Michael Dougherty is co-creator and producer of Browncoats: Redemption as well as the writer and director of the film. He spends most of his free time dedicated to this project. During the day, Michael currently is Application Support Specialist at National Wildlife Foundation, a non-profit focused on promoting the Chesapeake Bay. He has worked in supporting roles on many film and stage productions, and has background as an entrepreneur working in the interactive media and entertainment industry for the last 10 years. This is first feature film. (You can read a report on the movie here.)
John Ottinger: What is the story of Browncoats: Redemption and where in the Firefly timeline does the tale take place?
Michael Dougherty: The story takes place three months after Mal sends out the Signal at the end of Serenity (the Universal film). The movie follows Captain Laura Matthews and the crew of Redemption, a smaller transport ship than Serenity. The Alliance, looking for a scapegoat for the signal that Mal broadwaved, is cracking down on all of the Browncoats. Laura and her crew have always kept on the right side of the law, but with too few jobs they are forced to take their first “illegal” job and with secrets from Laura’s past coming to light the crew is facing some tough choices just trying to get the job done.
JO: Just who is Michael Dougherty, and why is he helming this project?
MD: I’m an avid fan of film and of Firefly. I am inspired by Robert Rodriguez, Kevin Smith, and anyone who had a story to tell and decided they wouldn’t be stopped until they told it. This is my first time writing a screenplay and directing, but I felt completely up to the challenge because of the team of people who have supported the project. I wouldn’t be able to be here talking with you without them.
JO: How was the idea born to make Browncoats: Redemption, and what made you believe a fan film based on Whedon’s Firefly universe would be successful?
MD: The idea was born back in 2008 when Steven Fisher, one of our producers, came to me and asked “Have you ever thought of doing a Firefly fan film?” and from there it was set in my mind that’s what we were going to do. I came up with a pretty strong thumbnail outline of the story. Steve and I worked out some plot points, and I set about writing it.
The fans of Firefly are a rabid and loyal fan base. Star Wars and Star Trek both have countless books, shows and toys, and several established fan films, such as Star Wars Revelations and Starship Farragut. Since there wasn’t much out there for us, I saw this as an opportunity to stop complaining that there wasn’t anything for us and set about to make some more until Joss and the Big Damn Heroes, come back to us.
JO: You had two business model choices, a for-profit venture or non-profit one. You chose the latter. Why? And what sort of success have you seen with this novel movie-making business model?
MD: Well, to be honest we had only one. Due to it being a derivative works project based on the Firefly/Serenity universe we can’t make this a for-profit venture. I would love to say that this was the master plan all along, but the choice to go non-profit really was a serendipitous one. Steve and I were talking about how we could distribute it, if would we be able to recoup, at the very least, the cost of making the DVDs, and so on. Out of nowhere I remembered the “Can’t Stop the Serenity” events that were held globally by the Browncoats. I remembered that this is an extremely charity focused fan base because, as we call them, the Big Damn Heroes are extremely charitable as well. It just made sense that this be tied to creating awareness and, if possible, donations for charities either supported or created by the cast/crew of the show we love. From there everything fell into place as if it was always supposed to be that way.
JO: What particular challenges did you have in working within a largely self- and fan-funded project?
MD: The answer is in the question. The only budget came from what was in our personal bank accounts and any donations that were put in. The crew we had was primarily made up of volunteers who, like most of us in the main production company, had never made a film before. We were limited on time due to everything from actors and location availability to equipment availability; since the camera was either borrowed or rented depending on the weekend. I can honestly say that the challenges were only overcome because of the amazing group of volunteers who made this film what it is. No matter the obstacle this crew was just as passionate as I was to see this through to the end. We learned a hell of a lot in a few weeks together and this crew is eager to show we’ve learned from our mistakes.
JO: Tell us a little bit about your stars, have we met them before, and how did you recruit this new group of Browncoats?
MD: Heather Fagan, who plays Captain Laura Matthews, is the only cast member that I’ve known prior to this film. She initially came on as the Casting Director, but would only take the task if she could audition for the role of Laura. While this is a “fan film,” I wanted the best actor we could find, not friends and family—as in most fan productions—to fill these roles. But I knew nothing about how to attract actors for this project. She did an amazing job pulling the talent together and she also rose to the challenge of not only seeing her competition but showing why she was right for the role.
Kevin Troy (Lux Lucre) and John Patrick Barry (James Banks) have both done some larger projects doing stunt work for a few major motion pictures along with work in larger local productions. Both of these guys are amazing to work with in regards to the knowledge they brought to the table. They were our senior guys on the set and became mentors to everyone there.
