The following speech is from a keynote speech that I did for the Media Creators Space in Monrovia CA. Full of fun anecdotes and helpful hints about how I created my web-series The Rolling Soldier.
For those of you who don’t know me my name is John Tague. I’m primarily a professional actor but in the last couple of years I have also become a director, writer, editor, sound designer, composer, and colorist all because of a little web series I created called the Rolling Soldier. I’ll get to that a little bit later. When Kevin Michael asked me to do this speech I thought that it was a really bad idea. I’ve never done one of these before so I’m kinda of learning as I go here which is a lot like making a web series. So I guess I’ll give you a brief history of who I am and what led me here to this moment… which I still think is a bad idea.
I grew up in New Jersey about 45 minutes away from New York City. I always new I wanted to be a performer in one way or another. I started out as a musician. I played bass guitar in rock and roll bands and I did a little theatre here and there but nothing serious. Those things were fun but my true love was always movies and television. I was basically raised on TV shows like The Six Million Dollar Man, Mission Impossible, Mod Squad, The Saint, All In The Family, I Dream of Jeanie, Bewitched, and the original Batman series but all of that was completely pushed to the side in 1977 when I saw Star Wars. It changed my life and I’m sure I’m not the only one. I started devouring movies. It started with Sci-Fi and Action Adventure and then as I got older and hit my teens it was horror films, teen-ploitation films, and music videos. It was around this time I started thinking I wanted to be an actor but I was this skinny Irish kid from Jersey and I had no idea how to go about doing it. Nobody I knew was in the entertainment business and I thought you has to live in Hollywood to be an actor. On top of that everyone I knew told me it was impossible to make a living doing it. So I did the smart the thing and decided to join a band with my high school buddies and be a rockstar instead.
We played on the weekends and rehearsed after school everyday which led to my stellar report card of straight C’s and D’s. By the time my senior year came around all of my bandmates came to their senses and decided they better knuckle down and apply to college in case the “band thing” didn’t work out. So I decided I should start applying to colleges too. I was turned down by everyone except a small liberal arts college in North Carolina called High Point University. They accepted me as a charity case with the stipulation that I had to get at least a 2.0 GPA my first semester or I was out. I was going to study Music Engineering and Communications but when I got there they decided to drop the program. So there I was at college with no idea what to do. My counselor called me into his office to see what my plan was. He was the head of the Theatre Department and was wondering why I wasn’t enrolled in any of his theatre classes. He told me that according to my transcripts I was a Theatre Major. I didn’t know what he was talking about and explained to him that I was there to study music engineering. So he said to me why don’t you run sound for our theatre productions? So I said, “Cool. What does it pay?” He said “It doesn’t pay anything but I could get class credits for doing it. So I said alright and the next thing I knew I was in the sound booth during tech rehearsals for the play they were putting on. I had never really seen a real play before and I was totally blown away by how good everybody was. The next day I begged my counselor to enroll me into his acting classes. He let me in. I became a theatre major and started to learn how to be an actor.. I fell in love with it and knew that this what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
I ended up making Dean’s list, starred in lots of plays and Graduated a Theatre Major. Armed with my theatre degree I moved to New York City where I thought I would be welcomed as an actor with open arms but I was shocked to learn that nobody cared. I quickly learned that acting was an art form you had to be invited to in order to participate. Painters can just paint. Sculptors can sculpt anytime the wanted. Actors, on the other hand, have to invited to the party.
