MATTHEW BLACKBURN from Southern California has released six Star Trek fan films in total, although there were seven years between his first production, STAR TREK: SURVIVOR, and his second offering, SURVIVORS. But since then, he’s released five completed fan films in a little over five and a half years, each one EXACTLY fifteen minutes long (take that, Star Trek fan film guidelines!). It takes a lot of editing and discipline to get even one fan film to exactly that time limit, but Matt’s got it down to a science…or maybe an art form!
What I find so intriguing about Matthew’s releases is how much he manages to do with very, very little. His films are cinematic in scope with beautiful locations that utilize the scenic offerings of diverse terrain in the Mojave Desert and surrounding environs. Matthew’s films have also improved consistently, and you can check his subsequent three releases (along with accompanying interviews) on the following blog pages:
Yeah, lots of titles that start with “S” and “L.” And that brings us to Matt’s latest production, which starts with the letter “U” but returns to the survivor theme: ULTIMATE SURVIVAL. And you can check it out below…
Released this past December, this most recent installment again does a lot with only a little…featuring a mix of interior scenes and exterior on-location sequences, some minimal ship VFX and CGI dinosaurs, and a slightly larger cast than usual for a Matthew Blackburn film.
And speaking of Matthew, since it’s been a year since I last interviewed him, it felt like I was reuniting with an old friend as I asked Matthew about his latest release, Ultimate Survival…
JONATHAN – How did the production of this film compare to your previous films? Was it easier or more difficult?
MATTHEW – I wouldn’t say it was a difficult production; it was actually the opposite. All the difficult stuff was going on in real life. This movie was an escape. Easiest of the lot. Very smooth shoot and an airtight script that had just enough wiggle room for things to be condensed despite a long and involved development.
JONATHAN – What made the development stage long and involved?
MATTHEW – The development of the story goes back to Last Survivor, where we were thinking (usually over good food): “Where is this all going?” You know, “big picture” stuff. Bucket list. What do we want to see?
Originally, we were thinking it would be a two-part story. Part one would be all about infiltrating the Section 31 Agent’s ship with a lot of hide-and-seek suspense scenes and close quarters combat like Star Trek: Nemesis. We think that the Agent’s just got a bio weapon, but at the end of part one, we discover his plan involves time travel. Part two would involve the actual conflict on the planet surface. Originally, the agent was going to assassinate Theodore Roosevelt during the battle of San Juan Hill. The Captain would have had a little subplot with a picture of Roosevelt in his quarters (the one with his hand on a globe). We’d establish that at the beginning so we know Roosevelt is a historical character Captain admires so…
…when the Agent kills Roosevelt, the Crew is stuck in the past with very few options. Knowing the history, Captain would take Roosevelt’s physical place and do all the things that Roosevelt did after the battle. The Vulcan would have mind-melded with Roosevelt and transferred his memories to Captain (who would stay in the past to make sure history took its normal course), and when the crew returned to the 24th century, they would see that same picture of Roosevelt with the globe, only it would be the Captain instead of Roosevelt, proving the plan worked.
JONATHAN – Wow! That’s quite a complex plot-line…and nothing like what you ended up with. So what happened?
MATTHEW – Somewhere down the line, I lost interest in that idea and instead thought of two original screenplays I wrote involving time travel that weren’t produced. One was a Minority Report/Total Recall type of story where the stand-out moment for me is when the main character is stuck in the past, his time machine is destroyed, and the only way to save the day is to just suck it up and wait/survive for 38 years until the opportunity to undo what had been done comes around again. It was called “Shattered Time.”
The other story was about a scientist who comes up with a way to save the world from complete nuclear apocalypse by going back in time to ensure nuclear tech is never invented. But what his team didn’t know was that his ulterior motive was to use their hazmat suit-wearing test run to the Cretaceous Period as an opportunity to release a virus that would ensure humanity would never evolve. When the team comes back to their time, there is nothing…no civilization, no technology to undo what was done, and more or less it became a survival story with the last four people on earth making peace with or going mad about the idea that they are completely screwed. It was called “Humans Gone,” and it’s the only script I never finished because it was just too damned bleak…
JONATHAN – I’ll say!
MATTHEW – So rewriting Ultimate Survival gave us a chance to realize those two time travel visions. “Have your cake and eat it too,” I guess. The parts of both those stories I was most excited to have realized got accomplished with Ultimate Survival. The story also became a philosophical playground to deal with big questions: “How do you hold accountable awful, evil people in positions of untouchable power?” and “Is death truly the end?”
My wife Katie and I often have metaphysical conversations, which is where a lot of those parts of the story came from. I was always fascinated by the Vulcan consciousness transfer idea and disappointed that it was never really used or developed outside of Star Trek II & III and the Next Gen episode “Sarek.”
