Featured Faces: Jerry Seward
Interview and photo by Gina Myers
8/5/2009, Castle Museum, Saginaw

Saginaw High graduate Jerry Seward stumbled into the movie industry at about just the right moment in Michigan. After completing a degree in broadcasting at Saginaw Valley State University, Seward worked as a freelance writer for the Bay City Times. Through chance by picking a name at random in a writers directory at Coy's Comics, Seward connected with Dan Bivens, a writer living in Tennessee, and the two have been collaborating together ever since. Their current project, a feature length sci-fi film called Cyber Hunt, is currently in casting and looking for financial contributors. Seward is also a board member of the Riverside Saginaw Film Festival and a member of the Mid-Michigan Movie Makers collective. I recently caught up with him to discuss Cyber Hunt, filmmaking in Michigan, and the Riverside Saginaw Film Festival.

Gina Myers: When did you first get interested in working in film?

Jerry Seward: Actually, filmmaking was not really something I was actively pursuing as a career. It kind of just fell into my lap. It's like one of those surprises that happens in life. Basically, I was taking all these broadcasting courses which I really liked. For one of these classes, we went over to TV 5 and spent a day there, and I thought it was really cool. I thought, "I would like to work here." I loved the whole atmosphere of the newsroom and the people who worked there. So I was kind of on that road, but I wasn’t able to find a job that opened up. So I went back and looked at journalism, and I got a freelance job with the Bay City Times. But before that, during my teenage years, I had always made little films, just taking the video camera and making these little films. I was just doing it for fun—I wasn’t doing it to be a film maker. But it is kind of funny. It's like one of those moments where you look back and see things that you did and you didn't think they meant anything at the time, but then you look back and you see there is a reason why you were doing those things, that maybe they were preparing you for something in your future.

I have a friend in Tennessee, Dan Bivens, whom I would collaborate on scripts with. For a long time we would send teleplays out to TV shows. There were a couple of shows at the time—this is back in the 80s—who would accept unagented material. So we thought we would try to write a script and see if they accept it. So we did that, and our scripts got rejected, but it was still cool—just the idea that you sent something in and they would look at it and send it back with comments.

We started coming up with all kinds of script ideas. We have tried different things—working on scripts in different kind of formats—not just television; we did comic book scripts. In fact, this movie idea Cyber Hunt, started as a graphic novel idea. We got this great artist out of Atlanta, but unfortunately the artist that we got dropped out of the project. Neither Dan nor I are artists, so we wondered what we were going to do now that we didn't have an artist for this. I told Dan, well, we have done TV and movie scripts before, why don't we take the graphic novel script and turn it into a screenplay, so that's what we did.

We sent it around, but had no luck with it. No one bought it. But the thing is, I really believed so much in the concept because I thought the concept it something a lot of people could relate to, even though it is set in the future. The core meaning behind the story came from me sitting behind the computer all the time, and I remember I was sitting there thinking about the hours I was sitting behind the computer, checking my e-mail, connecting with friends, and this led into Facebook and texting and all that stuff. I remember when I would spend this time reading a book, and I would have a whole book read in a week. I realized the stuff that I have given up in place of doing stuff on the computer—most of the reading I do is on the computer, most of the writing I do is on the computer, most of the connectedness I have with another human being is on the computer. That's kind of the core concept, that in the future society is getting to the point that people carry around little computers with them, kind of like brain chips, they can access.

Like there will be one scene in the film where it shows a guy with his girlfriend walking down the street, and that is the first shot you see, and you see they are holding hands and you think there is that connection. But their attention is on something they are actually seeing on their implant. So the guy is looking at something totally different, and she is looking at something totally different, and they are not actually connected at all. It seems like on the surface they are, but they are actually tied into their implants. So that's kind of the concept behind the film, but there is also an action component and a horror component. It gets pretty scary with the implants because they start giving people problems and doing some nasty things to them biologically.

GM: So, after sending the script out and not having it picked up, how did you decide to move forward?

