Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Act of Valor: Tribute or Recruitment Ad?

Act of Valor was released this past weekend to what was apparently a receptive public given its weekend gross of nearly $25M, beating out others starring considerably better known Hollywood celebrities. The only people I recognized from AoV were Roselyn Sanchez (Rush Hour 2) and Nestor Serrano (apparently in several movies but I couldn't name one of them... but I did, at least, recognize him).

AoV was an action movie but starred real heroes instead of Hollywood stereotypes. Active Duty Navy SEALS played the main roles in the movie, and the results were much as you'd expect. None will win awards for their portrayals, since they 'acted' just like normal people would given the situation. There was no 'high drama' or overly-strained dialogue. It was real people showing people what they do for a living.

And, that's the problem apparently. Had this been any other cookie-cutter Hollywood product starring Stallone or Damon or a squad of One Tree Hill alumni, critics would have simply given it 3 stars, commented on its lack of large-scale resolution, and moved on. But, the simple fact that these guys were actual soldiers turned AoV' into a political debate months prior to its release.

I've read comments disparaging the service. I've read articles discussing the fact that Hollywood is promoting a 'war agenda' and 'Republican ideologies.' I've read how people weren't going to see it, because it is a recruitment tool and nothing else.

I couldn't disagree more with that oversimplification. When has Hollywood ever promoted anything Republican? Put Jeremy Renner in the lead role, and no one even mentions anything. Then, it's simply an action movie.

In this day and age, anyone with a keyboard or a blog (coughcoughcough) feels they have the stage to spout hyperbole and hypocrisy. It's no more a recruitment ad for the Navy than The Expendables was for hired guns or S.W.A.T. was for LA policemen. Unfortunately, our society has reached the point that individuals throw their political agendas and leanings at every topic and assume the same of everyone else.

Don't get me wrong, I fully expect there are people on the other side of the political spectrum that support the movie solely because the other side hates it... or solely because active-duty service members are in it. These are just as faulty arguments in my eyes.

The movie has amazing action set pieces and serious moments regarding our soldiers and the trials they are made to endure. It makes you thankful for the members of our armed forces and gives you a glimpse of a small part of what they have to go through on a daily basis, often without any fanfare or media coverage.

There isn't a huge celebrity there to save the day. There isn't a huge, last-second save of a critical symbol of Americanism like the Statue of Liberty or White House. There are just guys, doing their jobs, and dealing with the aftermath.

If you politicize, marginalize, or assign some agenda to this movie, that's on YOU... not the movie, and you're doing yourself a disservice.

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Monday, February 27, 2012

Number 181 Casting Call

One of nice side effects of getting my book, Number 181 (Get it here), out there was the follow-on discussions I've had with readers. Like most authors, I've had several people tell me that my book would make for a great movie and received suggestions for who should play key parts. In this day, readers get an image in their head regarding the protagonists' appearances, and I've found some of the suggestions quite interesting.

I decided to cover some of my readers' thoughts and throw in a few of my own. Note that I've left Shawn and Alexis for the next blog post. I ended up with several suggestions for each of those two main characters and a few were excellent... felt they needed special attention.

Given my work at Kennedy Space Center and the recent filming of Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon here, the most often mentioned director is Michael Bay largely because I met the guy and got along well with him. Given the scope of some of the action set pieces and camera-ready explosions, I could see Bay having an interesting vision for bringing Shawn Kidd to the screen. And, if you're thinking action movies, Bay is the go-to name.

I'd be interested in a different take on it, though, one that focuses on character and is only peripherally an action movie. There are some scenes, those in the Swiss mountainside specifically, that I feel are the highlights of the story and could use a unique style in their telling. Given the tone and handling of movies such as Heat and Collateral, I'd love to see what Michael Mann could do with the material. His focus on dark colors and subdued atmospheres would work great, and his hands-on approach would be a benefit.

Jason Anders - (43 year old FBI Agent and head of the Reaper Team)
Anders is the head of the Reaper Team and is often at odds with Shawn, whether out of Shawn's impulsive behavior of Anders' general air of superiority. There are flashes of humanity in Anders' character, when thinking of his son for instance, that flesh his out as a person, so he has to be played in a sympathetic manner even while screaming at Kidd.

There are a few people I think could handle the role as I envisioned it, but I see Jason Isaacs (Harry Potter movies, The Patriot) as ideal. He's had experienced with despicable characters (which Anders is not), but he can engender a balance of sympathy and dislike in an audience. I've enjoyed his work and am enjoying his new spring show, Awake, so far.

