A Fan's Film
Baltimore's Michael Dougherty writes and directs a movie inspired by Joss Whedon's Serenity
Published: September 1, 2010
Capt. Laura Matthews (Heather Fagan) doesn’t like her situation one bit. The hardened Browncoat of the Unification War is already uneasy about taking on a risky and illegal job, one that includes pilot Petra Jo Chen (Miriam Pultro). Petra has been challenging and undermining the captain’s authority at every turn. She has also been maligning the Redemption, the Firefly-class starship under Laura’s command.
Worse, the Alliance, the totalitarian government that controls the majority of the territory within the ‘verse, is battling civil unrest from the populace. Alliance Minister of Parliament Darius Turner (Ted Taylor) has ordered Lt. Col. Thadeus Stevens (Kurt Skarstedt) to make an example out of anyone he sees fit. The colonel has his eyes set on a particular captain of a particular starship.
Welcome to the sci-fi world of Baltimore writer/director Michael Dougherty’s movie Browncoats: Redemption, which is set to debut Sept. 4. Like many independently financed features, Browncoats was made quickly, with cast and crew juggling multiple responsibilities.
If parts of its above plot synopsis feel a little familiar, that’s because Browncoats takes place in the same world created by Joss Whedon in his television series Firefly and its Serenity movie offspring. Browncoats isn’t produced by the Fox Broadcasting Company, which owns the rights to the series, nor has Whedon had any hand in this story’s creation.
Browncoats is an example of an emerging art form, the fan-film—that most recent outgrowth of cult series fandom that has spawned such activities as conventions and slash fiction. Technology has reached the right mix of affordability and sophistication, enabling fans to tell visual stories in the fictional realms of their beloved programs. And while the practice seemingly violates intellectual copyright, studios and fans are realizing what Whedon’s Serenity taught its totalitarian regime: They can’t stop the signal.
For Browncoats, the 34-year-old Dougherty actually received Whedon’s blessing, which both elated and terrified him. “Once we got it, it was the best thing in the world and the biggest weight on your shoulders at same time,” Dougherty says by phone. “You’re extremely happy that the guy you’ve been idolizing for years is giving you the OK to do something, and then you’re realizing the same guy you’ve been idolizing for years is giving you the OK to do something.”
Whedon’s Firefly was a surprise cult hit. The short-lived science-fiction/Western series aired on Fox in 2002. Upon cancellation, strong Firefly DVD sales and a passionate online fan outcry prompted Whedon to make the 2005 movie Serenity. Both projects chronicle the adventures of the ragtag crew of the Serenity, a Firefly-class starship under Capt. Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion). Mal fought against the Alliance alongside the Independents, aka the Browncoats, in the Unification War, which they lost. “Browncoats” has since become the nickname for passionate Firefly/Serenity fans, whose devotion rivals the love Trekkies have for Star Trek.
In Serenity, Mal revealed to the universe via a galactic newsfeed that the Alliance was behind the creation of a sub-species of vicious cannibals called the Reavers. Dougherty says Browncoats takes place about three months later. He got one of the plot points for his fan-film while reading the novelization of Whedon’s movie. “The crew of Serenity has just completely changed the universe without thinking about it,” he says. “Three months later, where would be the universe be? How would a crew at the other end of the universe have to deal with this?”
Enter the starship Redemption and Capt. Laura Matthews and her crew. They have to deal with the fallout of what happened in Serenity, as the Alliance seeks to make an example of the Browncoats.
“What we figured is the Alliance would spin this any way possible to take it off their back,” Dougherty says. “The Independents would want to leverage this as a reason to rise up and fight again. In the midst of all this turmoil, you have a crew that has to take their very first illegal job just to make ends meet. You’re seeing a crew for the first time having to do an illegal job and what they have to go through just to get it done.
“The idea was to stay true to the style of story that [Whedon] had in Firefly, which was really more about people and less about spaceships and the wonderful things like that,” he continues. “Capt. Laura Matthews is the center of the story, but it really wouldn’t work without everybody else. Mal was the centerpiece but everything supported him. [Browncoats: Redemption] is very much an ensemble cast in the same way.”
Fagan, who’s also a producer, says her no-nonsense character is “proud [and] protective. [Laura] is fairly close-mouthed about her past, but she’s quick to defend her crew and her ship. She has a strong moral center, which creates some internal conflict when she’s forced to take some rather unsavory jobs.”
Dougherty and Fagan say the Redemption crew doesn’t know who blew the whistle on the Reavers, nor does Laura know Mal and his crew. “She’s heard of them by reputation alone, but she has not met either,” Fagan says by e-mail.
“The rest of the universe doesn’t know who did it,” Dougherty says. “Nobody knows at this time in the story who actually sent the signal out . . . [it] just got sent out. The story is a one-shot that can collapse in on itself. That way if [Whedon] wants to come back and do a sequel, it doesn’t contradict anything. The fan-film hasn’t changed anything in continuity.”
