INTERVIEW: Charlie Starr discusses his Fan Film "Sacrifices," and the Fan Film industry in general

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Fan Films have become a huge cottage industry in the past few years. With hundreds produced in the US and abroad, the quality ranges from cinematic on down to embarrassing, and the writing runs the gamut from hokey-jokey to breathtaking. The rising tide of these, and the emergence of venues like “Youtube,” have produced a flood of amateur production that quickly evolved from illegal copyright-infringing pastiches to semi-officially tolerated large-budget productions cranking out series of episodes. We here at Republibot are utterly fascinated by this phenomenon and its attendant subculture. It goes without saying that the overwhelming majority of these films are Science Fiction, however even if they were all shooting westerns we’d still be amazed by their moxie and resourcefulness. Thus, we here at Republibot are very happy to be interviewing one of the more accomplished members of this subculture.
Our guest today is Charlie Starr, who made a Star Wars Fan Film a few years ago, and is also a prolific writer. Charlie, thanks for being with us today. You are, in fact, our first interview on the site.

CHARLIE: It’s great to be able to share with you through the magic of sub-space.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0: We're very happy to have you with us. People have been making what we now call 'fan films' for ever - I remember kids shooting them on super-8 when Star Wars came out 30 years ago - but the whole thing seems to have snowballed in the last couple years, to the point where it's now it's own burgeoning cottage industry. What do you attribute this to?

CHARLIE: The fan film phenomenon itself is born of a love for the show or movie. It’s not enough that we watch, we want to enter into the story ourselves. Professional film makers constantly say that their childhood love of movies is what pushed them into the industry. So the impulse is the same for pros and amateurs alike. As for the burgeoning of the fan film, I think the answer (though there may be other factors) is the digital revolution. If I had tried to make a Star Wars fan film ten years ago it would have been impossible because of cost. Digital video and editing have cut all those costs to practically nothing. More people are making movies now because they can afford to. What sci-fi fan doesn’t also dabble in writing his own stories? It used to be that was his only option. Now he make his own sci-fi movie and throw it on the internet for all to see.

3.0: So it's not just the fact that the actual *making* of the film is now affordable, it's also that there's a way to distribute it so that people other than your family and friends can see it? Do you see that as a big incentive as well? Through Youtube and online streaming and Email attachments before that?

CHARLIE: It certainly doesn’t hurt. But I get the feeling die hard Star Wars fans would make fan movies even if only to show their friends just so they could have a chance to play with “real” light sabers once in their lives.

3.0: So how did you get in to this? Did you just wake up in the morning and say "I want to be a Jedi?" or was this something that had been brewing in your head for a long time?

CHARLIE: I am, of course, a sci-fi fan from decades back: grew up watching Star Trek (et. al.). Saw Star Wars in the theater five times in one day. I’m also a film addict—started making home movies when I was 14. I’ve always had a love for movie making. Did some projects in college and as a teacher. I was fortunate to get hooked up with an editing studio for summer work in the 90’s and started learning about video editing (which I then had to completely relearn in the 00’s with digital editing) and editing technique. I found some interesting ways to apply that knowledge to teaching my English and Humanities students which I stuck with. Eventually I was able to worm my way into being able to teach a film class at my college and find the funding I needed for basic video equipment.

3.0: So it was a combination of a love for the genre, access to the equipment, and also cleverly managing to integrate it in to your day job? Is that fairly common in the fanfilm community, do you think?

CHARLIE: I have no idea. I imagine some of the higher quality fan films may be made by people in the industry trying to show off their abilities or start their own production companies. Circumstantially speaking, I definitely consider myself luckier than most.
The choice to make a Star Wars fan film stemmed from the love of the series, the desire to see if I could actually pull it off, and the fact that I was 40 and taking a good run at mid-life crisis (in other words, yeah, I wanted to be a Jedi). In a film class I made a proposal to the students: make a Star Wars fan film or make a promotional film for my sci-fi novel, The Heart of Light. The kids actually opted for the novel. But I promised some of my Humanities kids that we would do the Star Wars fan film the following year. We used the film class that year to experiment with special effects—chiefly to find out if we could pull off light sabers. Once we knew it could be done, we committed to doing it. Sacrifices was the result of a lot of vision combined with a lot of college student labor.

3.0: You were up for some awards for the film, weren't you? How did that go?