I learned how hyper competitive it is and how small the community was and that there were “Gatekeepers” you had to go through. At this point you’re probably wondering “why is he talking about this? I thought this was about how to make a web series”. I’m getting to that. I promise. So back to New York. Nobody cared that I played Peter in The Diary of Anne Frank in college. So I had to basically start over again and learn how to become a New York actor. I started getting a better handle on the business of being an actor. I hunted down every casting director, Agent, and Manager in town. I had no professional credits and learned that in order to work in legitimate film and television shows I needed to be in the Actors Unions which are the Screen Actors Guild and The American Federation of Radio and Television Artists. The only way to join those unions was to work on Union shows. And the the only way to work on union shows was if you were already a member of the union. It was a total catch 22. Without proper credits it was hard to get the attention of the Gatekeepers. The Agents. The Casting Directors. Luckily there were non-union projects and NYU student films that I could submit myself to. These gigs barely paid and the student films were rarely completed because the were actually shot on film and it was expensive. When you are first starting out back then money from the gigs was nice but footage was the most important commodity for an actor. You needed it for your reel to show the gatekeepers that you were legit and could be trusted to act in big budget projects. I did every stupid promo, industrial, and student film I could until I had cobbled together a decent reel that I could slap on a VHS tape and schlep around town. One of the gigs I booked actually became a Union project somehow and I ended becoming SAG eligible. I was in the club. Or at least I thought I was. Doors started to open and I worked a lot after that. Soap Opera’s, Commercials, and the occasional Indie feature. I was having a blast. Then one day I was cast in what was at the time, I think, one of the first web series for the internet called Spiderman Spidercam. I was cast in the role of Peter Parker. The show was officially being produced by Marvel Comics and wait for it… Trump Models. We shot one episode and then it got pulled. Marvel, at the time, was going broke and decided to put all of their attention into the first X-Men movie. That worked out pretty good for them. Donald Trump went on to do other things and I decided to move to Los Angeles with my girlfriend Claire Hartley where there was more work.
I booked a couple of nice gigs and then 9-11 happened which had a massive psychological impact on me. I’d only been in LA for a short period of time but I still felt firmly rooted in NY. I had friends and family that were severely affected by the tragedy of that day. It changed the world and I started to become more interested in the intrigue and drama of those world events. I started making mental notes which later became the backdrop for my web series The Rolling Soldier.
Working as an actor in LA was more difficult than I thought and the work started to dry up. I was struggling and started to think that maybe I should hang it up as an actor or at least take a break from it and try to figure things out. So I stepped away from it. I ended up marrying Claire and then decided to do the smart thing and start another rock band. But this time it was an electronica band and we spent a year teaching ourselves how to record an album using music recording software called Ableton Live. Of course the band broke up but I learned something very important. I learned how to use music editing software and realized that I could make music and put it out into the world without anyone’s permission. There were no “Gatekeepers”! I didn’t need permission. During this time my wife and I had beautiful baby girl and I stayed home taking care of her while my wife opened up her yoga studio business. Five years had gone by. It was a crazy time. I was 44 years old and enjoying being a father but something was gnawing at my soul. I was unhappy and depressed and realized something was missing in my life. I missed being an actor.
After some serious soul searching I decided to jump back in. I was basically starting all over again. I hadn’t done anything in 5 years. That was an eternity. So I enrolled in an acting class to shake off the rust. My acting coach was great and very supportive. He constantly challenged me. One day during class he he told us that we should be constantly working on our craft and encouraged us all to make short films, skits, web series, etc.. and stressed how easy it was with todays advances in technology. As an exercise he told us to come up with a pitch for a project and bring it in the following week. So I thought to myself If I was going to make something and star in it I should tailor it to my strengths as an actor. My strengths are being stressed out and playing reluctant heroes so I came up with the idea of a special forces guy who gets injured and goes into a 10 year coma while on a secret mission in Afghanistan. He wakes up 10 years later and discovers that he is in a lot of trouble and has been kept in hiding to protect him. My coach thought it was a really cool idea and that I should keep going with it. It became The Rolling Soldier.
So I started researching the web series world. I didn’t know how long web series episodes were because I had never seen one before so I decided to check out what was out there. Most of what I saw out there was 10 minutes long in length and really not that interesting to me to say the least. I was noticing a lot of goofy 20 something comedies, zombies, and mindlessly violent action shows. Then I came across two shows that gave me hope and they were The Bannen Way and LA Macabre which I highly recommend. What struck me about those shows was the overall production value and how well written they were. They were very tight, original, and most of all entertaining. I was impressed with them and it gave me hope for the kind of show I wanted to do. I got excited because I realized there was nothing like my idea out there and I could do whatever I wanted. There were no Gatekeepers! The only Gatekeeper in my way was me and my limiting beliefs.
