Monday, October 20, 2014

The Verse: A Firefly Fan Film Q&A With Director Julian Higgins

I am a Browncoat, through and through. If you need to ask "What's a Browncoat?" then stop reading. Stop reading IMMEDIATELY and go binge-watch the Joss Whedon masterpiece "Firefly" and the movie "Serenity" (available on Netflix, Hulu Plus and Amazon Prime). You will thank me for it me. The only disappointment you might experience is that it ends; it ends way too soon and that might break your heart a little (or a lot, depending on your level of obsession). "Firefly" was a genius mix of sci-fi and western following the rag-tag crew of the firefly class cargo ship, Serenity. Led by Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), we explored the outer reaches of space, smuggled cargo, robbed a train, outran Reavers and the Alliance alike...we laughed, we cried, we misbehaved. The show originally aired on FOX and never really had a fighting chance. The episodes were aired out of order and the show was shuffled from night-to-night with no hope of ever finding a foothold. And then it was gone. But the deed was done and a fandom was born. Here we are, 12 years later, still talking about it.

Recently, a friend sent me the link to a "Firefly" fan film called "The Verse." I clicked the link, not really sure what to expect. I wasn't actually prepared to be blown away by the quality, story and effects. Produced by Loot Crate, "The Verse" follows the crew of the Overland, a Serenity-style transport ship. The characters are fun and interesting and the dialogue perfectly captures the vibe of the original universe, complete with plenty of Chinese swearing and my personal favorite, "gorram." But where this fan film sets itself apart is in the detail. From the original music to the set design, this little film is the perfect tribute to the world we love so much. The film stars Ryan Caldwell (Bret Hunter), Jennifer Wenger (Caroline Stack), Zack Finfrock (Rusty Duvall), Peter Weidman (Travis Sandspur), Tybee Diskin (Maribelle Crawford), Alex Marshall-Brown (Annie Whitehall), Ewan Chung (Jon Zhou), and Vic Mignogna (Commodore Woodruff).

Director and producer Julian Higgins took the time to answer 8 questions about the making of "The Verse" to give us a little more insight into the making of this labor of love. Find Julian on Twitter @JulianHiggins!

Q) First, let me congratulate you on a fantastic short film! You’ve done the Browncoats proud! Loot Crate is an amazing company but seems an unusual choice for a producer. How did the film evolve with Loot Crate as your production partner? 

A) Thank you for the kind words! We've been overwhelmed by the amazing response from the Browncoat community. Loot Crate is an incredibly awesome company that are just huge fans of all things geek and gamer culture. I personally started working with Loot Crate in November of 2013 after my long time collaborator Zack Finfrock, Loot Crate's inhouse artist, invited me to join him and writer/actor Peter Weidman as the main director/editor/co-writer for their monthly web shorts. Monthly, we'll do some fun web short for the community that ties into the theme of Loot Crate that month. I've been doing them since then.

When it became clear that there would be a GALACTIC themed crate that included some amazing Firefly items from Quantum Mechanix, we both immediately had the same thought: We HAVE to make a Firefly short film. Luckily, the owners of Loot Crate, Chris Davis and Matthew Arevalo, were 100% on board. So, the weekend after Comic Con I sat down and came up with the characters, the story and the title. I took those over and pitched them to Peter and Zack, who loved it and we fined tuned the basics. Peter went off and wrote our first draft, and then we all three polished it into the final script. After that, Loot Crate approved it and gave us the creative freedom to go off and create something that would make everyone proud.

One month time in total. August 10th the script was finished, September 10th "The Verse" went live! It really wouldn't have been possible to do without Loot Crate.

Q) One of the many things about the film that was a huge stand-out was the ship, the Overland. The design (inside and out) was the perfect homage to the Serenity without being a carbon copy and the effects were extremely impressive! Can you tell me a little about the design process and how your crew pulled off such shiny boat?

A) Living in Los Angeles, we're incredibly lucky to be in close proximity to a lot of great movie studios and sound stages. One of those is the famous Laurel Canyon Stages, who's Stage B houses a beautiful space ship set. This includes a couple great ship hall ways, two different cockpits and a medical bay. Amazingly enough, this is the exact same space ship set that they filmed as the derelict transport for the Firefly episode "Bushwhacked". Talk about a geek out moment.

Once we secured Laurel Canyon Stages for filming, designing the Overland became a lot clearer. Zack and I worked together using screen captures of that episode and, since we'd be filming on the same sets, decided to use that ship's exterior design as a starting point and inspiration for the Overland. Zack drew up some great concept art sketches of the ships exterior and also an interior layout that would correspond with the sets in a way that makes sense for our film. The 3D model was expertly built by some of the fantastic artists on the "Firefly Online" video game team, and was brought to life by Dastoli Digitial -- our visual effects team. Once we were on set, we added our own Firefly-inspired interior set decoration and detailing created by our production designer Paul Bianchi. He even built our ships engine from scratch, and hand cranked it himself during the scene! All of those pieces come together beautifully and voila: Welcome aboard the Overland!

Q) The music gave me chills. As a massive Firefly fan, I was taken back to the series with that wonderful twangy steel guitar and fiddle. If I’m being honest, I actually got a little misty with nostalgia. So much detail obviously went into the making of The Verse and the score was a subtle, yet vitally important co-star. Was it difficult to capture the feel of the original music?

