woodshop (we converted it into sleeping quarters w/cots for the more hardy cast & crew), and a canvas & wood dome dwelling called a yome. There are forests, train tracks, and even Mt. Rainier all within easy driving distance. It was perfect. Did I mention that it was called Sidhehaven? For those of you who don’t know the word ‘sidhe’ is another word for faerie, which is a big part of the Ember Days story, so I was feeling the touch of fate I think.

Because we did not have a professional grade budget for shooting a feature film, we had to do things very differently than most professional films, in fact we had to throw the “professional film” book out the window and invent our own filmmaking process. That’s what happens when you don’t have enough money to pay for a cool movie, you have to get creative and find other ways to get the story created. This film was made possible by the Washington community, primarily artists, pagans, and performers. The majority of our cast were non-professional actors who put their hearts & souls into the movie, and the few professional actors on the cast brought just as much heart to the project, as they certainly weren’t being paid professional wages. We had help from not only the local pagan & arts community, but also the Seattle Film Commission, the Thurston County Film Commission, and the City of Olympia for our locations (lots of love for the WA film commissions, who despite our tiny budget, treated us with enthusiasm and respect), and believe me we had some cool locations that we never could have afforded to just ‘rent’ on our own. This epic-on-the-cheap tells a story that spans from pristine forests to swanky condos to immaculate offices to gritty urban decay. By the gods, it even snowed on the exact shooting day in which the scene would have been made all the better for it.

Overall the experience on set was different than most ‘professional’ shoots, in that people were working on Ember Days for the love of the story and the love of making art. We crammed dozens of people into the house, the woodshop, into travel trailers, the yome, and some even stayed home and commuted to our set every day. Most people were unpaid volunteers on the project (I certainly was), and those few who were paid only received a pittance. On a professional set, everyone shows up for the paycheck. Even if they love their jobs, they’d walk off the project the first time a check bounced. On our film, people were there because they wanted to help create the story, to share in the glory of its telling, and see something truly unique enter the world.

Even though this film suffered some blows in technical quality due to its micro-micro budget (primarily audio), it is still extremely cool to know that we, as a community of people who just didn’t give a damn about the limitations, made it happen. Every single time you make a movie, you learn a tremendous amount of new stuff. And employing all I learned from the making this movie, my pagan epic on the cheap, I would totally, impossibly, do it again.

Back in the Saddle

Met a girl in St. Louis and fell in love. Her name is Bekah Kelso. With lots of help from Sherry Kirk and SJ Tucker I directed the feature film Ember Days in Washington followed by Sineaters in Arkansas. Worked a few military jobs doing art department for culture/combat immersion training. Wrote a book called As Above So Below which is full of old & new film scripts and tales of failure & glory in the movie business, finished several others (though I’m already planning some re-writes). Moved to Tacoma, WA. Worked as a craft service grunt for the web-series Journey Quest. Moved out of Tacoma and back to Arkansas upon finding out that Bekah was pregnant. She is back in Texas with family and I’m shipping out to another military job on monday in Washington. Oh, and post-production for Cthulhu Blues Productions and sales/marketing for Dark Roast Releasing never stopped for a second. August 2010 through May 2012 has been one wild time.