JS: I told Dan, "You know what? Why don’t we see if we can produce this ourselves. I believe in the project and I really think it will be a great film, and no one else believes in it like we do, so let's just do it ourselves." Of course, that's easier said than done because I had never thought about making a film and all the things that go into making a film—there are all these business aspects and legal aspects, money. But I am the type of person who likes challenges, so the bigger the challenge, even though I know it will probably stress me out to no end, if I really believe in it, I have to do it. The key thing in getting the film going was networking because I knew I wasn't going to be able to get it done myself. I needed to find other people who had connections to things I needed, like I needed a concept artist. I had to go out and find people who knew someone who could do that.

At the time there was a lot of film stuff going on in Detroit. So, I figured I could go to one of these independent film screenings, and I wound up going to Royal Oak to the main art theater and they were doing screenings of short films made in Michigan, and I thought that would be the place to go to meet people. A lot of the locally made things I had seen before were not of the best quality, so—I hate to admit it—I went in with kind of a negative attitude, not expecting much. But I was blown away by what I saw. There were all these really professionally made films—the acting was great, the production value was great. It made me realize this is possible: I can do this. I have the evidence right here.

A lot of the filmmakers were there and I talked to them, exchanged business cards. I told them I was thinking about making this film and I needed help in certain areas, and asked if they knew anyone. Word spread after that. It got to the point where I would continually go to the screenings and people would come up to me and say, "I hear you are working on something. Do you need a production designer?"

GM: Where are you at right now in the process of it all?

JS: '’m really amazed at how big this thing has grown because when I first started, I thought we would be lucky if we did a low-budget, about $500,000, production along the lines of George Romero's original Night of the Living Dead. I was thinking we would be lucky if we could do something like that, but then industry people found out about it and I had meetings with them, and my executive producer, Jason Carter, whom I brought on board is from the U.K. and he moved to Los Angeles to work as actor and he has been in several different shows—Beverly Hills 90210 is one of the shows he’s been on. He recently moved to Michigan, and I asked him if he would be interested in being on board this project. He read the script and loved it. He got everything I was going for—he got the artistic vision. Because I wanted to do a science fiction film, but I didn't want it to be a mindless science fiction film, I wanted it to have substance, so people would leave the film with something to think about. He absolutely loved it. He had contacts, and he knew this director in California, David Winning, whom we then sent the script to. He also loved it and wanted to do it, so it kind of snowballed into this bigger thing. They are talking about name actors—I had thought it would all be local actors. They said the lead actors should be names so we could market it better to distributors. They even took some promotional materials to this yea's ComiCon in San Diego. I'm having a ball with how this has grown.

What I like about David is he believes in the idea and he doesn't want to change anything. Before he came along, there were some people I talked to who wanted to change it—they wanted to make it into some Resident Evil kind of thing—they wanted to have tentacles coming out of people's heads, but that isn't what it is. I felt that if I couldn't maintain my artistic vision for it, then I couldn't have these guys on board, so I was very happy to find someone who wants to maintain the vision.

GM: Yeah, that seems to be one of the nice things about doing it yourself is having that creative control.

JS: Yes, absolutely.

GM: When you are ready to begin filming, are you planning on doing it in Michigan?

JS: Yes. Actually, as you can see in the poster it's Detroit's skyline. Originally when we did the script it was set in Atlanta, and then I started meeting with people in the Michigan film industry, and this was before the incentives came out too, and I decided I wanted to shoot it in Michigan. Right now it looks like it will be shot in Detroit. Even though there is this deadly thing that happens with implants, I didn't want it to be anti-technology because I do believe technology makes life better for people, so I like the idea of showing Detroit in the future going through a sort of re-birthing process, in that the technology, these huge technological firms are boosting the city into a whole new life, a sort of phoenix rising from the ashes. I wanted to show that there is a good side to it along with the bad.

Detroit is actually almost going to be a character in and of itself. We will probably be shooting some in Saginaw and some in Grand Rapids. I had been going to Grand Rapids to see some friends, and I saw this incredible building shaped like a pyramid, and I think it is the Steelcase Company that makes office furniture. I thought it would look incredible in the film, so we are going to contact them to see if we can shoot there.

That has been one of the great things—there are so many great places to film in Michigan. Every time I go somewhere I see something, and I'll say, "Oh man, that would be incredible."