A) I'm a huge fan of movie and television music. I think Greg Edmonson's Firefly's score is one of those things that elevates the show to another level. It's a beautiful sort of nostalgic, fly-with-the-wind sound that makes the ship feel like a home. Full credit goes to our talented composer Dan Martinez (, who absolutely understood and brought that emotion and sound from the Firefly series to life for our film. Together, we played with the choices about the familiar themes and instruments that inspired thousands of fans to fall in love with the original series. Once we established the sounds needed, Dan did a wonderful job composing the music and adding his own personal artistry to that existing pallet. I especially loved his use of the beautiful live violin, mandolin and guitar. Furthermore, all of that beautiful music was done in less than two weeks! The man is ridiculously good at his craft and was a huge part of what made "The Verse" work.

Q) The original characters of Firefly were so memorable. It’s difficult to watch The Verse without making comparisons to Captain Reynolds, Wash, Jayne, Zoe and Kaylee but you still managed to create a unique crew with their own unique personalities and relationships. During the writing process, what aspects of the story and character development proved most challenging?

A) When you're making a short film, you have an incredibly small amount of time to introduce your characters to the audience in a meaningful way that gives them a chance to know them and fall in love with them. Peter Weidman, one of our co-writers and the actor who played "Yoke" in the film, said it really well: "It's like writing Firefly on fast forward". Introducing and establishing 6 new characters in 15 minutes was by far the biggest challenge. Joss Whedon created a brilliant dynamic between the characters on Firefly. For us, there was definitely inspiration taken from the original series in our writing. The Serenity crew was a family. The Overland crew is a dysfunctional bunch. We wanted fans to quickly recognize the world, and feel like they were back with a new, yet familiar, crew of misfits.

Q) The cast is fantastic. I can honestly say I enjoyed every performance. Was the casting process difficult or were they all as passionate about Firefly as you seem to be?

A) The entire cast and crew were full of Browncoats! That's what made the project so fun: Everyone was a fan of Firefly and couldn't wait to get to work on our own little slice of Joss' world. Zack, Peter and I discussed the characters dynamics and who would work best for what character. Some characters changed from male to female early on. Some roles adjusted for the actors and as the story developed. Ultimately, the final cast was made up mostly of actors and people that I've directed in previous projects of mine. There were also some great actors that I had wanted to chance to work on something with, and who happened to be right for the roles. It all worked out beautifully. By the end of the whole thing, it was great to get to play around with a gang of old friends and make some new ones as well.

Q) Quantum Mechanix, the creators of Firefly Online, are credited as creating some of the original models and props for The Verse. How did they come to be involved?

A) Quantum Mechanix was a humongous help in making "The Verse" a reality. They were an early collaborator, as they were providing some amazing exclusive items in the GALACTIC crate that month. We met Andy Gore, CEO of QMx and executive producer of the "Firefly Online" game, and he was thrilled with our idea and wanted to know how he could help. From there, Andy introduced us to Sean Kennedy, one of his very talented 3D artists from "Firefly Online". We worked together on creating the final design for the Overland using Zack's concept art and designs. Over the following weeks, Sean took the time to build our 3D ship model from scratch and we passed it along to our visual effects team at Dastoli Digital to bring it to life..

Likewise, Andy offered us access to the fantastic "Firefly" props and replicas that QMx creates for use in our film, which helped add an extra layer of authenticity. We are very thankful to have had their help and support, and we're all super excited for the reveal that you will have the opportunity to fly the Overland in "Firefly Online", as well as play an exclusive game mission based on our film's story!

Q) Fandom can be daunting. Every fan has an opinion (usually quite a strong one) and sometimes, it’s not a good one. Was it at all intimidating to create something in a universe so passionately loved?

A) Absolutely! I think if you're making a film based on something that is known and loved, there should be a lot of pressure, in a good way, to make sure you're doing a good job for your fellow fans. You want to make sure that what you're making is connecting to the original material, and that you're working hard to bring that spirit back to life. The overwhelmingly positive response from the fans for this project has been incredibly exciting and humbling. And when you're even getting a loving shout out from Nathan Fillion on Twitter, and executive producer/director Tim Minear on Facebook... What more could you ask for as a cast and crew?

We're just incredibly happy everyone is just as excited as were to bring out something we love as fans, for fellow fans. As the director, I feel lucky to be part of an amazing team of fellow producers, writers, actors and crew that ultimately were what really made this project shine. We all had a lot of fun playing in Joss Whedon's amazing sandbox with "The Verse", and we hope that we get to come back and play again!

Q) What are your current obsessions (ie. Video games, television shows, websites, music, comics….FOOD)?

A) Man, that's a big question! I'll keep it short and give one of each.

Video games: DayZ on PC. Love me some zombie games.
Television Shows: "Comedy Bang Bang" on IFC, my brother Aaron has been working on the show! Ridiculously funny.

Websites: -- Pick some categories for GIFs. Pick music. Instant music video! You will lose a lot of time on this site.
Music: "Guardian's of the Galaxy" soundtrack. All amazing tracks.

Comics: Re-reading the "Serenity" comics.
Food: Trader Joe's Cookie Butter. Seriously, get it.

Thank you, Julian, for taking the time to answer these questions! 


"The Verse" gives us a little taste of what it could be like to bring back "Firefly." Joss Whedon created such a rich and interesting universe that is so full of potential for more characters, more stories and a lot more adventure! Even if the crew of Serenity never graces the screen again, "Firefly" has inspired a generation of filmmakers and provided endless joy to millions of people around the world. So, as long as there are Browncoats, she'll keep flying.

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