Published: Friday, 29 July 2011 | Written by SciFi Vision
Exclusive interview with Chris Preksta, Curt Wootton, and Mark Tierno of The Mercury Men Interviewed by Jamie Ruby, Karen Moul, AJ Grillo, and Kati Krieger Written by Jamie Ruby
The Mercury Men, the new web series airing on Syfy.com, started out as a short concept film by Christopher Preksta. Preksta is known for writing and directing the web series Captain Blasto, which starred himself alongside Curt Wootton and Mark Tierno, who also star in The Mercury Men.
The Mercury Men short, which was featured at Comic-Con in 2008, and was later expanded into the web series, was inspired by the same retro serials that inspired such films as Star Wars and Indiana Jones. The black and white series is made up of ten episodes, each approximately seven minutes in length.
Besides being released as a web series, other media elements have been released, such as behind-the-scenes footage, as well as unique digital props for viewers to delve deeper into the universe that is The Mercury Men.
Preksta, Wootton, and Tierno sat down recently in an exclusive interview with SciFi Vision to discuss the release of The Mercury Men.
The three men had previously worked together on the web series Captain Blasto, which helped them to be better prepared to work on The Mercury Men. Preksta told us, "I didn't know what I was doing when I did Captain Blasto. Captain Blasto was done my senior year in film school...in Pittsburgh, and I decided to do Captain Blasto to learn how to make a movie, because it was originally shot as a movie. I was only getting so much experience in class, and I thought, you're not going to get that experience until you just get on a set and just start doing it. Succeed or fail, you're going to learn through the process.
"And so we just learned a ridiculous amount, because it was kind of a crash course in filmmaking in the real world. So the difference between that and Mercury Men is night and day. The biggest thing that I personally learned is to try and get the best people you can in the room to work with you and then let them blow you away. Let them be the ones that do great things for you.
"So for instance on Captain Blasto, I was the director of photography, and the director, and I acted in it, so for this time I knew I wanted to get a more experienced director of photography who knows way more than I knew, so we ended up bringing on P.J. Gaynard, who you can see from the trailer and other stuff, he did an incredible job with the lighting on this, so that was one example.
"Our costumer, Ricky Lyle, is another example of someone that can do a far better job at costumes that I can or my mother can (laughs) so it was great to have him come in and do such a fantastic job with those things.
"But then lastly, the only other quick thing I would say, the big thing, is both Captain Blasto and Mercury Men are very low budget. There are surprisingly very similar budgets for both of them. And one of the things I noticed when working on a low budget thing, people always ask, "How did you get these actors, how did you get these people, how did you get them to do this for either no money or deferred payment, or these different things?" And I always tell people, "If you can establish a solid vision and show people that you're capable of carrying that vision out and showing them that not only are you going to value their work, but you're also going to try to get their work seen by as many people as possible, then people are willing to put in those extra hours and that extra time." "
Tierno enjoyed working on the film with Preksta and Wootton. "I have to say working previously on Captain Blasto, and then a few short things, and then during the short for Mercury Men, we got a rapport and just became really strong. And I just love working with both Chris and Curt and it's just so rewarding."
Wootton agreed. "I think the one thing, truly, just getting started with Captain Blasto and working with these guys, it's almost like we're a family now, and we have such a good time working with each other. Of course I'm not going to say everything is perfect, but it's really not even like work. The time would go by – oh my God we'd shoot for twelve hours, and it's crazy, it doesn't really feel like twelve hours, and then I'll get on other shoots where it does feel like work. But working with these guys, it's like a great family environment, and I think everyone has a really, really good time, and when everyone's having a great time, you can see the product on the screen. It will come across a lot better.
"And then you can understand why the same directors and producers and actors, they'll start working with each other over and over again in Hollywood. Always it will be the same actors in the same movie, or the producers will always hire the same directors, because you're going to get a good product. And the more and more you work with each other, the more comfortable you get. You grow as a filmmaker, an actor, director of photography, whatever, I mean, that's just something you really learn."
The web series was already filmed when they were first contacted by Syfy through twitter, according to Preksta. "I released on the [Mercury Men] twitter account, "Hey, we just finished editing the trailer, we'll release it soon."
"Craig Engler from Syfy had somehow noticed The Mercury Men twitter account. He said he was drawn to it just by the name, The Mercury Men, so very quickly as soon as he saw that tweet shot me an email and said, "Hey, can I take a look at that?" I forwarded him over the trailer, so he had seen the trailer very, very early on, before a single episode had been edited.
