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

Last week, we started chatting with fan filmmaker MATTHEW BLACKBURN about his latest offering, LEFT BEHIND. Previously, Matthew had produced and released three other Star Trek fan films:

Each of these films focused on a single Starfleet officer or small group of officers down on a planet, facing an alien adversary, and without the help of a starship in orbit. Of course, on a practical level, this allowed Matthew to film at scenic locations near his home in the Mojave Desert near Los Angeles while not having to work with sets or interior locations that would need to look futuristic.

One notable quality to Matthew’s three previous films was his use of physical stunts like fights, falls, climbing, running, and other strenuous activities not typically seen in most fan films, as they are challenging to shoot properly.

Matthew’s latest release, LEFT BEHIND, again focuses on a single Starfleet officer trapped on the surface of a strange (and scenic!) planet, facing off against what appears to be a belligerent adversary. But this time, looks might be deceiving, as you will see…

When we last left off with Matthew, our interview had transitioned into what it was like shooting outdoors and the stunts that were involved…

JONATHAN – What was your most dangerous stunt?

MATTHEW – The most dangerous thing we did was on account of how windy it was. We’re talking 50-60 mph. I had the idea for me and Travis to tumble down a MUCH smaller hill after the first graboid attack, but as we were walking around the location, Travis saw a much larger hill in the distance. We both kind of knew without saying anything. He talked me into it. Katie had to prop herself up on top of another hill to get the shot as Travis and I hiked the mountain. She nearly got toppled over a couple times due to high winds, but she got it, and a few bits we used for the travelogue shots.

The stunt was nothing fancy. We just threw ourselves down the mountain and hoped it came out well. Hopefully it did.

JONATHAN – So was shooting fun or more of a hassle?

MATTHEW – Shooting was a lot of fun, but significantly more difficult than Last Survivor…even though the idea was “less is more.” I’m very happy with the finished movie.

JONATHAN – Any good behind-the-scenes stories?

MATTHEW -Between shooting Left Behind and Crystal Peak at the same time, we got pretty beat up, but Katie kept us from doing too many ridiculous things. The idea was that if it made us laugh, it was probably a good idea. If it also made other people laugh, then we should keep it in. I wanted more humor in this one since Last Survivor was pretty serious. We tried to hit that Tremors/Evil Dead 2 tone of comedy and horror. Hopefully it worked?

We had a lot of fun with Travis’ “dirt continuity.” He wore the uniform I wore in Last Survivor, and the blue turtle neck was the same woman’s small that he was somehow able to squeeze into. By the end of the shoot that uniform was shredded. A tattered mess! Travis kept advocating for more dirt on his face and on his uniform, and we went with it. We really wanted him to look like he’d been through a journey.

The scenes of his character at the end near the lake was just shot at a local park. He’s reading my copy of Robinson Crusoe, which is a nod to Star Trek II and First Contact with Moby Dick. I mean…we could have had him read a Superman comic, but we shot that scene before we decided to do the flying shot in his hallucination trip.

JONATHAN – As a director, you needed to get a LOT of coverage of different
locations from different angels to produce such a dynamic finished
product.  How did you find your locations?  Did you scout out every
filming spot and camera angle beforehand or make decisions only after
you reached a spot?

MATTHEW – I always have an idea of what I want to do. I make shot lists. We’re pretty organized, but depending on what the day brings, we could film something not in the script, improvise lines, and so on. It really depends. I’m always pushing the limit of what we can do with these zero-budget movies. Camera angles are about half planned and half adapting to what’s there. Sometimes you just have to wing it, but I prefer to wing it within a structure.

JONATHAN – How much footage did you shoot, and how much wound up on the digital cutting room floor?

MATTHEW – We were pretty efficient with shooting. There were a few moments here and there that got cut. Nothing major. I don’t miss them.

We ran into a bit of an issue coming up on the 15-minute limit. There was originally supposed to be a 3 page dialogue scene flashback with the Doctor and his shipmates on a holodeck playing cards. It was a good scene and the dialogue came out very nicely, but we cut it before we even shot it on account of there not being enough run time to accommodate the scene. Travis was a little bummed, but his performance is so entertaining that we ultimately didn’t need the scene.

Instead we shot the “graboid venom trip” sequence…which was the cause of much laughter both during and after filming it. I had experimented a little with green screen. We shot some shuttlecraft models against the screen and used them for the shuttle rescue and shuttles surrounding Starfleet HQ (which were all the same shuttle), so we figured why not have some fun with Travis, a green screen, and some royalty free space footage? If the Doctor gets zonked on graboid venom, we wanted to make it an entertaining “trip.”

JONATHAN – What kind of a camera did you use to film, and did you use any
special audio equipment for the sound?

MATTHEW – I’m using the same beat up Cannon EOS 7D that I’ve used since 2012. I may be upgrading soon. Some of the sound was production, but the bulk of the sound-work is done “spaghetti-western style”—meaning we don’t worry about recording sound and plan to dub everything in post production. I have a pretty decent sound recorder (that I should probably take to location with me), but with the way we shoot things (often shooting from the hip), it’s just easier to do most of the sound in post. Of all the phases of production, I can honestly say I like doing sound the least, but I do it anyway.