Browncoats was shot around Maryland in 11 days total from April through July 2009. After creating a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization before filming began and consulting the Maryland Film Commission, Dougherty approached Maryland-based businesses to help him with his passion project. The reception was positive.
Frontier Town in Ocean City donated a Western theme park for three weekends. St. John’s Properties—a Mid-Atlantic commercial real estate firm—donated warehouse space for four months, where the crew built its sets, including the interiors of the starship Redemption.
Dougherty was inspired to create a movie after helping friends on various film projects. He and one of the producers, Steven J. Fisher, conceived the idea for Browncoats in July 2008, prior to attending the fantasy/sci-fi convention Dragon*Con in Atlanta, Ga., that year.
“We found Browncoats and other Firefly fans there and pitched the idea to them,” Dougherty says. “They let us know that there were two other Firefly fan-films that had been attempted, but never [finished]. So we researched them, saw where they failed, and made sure we planned around them. We found out the biggest things we saw was they would over-hype and over-announce the project, show these really great photos, and talk about the fun they were having.
“When it came time to launch the final movie, there was nothing,” Dougherty continues. “There was a delay, one excuse after the other why they couldn’t put it out. We realized part of the issue is when you’re fans making a movie and you’re doing it in your free time, you don’t take it as seriously as if somebody hired you to do a job.”
Dougherty began writing the script when he returned from Dragon*Con and finished the first draft in November 2008. He next created a Facebook page for the project. Within 30 days, about 500 people responded to it, and Dougherty and Fisher invited some of them to do a read through of the script at Calvary Community Church in Columbia on Dec. 13, 2008. According to Dougherty, there were 33 people in attendance—most of them complete strangers who became an essential part of Browncoats through Facebook. (Of those 33, about 80 percent learned about the project from social media networks.) From there, they began casting, and principal photography started in April.
For Dougherty, working on the project didn’t feel right without letting Whedon and Fox know what was going on, especially Whedon. So Dougherty relentlessly bombarded Fox and Universal Studios (the studio behind the movie Serenity) with e-mails and phone calls. “Because we didn’t necessarily fit in their licensing plans, [Fox] stated, ‘As long as you’re not making money, we’re not really worried about it,’ ” Dougherty says. “That’s an overgeneralization of what they said, but as long as we weren’t making money, we weren’t in any major violation of copyright laws.”
With regard to Whedon, Dougherty says his call was put through fairly quickly. In hindsight, he believes it might be because he shares the same name with the writer of 2003’s X2: X-Men United and 2006’s Superman Returns—something he didn’t know at the time. “We knew [Whedon] was filming Dollhouse on the Fox lot,” he says. “I called the Fox main line, since we had the number from reaching out to the studio before, and just asked for his office. Within seven operators, I was put right in. I talked to Natalie, who was Joss’ assistant at the time, and she said to shoot her a detailed e-mail outlining everything we wanted to do, what our project was, what our scope was—basically, write up a business plan. She would give it to [Whedon] and let us know ASAP.
“About a month and a half later, we got a really short e-mail that says we have his blessing and he thinks it’s cool,” Dougherty says. “But he couldn’t speak for Fox or Universal.”
This hands-off consent to fan-film projects might prove to be savvy marketing. “In one sense, it may be possible for the corporations to reach out to the masses through their lawyers and crush people from doing fan-films, but that looks bad,” Peter Coogan explains by phone. He is a professor of American culture studies at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., and founder/director of the Institute for Comics Studies. “Attacking these people is attacking the people most interested and most devoted to their products. These are the very people corporations do not want to attack.”
According to Coogan, corporations could shut down fan-films, but that goes against their best interests. As long as the creators of fan-films are not making money off of trademarked characters they do not own, fan-films are a legitimate business. “In general, the corporations have recognized that fan creations are a valid form of trans-media interactions, reiterating and reusing and re-purposing their characters without harming the basic premise of the franchise,” he says. “[Fan-films] increase opportunities for fan interaction and activity—that’s a marketing tool. . . . Those sorts of activities are necessary in today’s crowded media environment.”
They’re also an emerging art form, especially with franchises that have strong cult followings such as Serenity and Star Trek. Star Trek: New Voyages, Star Trek: Of Gods and Men, and Star Trek: Osiris—all of which are unrelated—are fan projects.
“People yearn, they just ache to act out these characters,” says actor Alan Ruck during a phone interview. Best known as Cameron Frye in 1986’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Ruck also played Capt. John Harriman in 1994’s Star Trek: Generations. “They go to conventions wearing makeup—they love it.”
Ruck reprised his role as Harriman in Star Trek: Of Gods and Men, which was shot in upstate New York and Los Angeles. Most notably, it co-starred Nichelle Nichols and Walter Koening—aka Nyota Uhura and Pavel Chekov, respectively, from the original Star Trek TV series and several of the 11 motion pictures. Tim Russ (alias Lt. Tuvok from Star Trek: Voyager) directed the three-part mini-series that spans approximately an hour and a half.