"During that time I picked up representation at ICM and my agent knows Craig very well. The two of them had met again at a conference months later and my agent had said, "Hey I want to talk to you about a new project I have called The Mercury Men, and Craig already knew about it, and so from there we started talks about making it happen over at Syfy."
Using Mercury for the aliens' origin was planned from the beginning, according to Preksta. "Originally when I came up with the look of the invaders, I don't know how or why, but there was an all white silhouette that popped into my head that I thought would be kind of cool or kind of fun. Simultaneously around the same time I came up with the title for the concept short of The Mercury Men. I don't know why but Mercury Men worked well and I liked the idea of choosing a planet that is unrepresented in much of sci-fi. There's not much sci-fi stuff that really delves into the planet of Mercury. So that was kind of a unique take on that.
"...So for the first series following the actual Mercury Men, there are these glowing creatures from the planet Mercury and they're so close to the sun. What kind of being could actually survive on that planet besides being made of absolute pure light and radioactivity? A being that would have to survive and sustain that close to Earth's sun. So that became the back story and became the very first race ever created out of our solar system - predating man, predating any alien life form on the other planets. The very first creatures were the men of Mercury that have survived thousands upon millions of years on that planet."
The web series obviously is reminiscent of some of the old science fiction shows. While filming, Tierno always thought of the characters in the "cliffhanger" serials. "There was always a sidekick kind of person who gets involved and maybe once has to save the hero, but gets himself and the hero in trouble. Those are the kind of people I thought of in the back of my mind."
Tierno considers his character that "Twilight Zone archetype." "I felt like [my character] was an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances, like the way Hitchcock always used that so frequently, and that's exactly the way I felt. And you saw in the Twilight Zones, where somebody's arriving on a plane and they look out the window and there's a person on the wing...The thing I'd always think of is that I was like an "everyman." An ordinary man, everyman, in extraordinary circumstances."
For the characters costumes, the ideas were derived partially from old test pilots. Tierno said of his character Edward Borman, "With my costume, it's reminiscent of the mission control guys in the 60s and 70s...They seemed to wear those dark ties and white shirts and wear those real nerdy glasses...my costume had that. And as I was doing it I felt like I was from that era, even though it's set in 1975, which is maybe be a little after that. But you know, this guy is a remnant probably."
Wootton added, "I think with the character of Jack [Yaeger]...[Chris] always had this character in mind, and it was derived from a lot of the old test pilots that were coming up...These daring guys...They just risked their lives, would go blindly into these adventures."
Preksta agreed. "Most of the stuff that we talked over for Jack's character - obviously you throw the goggles on, flight helmet, leather jacket, and it instantly brings to mind those old pulp heroes of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. And we talked about Indiana Jones almost every day on the set...Indiana Jones and Star Wars, all those Buck Rogers and Flash Gordans, those all came way before us. That stuff was all in the 30s, so as a kid, you didn't really know about them until Star Wars and Indiana Jones brought light to those old serials. As kids we fell in love with those projects, and then we'd see interviews with George Lucas and Spielberg, and they would mention those old serials, which kind of put our eyes on that."
Preksta knew from the beginning that the series would be filmed in black and white. "It was always going to be in black and white and that was probably just because I love black and white and I knew that we were doing this as an independent series, and since we were going to be doing it online, I knew I had the leeway where something like that could work.
"A new black and white TV show is highly unlikely to ever happen. I don't want to say never, but the chance that's a tall order for a new black and white television show. And it's even very difficult to get black and white movies made...So I knew we were going to be online, and online you can get away with stuff that you would very rarely get away with on TV or movies."
Even though the series was low budget, the special effects worked out, even if Preksta had to do most of it on his own. "The special effects, figured out how to do some of them when we shot the concept short. At that time I knew a little bit about After Effects, and I have a heavy background in graphic design. I knew photoshop and all that kind of stuff, and I have a heavy background in the editing as well, so I knew all the animation.
"The Mercury Men short was kind of a test run on those visual effects. We're hoping to release the concept short after the series, so people can kind of see how big of a difference that was. So what we learned about visual effects from that short we were able to ramp up on the actual series. Now [these] special effects, we're not talking Transformers level here. We're talking more of glowing invaders, laser shots, lightning bolts, and loud destruction of the office area, stuff like that. Then we've got some larger effects shots on a much more global scale that you'll see as well.
