Iraq War Vet's PA-Made Film A Reflection of Time Served
In January, 2007, then-President George Bush ordered more than 20,000 troops to Baghdad, beginning what is known as the "Surge" in the long-running Iraq War.
Daniel Speers was serving in the U.S. Army's 1-12 CAB unit not far from the Iraq capital. He was stop-lossed -- his stay in combat was involuntarily extended -- and his second tour in Iraq lasted 15 months before returning home to his native Southeastern PA.
The budding filmmaker who grew up in Downingtown and graduated from Temple University already had a different way of looking at the world. He was enamored with the history in and around Philadelphia and the diverse natural landscapes that change with the seasons as you travel futher into the suburbs.
But the 30 months he spent in military combat fundamentally changed his worldview.
"In that sense everything I do has the DNA of my military experience in it, probably more than I even realize," says Speers. "I came home and wrote a story about an astronaut stuck in the never ending void and isolation of space separated from all things familiar and human.
"So yeah, I think it left a mark."
That specific mark is known as "INFINITE
," a sci-fi narrative film he shot in Reading and that will make its debut at The Trocadero
on Aug. 26. The film will also be shown just blocks away from the soundstage it was filmed on, at the R/C Theatres
in Reading on Sept. 9.
The film was made mostly with talent and resources from Southeastern PA.
"Filmmaking for me is a hugely therapeutic process. The act of creating and putting pieces together and feeling your way through a story is healing. Pieces come out that might not otherwise."
That's a good thing for Speers and film fans alike. Speers, 28, is working at Mainspectrum Mediastudios in Los Angeles and plans on returning to Southeastern PA to make his next film, which he teases for us in the interview below.
Flying Kite (FK): Why did you choose to shoot this film in Reading?
Daniel Speers (DS): Reading worked out for two reasons, community and cost. Having grown up not too far from Reading and having gone to school in Philly, a short drive down 422, meant that I had a built in support network of friends and family that could make these films financially viable. For example, there were amazing people that invested months of their free time to build sets, paint, make food for the cast and crew and so much more . . . and they did it for just because they wanted to be part of the movie. If we were trying to make these films in LA, NY or even Philly, it just wouldn’t be possible on our budget.
You need a lot of resources to make a film. You need space. Reading is close enough to Philly that we still had access to the essential gear and talent we needed while getting extremely affordable prices for studio space. Believe it or not, when we needed to take over thousands of square feet of dedicated space to build the space ship sets for INFINITE and in Reading we were able to take over the third floor of an old factory for four months, for next to nothing. There are not many places in U.S. where you can do that.
Reading has so much opportunity if you have the creativity and patience to see it through. I hope to work in Reading again soon.
FK: Where did you do editing? Did you use any in-state talent/facilities?
DS: I had two editors working with me from Temple University, an amazing visual effects editor who happened to be from outside Reading. When I moved to California for my internship I finished editing with another Temple student who was also out there. INFINITE took a tremendous amount of editing time.
FK: What's one thing about the movie you wound up including that you didn't expect you would include?
DS: Hmmmm . . . I remember in one of the scenes, the scene in Adam Fossey’s living quarters, we had placed all these interesting collectibles from my childhood bedroom out as set dressing. During rehearsal our lead, Mark Kochanawicz, picked up a fish fossil, I think I got when I was in high school, off the shelf and held it in his hand. Without hesitating he pitched me on the significance of including it in the shot, on how symbolic it was and how it was isolated and locked in time like the character. How he felt like a living fossil in the ship. We shot it. It worked.
FK: Where did most of your cast and crew come from?
DS: The one thing that I can say beyond a shadow of a doubt is that I’ve been blessed to be consistently surrounded by amazing people who are willing to bend over backwards to be apart of the projects I’m working on. Even as far back as my childhood I can remember when it was time to make a movie all my friends wanted to pitch in and help. Those same friends, and now their wives and younger siblings, are a big part of the crew on our films. I’m really blessed.
The rest of the cast and crew are the best of Temple film
and the independent Philly film community, and I do mean the best. There are some amazingly talented folks making films in Philly, and some are even making a living at it. Philly’s got it’s own unique scene and while it’s still maturing in a lot of ways it’s also well on it’s way. From original soundtracks to beautiful cinematography, we’ve got it. We also pull in some ringers from NY when we need them.