My project was going to be a psychological spy thriller. I found a niche. But I still wasn’t sure if it was something I could do until I told a cinematographer friend about it. Her name was Joia Speciale and she had just been nominated for an Emmy for her camera work on the hard hitting reality series about struggling addicts called Intervention. She was looking for a break from the grueling subject matter of Intervention and liked the idea of doing an original drama again. Her look and shooting style was very “Fly on the wall” and gritty and I thought that would be perfect in setting up the paranoid world I wanted to create in my show. But most of all I knew I was going to get amazing footage that I could use on my new acting reel. After all… that was real the reason for doing this. I needed new material to show people because my old stuff was so dated.
Now I needed a script. So I started hammering out a 10 page draft on my laptop with a cracked version of Final Draft screenwriting software about a guy waking up from a coma really confused. But it wasn’t enough. I had to have other elements so I decided to also make it a family drama that included his estranged kids and a missing wife. I thought it would be interesting and I had this lingering thought that everybody in the story was hiding something from him. I liked the idea of something sinister behind his accident and I thought it would be interesting to play with. I came up with the idea that the lead character was more than just a soldier. He was a Black Ops assassin with a guilty conscience who had discovered something that involved himself, his family, and his “team” and the government didn’t want what he discovered getting out. I still felt like it needed one more element. At the time I was very concerned about the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder out troops were coming home with and I was also very concerned about what was going on with the revelations of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and ex-military contractor turned government whistle-blower Edward Snowden. I decided to wrap those elements into the my character.. By doing so it no longer felt like a vanity project. It now had a message.
While I was writing the script I knew I wanted my actor friends to play the other roles. They are all working professional actors and I decided that in order to get them I had to really write to their strengths as well. That was key. Lucky for me they agreed to play the parts. Which made me realize something important. You have to use what resources you have around you to your advantage. I also had to think about locations in the same way which led to shooting most of the pilot episode in my house.
I finished the script for the pilot episode pretty quickly and started planning out the shots with my director of photography and quickly learned that we needed certain things. The first being a crew, the second was gear and lenses, and the third was food. We didn’t have any money and I was in no position financially to put up any money. A good friend of mine was looking to get his son started out as an actor and had offered to produce the film if his son could have a lead role. I thought OK but it caused a funny dilemma . His son was half asian. The only role he could play in my show would be the role of my characters son. But I’m not Asian which meant I had to cast someone who was Asian to play my wife. Luckily for me one of my good friends who is a fantastic actress agreed to do it but now we also had to cast a half Asian girl to play my daughter too. My acting coach’s daughter was half Asian so I asked them if she could it and she agreed. So all of the sudden I had an ethnically diverse cast now which was awesome. So that was a really happy accident and I was able to get the pilot funded.
So if you are keeping score here are the important points so far that we’ve covered.
1.There are no Gatekeepers!
2.Pick subject matter that you care about.
3.Use what you’ve got!
4.Give it a message.
5.Try to make it ethnically diverse.
So now I had my cast, producer, and director of photography together I had to get the remaining crew assembled. We needed a good grip and lighting gear as well as someone to run audio. This is where things got expensive and most of our budget went. The lighting package we used was kind of a mistake. We rented way too much gear and barely used any of it. And our sound man was not cheap either but he was very good. I got lucky and I found him on Craigslist. Good audio for the kind of show we were going to do was really important because it was dialogue heavy. I cannot stress how important good sound is. Without it you have nothing.
So we shot the pilot over a course of a weekend at a martial arts school and at my house. We turned my bedroom into a makeshift hospital room, much to my wife’s delight. The martial arts school was hook-up from our producer. We also had a quick scene in a car. I made sure my actors were 100% percent ready because there was no time for a lot of takes. I decided that it would be easier to shoot all of the scene’s that I wasn’t in first. That way I could direct and deal with all of the unknown variables that might arise. We had no permits so we had to move fast. The first day of shooting involved a complicated fight scene and was pretty brutal so I was glad to be behind the camera. I learned quickly that directing was way harder than I thought it would be but I was smart enough to know to surround myself with really talented people.