"Ninety-nine percent of the visual effects were done by myself. I had brought in a another co-editor that had helped out with some visual effects for about a month, and they had done a great job, but mostly all the visual effects were done by myself. A lot of them we were learning how to do as we were in post-production. I would think up a shot and I wouldn't really know how to do the visual effect, but just kind of knowing what I knew, I figured if I threw myself in it, I might be able to figure it out. Surprisingly enough it turned out pretty great and we're all pretty happy about where it ended up, thankfully. It could have been a disaster.
"As we were watching the rough cut someone would suggest another shot and they'd say, "Can you do that?" I'd be like, "I have no idea but let's see." So we'd start doing it. Six hours later we'd have something that looked okay, but at least let us know we were on the right track, and after constant tweaking and constantly working at it, we got something that worked really well."
Although they didn't use any green screens, since the aliens were added later digitally, there was still a lot of pretending involved. Tierno said, "When we were doing a scene, Chris would just say, "You're running and they're firing at you," or whatever. As we were shooting scenes, Chris would just describe them. Obviously we didn't have lightning bolts coming at us."
Preksta added, "We're going to be releasing another production journal after the first episode airs. There are actually two on visual effects. The first one is about the rough edit, so it's going to show a scene from episode one of The Mercury Men without any visual effects, without any sound effects, without any color correction. So you'll see the raw edit in color, because it was shot in color before it was converted to black and white.
"It's fantastic because you hear all the on set direction. So instead of lightning bolts you just hear me off screen yell "bang" at them.
"Then the other thing that's great, is it makes Mark and Curt out to be these two crazy guys running around an office building from invisible creatures, because there's no Mercury Men inserted yet. You'll see them turn ominously, look a little over their shoulder, and have this scared reaction. Then we'll cut and there'll be absolutely nothing there and they'll start running away from the nothing.
"So we have that production journal, we're going to juxtapose that rough edit with the final version, so that's pretty fun.
"Then we also have a production journal coming out that details step by step how the actual invaders themselves were made, because there're no CGI and no green screens how we made them. So it's a little bit more of a unique process of how we put them on there."
One of the most challenging parts of filming the series according to Preksta is that a web series is a difficult model to sustain. "You see a lot of shows that do one season and then they're never heard from them again. You can count a handful of fiction and fictional web series that have multiple seasons...It's a difficult model to always sustain, because a lot of people are able to muster enough money where they can do a low budget season and get people to call in favors and that, but you can't keep doing that. I can't keep asking Mark and Curt to leave their day jobs for a month on end and come work for nothing. You eventually have to get sustainable budgets...The sustainable thing is something that we don't know yet, because we have to see how this series does, and we haven't started to talk realistically about the practical side of season two.
"I would think the short attention span of the viewer is going to be another thing. Where with a film you have ten minutes or so of time where you can introduce people to the characters, the world...the universe. With web series, you've got ten, fifteen seconds before this better get going or else people are clicking away.
"So I know with Mercury Men I really struggled with that on the script. How much time do we have with Edward Borman before the Mercury Men attack, before people click away? How much of a guy working in an office building do we get before people are saying, "Whoa whoa whoa, where's the action, let's get to it." That was a tough balance for us."
Since the series moves very quickly, the two main characters meet early on, according to Wootton. "That's introduced very quickly on in the first episode. Jack is investigating the Mercury Men themselves and it just so happens they are in Mark's building. We get thrust into a situation that Jack would probably rather have any other person in the world to help him defeat the Mercury Men instead it happens to be the most incompetent scared little man that he could find, but we were put in a situation where we're the odd couple initially, and as the story goes on things get a little more interesting."
Since they didn't have a lot of time for explanations on the series, in order to still give more details to the audience they created a section of digital props on the series' site. This also gives the show a unique fan experience and was fun for the cast and crew. Preksta told us, "Digital props have been almost fifty percent for fans and awareness of the project, but then that other fifty percent is almost even just for us, because we're getting to make things we would love to see The Mercury Men be a part of.
"Everyone remembers old Star Wars collector cups or old TV NES games or TV Atari covers, game cartridges, and stuff like that. We just always talked about how we would love to see Mercury Men be a part of old retro things. It would be great to relive those kinds of moments.
"So part of it is just to be fun. The other part of it is that with web series the episodes fly; they go so fast. Seven minutes is here and gone. So not only do you only get to tell so much story, you only get to share so much of the universe of The Mercury Men. So digital props are a way that we can one, share some more story that we weren't able to cram into an episode, and two, it allows us to expand the greater universe of The Mercury Men that we couldn't do for either time, or just even budget, since when we started this we were an independent series.