CHARLIE: We were in the Atomfilms Star Wars fan film contest as a finalist. Got an invitation to Comicon and everything for the big reveal in 2008. Didn’t win a single thing! But that’s alright. Being in the Atomfilms contest means George Lucas probably watched our movie. I kinda like that.

3.0: Yeah, that's got to be a thrill! Had you ever acted before? Do you think you'd ever do it again?

CHARLIE: I’ve done a little acting—not much to speak of. I’m a natural ham and good at “stand up” English teaching. But I prefer to be behind the scenes. As a movie maker, my best gifts are in writing, producing, and editing (I don’t even like to direct if I can help it).

3.0: I loved video editing back when I did it. Just so much fun to fold space and time like that!

CHARLIE: That’s a really good description of what editing is: you manipulate reality so that what was there becomes something completely other in what is there now. The power is a little bit frightening.

3.0: Yeah, I loved it. There was something just so magical about it. It quickly became addictive for me.

CHARLIE: I loved being a Jedi—found the choreography practice much more of a blast than I thought it would be—but I also killed myself doing it. I even dislocated my shoulder on set. If we were to make the sequel to Sacrifices I’d probably reprise my role as Orpheus, but I really want to avoid acting if I can—I’m not very good at it. I say that, but then the whodunit my film class just made and which we currently have in post-production needed an older actor and we couldn’t find anyone so I got stuck with the role. Fortunately I died pretty quickly and spend most of the movie as a corpse on the floor.

3.0: It's funny how some gifts translate to the screen, and some don't, isn't it? Danny Elfman, who's just this massive stage presence and a brilliant musician, had this minor role in a Sam Raimi movie a few years back, and they ended up cutting out all his dialog because the poor man just can't act. He just turns up playing a fiddle in the background of one scene, with no explanation as to what he's doing there.
So is the whodunnit you're working on now a fanfilm, or an indie film, or a class project, or what?

CHARLIE: Point of View is not a fan film. It’s a class project born of the mind of 20 year old son (about six years ago when he was still in high school). He told me the story which I liked, but he never got around to producing it himself. We knew the day would come when he would be a student of mine in my film class and would likely be the class choice to direct the movie. Bryan has been making movies since he was ten years old. He has a real talent for it. He even worked on Sacrifices and another of my college class projects (Leave It Behind) as a camera operator while he was still in high school. He’s made over 20 movies himself, most of which can be seen on You Tube. Search gooberboyfilmmaker or just gooberboy for the movies of Bryan Starr. Bryan pitched his movie idea to the class and they wanted to shoot it. Production took place in October of 2008. We are currently in post. The film may be no more than ten minutes long when done or it may be as long as 15 minutes. After it’s done we may look for some college contests to send it to. It will certainly be up on my website and on youtube.

3.0: Unlike most fan films, “Sacrifices” has a very strong emotional through-line and there's not a lot in the way of special effects in the film - just the light sabers, and one or two brief establishing shots in space - was this a conscious decision, or a budgetary limitation, or what? Did you feel that more glitz would detract from the story?

CHARLIE: This was a very conscious decision. Besides being a sci-fi geek, I’m a professor of Humanities and literature and a lover of the classics. I had seen Star Wars fan films before and been ever disappointed by their lack of story. Part of the motivation for doing the movie was the question, “Is it possible to write an excellent story for the Star Wars universe which amateurs can produce?” I wanted a story that had some depth to it, some meaning, some thickness of plot. I also asked whether or not it was possible for a Christian to enter into Lucas’s universe and speak his own vision within the context whose mythic underpinnings are more Eastern than Western. Sacrifices is a story about consequences and the nature of true love.

3.0: Well, of course Lucas himself is far more western than eastern these days - he was going through his postgraduate trendy "Buddhist" phase when he made Star Wars. I understand he's merely a liberal Episcopalian nowadays. So has anyone commented on your shoehorning a western outlook into the well-known eastern mysticism of the franchise?

CHARLIE: No. Probably because the message is not preached—it’s implicit in the form but doesn’t hit you over the head like a hammer. Good art shows; it doesn’t propagandize (which is, unfortunately, what’s wrong with so much Christian film making in the last 30 years—though there are signs of improvement, i.e., To End All Wars, The Passion of the Christ, Amazing Grace).