So surround yourself with really talented people! If you want it to look good use good technicians and good gear. If you want the acting to be good use good actors. Preferably Union actors who know what they are doing.
On Day 2 we shot all of my scenes at my house. Not only was I acting in the scenes but now I was also directing at the same time which was not easy. I wasn’t able to see performances on the monitor as we were shooting so we had to stop after each take and review the footage to see if it was good. That started eating up a lot time so I deferred to my DP to let me know if the shots looked good so we could keep moving. Eventually we got everything we needed and I was thrilled. I made it thru two days of shooting a web-series pilot with no previous experience of being a director. So I can tell you, without a doubt, If I can do it so can you but I don’t recommend starring and directing at the same time.
Now that we had finished shooting it was time to edit. One of my cast members was an editor and said he would do it for free. I was stoked because I was out of money. We started editing it and I quickly realized that his editing style was not what I wanted and things we’re moving a little too slow. He was a good editor but it just wasn’t fitting the tone I needed. So I took it to another editor who had a really firm grasp of what I wanted. I had blown the budget on the shoot and now I was paying out of pocket on a new editor but it turned out for the best. I was still left with the daunting task of the rest of post production and that is where I had to start getting creative and ask for favors.
I knew I was going to have to create the music score myself so I went back to my favorite software Ableton Live which has the ability to show the film in real time while you are scoring to it. That was the easiest and most enjoyable part of the process.
The last part of the post production process was the color correction and sound design of the film. I had two really good friends who knew how to do those things and generously helped for free. Without them it wouldn’t have been finished. So another really important thing that I learned was DON’T BE AFRAID TO ASK FOR HELP.
So let’s review again…
1.There are no Gatekeepers!
2.Pick Subject matter that you care about.
3.Use what you’ve got
4.Give it a message
5.Try to make it ethnically diverse
6.Get a really good Audio guy
7.Use Union Actors if you can
8.Try to avoid starring and directing at the same time
9.Surround Yourself with really talented people
10.Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
So the pilot for The Rolling Soldier was done and I thought it was pretty good but I wasn’t sure what other people would think and I was afraid to show it to anyone. I eventually got up the courage and asked some friends to watch it and the response was really positive. So much so that they all wanted to know what was going to happen next. I wasn’t even thinking about that because all I cared about was getting footage for my reel. My friends told me I should release it and make more. I thought ok what the hell why not? I’m not doing anything else at the moment. I then started hearing about crowdfunding services and how people were raising money to make their films that way. I decided to use the pilot episode of The Rolling Soldier as the pitch video for an Indiegogo campaign. My goal was to raise $30,000 dollars to shoot 6 more episodes.
All of my cast members were down for doing more but I ran into a snag with my DP. She was unable to continue because she got locked into a paying gig so I would have to replace her. I was bummed out about it but I figured if I raised enough money I would be able to find someone good to replace her. So I launched the Indiegogo campaign. It lasted about a month and money started coming in. I went for the option of using whatever I was able to raise to fund my project. The other option was if I didn’t hit my goal all of the money would be returned. So in the end I was only able to raise about $10,000 which meant I was nowhere near my goal but I figured that it was better than nothing so I started planning the rest of the shoot.
My first goal was to find a replacement for my DP and I found a great guy named Sergio Crego. He was hungry and liked the project. I told him what my budget was and he basically told me there was no way it could be done with that money. He then thought about it for a little bit more and pitched the idea of him coming on board also as a producer. By doing so we would be able to use all of his camera equipment and lighting gear for free. I agreed right away. So we took the money we raised from Indiegogo and started working on pre-production for the rest of the series. Without the full $30,000 I wasn’t sure how we would do post production but we decided to soldier on.
I started hammering out the rest of the story and we began scouting locations and asking for favors. We needed lots of things like a bar, an airfield, an interrogation room, a hotel and many other things. I needed help so I brought on board some other friends who were looking to get started in the film world and they helped out with logistics. We decided to shoot the episodes all at once and take advantage of the time we had. Once the scripts were done we started shooting. That’s when everything went crazy.