FK: What local resources did you take advantage of to help fund/complete the film?
DS: There’s too many people to mention here, but we have a list on our website with everyone who contributed. We credit everyone on the website. Trust me, you want these people on your film project:
I can’t say enough about the Temple film department and how amazingly supportive and helpful they’ve been for student filmmakers. There’s a reason Temple is making a name for itself in LA and NY. In Reading there is a production company called 6 O'clock Studios
, they were amazing and very knowledgeable film people. I can’t wait to work with them again. Also PIFVA
, the Philadelphia Indie Film and Video Assoc, gave us a grant at just the right time. It wouldn’t have gotten done without their help. And the Greater Reading Film Commission
is great to work with. If you want more info on how to shoot in and around Reading you definitely want to talk with them.
did an amazing job on an original soundtrack for INFINITE that rivals anything you could find anywhere else in the country. CheesesteakMEDIA
was a huge part of production. Without their grips, electric and camera team we would have been dead in the water. The whole community came together.
I would be negligent if I didn’t mention all the amazing local support that contributed to our Kickstarter campaign. We raised thousands of dollars from folks all over Southeastern PA who wanted nothing more than to see our story be told. Their generosity is humbling.
FK: You're also screening your historical documentary Guests of a Nation. So are you a sci-fi guy or a history buff?
DS: I don’t know, they feel complimentary to me. One is looking backward, one is looking forward. One has led us to the place we are now, the other where we might go. Because both are equally removed from the present they both require imagination. I love Sci-Fi and imagining what’s around the corner but those expectations and visions of the future are rooted and shaped in experience. How can you imagine your future if you don’t know your past?
FK: Why did you choose the Troc?
DS: The Troc was a happy accident. Through Facebook we got wind of this passionate actor/director named Loren Lepre who had just pulled off a screening at the Troc for local filmmakers. We reached out and he shared his vision for giving the Indy Film community a regular venue for sharing their work and networking at the Troc. We showed him the trailer and he invited us to show at the next event. Loren’s really tapping into something that the Philly Film hub really needs, a center. To say we’re excited is putting it mildly.
FK: You spent five years in the Army and served in Iraq -- anything military in the works?
DS: Someday I’d like to make a film about some of my experiences. We'll see.
FK: How has your military training influenced your film career?
DS: Beside the dramatic influences in stories, I do see a really practical influence while we're on the set. Film making is really similar to the military in that they are both really hierarchical and you typically have too few people, too few resources and not enough time to get the job done. In a word: stress. As the Director it’s your job to rally the troops, keep their minds off the circumstances and keep them focused on the mission. It’s almost an organic transition to come out of the military and walk onto a film set.
FK: How has growing up in PA influenced your filmmaking?
DS: PA is beautiful. I've been all over the world and the rolling hills of farmland and woods is like nothing else. It's the default backdrop in my mind when I imagine stories.
If you grow up in Southeastern PA without an appreciation for history you haven't been paying attention. Everyone should visit Valley Forge and know the story of what the Continental Army experienced at that low point in the Revolution. Boggles my mind when I think about what those men and women endured. We certainly don't come from weak stock.
FK: Some might think pursuing a career in filmmaking is impractical because it's so hard to 'make it.' How would you respond to that?
DS: I agree, but I'm going for it anyway. The ironic thing about pursuing film is that if you knew how hard it would be at the outset, you would never start. It’s a lot like basic training. Being naive is your greatest ally, just assume everything will fall into place for you and keep pushing forward.
I think what I've realized is that there is not ‘one way’ that you make it in film. Everyone has a unique path. Someone recently described making it in film like trying to break into a giant concrete box where everyone is trying to find a crack so they can wedge themselves through. Only this is a magical concrete box where once someone slips through, the crack seals itself and no one can get in that way again. That sounds about right.
FK: Do you have any PA-related or -influenced ideas in the works? What's next?
DS: Our team is currently focused on getting INFINITE and Guests Of A Nation out on the short film circuit. Once that is done we will begin raising money for the first feature film. Without revealing too much, it’s a coming of age story based loosely on my blue collar upbringing in post-papermill Downingtown. With a twist of course. Think of it as The Sandlot meets Lord Of The Flies. We’re hoping to film it in Downingtown or Reading.
JOE PETRUCCI is managing editor of Flying Kite. Send feedvback here.