Chances are that in the last four years, you’ve seen a lot of films – likely a superhero film – that you really enjoyed. There’s also a good chance that in the last four years you’ve read a comic book you liked a lot. Maybe you even wanted to combine those passions into one and bring that film to life. Sure, singers have “American Idol” and aspiring artists have CBR’s own “Comic Book Idol,” but what about aspiring filmmakers? Thanks to Fox, Mark Burnett (“Survivor”) and Steven Spielberg, the world now has “On The Lot,” a reality show about filmmakers competing to for a development deal. CBR’s very own George Tramountanas, a staff writer for CBR News for the past three years, has entered the contest with his super power themed short film “9 Seconds.” It’s been receiving loads of positive feedback and CBR News sat down with Tramountanas to learn more about this heartfelt tale about a boy with the power to turn back time nine seconds, as well as more about “On The Lot.”
“Five-minute films can be submitted online (as I’ve done with my short), and from these submissions, sixteen filmmakers will be selected for the show,” Tramountanas explained of the rules for “On The Lot” to CBR News. “These filmmakers will make films in different genres – drama, horror, comedy, etc. – for every episode. Hollywood professionals will then critique these movies, and the American public will vote on their favorite productions. The filmmaker with the least votes gets sent home.
“In the last episode, the winner will be announced and will receive a $1 million development deal with Spielberg’s DreamWorks Studio. So it’s either humiliation in front of the nation or a million bucks. I’m crossing my fingers for the latter, but gee, even the former might be kind of fun – I could be the next William Hung!”
While CBR News readers know Tramountanas for his reporting, the Seattle based auteur has always been passionate about film, even while earning a business degree at the U of W. “During my senior year, I was interviewing for a job selling feminine hygiene products (no joke!) when I realized that I really needed to pursue my dreams, so I moved out to Hollywood,” he explained. “I got lucky when I arrived and landed a job as an intern to a producer at Paramount Studios. That internship led to another internship which led to an internship in Oliver Stone’s offices. He was working on ‘Natural Born Killers’ at the time, and I worked my way up to being one of his assistants.
“This was my Hollywood ‘baptism by fire.’ Needless to say, I kinda got burned after awhile. I then moved to a kinder job in music licensing for Disney Television. I helped clear the rights for any song you heard on ‘Home Improvement,’ ‘Ellen,’ or ‘Boy Meets World’ (sigh, I miss Topanga).
“Finally, I was accepted into USC’s Graduate Program of Film and Television Production. I worked my butt off making short films and writing scripts for three years straight. For my graduate project, I made a short called ‘Screwed: A Hollywood Bedtime Story.’ While the film didn’t make it to Sundance, it played at and won a few small festivals and got the attention of some management companies. One of these managers signed me, pitched my scripts around town, and…nothing. I did get lots of nice comments about my writing, but comments don’t pay the bills.”
With Hollywood taking its toll on Tramountanas’ finances and his sanity, he returned to the Emerald City to pursue the business from another angle, which brought him and some friends together to create “9 Seconds.” “The film essentially combines those two passions I mentioned – comic books and film. It’s the story of a young man named Tucker Gray who has a ‘superpower,’ albeit a lame one – he can travel back in time nine seconds.
“As you might imagine, there’s not much he can do with this power. It can’t really make him rich or change the world, but he manages to find one or two amusing uses for it. Then, one day, he meets the girl of his dreams. This causes him to reevaluate many things in his life and sets off a chain of events that turns his powers into a curse. Like all of my favorite comics, though, the story ends with the promise of a better tomorrow.”
Like his favorite heroes, Tramountanas’ film has its own unique origin, rooted to a large degree in his love for comic books, novels and just good old fashioned creativity. “A couple of years ago, I read a comic (I don’t recall the title) that had a character who had the ability to see thirty seconds in the future. The idea of a power with such limited potential amused me. Around the same time I was also reading a novel called ‘The Fermata’ by Nicholson Baker, which was about a guy who could stop time (unrelated note– it’s a great book and Neil Gaiman has written a script for a planned film of it). Basically, I had time on my mind.
“Then one day at work, I said something where I really put my foot in my mouth. I don’t remember what it was now, but it was painful. I wished I could stop time; then I wished I could rewind it for just a few seconds…boom! A character was born in my head.
“I wasn’t sure what I could do with him though. There wasn’t enough potential there for a feature film script, but I thought it might be a fun short film. I wrote a bunch of notes, and put it in my ‘wild ideas’ folder.
“Last year, I had sent another film I made to a few comic book editors, hoping that it would open the door to allow me to pitch a few stories. I was lucky and a couple of them did respond and allowed me to send in some writing samples. It was an interesting experience, because while they did say that my writing had potential, they also said that they couldn’t tell if I could write comics unless I had an actual finished comic.
“At this time, I had been reading Brian Wood’s ‘Demo.’ I was blown away by how he took characters that had random superpowers, told a complete story about each one in a single issue, and then moved on. I figured I could do the same with my nine second character and began to put together the story. I was about halfway through the comic script when the ‘On The Lot’ contest was announced. Suddenly, my comic became a short film.