Of Gods and Men was created by Los Angeles’ Sky Conway, a prominent Trekkie on the convention circuit and a film producer. He used the sets of Star Trek: New Voyages to film the fan mini-series and paid the actors Screen Actors Guild minimum wages. Of Gods and Men received the blessing of Paramount and CBS with the caveat that Conway doesn’t make money off of the sales of the project.
To Ruck, fan-films are a natural outgrowth of series loyalty. “People can now act out their fantasies in front of camera and not [at conventions],” he says. “Digital cameras are fairly cheap and people have their own web sites. It seems fairly natural to me.”
Fandom for cult properties like Star Trek and comic books became prevalent in the 1960s and ‘70s, according to Coogan, as conventions began with devoted fans dressing up as their favorite characters. “The generation running things in Hollywood today grew up on comics from the 1970s-’80s when fandom had been already in existence,” Coogan says. “Once companies realized fans provided a focus group for them, fan support became another way to get the word out there about their products.
“Social media plays a big part in this now because companies now can instantly get feedback,” he continues. “Once studios realize the marketing possibilities when they get fans on board, they provide lots of free marketing for you. Fans working as producer/creators of a fan-film can speak for that audience.”
Dougherty is one such fan. “We’re hitting a different age,” he says. “If you look at movies 10 years ago, the resources we have now we didn’t have then. I don’t think we could’ve made Browncoats: Redemption 10 years ago. We couldn’t have done the movie on the same scale. The resources available to the general public are becoming on par with what studios use. You’re finding that the fan-base itself is going, ‘All right, the studios screwed this up and aren’t telling the kinds of stories we want to see, so let us tell the story.’ Sometimes, they’re really great, and sometimes, they suck.”
And to Dougherty, the fan/audience is an untapped resource when it comes to cult properties. “I’d love to see the day where Paramount brings in the rabid Trek fans and says, ‘If we were to make another Star Trek movie, what would you want to see?’” he says. “That won’t happen, because they’ll try to find a way to capitalize on it, but with a fan-film, I can go out and tell that story. . . . It can be as elaborate as you want or as simple as you want. . . . The playing field’s really getting level. The studios don’t own the high ground anymore.”
Coogan agrees. “The technology means that [studios] can’t stop [fan-films] from being produced,” he says. “Maybe they can stop them from being distributed, but that’s not in their best interests. Digital filmmaking makes it possible to make whatever people want and if they’re going to make a fan-film, they’re going to make a fan-film. Pop culture is modern folklore because it’s created and re-created by the folk.”
“We’re debuting [Browncoats: Redemption] at Dragon*Con, which is at the convention it all started,” Dougherty says of his movie’s Sept. 4 screening. “We’re keeping the tradition alive of where we were originated it and what might be viable.”
A global online premiere is also scheduled for Sept. 3 over at least a 24-hour period. DVD sales also begin online Sept. 4. None of the cast and crew will be making any money from this project, which cost more than $80,000 (less than $30,000 came from out of pocket, while more than $50,000 was donated). A few Serenity cast members are making cameos, but they’re not getting paid either; they’ve generously volunteered their time.
Dougherty is tight-lipped about who is appearing, however. “Serenity/Firefly cast members are making an appearance and that’s all I’m saying,” he says. “They’re making very small cameos—we’re not bringing back any of the original crew, so that eliminates some characters. Let’s try to make this one as vague as possible.”
Dougherty explained that since 2006, Dragon*Con includes an annual showing of Serenity called “Can’t Stop the Serenity”; all proceeds raised go to Equality Now, the international human rights organization that Whedon supports. When Dougherty and Fisher undertook Browncoats, they wanted to make it for the charities that have some sort of connection to the cast and crew.
Thus all proceeds from DVD sales—the filmmakers request a $22 donation—will be given to charities intimately connected to the Serenity cast: Equality Now; Kids Need to Read (which Fillion co-founded); The Al Wooten Jr. Heritage Center (where Ron Glass sits on the board of directors); the Dyslexia Foundation, which Jewel Staite (who played Kaylee Frye) supports; and the Marine Corps Law Enforcement Foundation, which Adam Baldwin (who played Jayne Cobb) supports.
“We contacted them to let them know what we’re doing,” Dougherty says. “They asked us to do a write-up of our plans. After they reviewed it and took us seriously, they supported us.
“We decided to treat this film as if the charities hired us to do this project,” he continues. “We had a clear date of execution, we had to make sure we met our milestones, and really mapped this out from beginning to end. . . . We stuck to the schedule—that’s pretty amazing. It’s a higher standard we now have to follow. At that point came the decision to really, really, really treat this like an indie film more than like a fan-film.”
For more information on Browncoats: Redemption and to see trailers, visit browncoatsmovie.com.