Right now some of the actors we are talking to … Steve Buscemi is on our list. There is an actress named Angie Harmon who has done Law & Order. There are some names out there that we are approaching and talking to.

GM: You mentioned the Michigan film incentives. How have you seen that affect the film industry here?

JS: It is still in its infancy stage. I think ultimately it is going to be a big boost to the economy. The state really needs to build up its infrastructure—needs to actually have the time to build our own studios, like in Canada, where they have their own studios and companies. That it starting to happen. We also need to train people in the state because they are having to bring in outside people to work on the films. A lot of the colleges are starting to have filmmaking programs, and that is going to help, but it is going to take time. When the incentives first came to play, a lot of people thought something really major was going to happen the first year, but all these other things need to come into play too. We need to have our own studios; we need to have our own workforce that has been trained in filmmaking and set design.

I think where it has helped at this time is with a lot of local businesses, like catering. In fact, the short film I worked on last year Raised Alone, used a local caterer in Detroit, and that was one of their first films, and they said they thought they would try this to see if it would help their business to offer their services to film productions, and they said it has been great. They have had a lot of success with it. They were delighted to work on the film. I've heard stories of businesses that were about to close that were then able to keep open after offering their services to film productions. There is also the story of the Oink Joint in Birch Run, Ken's Diner originally, that was used in the Drew Barrymore film Whip It, that kept the restaurant open and they call it the Oink Joint now after the movie. That is really where you are seeing the boost in the economy—on a smaller level. Limo drivers, construction workers, towing companies, things like that. As far as a large scale, I don't think we'll really see anything large scale until we get a viable studio going.

GM: You mentioned Raised Alone. Can you tell me a little about that

JS: It is a 29 minute short film that was the first short film recipient of the incentives. We shot it in three weeks. It's a father-son story, basically about a father who has been neglecting his son. The son is a childhood prodigy who plays the violin, and the father never makes it to any of his performances, or he makes it but he is late, that kind of thing. There is no mother in the picture because she has passed away, and the father is more concerned with focusing on his business and making money so he can better provide for his son. So in his mind he is doing things for his son, but he's not doing the things that really matter for his son. The son wants his father to be there, he doesn't really care about the money. So it is a story about the quest for reconciliation between these two characters, and it is a really powerful story. It's a drama. The director is Sam Kadi, and he really had an ambitious vision for this film. I came on board as an associate producer, and I brought with me several people from Saginaw, from the Mid-Michigan Movie Makers group, to work on the film as production assistants. We had an incredible time. We wanted to make sure that the film had something that everyone could relate to, whether it is a father and son or a mother and daughter. The desire of the child to get attention really comes across. In fact, in the film the kid is saving money up because he figures if his father is only concerned with money, if he saves enough money, maybe he can buy his father's attention.

GM: You are also on the board for the Riverside Saginaw Film Festival?

JS: Yes. Since day one. It's interesting being on a board because you don’t always agree on things and you have to collectively come to an agreement. A lot of times there are films that are brought up that we have to vote on, but I think so far no one has been at anyone's throat or anything, but it does have its tense moments. The closer it gets to the festival you start to worry, "Are we going to get enough money? Are we going to get these films?" And during the festival, you have these little things come up that you can't predict. One of our volunteers last year was injured in a car accident. We had an actress and a director from one of the films we were showing last year who were flying in from California but had a problem with their plane. Stuff like that you can’t do anything about. But I think our track record has been pretty good. Ultimately, we work pretty well together.

GM: Why do you think it is important to have a festival like this in Saginaw?

JS: Well, my feeling about it is, I personally have gotten a bit frustrated with Saginaw because I feel like there isn't that kind of appreciation for arts in a lot of ways, film especially. I find myself with friends, we have to go to Ann Arbor, go to Lansing, and I ask why isn't there stuff we are interested in here in this city? There was a lot of frustration, so when I was asked to be on the board, I thought this is a great thing to be a part of something to help steer Saginaw in that direction. From past festivals I have talked to people, and other board members have talked to people too, and we have gotten thank-yous. People do appreciate that we are bringing things here.

[Note: For more information on Cyber Hunt, visit http://www.cyberhuntmovie.com.]

© Gina Myers, 2009