Other possibilities suggested: John Cusack, Timothy Olyphant, Josh Duhamel, Patrick Wilson (who would be my second choice... possibly first if my make-believe movie gets made in 5 years instead of tomorrow)

Maurice Wood - (early 30s; African-American; Shawn's close friend)
Maurice was probably the hardest to cast, largely because I had a definite image in my head for him and few Hollywood actors fit the mental picture. He's stocky and thick, strong and forceful. With a fireplug build, it's difficult to find a good option. So, I was forced to make a bit of a compromise and allow for a taller actor to get the presence I was looking for.

Enter Idris Elba (Thor, The Wire).

Lieutenant Thomas Sebastian - (Early 20s; Marine detachment commander)
I always saw Sebastian as a thick, young guy that had a dominating presence though he himself wasn't physically intimidating. I think that sets itself apart from Shawn, opposites in both size and forceful attitude. He also needs to be a stoic individual that doesn't see the events he's swept up in as anything more than what he's been trained to expect. He isn't out of his element and he isn't flustered. It's just another day at the office fro him for the first 95% of the story, and that attitude requires someone that can keep cool and breezy in any instance. Corporal Hicks from Alines... that's what I want here. Unfortunately, Michael Biehn isn't 24 anymore. This realization has saddened me many times over the years. In a perfect world, Biehn never ages and releases 20 action movies a year. Seriously.

Anyway, back to Sebastian... The actor has to compliment Kidd without being a mirror of him, and that led me to Cam Gigandet (Who? Exactly...). I also considered Alex Pettyfer and Alex Winters (if he looked like he did as Bill S. Preston, Esq. in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure).

Garrick - (British mercenary; Leads terrorist faction military cell)
Garrick is a physically imposing figure in the story, a man that throws his weight around simply by entering a room and only expands on his presence by opening his mouth. He's charismatic and intimidating, and that needs to be taken into account. Though his part in the book is smaller than the others and only shows himself midway through the second act, it's an important role and one that drives the novel to its conclusion.

As such, there are a handful of actors today that carry themselves in a way that made them immediately jump to mind. Two stand out from the others, and either would be great. Chris Hemsworth (Thor and Red Dawn (2012))has the look of Garrick but may be a bit too much for the role. A possible alternative would be Henry Cavill (Superman (2012) and Immortals). Though Cavill is not near Hemsworth in sheer volume, I think he would be able to project more of a dominating personality. When I think of Garrick sitting in the van on that Swiss mountain road, It's Cavill.

Tobias Acklin - (mid-50s Swiss national; Friend of the Kidd family)
Tobias is another late introduction in the book, but he's an important piece given how it ends. There are certainly any number of experienced actors that could be great in the role: Jim Beaver, John Cusack, Chris Cooper, et al. I think, though, that since Tobias is the international flavor of the book, the character that expands the scope to a global crisis rather than the small-scale issue Shawn had been dealing with to that point, the actor should be international, as well.

This brings me to Christoph Waltz (Inglorious Bastards). Waltz is best known for playing eccentric Europeans, and i think this description fits Tobias to a 'T.' During our introduction to Tobias, as he sits at his lunch table eating an early meal, I can easily picture Waltz's face in the scene.

Irisi Girard - (20 yo French-Egyptian sleeper agent; Reaper member)
Irisi needs to have a definite sexuality but a hidden dark side... so, in essence any woman should likely work in the role. Ah... I kid, I kid.

As I wrote her character, Irisi always came across more as an archetype than a real person to me, and it made it difficult to write her. Then, I was watching How I Met Your Mother (excellent show, by the way), and I met Nazanin Boniadi. And, I had my Irisi.

Robert Culliford - (Early 30s FBI agent; Traitor and agency mole)
Culliford is a hard person to cast, if only because the guy has zero redeeming qualities and is inherently a douchebag. How to I pick someone, someone I supposedly like since I'm casting them, in such a crappy role? The guy is a greedy coward, more ratlike than human. With that glowing endorsement, I have to backtrack and completely apologize to a guy I think would be great in it.

Phantom of the Opera star and frequent Broadway singer Patrick Wilson (The Alamo, The Watchmen) is growing a strong following thanks to his recent turn on A Gifted Man on CBS. The show is great, and I've enjoyed every thing Wilson has been in. Earlier episodes of the television show really showed he could pull off 'selfish jackass' if he wanted to, and he'd be great as Culliford if he could channel that.