We really wanted to have that moment in our story where all is lost. The bad guy wins. Everything is hopeless. Our time machine’s destroyed. What do we do now except die?
JONATHAN – That does seem rather insurmountable.
MATTHEW – The Vulcan consciousness transfer allowed a “logical” solution, a long shot that requires a leap of faith. The Vulcan would transfer his consciousness to the microorganisms in the dinosaur populated past in hopes that, over the course of millions of years, it would hold some kind of influence over whatever life forms DID evolve (since the bio weapon makes sure humans would not), and eventually his “suggestion” would be “understood” by some alternate life form that would evolve and ultimately undo the damage that had been done, resetting the timeline.
JONATHAN – Hmmm, that sounds like a lot has to happen!
MATTHEW – Sarek said in Star Trek III, “…everything that is not of the body…” or as Kirk articulates, “…an immortal soul.” Life-energy, immortal soul; it’s the same thing to us.
It was a wild idea, but just the kind of thing we WISH Star Trek would do. Most of the Paramount+ Treks have been crushing disappointments for us. I’m definitely an Original Series/Movies/TNG/DS9 kind of guy. They went places we wanted to go…and so does Ultimate Survival.
JONATHAN – How about editing and post-production? Was that more or less challenging this time around?
MATTHEW – Editing involved keeping the story tight and trimming the fat. By that reckoning, this movie might have 1% body fat because it could have easily been 25+ minutes.
Again, I thought it would be a two-part story, but when we decided against blowing $1,000+ dollars on renting a space ship set (that probably wouldn’t let us do a lot of close quarters combat anyway) and instead using the “garage interior/dark lighting” approach that we thought worked well on our Alien vs Predator fan film According To Plan, that was a solution. I always wanted to see the Trek badge used as a weapon at some point. A late night talk with Dan and myself about our favorite ridiculous moments in action movies that are still awesome led to the “Trek badge as ninja star” moment.
Overall with editing, it became about “Which parts of the movie are exempt from trimming?” Everything involving the recruiting of the Defector and the Agent’s ship ran longer, but I didn’t feel it really added anything. Shannon wanted to do an elaborate “Jaylah” style make-up that didn’t quite work out. She’s got a great face, so we just shot the scenes without the make-up. She was the “Scotty” of this episode, so we could always cut to her to jump lulls in the action.
There were some fun moments of banter with Vulcan and Pilot. I had a long scene sneaking around the ship we cut, but the real cuts were to Thom’s Agent. His little speech when he has me under the phaser is only 5% of what we shot for it. He gave a truly layered and epic villain monologue (referencing some song lyrics I like as well) that spoke to his motivations, but Thom and I both agreed it was better to cut it to the bone and just emphasize his later scenes instead, which were more powerful. Less is more, right?
JONATHAN – Yep.
MATTHEW – That standoff between Thom, Dan, and myself all the way up to the consciousness transfer was not going to be touched. That’s the reason to make the movie. We weren’t trimming it or cutting it. Most other things were expendable. I promised Jacob a good death scene and shot it all in one take so it couldn’t be trimmed. I kept that promise, and he performed it perfectly.
The scene of Vulcan and Captain at the end by the lake was, like, a 5-minute scene. So was Thom’s monologue. I cut down the fight I had with Thom where we did some cool pro wrestling-inspired moves and reversals. Didn’t need them. Ending with “New Life” had more banter. Didn’t need it.
So we just cut the fat, kept the action scenes exciting, made some good musical moments, and tried to have it all count.
JONATHAN – Your Trek fan films, more than any else’s, tend to hit the 15 minute “limit” almost to the second! Many other fan films and series “aim” for that time limit but often go over it, usually combining the two 15-minute films into one 20 or 30-minute film and occasionally exceeding a half hour by anywhere from a little to a lot.
Why are you SO committed to the precisely 15-minute Star Trek fan film?
MATTHEW – I just like being efficient with these Treks. I was a little inspired by the editing of the Dark Knight Trilogy. There must be some major OCD going on there because, as I recall, each of those movies is exactly as many minutes as there were pages in the script, and each movie is exactly 12 mins longer than the previous one or something like that. Each of those has about 3 films worth of plot in one movie, cut very tight.
It’s a personal challenge to keep these at 15 minutes, but it’s mostly to avoid indulgence. I want these to be a sprint—fun to watch. I don’t really want to see meandering Star Trek fan films with endless dialogue or rehashing scenes/characters from the series, so I don’t want to make one like that either (we have a joke about that idea in the next Trek—which is more of a comedy). We want each of these short films to be a complete journey. A story with characters, action, cool visuals, a beginning, middle, and end. An adventure.
Our model has always been the original series Star Trek movies. They are all different from each other, some almost in completely different genres, but they were complete adventures that had some overarching themes and interwoven plot-lines. Combine that with our spirit animal: Arnold Schwarzenegger action movies, where the idea is to give people their money’s worth—or in our case, your time’s worth—and you have our model.