The first day back shooting the series went great. We shot for about 14 hours and and got a lot of great footage. When I came home that night my wife informed me that our yoga school business had been shut down by the city because of confusion over city permits. It was devastating because it was our only source of income. We didn’t know what to do and I had a show to shoot. My wife told me to finish the film. So not knowing what else to do we kept going forward.
Then another disaster struck. The young girl who was playing my daughter had a terrible family tragedy that basically took her away from us for a long period of time. We had to completely re-arrange the schedule for her which ended up spreading out the shoot over the period of year which caused all kinds of scheduling problems with the other actors who were booking jobs. We also had to juggle different crew members. It was a scheduling nightmare. The longer it went on the harder it got. We lost locations which led to script re-writes. We ended up up adding more characters which made the scheduling even crazier. We had to stay flexible and eventually got it done over the period of a year. It was mentally, spiritually, and physically exhausting and took a massive toll on my personal life.
During the downtime in between the spread out shooting dates I took it upon myself to learn how to use all the post production software needed to finish the film because we had no money to hire any post production people but there was money to buy the software needed. The first thing I had to learn was how to edit. I had no experience at all with editing, color grading, or any of the other stuff and I had to teach myself how to do everything. I relied heavily on youtube tutorials.
I had to do all of the post work in my garage with no air conditioning or ventilation in the sweltering heat in Los Angeles. It was brutal. Computers and hard drives constantly overheated and crashed. I thought I’d never finish it. I ended up using Final Cut Pro X to edit the film which turned out to be kinda fun because it was a lot like the music editing software I liked use. I started cutting the scenes as soon as the footage was dumped onto my computer. Sometime right after we were done shooting for the day. Then I would score it using Ableton Live. All of the episodes started coming together and I was getting close to the finish line. All I needed to do next was Color Correction and Color Grading. That’s where I had the most trouble. I wanted the film to look a certain way and I had a really hard time with it until I discovered a software called Color Finale which helped make my show look gorgeous and cinematic. It took a year to complete the post production by myself after we finished shooting. I was done. Exhausted and had no idea if what I had was any good or what I was going to do with it. Again I was afraid to show it to anyone. I spent two years of my life working on it and I came to the realization that if I didn’t show people my work I wasn’t really an artist. So I put it up on youtube one episode per week for 7 weeks. I thought about loading it up all at once so people could binge if they wanted but thought this was a better way of doing it. The response was very positive but it wasn’t getting many views.
One day I was sitting in a cafe in Valley Village and I overheard a guy talking about web series. He was giving someone advice about what they should do with their show. I politely asked if it was ok if I listened in to what he was saying. I told him that I also had a series. His name was Dan Ast the creator of the web series LA Macacbre that I used as a a reference and inspiration early on. He told me I should submit my show to the web series festival circuit. He said the exposure and connections at these festivals changed his life. I did not know such a thing existed and went home and started checking out these festivals. I submitted to all of the popular web festivals around the world after doing some research on which ones were legit. I didn’t think I was going to get into any of them but I submitted anyway. I started receiving emails from many festivals telling me The Rolling Soldier had been accepted and to my total shock we were up for awards. So I went to these festivals and had a blast.
2015 NYC Webfest nominated The Rolling Soldier for Best Cinematography. I was nominated for Best Actor and we were nominated for Best Drama which we ended up winning. I was in total shock.
2015 Dublin WebFest in Ireland Nominated us for Best Thriller, Best Cinematography, and Best Editing. We won Best Editing which was crazy because I ve never edited anything in life before that.
2016 Vancouver Webfest which is known as the Academy Awards of Web Fests nominated us for Best Thriller and we won.
2016 Austin Webfest nominated us for best Drama which we also won.
The series screened at many other festivals around the world in places like Rome, Seoul, Hollywood, and will be premiering in Germany next month where are nominated For Best Series, Best Soundtrack, and I’m nominated for Best Actor and Best Director.
It’s been an incredible ride and it’s all because I made my show out necessity because I needed footage for my reel. So if I can do it. Anybody can.