From the creator of the SURVIVOR trilogy – someone is LEFT BEHIND! (interview with MATTHEW BLACKBURN, part 1)

The name MATTHEW BLACKBURN isn’t the most famous in the fan film community, but Matthew has just released his fourth Star Trek fan film in ten years, and he’s still going strong. The first three each had the word “Survivor” in them and all follow a general “pattern” of featuring nearly all of the action down on a planet where the protagonist(s) is/are separated from any help from the ship.  While down on the surface, they face a threat that usually involves running, climbing, and at least one solid fight scene. And all in all, these fan films are really quite excellent!

Matthew’s first fan film, STAR TREK: SURVIVOR, came out back in 2010 and features the story of a marooned Starfleet officer (played by Matthew) who is nearly dead before being found by a marooned Vulcan agent on a secret mission for the Vulcan High Command. A Vulcan survey ship is scheduled to arrive at the planet in three months time, but there isn’t enough food or water to last for that long if two people are consuming it. The importance of the Vulcan’s mission means that, logically, the human Starfleet officer should be left to starve. Pretty interesting, huh? The 10-minute fan film was made with a total of just four people, including Matthew’s wife Katie.

Matthew’s second fan film, SURVIVORS, came out seven years later (after the guidelines) and again featured a human and a Vulcan—played by the same actors—but this time they were the captain and his first officer. The production team had grown to six people for this 15-minute film, and I did a 2-part audio interview with Matthew, which you can listen to here if you’d like.

Finally, at the very end of 2018, Matthew released a third fan film titled LAST SURVIVOR, again made by just six people but this time featuring an initial landing party of four. The villain in this film was truly terrifying, and this final installment of the Survivor “trilogy” was unquestionably Matthew’s strongest effort yet. I did a two-part text interview with him that you can read here.

But now it seems that Last Survivor wasn’t so “final” after all, as Matthew and his team (still six people but a different six) released a fourth Star Trek fan film back in August, LEFT BEHIND, and it’s another very strong offering. See for yourself…

I reached out once again to Matthew for what will be our third interview. But it’s not just more of the same. Each time, Matthew shares some great stories and insights that he’s gained as a filmmaker. If you want to make fan films, too, consider the following interview required reading. And if you don’t want to make fan films, well, I think you’ll still really enjoy this interview…

Matthew Blackburn

JONATHAN – Welcome back to Fan Film Factor, Matthew, and congratulations on another excellent production.

MATTHEW – Thanks for having me back, Jonathan.

JONATHAN – Now, are you still living on the Mojave Desert side of the burning San Gabriel Mountain range? [NOTE: We did this interview a month ago. – Jonathan] If so, how is the air quality there? If was pretty bad on the Los Angeles side for a while until the flames jumped the ridgeline.

MATTHEW – As of now, I still live in the forsaken desert of California between Los Angeles and Bakersfield. It’s gotten pretty smokey being surrounded by fires, but so far we’ve been untouched the flames.

JONATHAN – Are you still a teacher? If so how has life been for and your wife during the pandemic?

MATTHEW – Yes, I’m still teaching. For seven years I taught 8th grade Algebra, Chemistry/Physics, English, and U.S. History, and I now teach US & World History, Government, and Health at the high school level.

Life hasn’t been easy during the pandemic. There’s a lot of people unemployed, but the schools were able to adapt to distance learning despite some elements pushing for a fast and decidedly unsafe reopening. The only problems have arisen from the people that don’t follow the rules and/or attempt to politicize the decidedly apolitical entity known as COVID-19.

JONATHAN – Indeed! Okay, let’s shift the conversation to Star Trek fan films, which is why people are reading! So once again, you’re following a pattern of Starfleet officer(s) stuck on a planet’s surface facing off against a strange menace with lots of fights, stunts, and action scenes. Are you purposefully exploring this genre-within-a-genre?  Or is it just that you don’t have practical sets, you live near great cinematic scenery, and you like action?

MATTHEW – Yes to all. The pattern is one of necessity and practicality. I do live near some pretty good natural locations. I think action is more fun to edit than dialogue. We approach these movies to make them as entertaining as possible. I’d rather see character revealed through action than have long dialogue scenes. With the 15 minute time limits, seconds count. I want a complete story in 15 minutes.

Making these movies is like having mini-adventures. So why not run, jump, and occasionally fight? Better to have an adventure with something to show for it, right? We definitely got some scars from this production during some of the stunts, but as long as no one gets seriously hurt, it’s all in good fun.

I’d like to have practical sets, but nature is the best production designer for now. We’ve been basing the stories around what I know we can accomplish with the least amount of money (sometimes just gas and props). I know I can’t afford the level of sets that TNG, DS9, or the Original Series movies were able to accomplish, so my philosophy is to do something different. Do the best you can with what you have and give people a good show.

JONATHAN – It’s been about a year and a half since you released Last Survivor. When did you start working on Left Behind, and is it meant to be a new part of the “Survivor” family of fan films?