P.J. Megaw (Jack Haddington) and Michael Levy (Brett Gray) have both been involved in larger local productions, as well. Michael has been doing modeling and some auditions for the big TV networks. P.J. had been wrapping up the indie film, Ninjas Vs. Zombies which came out before Browncoats: Redemption did. He did some amazing work in that and shines as the villain.
This was Kurt Skarstedt (Lt. Col. Thadeus Stevens), Miriam Pultro (Petra Jo “Pete” Chen), and Guy Wellman’s (Cameron Alan) first film. Guy has done some theater work recently, Kurt has worked on the indie film Ninjas Vs. Vampires with P.J., and Miriam has gone on to do a few amazing projects. Recently she’s been involved in Bell’Aria, a music group who recently released a CD and DVD celebrating Italian-American music.
After getting to know the cast through the entire shoot, their skills were completely underutilized, but there wasn’t much time to rewrite the whole script to fit these amazing talents. I’m hoping we can get to a sequel to really show what they are capable of.
JO: What was your best surprise in making the film?
MD: That anyone said yes to be a part of it. I can’t tell you how humbling it is that two years after we started this that these people are still a part of moving it forward and eager to be involved in whatever the future holds for it.
JO: What was the most wacky, weird, or wild thing to happen during filming?
MD: One of the wildest things to happen is while we were filming at the western theme park, Frontier Town in Berlin, Maryland. We entered to find all the supposedly stabled horses wandering the town as if they owned it. Heather, who had grown up around horses, lured all the horses back to their location with a bucket of feed. We came to find out that the horses had figured out how to open the gate and would occasionally do this. The next weekend we found out the chickens also knew how to open their gate and I got to help get them in their pens.
JO: Do you have a special memory created during the production of this film?
MD: As cliché as this sounds, too many. First meeting each of the actors before they took the role. Seeing the characters come to life as we rehearsed. Being amazed that each weekend of filming that people would travel from all over the United States and Cananda to help and be a part of the film.
Thanks to this film and the people involved, I’ve made a group of very close friends out of complete strangers. I’ve gotten to speak at conventions like Gnomedex and San Diego Comic Con about this film and the amazing people helped bring what was in my head to life. I get to be in a position where I meet Firefly fans who tell me the story about how they came to love Firefly and how much this film means to them. Is there one special memory that stands out? No, because there are too many to choose from and I don’t want to devalue any of them.
JO: Did you run into any issues over copyright or ownership when beginning to play in Whedon’s universe? If not, how did you avoid running afoul of Hollywood and its rather stringently controlled products?
MD: Before we even got started on talking to the fans we knew that would be an obstacle. Since it involved charities supported by the cast and crew of Firefly, I did not want to move forward on this without letting Joss Whedon know we were doing it and getting his blessing. While I was working on the script, Steve and I reached out the studios, and Joss, letting them know our intentions and goals. We were pretty thorough in making sure they knew we were not attempting to make a profit and we got very lucky in that everyone was on board with that.
JO: So far you are releasing the movies straight to DVD, any plans to eventually release part or all of the movie online?
MD: We released the film online for 48 hours when it was released. We don’t want to take away from the donations that people will make that will help the charities, but we also don’t cheapen the experience of all the bonus features that are part of the DVD. We’re considering doing it again sometime in the new year, but we’ll see. If we can get a big show of interested for another online showing then we will work towards that.
JO: Are there any Easter Eggs (i.e. hidden surprises) that viewers who view the film should look for?
MD: Viewers can keep an eye out for several things and not just the cameos from Firefly/Serenity alumni. Thanks to a few amazing Browncoats, like Grant and Dan, there are actual props from Firefly and Serenity hidden throughout the ship. There’s a nod to the Carbonite Han Solo hidden somewhere as well as a nod to various other sci-fi shows and movies. I am getting a kick of seeing people occasionally post on Facebook and Twitter that they found things as well as when they tell us in person. One day we’ll release the list of Easter Eggs, but for now there’s enough to keep viewers busy for a while.
JO: You premiered Browncoats: Redemption at Dragon*Con 2010. Why there?
MD: Dragon*Con 2008 is where we started asking the community if this was something they wanted. We went to the booths and the annual Shindig and got a lot of amazing feedback that was directly worked into the project. It only made sense to keep the place we started with the fans be the place it premiered. Hopefully we will have a long history with Dragon*Con in the years to come.
JO: Michael, thanks so much for taking the time.
MD: Thanks for taking the time to let me talk about the project, John. I’m really honored that you did.
John Ottinger writes nonfiction about science fiction and fantasy. Read his book review blog at Grasping for the Wind.