There you have it, my thoughts as to who could be put up in a Number 181 feature film. Proceed to debate ad nauseum as to whether you agree or disagree. I'd like it noted that I see a few up-and-coming stars that would be great in the coming years but are too young to fit the parts right now. You MIGHT see a couple of these younger stars in my next post that details who I think would be good for Shawn Kidd and Alexis Winters.

What say you? Agree...? Disagree...?

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Sunday, February 26, 2012

A chat with former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin…

In my time with NASA (yes, when I’m not writing, I truly am a rocket scientist), I’ve been fortunate to be recognized with selection to a few prestigious development opportunities. One such opportunity sent me to Ames Research Center outside San Francisco, CA to serve as the Deputy Mission Systems Engineer on the LADEE project, a lunar orbiter scheduled for a 2013 launch.

The program I was selected for, the Systems Engineering and Leadership Development Program (SELDP), had me meeting with industry leaders and spending time at nearly every NASA center (there are 10) learning the benefits of the Space Agency. This past week, it afforded me the best benefit yet: I spent more than four hours talking with former NASA Administrator (and current, University of Alabama-Huntsville professor emeritus) Michael Griffin on his thoughts regarding systems engineering and the future of Americans in space.

Let me go on record by saying that, before meeting him, I already had a high opinion of the guy. He has numerous Masters Degrees, three PhDs, and had written several highly respected papers on space-related topics. The most influential of these, in my eyes, was his assessment of commercial opportunities and the likelihood of private entities to succeed in their space ventures… brilliant paper. Most of the working-level engineers cheered his hiring in 2005 and mourned his leaving in '09. He's a technical guy and lacks the diplomacy and tact of Washington insiders. He doesn't hold back his opinion, and it's a refreshing perspective.

I agree with every word of his paper, and it’s hard not to given the facts Griffin lays out, namely that private companies are in it for profit. And, there are few opportunities for straight profit in space. The benefits to stakeholders come from the contracted monopoly a private entity obtains by working with the government (see the GPS and comm. satellite industry, for example). Though some private companies have shown interest in the exploration of space, it’s not a viable option for anyone looking to make a profitable return-on-investment given the high risk (technical, cost, and schedule) involved. Elon Musk and Richard Branson (representing Space X and Virgin, respectively) are not exceptions. These entrepreneurs are sinking their money into these ventures out of curiosity. They will never make money on their endeavors until a golden asteroid is found in low-Earth orbit.

Griffin knows this, and he expertly explains it in the paper. In person, he’s intelligent and humble. You can’t help but like the guy. His ideas are forward-thinking and visionary which makes his firing in 2009 a horrible shame (but I digress). We need not worry for him, though. He had dozens of offers after NASA and is arguably one of the brightest individuals on the planet.

Some highlights from the discussion last week:

When asked about his doctoral thesis on computational fluid dynamics: “What took me three years to accomplish thirty years ago is now a homework problem for graduate students. People ask me if that bothers me. I say, this is why we do engineering. To make it better, easier, for the next guy.”

On current college curricula: “We’re teaching disciplines, not systems. Every engineering student should have basic understanding of circuits. Of statics. Of materials” … “Things fail not because a system fails but because its interactions with other systems fail.”

On our dependence on tools and software due to growing complexity: “When I was in school, the best way to find flaws was to build something and see where it breaks. Now, we have tools that can do that for us.”

Follow up question on those tools breeding ignorance and dependencies: “The pendulum has swung far to the extreme, in that case. When I offer solutions to my students, I give them an Excel file with the solutions spelled out. You have to know where you went wrong to know what to do right.”

NASA Chief Engineer Mike Ryschewitsch was in attendance, as well, and echoed Griffin’s thoughts. The experience showed me that there are people in our industry with intelligent ideas and visions, but both are things that I feel are sorely lacking at this point. In the past 18 months, the United States has gone from the leading nation in space to 3rd, 4th, or even 5th. The Russians are certainly passing us. The Chinese have high-minded ideas though nothing (official) to show for it. They’re on their way, though. The Japanese are quickly making a name for themselves, and even the Indians are experimenting with some interesting rocketry ideas.

The experience with Mike Griffin showed me what could be and, though it’s not what IS right now, I hope that it’s what will be again.

