Newsletter Sign-Up

Click Here to sign up for our Newsletter.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Questions & Answers with STC Director James Kerwin

How did you get involved with STC and express your interest in directing an episode — something that led to directing several episodes?

I’d known Vic Mignogna for several years, and cast him in a short film I directed.  While we were on set, he mentioned that he was producing a STAR TREK fan series, and asked me to check out “Pilgrim of Eternity.”  To be honest, I was wary at first.  Although I wasn’t very familiar with fan films, those which I’d happened to catch ranged from great to amateur, from a production perspective.  That’s not a “knock” at all — God bless anyone with the gumption to make a fan film.  So Vic opened his laptop and said “Just watch.”  I did, and I was hooked!  The production value was top-notch.

While we were in post-production on the short, Vic mentioned that he was thinking about doing a “Mirror Universe” story for STC episode 3, and asked me if I’d like to come aboard.  I was drawn in by his overall goal and philosophy for the show: namely, to produce a Trek webseries made by fans who also happened to be film and TV industry professionals, both behind the camera and in front of it… professionals who agreed to set their busy schedules aside, without fame or financial incentives, to express their love of TOS and share it with the world.  So we tossed around a couple plot ideas, but ultimately felt that his initial instinct — to do a fast-paced story that picks up moments after “Mirror, Mirror” and explores Spock’s immediate actions — was the strongest.  The rest is history. 

That episode still holds a special place in my heart because it was my first — and the Mirror Universe is just so much fun!  Wired came to set for that one and shot “behind-the-scenes” footage of the project; I encourage everyone to check that out as well (

I assumed “Fairest of Them All” would be my sole trip on the TOS Enterprise… but a few months later, Vic asked if I’d be interested in coming back to direct episode 4.  At that point, I needed to make a decision as to whether I’d be willing to set aside my career for a couple years to focus on STC, because writing and directing episodes isn’t a part-time job.  It wasn’t a difficult decision, simply because this entire endeavor was so rewarding! 

After “The White Iris,” I settled in as the series’ “story editor” — that’s the person who works creatively with the showrunner (executive producer) to decide on overall storylines and which scripts to produce.  I eventually became a co-producer (and later producer) on the show.  In addition to directing and/or co-writing most of the episodes, it was necessary for me to work in post as well, helping Vic decide on music and sound cues, etc.  I performed what’s called the “online edit” — I took Vic’s cut of each episode and readied it for color grading by our cinematographer Matt Bucy — and then performed the “DI conform” after the graded footage was returned.  That involved adding film grain, comping in ungraded opticals (i.e., viewscreen shots), and even adding “judder” to the end titles to simulate the 1969 optical film printing process. I also scheduled shoots, helped Lisa Hansell and Linda Zaruches with some of the social media and publicity, cut together “blooper” reels, and authored the DVDs and Blu-ray discs.  But my focus remained primarily on directing.  I’m quite proud of what we accomplished, needless to say!

How do you describe the role and activity of a director to someone not familiar with filmmaking.  In other words, what does a director do?

The director makes the creative decisions about what’s seen on-screen.  He or she works with the actors to craft performances, and composes the shots (i.e., collaborates with the director of photography to determine camera angles, lighting, etc.).  The overall “feel” and “pace” of the piece is the responsibility of the director.

Now, there are significant differences between directing for film — which was my primary background before STC — and directing for series television.  On a film, the director is usually “top dog,” so to speak.  The buck stops with him or her.  He or she establishes the overall vision and style of the movie, from the broad strokes to the finest details.  That involves making decisions in every department — makeup, costumes, art / set design, sound, camera, lighting, acting, editing, music.  A film director is basically the general in charge of a large army.  It requires a lot of pre-planning; and that involves everything from casting roles to storyboarding (drawing) shots to making judgment calls on wardrobe.  Time is money when you’re on-set or on-location, and — while it’s important to be malleable and be able to think on one’s feet — films ultimately run much more smoothly if the director has pre-visualized everything (either on paper, digitally/virtually using pre-vis software, or even simply in his/her mind).  Films involve large crews and complex camera moves, lighting, and shot composition.  One typically shoots about 2 or 3 script pages a day on a feature or short — and even that is pushing the limits at times.  A theatrical film can have a shooting schedule anywhere from a few weeks to a few months.