MATTHEW – Well, Last Survivor ushered in what we call a Renaissance of short film production. Last Survivor was such a good experience that we decided, “Hey, this is really fun…we love doing it…why not make short fan films all the time?” Left Behind was written shortly after Last Survivor. We thought Travis really added something to Last Survivor, so I wrote it with him in mind…which he didn’t mind at all.

As it stands, Left Behind is intended to stand alone. We respect the guidelines. However, if you want to imagine it exists within a continuity of my other Star Trek fan films, there’s nothing stopping you from imagining.

JONATHAN – Well, I asked because TRAVIS ST. JOHN was a part of your last fan film and seems to be playing the same character.

MATTHEW – Travis and I go way back. Some of my first experiments with making moves with action figures involved sets that he built out of cardboard and foil. I had planned a Terminator fan film, Crystal Peak, in which he was already playing the lead character, so we decided to shoot the two short films at the same time…which presented challenges of its own. We both got a few new dents, and tried to get both movies in the can before the summer hit. Unlike Last Survivor, or Survivors, with Left Behind we wanted to stick with just one character and make it a journey. I didn’t want to be in front of the camera too much and instead focus on making the best movie possible for the microscopic budget.

I enjoy writing the grumpy, stubborn, endlessly resourceful everyman type character (think Ash in Evil Dead, or Jack Burton in Big Trouble in Little China), and I knew Travis could play it the way I wrote it while adding his personality to make the character a lot of fun to watch. I’d written screenplays with that type of character that got optioned, but not produced, so this was an opportunity to realize that type of character. Crazily enough, some of those characters are loosely based on Travis to begin with! He’s a good character.

JONATHAN – I noticed some really nice California wildflowers in some of your shots. We didn’t have a particularly good wildflower season in 2020, but we did have a really good year back in 2019. Where and when did you film Left Behind?

MATTHEW – We shot in the same location as the desert planet from Last Survivor in the Antelope Valley during the “super bloom” on the last day of March 2019. The very next day, Travis suited up to fight Terminators in Crystal Peak, and that’s the way the shoot went. We shot the two fan films concurrently. Same actor, same locations (different area). I’d say Left Behind was harder to do than Last Survivor because we had to shut down for the summer months, then resume when it got cooler around October/November 2019 to complete the “graboid attack” scenes and the ending. Filming in the desert in the middle of summer is not a good idea when it’s 110 degrees. We learned that lesson on the first scene of Last Survivor.

JONATHAN – What did you and you crew do to prepare for the shoot?

MATTHEW – To prepare, we just gathered the props, got ourselves out to the location, and started rolling. Travis created the “watering hole” out of a metal bowl I had and the surrounding rocks. We had planned to make the “graboid” creatures ourselves, but that got a bit expensive with materials so I went out and got a pretty decent latex puppet. It took a long time to set and reset shots where the creatures erupt from the ground. It was a very simple effect. I would stick my hand up the puppet, Travis would bury my arm, and Katie would make sure the shots came out.

JONATHAN – What was shooting like?

MATTHEW – In a word? Difficult. In more words: the first day of Left Behind went smoothly enough. Day 1 we did the entire opening up until Travis falls down the hill picking up the type 2 phaser. Later we were hit with some very high winds. It was really windy that day and you can see it in the finished movie as they kick up a lot of dust during the fight.

I wasn’t supposed to play any part in the movie save for the cameo at the end, but when Nick was unavailable to continue his Alien role, I stepped in. It was supposed to be Nick playing the Alien all the way through, but life happened and I took over the part for the middle portion, and Jacob took over for me during the October/November shoot.

Though we all played the same Alien, Nick, Jacob, and myself are all different sizes—so it became a bit of a joke that we incorporated into the movie. If you look closely, the first time you see the Alien (played by Nick) he’s a lot bigger and more imposing. He was great. Did the whole first confrontation with Travis and the fight scene. Nick filmed for one day and did a lot of fantastic stuff. When we were going to come back to do the scenes after the Alien is wounded with me in the role, the mask deteriorated badly so we had to order another mask…only It didn’t quite match. That accounts for the random “Shedding a mask beneath a mask” shot.

Nicolas Cantrell (left) and Matthew Blackburn (right) as the Alien.

We’re really vague about how these Aliens work, so I think we can get away with it. I see them as a sort of bio-mechanical entity that has evolved to withstand non corporeal possession…but then their bodies may just be a container for fluids.

You can tell the shots with me because I’m wearing the shiny new mask. Then Jacob played the Alien during the scenes when they fought the “graboids” and through the ending.

Jacob McKinney as the Alien.

JONATHAN – What was your most dangerous stunt?

Come back next week for the answer to that cliffhanger question! You’ll also learn about such things a “dirt continuity,” the equipment Matthew used to film and edit the project, what is Matthew’s least favorite thing to do when making his fan films, and does he have any plans to make even more Trek fan films…and if so, how soon?

2 thoughts on “From the creator of the SURVIVOR trilogy – someone is LEFT BEHIND! (interview with MATTHEW BLACKBURN, part 1)”

  1. Working on it 🙂

    In the meantime, I hope Left Behind finds an audience. The overall message of understanding the people you perceive to be the enemy is one I believe is pretty relevant right now.

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