JOSH IRWIN discusses THE TEST OF TIME…and just about everything else, too! (interview, part 2)

Yesterday in Part 1, I began talking to JOSHUA IRWIN about the latest release from TALES FROM THE NEUTRAL ZONE, an ambitious fan film titled THE TEST OF TIME.

Or rather, we almost talked about it!

Y’see, Josh burst onto the Star Trek fan film stage back in late 2018 with the first of his high quality AVALON UNIVERSE fan films, GHOST SHIP. And the reason for the professional look and feel of Avalon releases is that Josh is himself a professional in the film industry, having graduated from film school and worked on countless projects from short commercials to full-length feature films cast with major celebrities. In other words, Josh knows what he’s doing, and you can watch all nearly-dozen Avalon releases here on this YouTube playlist.

But this blog isn’t about Avalon. It’s about Tales from the Neutral Zone, which Josh is also now working on regularly. In fact, beginning with their next release, Josh will be taking over as director, after having worked as cinematographer on both this latest fan film as well as the previous one, DOOMSDAY, which he also ended up co-directing with RAY TESI, the showrunner and owner of the TOS sets down in Kingsland, GA. But it’s not just NEUTRAL ZONE STUDIOS that Josh is helping out. He’s begun working in various capacities on numerous other fan films and series, as well.

And that ended up becoming the focus of most of the first half of our interview, conducted via phone as Josh was driving from Arkansas to Maryland to help shoot some stuff for FARRAGUT FORWARD. We discussed the growing cooperation among various fan filmmakers in the community, sharing talents and resources. We also chatted about what exactly Josh does on all of these other non-Avalon projects and how he deals with so much driving and getting time off from work for this hobby that he loves so much.

Anyway, the moment has finally come to discuss The Test of Time. And if you haven’t seen it yet, give it a viewing first…

And now, the conclusion of my interview with Josh Irwin…

JONATHAN – So tell everyone how you went from just shooting your own fan series at Neutral Zone Studios to becoming such an integral part of RAY TESI’s fan film production team?

JOSH – Well, let me start off by saying that most people don’t understand the burden that Ray Tesi has put upon himself, and I’m not just talking about financially, although financially it’s been real difficult for him. But emotionally, from a stress standpoint, personally…keeping that studio alive and well is an enormous responsibility that he has put upon his own shoulders. And I wanted to help him because he’s doing something that’s benefiting the fan film community. It’s benefitting me, it’s benefitting everyone.

And I went to him and I said, “I want to help you make films that are worthy of your studio. Because if we can do that, it becomes easier, hopefully, to keep that studio going.” And it was really all I could offer him. And so I went down and I shot Doomsday. I was supposed to just be the cinematographer on Doomsday, but Ray got called away on some other business, maybe one scene into shooting on the first day, and I took over. And I just looked at the script and busted out the red pen and said, “Let’s do this.” And I shot that film, and it was an immense success. I actually didn’t expect it to be as successful as it was, but people liked it. So I was grateful for that.

Josh Irwin and Ray Tesi

JONATHAN – And how about The Test of Time? How did you come to work on that project, as well?

JOSH – The Test of Time was a project that was planned before Covid. So they were planning to make that back in 2020. And they started their crowd-funding campaign, I think, just days before the actual pandemic hit and people started realizing how serious it was. And so they had to take down their crowd-funding sometime about a week into it because the lockdown started to happen. And so I know it was disappointing for a lot of people, especially the film’s executive producer ED OBAROWSKI, who was really frustrated that they had to hit the pause button.

And so, in 2022, they decided to revive the project. And Ray had gotten a commitment all the way back in 2019 that VIC MIGNOGNA would direct it. And they just wanted to make a breakout fan film for the studio that they could be proud of. SAM COCKINGS helped them with the genesis of the idea. Ray’s friend DON HORAN wrote the script. And Ray asked me again if I would help him by filming it, and I said, “Absolutely!” It was done, again, as a favor to Ray because he’s doing so much for fan films that I couldn’t not help him.

And so I went down there, and we shot it in April of 2022. And, y’know, I was going through some frustrating personal times around then, and it was just this beautiful oasis to shoot that movie. We had a good a good time, and I remember calling my wife while we were filming it and saying, “I wish I could do this every day.”

Photo courtesy of Dan Scanlan

JONATHAN – What was it specifically that made it such a great experience?

JOSH – Well, there were a lot of people there who really liked Star Trek, and they wanted to make Star Trek. Everybody had that in common. And everyone on set was really kind to each other. It was a very fun atmosphere. There was lots of friendship, lots of joking around and having a good time and great dinners after the shoot. I got to meet some really neat people like MINDY PETERSON and SKIP MORRIS—and I really enjoyed meeting Skip in particular and afterwards asked him to be in one of my films.

Skip Morris

So it was just one of those experiences where everybody has a great time, you meet new people, you make hopefully lifelong friends, and it’s something you never forget. And I’m really proud of the work we did.

A lot of times when I’m working on an Avalon film, I’m stressing out beginning to end because the whole weight of the project is on me. So I’m looking at everything: I’m worrying about how much money I have left, how much time I have left, how long I have an actor, you name it! Every single factor is stressing me out from the moment I start the project till when I release it.