“Truth be told, I think it works better as a film. I was struggling with showing the ‘backwards’ effect in a comic, and it just felt right once I saw the completed movie script. Ironically, the film kind of became a comic when I storyboarded it (albeit a very ugly comic – I’m no artist).”
While he poured lots of blood, sweat and tears into “9 Seconds,” don’t think it’s the only medium that Tramountanas would like to work it. He’d love to be able to branch out into comic books and already has some opportunities for aspiring artists. “I’ve loved comics a lot longer than I’ve loved movies,” he explained. “Unfortunately, there’s no college for comic book scripting. This is part of the reason I started writing at CBR a couple of years ago. I wanted to talk with creators to discover how they did things, and it’s led to lots of fantastic opportunities.
“My big goal/resolution for 2007 is to complete a comic that I can take and pitch to publishers. Like I mentioned, I would’ve had one with ‘9 Seconds,’ but I had to go a different direction with it and jumped back into the film world.
“As a matter of fact, I am right now completing work on a story that I would like to have drawn, and I’m looking for an artist. Forgive the plug, but if there are any artists who liked my film and are interested in collaborating, either email me here at CBR (email@example.com) or contact me at my ComicSpace page. The gig does pay a tiny bit, but please don’t email me any art files. Okay, end plug.”
Switching gears back to “9 Seconds” – ooh, it’s like we traveled back in time – it has been a long and trying process for Tramountantas, who compared the experience to having a baby, “It can be painful and overwhelming while you’re going through it, but the end result is pleasing (hopefully).
“As for the timeline, I found out about the contest last April or May. I wrestled with the idea of doing it for a couple of weeks, and then sat down and wrote the script. My sister was getting married at the end of June, so I knew I wouldn’t have any time to shoot this before then. At the time, the deadline to submit the film was September 1st, so I knew I had to hurry. I planned as much of the production throughout June (locations, props, crew, etc.) and began my casting at the beginning of July.
“I held a few auditions, and found two promising actors for the lead roles: Rick Lawson and Robin Dembeck. Neither had a ton of experience, but they had great chemistry and tons of enthusiasm. In a few of the reviews for the film, people mention how young Rick (the Tucker character) looks. What they don’t know is that Rick had been serving in the Iraq war less than a year before we began shooting. He’s seen more ‘stuff’ than people twice his age, and I believe that added a whole other layer to his performance.
“We then filmed over two weekends in July. We shot on MiniDV and I did the camerawork, although I had a bunch of help from family, good friends, and some of my former film students. I am not an expert cinematographer, but I thought it turned out well. Unfortunately, this may be hard to tell because the encoding (the process that turns the movie into a file you can upload on the internet) ‘muddied’ the image and the colors of what you’re watching at the contest website.
“So after I shot the film, I went to San Diego to help CBR cover Comic-Con International. I then came back, edited the film in three weeks, and had my good buddy (and excellent composer) Lee Sanders write the music. I had the film completely done – except for the uploading – by August 28th.
“I then visited the contest’s website once more to double-check the rules and discovered, much to my chagrin, that the deadline had been extended to December 1st. Basically, I killed myself all summer unnecessarily, but it was nice to be done.
“I held a screening party for the cast and crew in November, and everyone seemed to like the completed project. The deadline for the contest has now been moved again to February 16th, and I’ve moved onto my next project. Heck, I just hope this gameshow happens!”
The would be Hollywood powerhouse has yet to check out many of his competitors’ films, as he says personal preference makes objective comparison a bit difficult and is just happy to see so many passionate filmmakers at work. Tramountanas added, “That said, I think there are films on the site that look terrific, but don’t really have much of a story. Some have a solid story, but the directing could be tighter. I’ve seen two (so far) that I thought were really enjoyable and solid in terms of filmmaking.
“Each film is also supposed to be introduced by its director, and some of these intros frighten me. I think anyone who says ‘I have to do this or my life won’t be complete’ is setting themselves up for a rough time.
“As for me, I like my film and I’m glad I made it. I had a story to share and I told it. I don’t know how I match up, but the reviews have been positive which makes me pleased. In the end, I just consider this film a raffle ticket, and we’ll see if I get picked.”
With the consistently shifting deadlines, seemingly as malleable as Plastic Man, Tramountanas isn’t sure when “On The Lot” chooses their finalists or even how. “I have been told that while the views and ratings on the website are one deciding factor, the ultimate decision of who gets on the gameshow is decided by the show’s producers. If I get past this current stage of the contest, an interview will be conducted, and I might need to make another qualifying film.
“Like I said, I made this because I had a story I wanted to share with others. I didn’t do it for money or fame (not that I’d mind those perks). If you have five minutes to spare though, I hope you’ll check out “9 Seconds.”
“Please register and rate the film as well. If you like it, 5 stars will help land me on the show. Hey, it never hurts to have another fanboy making films – just ask Sam Raimi!”
Executive Producer Jonah Weiland contributed to this story