Directing for TV is rather different.  By the time a director comes onto a series, many of the creative decisions have already been made: primary cast, sets, costumes, and — perhaps most importantly — the overall “style” and “feel” of both the camerawork and the actors’ performances.  With few exceptions, most series have multiple directors, and each one can’t bring his/her own personal vision to the table — you’d have a show that looks totally different from one episode to the next!  That’s why, in TV, the executive producer is ultimately in charge.  Individual directors must conform their styles to the overall vision of the showrunner.  In the case of STC, I also had to honor the rich legacy of TOS, and shoot the episodes in a style reminiscent of 1969 network television.  So a lot of my 21st-century directorial instincts had to “take a back seat” in order to serve the overall series.  On top of that, unlike films, a television episode has a much quicker production schedule.  On STC, we usually shot 5 or 6 pages a day — sometimes even 7 or more!  That’s definitely a challenge to pull off.

How does the all-volunteer aspect of a fan production like STC make things more difficult — or easier — for a director?

Fortunately, on STC, our so-called “above the line” positions (main cast and guest stars, producers, writers, directors) and our primary department heads had a lot of experience working in film and/or television, and that helped tremendously.  I didn’t have to “reinvent the wheel” or show people the ropes.

That cut both ways, though.  Since we were dealing with working industry pros, getting everyone together on a volunteer basis was often quite difficult.  For example, unlike a “normal” series, we didn’t have the luxury of putting our main cast under series-regular contracts.  So if certain actors were working on another film or TV series at any given time, we either couldn’t film during those weeks, or I’d have to shoot “around” their absence.  Same thing for our behind-the-scenes crew.

Plus, understandably, we just didn’t have the budget to put our people up in hotels in Georgia — and feed them — for weeks on end.  So our production schedule was often pretty tight.  The more script pages one must shoot per day, the more stress one is under.  There’s no way to avoid that.  I suppose that having a background in indie film — where one often must work with lower budgets and tighter schedules — helped me cope!

Ultimately, though, having people who came together out of love for the material was a huge plus.  Our team members were all motivated to do their best work, simply because that’s why they were there.  And every night after photography, we’d all go out for dinner and drinks together.  It really was a family… and one that I already miss.

What are some of the films and television series which influence you as a director?

I think Kubrick is probably my all-time hero.  I love the specificity and patience of his films, and how his composition and pacing both inform and reflect his actors’ performances.  2001 is wonderful.  I also love both Blade Runner movies, Solaris… but in addition, I have a soft spot for the late-60s aesthetic.  The early Bond films, Flint, Barbarella… there’s a fun, sexy style there that we don’t see often any longer.  As for television, I thought Ronald D. Moore’s version of Battlestar Galactica was wonderful.  And there’s so much great content on right now.  Black Mirror, for example.  And Mr. Robot just blows me away.

What’s your background, and what are you doing professionally now that STC has finished its final episode?

Growing up, I used to make Doctor Who fan films and amateur movies with our family’s old video camera.  If I was assigned to do a term paper, rather than writing a boring old report, I’d shoot it as a narrative film!  So it was probably around high school when I first started thinking seriously about a career in directing.  I also had — and still have — a passion for cosmology, so I was a bit indecisive.  I went to T.C.U. in Dallas / Fort Worth, and started a double-major… but when I realized I’d be in college for many, many years, I ultimately decided to focus on filmmaking (although I did earn a minor degree in astrophysics).  My student thesis film wound up winning a first-place Telly Award, so I stayed in Texas for a few years after that, directing shorts, music videos for local bands, etc.

When one of my films started to make a splash on the festival circuit, an assistant agent at talent agency APA offered to rep me, and I moved to Los Angeles.  When I first got here, I wound up falling into a lot of stage directing, both classical and modern — which was unusual for me because I had relatively little background in live theatre at the time.  But it’s an amazing process, and very different from filmmaking.  My work at the Blank Theatre Company in Hollywood — a wonderful venue run by Daniel Henning and Noah Wyle — gave me a lot of “in the field” experience with actors, including many accomplished television and film veterans who’ve retained their passion for live theatre despite their on-screen success. 

Ultimately, though, film is my first love, and I was fortunate to get the opportunity to direct a cerebral science fiction noir feature for Entertainment One studios called Yesterday Was a Lie (, starring Kipleigh Brown as well as Chase Masterson from STAR TREK: Deep Space Nine.  After YWAL, we started working on a film based on the science fiction Czech play R.U.R. from 1919.  We originally shot a short ( loosely based on the story — that’s where Vic and I first connected re: STC — and we’re developing it into a high-concept feature set in an alt-history, late-60s world.  And Kipleigh and I have a couple other things in the works as well.  But immediately next for both of us (as well as for Vic and Lisa) is a short psychological character drama called When the Train Stops — also starring Trek actors Michael Forest and John de Lancie.  Lisa’s producing, and she did an excellent job successfully crowdfunding the film.  We’ll be shooting in 2018, and I’m very much looking forward to it!

Twitter: @jameskerwin

Facebook: /jameskerwin

No comments:

Post a Comment