3.0: Amen to that! Coincidentally, Republibot 2.0 and I have been discussing exactly what is and isn't possible in the possibly-nonexistent subgenre of Christian Science Fiction. We've even contacted Wesley Strackbein from Vision Forum Ministries a few times, and asked him for an interview - his people just held a Christian SF seminar in Texas – we haven’t heard back from them yet, though.
Anyway: A nuts-and-bolts question for any potential fanfilm makers out there: how did you budget this project? Did you have backers, or was it out of pocket? How much did it cost to do, if that's not too personal a question?

CHARLIE: In one sense we did not spend very much money, in another we did. The equipment we needed for the movie had already been purchased, either by the college or various participants. Cameras and editing systems still cost a bit, but we already had that taken care of for previous projects.

3.0: You were simply amortizing stuff that was already paid for?

CHARLIE: Sure, once you buy a good quality video camera, editing system, light kit, etc., they’re yours to use for multiple projects so long as you take care of your equipment. You just need to get past the initial outlay.
For the movie itself, then, our job was to beg and borrow whatever we could. We had no budget from the college, but we did have equipment. The camera came with the director, the light kit I borrowed from a cousin (who also produced several of our special effects voluntarily) and that left a few odds and ends. The costumes were purchased by the actors (I spent 200 bucks to become a Jedi) from a local seamstress who tailored them from scratch.

3.0: Costumes are a bear, I would imagine! I think half the reason there are sooooooooo many Trek fanfilms is simply because the costumes are simple. Can you imagine trying to put together a half-dozen modern BSG uniforms on a fanfilm budget? Or Earthforce uniforms from Babylon 5?

CHARLIE: Light sabers were made voluntarily by a student on campus. Other props were loaned. Sets were volunteered by folks in the campus community. I think I personally spent about a thousand dollars of my own money over two years in making the movie (but that’s cheaper than buying a convertible like all the other mid-life crisis guys do). In other words, a good producer doesn’t necessarily need a big budget to make his movie. He just needs to know how to find what he needs or find people who will give it.

3.0: That's similar to Robert Rodriguez making El Mariachi by writing a script around stuff he already had ("Let's see, I've got a bus, a building, a lot of guns, and a turtle..."), and then selling his organs to science to get the film stock and developing costs. From what you've seen, is there much crossover between the unbelievably-cheap fringe world of indie films, and the fanfilm community?

CHARLIE: Not the communities per se, but the techniques for sure. Low end film makers are constantly looking into the methods of other low end film makers. Guerrilla movie making is the art through which indie producers can make a career—so everyone wants to hear the stories of “how that was done.”

3.0: The scenery was fairly unusual for this kind of thing - where did you shoot it?

CHARLIE: The outdoor cave sequences were shot at a local state park at the entrances to caves. The indoor sequence for the cave was shot in the college gym. Outdoor shots were in the foothills around the college campus here in eastern Kentucky. Indoor shots were in faculty houses (including mine).

3.0: Whether you intended it to or not, it had a distinctive look. Republibot 2.0 and I were joking about how virtually every SF show on the air now is shot in the Pacific Northwest so nowadays every world in space looks like "Planet Cascadia." All the 60s/70s shows were shot in the desert outside LA so they all looked like "Planet Zabriski Point." And here you come with "Planet Appalachia..." It looked cool. Homey and unlike other films.

CHARLIE: In part we were fortunate, in part we worked hard on the sets—the faculty homes we used had a head start in the fact that two of them had interior design by my wife Becky! She’s good with décor—it didn’t take a lot of reworking to make the rooms look exotic (fun fan trivia moment: in the fire side scene, when Pai stands up, there’s a picture on the wall behind him—it’s been blurred just enough so you can’t tell it’s a King Kong poster).

3.0: You were already a published author when you got involved with this and you co-wrote the script. How did that differ from your normal method of writing? I notice this is one of the very few Fanfilms that has a clear moral center to it...

CHARLIE: The story began with a conversation between me and my good student Adam Bengston in my office where I tossed ideas at him which quickly became the core of the story: a Jedi and a girl in love; he has to decide between her and the Jedi;

3.0: What year was this? Was this before that became the emotional hook of the Star Wars prequels, or your reaction to it?

CHARLIE: It was after episode 2 and before episode 3.
Plot twist: she turns out to be a Sith; plot twist (spoiler alert!): the Jedi master who kills her turns out to be her father. It had all the makings of a classic Greek tragedy.

3.0: I liked the way you offed her! That was so very simple and elegant, yet I didn't see it coming, and I'd never seen that kind of thing before! I was like "ooooooh!" when I watched it the first time...