We’re basically doing that in 15 minute increments…with 0.00000000000000000001% of the resources.
JONATHAN – But does that adherence to an absolute maximum time limit of 15 minutes ever prevent you from telling all of the story you want to tell?
MATTHEW – I probably wish Ultimate Survival had a few extra minutes to breathe, but densely-packed, fast-paced, 15-minute entertainments is kind of the brand for our Star Trek productions at this point. Other short films and fan films on my channel have more room to breathe (for better or worse), but the Star Trek shorts we hold to a few different standards…or maybe it’s a little OCD?
JONATHAN – Ultimate Survival is dedicated to the memory of JOANNE BACKBURN at the beginning and “For Cameron” at the end. Would you like to speak about them and/or their passing?
MATTHEW – My mother had been in and out of bad health for a few years and passed away last February. She is the reason I got into Star Trek. She took me to the theater to see Star Trek V: The Final Frontier as a little guy. I really liked it. I didn’t understand all of it, but the characters and adventures left an impact. We used to watch TNG and DS9 together. I lost interest in Voyager and Enterprise but always made time for a good rerun or the original series movies. She was a big Spock/Worf fan. I was more of a Kirk/Data fan. She loved Ricardo Montalban’s Khan (just don’t get her started on Cumberbatch…she’d go on and on about how it should have been Antonio Banderas in Into Darkness, etc.), and she hated the Borg (because they were a little too effective villains).
Over the past couple years, I became her primary caregiver, but she was always fiercely independent. If she doesn’t want it done, you just don’t do it. Definitely had the “Captain” gene in her. I miss her a lot.
Mid-year, CAMERON McINTYRE (Dan’s brother, our co-cinematographer, Survivors co-star, avid photographer, bundle of excitement, joyous individual, and MMA/Pro Wrestling enthusiast) passed away suddenly and accidentally. It came out of nowhere. The more metaphysical aspects of Ultimate Survival took on a deeper meaning for me, and dare I say, Dan, as well. The last line was originally supposed to be a riff on the line Nimoy wished he said to McCoy in Voyage Home when he says to Spock, “Nobody’s perfect.” Reportedly, Nimoy wanted to respond with, “Oh, really?” We were going to do that as a reference to our Vulcan effectively saving all of humanity with his quick thinking consciousness transfer.
During ADR, Dan improvised, “Some of us are just perfect enough…” over Cameron’s dedication (which echoed my dad’s dedication in Survivors), and that was the last line of the movie. I loved it.
JONATHAN – This is your sixth Star Trek fan film in the “Survivor” microcosm, and I noticed that it has the word “Ultimate” in the title. Does that mean that this is the last one that you’re planning to do, or are there more Star Trek fan films coming from Matthew Blackburn?
MATTHEW – Well, letting the cat out of the bag, we’ve already shot and edited TWO additional Treks with a 2-part ninth set to be the finale. Following the passing of my mother, I may have gone a little crazy with making short movies for Youtube. We shot like 10 or 11 short films between February and July of last year: Westerns, Treks, Indy Crossovers, Judge Dredd, and more. It was a good way to keep my mind off of things.
I always like the idea of trilogies. Maybe it’s an OCD thing, which Macho Man Randy Savage once eloquently explained stands for “One Cool Dude.”
JONATHAN – Ah, quoting Randy Savage! This blog hits ever higher heights! So, it’ll be nine-and-done for Survivor films, then?
MATTHEW – Three Trek trilogies. That works for now. Seems like every third movie of ours puts it all out there. Last Survivor was my favorite until this one. Ultimate Survival is the most personal…the story I feel has the most to say. It accomplished visions I’ve been wanting to see realized for a while. Trek number 7 is more of a comedy—no agenda other than to be as fun and entertaining as possible. Drunken Klingon, a wacky mind-meld with a Gorn, and a full-on Undiscovered Country-esque space battle…and excuses for me and Dan to run around in the forest. Thank goodness for royalty-free effects and creative editing. Trek 8 is more of a conspiracy story that sets up number 9, the most ambitious of the lot.
JONATHAN – And finally, is there any significance or plan in the naming of your films? I only ask because I’ve noticed the tendency to have either some derivation of the word “survive” in the title or else the title starts with “L.”
MATTHEW – We have often joked about the literal natures of our Star Trek titles (usually said like Rick from Rick & Morty)…
- Survivor: Uhh, because there’s a survivor.
- Survivors: Yeah, there’s more than one survivor now.
- Last Survivor: Well, the last survivor’s not who you think!!!
- Left Behind: Oh, yeah…someone got left behind.
- Lost & Found: Well, dude, we lost some things and found others.
- Ultimate Survival: Uhh, it’s what’s at stake if our mission fails, bruh!
JONATHAN – And now I know!