But when I can go and work on a film like Test of Time, where other people are worrying about that crap, I can concentrate on just one thing, which is, “Okay, I’m gonna make this the most beautiful fan film I can.” And they had enough time, money, and resources to shoot at about half the pace that I do for Avalon. If that had been an Avalon film, we would have shot it in two days, whereas in that instance, we took four. And so it really allowed me to slow down and make those scenes really beautiful, and I’m very proud of the work that I did. I think that we had some very talented actors on that film: A. T. BRANCH playing Captain Chandler, JENNIFER McCARTHY playing Quinn, and especially—my God!—LUIS SANCHEZ as J’Laan. He did such an amazing job! It really was a moving performance.

Jennifer McCarthy and Luis Sanchez

And then the thing that we did that really went out of my comfort zone was shooting actors on green screen. I intentionally try to stay away from doing a lot of green screen work because I want physical sets to light and for the actors to interact with. That’s why I never made a fan film until I had the opportunity to shoot at Neutral Zone or WARP 66…because I didn’t feel like could do that very well.

But with Test of Time, there are scenes that have to take place on digital sets. So it was the first time that we’re putting someone on a digital set for half the movie. And we’re coordinating with Sam Cockings how we’re gonna do that. But really, shooting it was the easy part. I then had to put my Sam Cockings hat on and do what he does; I had to composite all of those scenes. I would show him what the shot was, and he would send me the backgrounds, and then I would actually composite the actors into all the different layers of the digital set. And that was a new experience for me.

JONATHAN – Was it a good experience or was it frustrating?

JOSH – Well, it was very frustrating, but it was good in the sense that I developed a newer skill set, and I was pretty happy with how it turned out. And everyone else liked it. Vic was really pleased with how it turned out.

JONATHAN – Since you brought up Vic Mignogna, how did he get involved directing The Test of Time? I thought he was done with making Star Trek fan films after releasing the final episode of STAR TREK CONTINUES.

JOSH – Vic’s involvement is directly about supporting the studio. For a while there, Vic wasn’t really that involved when Ray first took over. But Ray was really struggling in a lot of ways, and he needed more support for the studio, and so they came up with the idea of doing these fan appreciation weekends. And Vic first got involved with that where he would come and be there to try to help promote the studio and to help out during those weekends.

Vic Mignogna shows visitors around the sets during Fan Appreciation Weekend this past February.

And I think that Ray just took a shot in the dark and asked Vic if he would mind directing , and Vic said he would. And I think the reason Vic is doing it is that he loves those sets, he loves that studio, and he wants to see it preserved, and he wants to see other people get the opportunity to use it. So really, Vic is paying it forward, in that sense.

JONATHAN – And how was it for you working with Vic?

JOSH – It was very easy, actually. He’s interesting. He has a very different style of directing than anyone I had ever worked with previously. He’s very intense in what he wants. Like, he knows what he wants, and he wants something very specific, but he’s not a jerk about getting it. He’s really nice…over and over and over and over again. “Do it again, but like this…” But he’s really nice about it. He might make an actor do ten takes, but he’s going to laugh and joke with them and be funny about it.

He gave me an enormous amount freedom, honestly—more than I thought he would—on how I would shoot or light a scene. He would say to me, “What do you want to do?” And I’d say, “Well, okay, we’re in the briefing room. Let’s make it look like the briefing room scene from ‘Tomorrow Is Yesterday.'” And he’d be, like, “Okay, do it.”

JONATHAN – And of course, Vic knows TOS so well that he would know exactly what you had in mind, right?

JOSH – Well, I would bring up a picture on my phone. I would go to the Trekcore website and pull up a few screen shots and show them to him and say, “This is what I wanna do.” And he would pretty much let me do what I wanted from that standpoint. I mean, he would have specific shots he would want to do, because he’s telling the story. So he would say, “I want a close-up of this,” or “I want a wide shot of that,” but he would give me a lot of freedom in composing it.

He seemed like he was in a good mood, having fun, joking around the whole time. He laughed a lot. In a rehearsal-type situation, he’ll get on set and get right in the thick of it with the actors rehearsing the scene, and he’ll really involve himself in the set-up. But once you get into shooting the scene, he’s in the next room on a monitor yelling. And I don’t mean yelling in an angry sense. He’s just raising his voice so you can hear him in the next room because he’s directing while he’s looking at the monitors. But he’s cheerfully raising his voice, “Hey, everybody!” You really have to be there, but it’s pretty funny.

But everybody had a good time. It was like a no-pressure environment. I mean, we worked really hard to create a cool fan film, but it was really low-key in a lot of ways.

JONATHAN – Well, it was a very awesome fan film, and good job to all of you! I’m glad it was so much fun, to boot. So my last question has to do with where you’re heading right now, which is Maryland, where the Farragut Forward folks are having their final shooting weekend on those incredible movie-era bridge sets. Can you provide any specifics on what you’ll be doing on their production?

JOSH – No, I can’t talk about it yet. But when it does happen, you’re gonna be, like, “Wow, that’s really cool!”

JONATHAN – Something mysterious to look forward to!