The 2015 short film “Drone” written by Tony Rettenmaier and directed by Justin S. Lee was released globally via Vimeo today! “Drone” stars Daniel Sharman and Michael Trucco and was in the running for a Student Academy Award during its succesful festival run.
We had a chance to speak to “Drone” director Justin S. Lee about the film and the challenges of helming this amazingly ambitious project as a USC graduate film project.
BSG-M: Tell us a bit more about how “Drone” became the short film it is today.
Justin S. Lee: “Drone” was produced at USC’s graduate film program while I was a student there. Every semester, its flagship production course selects three projects to be made under its supervision. Student writers, directors, and producers from the school apply first, going through a competitive, studio-like pitch process that lasts for two weeks. About 25-30 high-scoring scripts, 10-20 directors, and up to 20 producers get shortlisted. The students then have to team up into trios to pitch their projects to the faculty. Later that same afternoon, they announce the three selected projects, and we were fortunate enough to be one of them!
I often call this project a gift from our screenwriter, Tony Rettenmaier, because out of all the scripts available, Tony’s easily stood out. “Drone” introduced me to a world I knew very little about, and I couldn’t stop reading article after article during my research to learn more about the topic. When he and I met for the first time to pitch, we immediately got along and wanted to work together, and our producers, Abi Damaris Corbin and Jess Maldaner, felt the same exact way. We all knew this story had to be told, including the faculty, and together with the rest of the crew we brought on, we developed “Drone” into what it is now.
BSG-M: You’ve just released the short on Vimeo, any plans for a wide release or possibly a feature derived from the short?
Justin S. Lee: We’re premiering the short film online on Monday, October 3rd (for free), so look out for it! In regards to a feature, I can’t speak for the rest of the crew, but I believe we told the story we wanted to tell with the short, so there are currently no plans for a feature-length version. I did have an amazing time working with everyone though, so of course, I wouldn’t ever rule it out.
BSG-M: What was it like working with seasoned actors like Daniel Sharman and Michael Trucco?
Justin S. Lee: Wonderful. Absolutely wonderful. Daniel Sharman and Michael Trucco are phenomenal actors who were incredibly passionate about the material. They just “got it,” and we were in complete sync throughout the entire production. It made the whole process very seamless, organic, and comfortable. As a director, working with them has honestly been one of the most creatively fulfilling experiences of my career thus far. I feel so fortunate to have met them. It was also great working with Michael Trucco in particular because I’m a huge fan of Battlestar Galactica. So say we all!
BSG-M: So say we all! Tell us a bit more about yourself and the production team behind “Drone”.
Justin S. Lee: The main members of the production team were all graduate USC film students at the time of filming. However, many of us have since graduated, and are now off to new things. You can read more about me and the team here: http://thedronefilm.com/cast-crew/
Fun fact: more than half of the key crew are from China or Taiwan!
BSG-M: Going from USC to being in the running for a Student Academy Award, how did you live through that process?
Justin S. Lee: That whole process was very nerve-wracking, but also exciting! Getting nominated for a Student Academy Award was a tremendous honor.
BSG-M: Were a lot of changes made between the time you originally said: “I’m doing this”, to what the viewers now get to see onscreen?
Justin S. Lee: Script-wise, the first draft of the script was pretty different than the final draft, but that was expected since we entered a stage of development after assembling our team, where the writer, the two producers, and I would suggest revisions to sharpen the story and the characters. I have to applaud our writer, Tony Rettenmaier, because he pulled a lot of all nighters working on those changes. He must have written over 30 drafts!
In the editing room, we stayed pretty close to the script in terms of the story, but we did have to cut some pieces out to help with the film’s pacing. That’s always a difficult but necessary process. In the industry, we call it “killing our babies.”
BSG-M: For those who haven’t seen it, can you elaborate more on Michael Trucco and Daniel Sharman’s characters?
Justin S. Lee: Without giving too much away, Daniel Sharman plays Matt Collier, a rookie Air Force “drone” sensor operator, and it’s his first month on the job. Michael Trucco plays Hunter Vance, a senior pilot who’s an established veteran among the ranks.
BSG-M: What have been some of the challenges in making, producing or releasing this short?
Justin S. Lee: To be honest, every aspect was challenging. This was an ambitious film to make and I have to commend every department for testing and pushing themselves beyond their limits.
I love it when that happens. We took on a risky and intimidating project, but then by the end, we all came out really proud of what we achieved – and perhaps surprised at what we’re now capable of doing. Life’s all about embracing challenges and jumping in with both feet.
As for challenges for me personally, I had beforehand only directed shorts with maybe 5-10 crew members on set, so going to a much larger-scale production with “Drone,” where on some days, we had almost 50 people, was really scary!
The visual effects for “Drone” were also incredibly ambitious, but I have to give a huge thanks to our VFX Supervisor Jeffrey Gee Chin and his team for helping us out with that.
For me as a director, the most challenging task was how to make two characters who stare at computer screens all day really interesting. Daniel and Michael’s performances definitely made that job a lot easier. And with our two cinematographers, Xing-Mai Deng and Xiao’ou Olivia Zhang, we made sure to never shoot a scene in the drone “cockpit” the same way, which ensured that the film would never feel stale.
BSG-M: “Drone” has now been featured in festivals all over the world. What has been the most rewarding part and the overall reaction?
Justin S. Lee: It’s been great! No one has come up to me with any sort of negative reaction so far (*knock on wood*). They’ve only said really positive things.
The most rewarding part honestly hasn’t been the awards or the accolades (even the Student Academy Award nomination). It was when I received a letter from a senior level defense official from the Pentagon, who saw the film and really responded to it. He’s since screened the film to several groups in the military intelligence community (I think even on Capitol Hill). A university professor also expressed interest in integrating the film into the ethics portions of his curriculum.
To me, this was all proof that our film was raising a lot of constructive conversations and positive discourse about the topic. I was so happy to share this news with Daniel, Michael, and the rest of the crew — because this is the main reason why we make films!
BSG-M: Are you telling this story mostly to entertain, to open the viewers eyes or…is there perhaps a deeper/underlying message?
Justin S. Lee: We definitely told this story to open the viewers’ eyes, but it was important for us to not hammer the audience with any sort of heavy-handed message. Our goal was just to show people the world that these “drone” pilots live in, and how difficult it is for them to do their jobs. We hope that on a human level, it raises awareness on the topic and asks important questions for society to think about as we move forward into the future.
We would like to thank director Justin S. Lee for taking time off his busy schedule to discuss “Drone” with us.
“Drone” was released TODAY and you can watch it by going straight to the VIMEO page (or just watch it embedded in the article!)
All rights reserved, no portion of this interview may be blatantly copy/pasted without prior consent or backlinking to the original article © Battlestar Galactica Museum 2015 – All images are © “Drone”/Justin S. Lee and used with permission of the content owner.