CHARLIE: I was pretty proud of the writing on that entire final scene. We were fortunate to get the shot of the light saber sticking out of her back and then turning off as we fell to the ground to actually work. Didn’t know if we’d be able to pull it off or not. The “Daddy, why couldn’t you love me” line is my favorite moment in the movie.
I wrote the first draft of the screenplay and sent it off to the director, a former student named John Mann, who turned it from being a piece of prose (which is what I normally write) into a “filmic” script. We went back and forth over ten drafts till we had a story we liked. Then when we shot the movie various circumstances meant major revisions on the fly which seemed, in the end, to work out pretty well. Writing with John is a breeze (although he did have to bribe about one or two script points—I said he could have it his way so long as I got the blue light saber).

3.0: How long was the finished script? Page-count?

CHARLIE: Sixteen pages, I think. A lot of the script didn’t get shot. Watch the behind the scenes videos and you’ll see why.

3.0 Are there any more fan film projects in your future? Is this something you'd like to do again, or are you all done with it?

CHARLIE: John and I both got ideas for new story lines. I wrote a sequel; he wrote a prequel. We are interested in making more movies but don’t know if it will ever happen. I do know I don’t want to make any more of these films with my classes—the work is too much and the deadlines too short. But independently there is still a small chance Orpheus, Pai, and even Eury may return in prequels and sequels in a series we are now calling The Children of Dis. Early story ideas and scripts for these episodes can be seen on my website: Just check out my film section and enter the Sacrifices website. I’m currently working on a movie with my film class students, but it is not a sci-fi. As I said above, it’s in post-production. I hope to have it done by April of 2009.

3.0: Are there any other fanfilms or fanfilm projects out there that you like?

CHARLIE: I don’t spend a lot of time watching them, but every so often you just have to take a gander. I think what Shane Felux did with Star Wars: Revelations was impressive. And he’s a nice guy to talk to—would probably give you an interview with no problem (I emailed to ask him a question and didn’t bother to write back—he called!). I’ve always been a fan of Duality. And I enjoyed seeing so many Star Trek series actors in the Star Trek: Of Men and Gods (don’t know if I got that title right) movie—liked the plot connections to the original series very much.

3.0: So it's been a couple years. What's the rest of the cast and crew from "Sacrifices" up to nowadays? Are any of 'em still active in acting or film or what have you?

CHARLIE: Most of the students have graduated. John Mann works in broadcasting for the army at the Pentagon and continues to make indie films as he can. Melissa Sue Shicks is in Nashville working on breaking in to the music industry. She was in a small play last month and will be in another in a month or two—also has a music audition coming up. The choreography team (Russ Stapleton and Shannan Volters) are both children’s ministers at churches in Louisville KY. Nick Byble the production designer works as a church tech guy in Indiana. My two major special effects kids are in Baltimore and Dallas—one teaches and builds websites. The other is in graduate school for a degree in philosophy.

3.0: Nice to know they're all doing well, and you still all get along. That's not always easy - just recently the semi-pro "Venus Rises" project was completely ruined by a falling out with one of the lead actors. And the Star Trek: Phase 2 people are going through Spocks at an unbelievable pace...dispose-a-Spocks, almost...

3.0: Ok, final question: based on what you learned from this whole experience, what advice do you have for people who are looking to make fan films of their own?

1. Start with an amazing script. Write and rewrite and then rewrite again. Spend months on a script until it is brilliant. Then you can start figuring out how to turn it into a movie.
2. Making a movie is a matter of solving problems. You say, here’s what the script calls for, now how do I make that happen? You answer the questions and make the movie. If you can’t figure out how to do it yourself, you find people who can and who won’t charge you money to do it.

Well thank you very much, Mister Starr, and we look forward to hearing more from you in the future! And for the rest of you out there, here’s a link to the fanfilm we’ve been discussing, “Sacrifices.”

UPDATE: 4/27/09:

We here at republibot remain fascinated by the Fan Film industry, and we'd love to do more interviews with the people who make them and features about the films themselves. Unfortunately we're having a really hard time getting Fan Film Folk to talk to us for some reason. (Presumably the temporal demands of balancing real life and making a movie). If you've made a fan film, or are involved in the production of one, please contact us via this website, or simply post a message on here.

It doesn't matter if your film is Star Wars, Star Trek, Firefly, Original, or what have you, we'd love to talk to you!