We did have fun with the sounds, though. The sounds for the graboids were basically me gargling with chocolate played at different speeds. Travis did a hilarious series of grunts that we called the “poop track,” which we used throughout the movie.

JONATHAN – What software did you use to edit the film together, and how long did it take?

MATTHEW – I edit on Adobe Premiere Pro. In that same system, I edit the movie, do all the sound, tweak the color, contrast, and composite the special effects when needed. I’m pretty ambitious with filming short movies, and my computer can only hold so much video information at one time. Sometimes that makes it a bit of a rush to get some movies complete so others can enjoy the space.

We shot a lot of footage between the two movies. Roland was going to do the score for Left Behind like he did for Survivors and Last Survivor, but he had a very busy schedule. We kept pushing back our planned release to accommodate. He was able to score Crystal Peak, but not all of Left Behind. I really wanted to get both out before the end of 2019, but it wasn’t meant to be. The soundtrack for Left Behind is cobbled together out of different audio samples and royalty free bits alongside some of my own stuff. It works, but it’s not on Roland’s level by any means. Perhaps next time.

JONATHAN – With each film you make, you get a little better and learn a bit
more.  What improvements did you make over your old films when you
tackled this one, and what did you learn this time out?

MATTHEW – I learned a few things doing Left Behind and Crystal Peak at the same time. Both movies fed off each other. For example, if Travis had a way of performing a situation in one movie, we tried to alter it for the other to keep them distinct…even though they were filmed at the same time in mostly the same location. Crystal Peak was “more is more” while Left Behind was “less is more.” Even compared to Last Survivor, Left Behind was supposed to be a step back. Less special effects. Less people. The big departure was the use of puppets for the graboid creatures—well, one puppet shot from many angles.

I tried to get more scenes filmed in one shot for Left Behind as opposed to stitching things together in editing…to use wider shots and show off the landscape more. We got lucky with the spring “super bloom.” The flowers made it look different from Last Survivor even though it was shot in pretty much the same spots.

The biggest improvement I guess was focusing more on character this time out. Though we have many inspirations on Left Behind (“Darmok,” Enemy Mine, Tremors, Evil Dead), the biggest one was the Star Trek movies…particularly the first six original series films. I always loved how they were different from each other—philosophical epic, revenge thriller, rescue adventure, comedy, spiritual journey, political mystery. It’s a movie series that puts the characters through a variety of situations without getting too repetitious. The Next Gen movies had a bit too much of a formula to them: bad guy with a personal connection to Picard wants some cure to their ailment or universal domination that requires some kind of doomsday device, and Picard has to go after them alone in the end with a phaser. Perhaps that’s why First Contact was the best of them, since it was just different enough.

JONATHAN – Hmmmm, I never realized that the four Next Gen films all had so much in common! But I think you’re right.

So it looks like you’re setting up for a sequel.  Do you have more fan films planned out, and if so, when are you thinking of shooting them—before there’s a vaccine for COVID or after it’s become available and is
being administered?

MATTHEW – Sequel? I have no idea what you’re talking about. However, my next Trek has already started filming with a few scenes completed. It’s going to be wild. Ideally, I would like to finish my 5th Trek, and perhaps go bigger for the 6th.

Prior to the deathly hot summer, we shot two Indiana Jones fan films, a couple of short westerns, and an Alien/Predator short which had to be stopped due to COVID-19 as well as the heat. I truly hope there is a safe and effective treatment for the virus available soon, but we were pretty responsible with the short movies we made pre- and during the pandemic—very small cast and crew, filming outdoors, and limited locations. A couple of them are “one man shows.” Oddly enough, the 5th Trek we started shooting while in production on Left Behind to take advantage of poppy fields and other blooms that don’t happen often…just a few shots, so technically my 5th Star Trek short will have been shooting since April of 2019.

JONATHAN -Will you finally be crowd-funding your next film or still doing it out of pocket?

Matthew Blackburn

MATTHEW – I do plan to crowdfund my 6th Trek since the idea requires sets, a CGI starship chase, and an Interstellar/2001-style descent into a singularity. It’s a great story…a real Kirk/Spock/McCoy adventure (not using those characters, but a similar dynamic between our characters).

That 6th production will take a while to pull together, so we’re doing another one in the meantime that’s less intensive. I already have some creatures/props for my 5th Trek that I’d really like to get our money’s worth out of. If you have a Gorn, you better use it!

JONATHAN – So when do you think we’ll see your 5th Trek fan film?

MATTHEW – We’re actually making a lot of short movies and fan films, but Star Trek is always going to be a part of that. If everyone’s work schedule allows, we can get Trek #5 in the can soon (it’s about half shot, and a lot of fun).

JONATHAN – So you’re going to make a 5th and a 6th fan film. Any plans for a 7th?

MATTHEW – There are always possibilities, right?