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Thursday, February 16, 2012

[Excerpt #5] The beginnings of the final battle...

It's been a while, so it must be time for another excerpt from my novel, Number 181. This is from the beginnings of the final, climactic fight in the Swiss countryside. Kidd's beginning to realize that his instincts are worth heeding and that he may have skills he never new about. Resolving these new discoveries with his need to get Alexis to safety, Shawn begins the book's the final act...

Kidd stood at the doorway listening for any sounds from the hallway. The initial barrage of gunfire rattled the walls for several minutes, but now the air was cut by infrequent coughs as whatever firefight going on outside the room settled into a relative calm. The rip of fully automatic weapons had assaulted their senses, but now the individual pops seemed explosive in comparison. Kidd’s anxiousness grew with each pop until his nerves forced him to action.

His ears rang, and his throat and eyes burned.

He couldn’t breathe.

Over his shoulder, he glanced at Alexis. “Stay here.”


Kidd turned fully. “What?”

“I said no. I’m going with you.” She had laced her shoes and straightened her clothes. “You aren’t leaving me.”

Kidd started to speak but couldn’t come up with a reasonable argument. In fact, given what the Marines were tasked with, or more accurately what they weren’t, he didn’t want to leave her behind.

“Fine. But, stay behind me.”

He pulled the door open quickly, intending to get to a rear exit as fast as possible. But, he had assumed, or rather hoped, that the quiet indicated an empty hallway. Instead, a dark figure was striding down the hall, reaching the doorway just as Kidd opened it.

The unexpected apparition caused Kidd to flinch. The assailant had on blood red fatigues so dark that Kidd initially took them for black. Fancy night vision gear and a black cap covered enough of the face that Kidd couldn’t make out anything about his features, though it was definitely a ‘he.’ The guy was easily over 6 feet tall and built for power, the shirt cutting a large frame and pants defining thighs that were as thick as Kidd’s torso.

Kidd took all this in immediately and reacted. And, fortunately for him, his eyes were well acclimated to the darkness. The night vision equipment the stranger wore, while helpful in dark spaces, had limitations in tight spaces as it greatly hindered peripheral vision. Kidd’s fist flew toward the figure, the man sensing the door being opened but reacting too late.

His right hand connected with the man’s jaw as he turned and pain exploded down Kidd’s arm. A loud crack virtually assured Kidd of a broken finger on the same hand that he had cut days earlier, but he didn’t have the luxury of worrying about it. The man reeled back a half step but stayed on his feet. His stumbling turn swung his weapon toward the doorway, and Kidd instinctively reached for it as the man’s hand opened slightly around the grip. Punching it upward and spinning it around the trigger finger, Kidd rotated the gun through vertical so that it ended – upside down – pointed at the man’s upturned chin. Kidd shoved his finger in with the soldier’s and pulled.

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Sales Proceeds to the Green Beret Foundation

As many of you know, I've become pretty involved with GORUCK, a company with deep ties to our military community (in specific, our Green Berets). Through my time slogging through mud and muck with some of the best people I've met, I gained even more respect for returning soldiers and their families than I already had, significant given that I am from a military family myself.

My novel, Number 181 cough(GetItHere)cough, is influenced by the military community and history, so I made the decision to donate proceeds of the sales to the Green Beret Foundation.

The pot is up to about $400 to send in that direction, and it's nice to know that the kind words and reviews people are sending about the book itself are complemented by the goodwill of the donation.

Keep reading and keep enjoying, whether it's my book or another!

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Monday, February 13, 2012

Views of Italy: Siena

Siena, a robust mountain town 30 miles outside Florence, was not what I expected. The central walled city, a common find in rural Italy, was surrounded by a bustling Tuscan city home to thousands. In its center sat the historic rival to Florence and birthplace of St Catherine, patron saint of Europe.

The Duomo is impressive as it sits, beautiful on the inside and one of the largest in Italy. This makes the fact that they had planned an expansion in the 1300s that would have made the current nave merely the apse and extended a new nave hundreds of feet to the east that much more impressive. Plague decimated the population before it could be completed (damn rats), but the view from the completed base is spectacular, doubly so when the countryside is covered in a pristine blanket of snow.

The train trip out and back was short and pleasant, so Siena is a day trip anyone in Florence should consider. In fact, I met several visitors to Florence that had spent the weekend in Siena and spoke highly of their stay.
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Saturday, February 11, 2012

Views of Italy: Venice

As Carnivale di Venezia descended on the canal-laden city, so did I. Vendors were setting up their shops, and thunderous music boomed down the narrow, walled waterways. Visitors were all a twitter.