"And so there's so many grand ideas or wonderful things we would want to get across, that maybe necessarily time or budget doesn't allow [us to] get through in a visual prop.
"...We just thought what a cool way to share some other information...[Sci-fi] is notorious for this: the technobabble...So for us, we can get as much of that technobabble talk out of it and we can repackage it in a more interesting way.
"So instead of having a character sit there and explain how the raygun works, and take up two minutes of an exposition, instead we make a blueprint of the gun where it details how it works. So for big fans who really want to know more and get more information, they have now this cool piece of artwork that details that bit of information as opposed to just a character talking at them for two minutes.
"...The other nice thing is, if a digital prop is fun or clever enough, people like to share them; they like to spread them. They see some old TV fun Mercury Men action figures, and if it reminds them of the Star Wars action figures, then they're more likely to say, "Check these things out; check out what these guys are doing." People that maybe didn't see the trailer might discover the series through another avenue."
The low budget they had for the series is one of the reasons they decided to film in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Wootton said, "Everything in Pittsburgh is cheaper. Could you imagine us trying to do what we did out in Los Angeles. It would be ridiculous."
Preksta expanded on that. "There are many reasons we shot in Pittsburgh. We're all originally from here...Then simultaneously we love the city, so we would love to highlight or feature the city when we have those opportunities.
"Then just like Curt said, it's a heck of a lot easier to do things here, because, say we needed to film in a parking garage. If we go talk to a parking garage, they'll give us some hours. "Sure as long as you come down after 8:00 p.m. and you're out of here by 6:00 a.m., it's fine." Or we go talk to an office - we shot in an insurance company – "Sure come in after hours or come in on a Saturday." You to go to a parking garage in Los Angeles and say "We'd like to film here in the evening," they're going to say, "Where's your permit, and where's my ten thousand dollars?" You've got to have a security guard on set with you, and they're going to have all these parameters, because the people that walk in, this isn't new to them; they know this industry. They're used to people coming and asking. There's filmmakers everywhere shooting a million things, but in Pittsburgh, they like it; they appreciate it. They find it exciting. So when you tell them, "Hey I want to come film a movie and we'll give you a DVD, you'll be invited to the premiere and you can come hang out on the set at your own place of business," they get excited about that. They like to come and watch it and be a part of it. It's a much different vibe."
The cast and crew are already thinking ahead, not only to season two of the web series, but also to other outlets. According to Preksta, "You'll see we've planted the seed for [more episodes] throughout the first volume of episodes, that there're going to be bits and pieces that hint or blatantly talk of the greater universe. The way I've been discussing this first volume of episodes is that it's kind of a "knot hole" story, which is that we've spent a lot of time building that great big universe, and it's fenced off for now, but you're getting to peek through that "knot hole" in the fence. So you're going to see bits and pieces here and there and we're slowly going to peel back that fence to see more and more and more.
"The digital props certainly do that, but we would love to be able to do that, more importantly with a second volume of episodes, but we would love to do that with comic books, and books as well.
"Right now there's a lot of people in the different areas that are waiting with bated breath to see how the series does, to see where it goes from here. And if it does well enough, obviously all those doors get kicked open and we get to explore all those things.
"...Syfy licenses Mercury Men. They get the rights to show the episodes, to distribute them, but they do not own Mercury Men. So no matter what, at the end of the day, if we continue Mercury Men, it's our decision if we continue, and if so, how we continue. We definitely want to continue it, because we have this large rich world that we're working on. There's a lot to be able to show."
Until then, according to Preksta, they already have more of the story though out. "At the bare minimum we have story already fairly well mapped out for the next season. There are a lot of things that have been planted in this first season that lead into the second season. Specifically, even in the final episode of Mercury Men you'll notice that this first volume of episodes, they are in many respects a contained story. If you just watch this first volume of episodes you're going to get a beginning, middle, and end, and you'll feel a story has been told. The tenth episode is almost like a coda episode, where it's a segue or a lead way into volume two, and so it is a good setup for the second season of where things are going.
"...Syfy particularly won't make a call on whether they want to participate in a second season until this first season has aired. So depending on how many hits we get, depending on how well this does, then they can make the call, whether it will be with them, which of course we'd obviously love...Syfy is the place that when we were filming, if you would ask me, "Where's the one place you would love to see this end up," Syfy was at the top of my list. So obviously that's who we would love to [continue with], so fingers crossed it that it does well enough that they want to keep going for another season."
The first season of The Mercury Men can be seen now on Syfy.com, with a new episode released every day. You can also download the episode through itunes.