I was cold.

Temperatures dipped into the teens as cool seabreezes bellowed in off the water. The sites were beautiful, though we had been warned the canals themselves may have been frozen over. No such luck, however.

The Piazza San Marco was full of revelers and tourists, and I'm glad we decided to take the day trip from Florence to see the rival city. I took some great pictures (I'll put together something soon... Those attached to the blogs are from my phone) and toured the Museo Correr and Doge's Palace, a most interesting walk through princely grandeur and prisoner's pain.

Though I had visited the piazza over twenty years ago, I had few memories of it (save a 10 year old's constant need for fastfood... Never did find that Wendy's).

Venice is certainly worth the trip, a destination for both the architecturally and historically inclined, as well as the photographers of the world.
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Friday, February 10, 2012

Views of Italy: Florence

Florence is as American a place as you'll find outside the U S of A. Everyone speaks English well, they're friendly, and hundreds of American art students wander the streets.

Walking through the city, you quickly gain the understanding of why so many artists and artisans flocked to the city during the Renaissance period. It just 'feels' artistic. The Uffizi Gallery is a must-see, and the Galleria dell'Accademia houses Michelangelo's David, worth the trip to Florence alone. No matter your expectations, the sculpture will exceed them.

I hadn't planned on having Kidd visit Florence in the sequel to Number 181, but I'm going serious thought to changing the Rome locale to Firenze, as the locals call it. The Duomo is amazing and gives visitors a gorgeous view of the entire town and countryside.

I'm looking forward to getting back to writing, but Florence is certainly providing inspiration.
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Thursday, February 9, 2012

Views of Italy: Pompeii

Shawn Kidd braved the icy mountains of Switzerland in my book, Number 181, and I've competed in the GORUCK challenge led by Green Berets over miles and miles... And hours and hours. But, neither Shawn nor I can imagine what the residents of Pompeii faced in 79 A.D.

Watching the top of Mt Vesuvius mushroom 20 kilometers into the sky wasn't enough to scare off enough of the people of the sprawling city. Those that stayed through the day would perish, thankfully quickly, as the first pyroclastic cloud rolled down the narrow streets.

The city itself is far more impressive and expansive than I expected. Roads strike off into the distance and hundreds of small houses and shops line the recently-excavated cobblestones. With the silent killer towering in the distance over the Temple of Jupiter, it was eerie imagining what the thousands of residents experienced that day. Beautiful houses and gardens line the city walls, and an ornate stadium and theater stretch to the sky. The city was surprisingly developed given the earthquake it faced 17 years prior - an earthquake they were still rebuilding from prior the eruption - and one could spend hours wandering the ghostly ruins.

I imagine it's crowded and stifling in the summer, but the sporadic groups there on Tuesday (thanks to the cool weather) made it a quiet and somber walk... Much like it was in the weeks following the eruption, I'd imagine...

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Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Views of Italy: The Vatican

Kidd probably won't get anywhere near Vatican City in the sequel to my novel Number 181 that I'm working on. But, that doesn't mean I shouldn't. I spent the morning on the excavation tour leading through the original necropolis two levels below the floor of what is now St. Peter's Basilica. MOST impressive. Seeing the burial site and remains of St Peter was humbling and inspiring. My past studies in history took it to a new level as I heard about the digs that occurred during World War II.

Walking through the Basilica itself was awe-inspiring. The scale is immense and the history overwhelming. Understanding how the golden age of Rome and the subsequent Dark Ages led to the Reformation and Renaissance are keys to understanding our present and future.

The view from the copula was spectacular and is one of the few things I recall from my childhood visit here. Whether you share the faith or not, the city-state is not-to-be-missed.
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Saturday, February 4, 2012

Researching the sequel to Number 181...

Spending the next 10 days in Rome, Florence, and Naples researching Shawn Kidd's next adventure!

The first day went well, though we were surprised by the first significant snowfall in Rome in about two decades. The Coliseum and Forum looked fantastic, though, and I'm already developing a huge action set-piece for Kidd to navigate. Should make for a good, middle section of the book.

Working a sequel is a completely different process given the back story that exists and what needs to be reminded to the reader. It's been a learning process that I'm sure will see some edits once the manuscript is complete.
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