A funny thing happened on the way to a discussion of THE TEST OF TIME, the latest TALES FROM THE NEUTRAL ZONE fan film release from NEUTRAL ZONE STUDIOS in Kingsland, GA. Those are the Star Trek TOS sets that were originally used for STARSHIP FARRAGUT and STAR TREK CONTINUES. Now owned by super-fan RAY TESI (who pays thousands of dollars of his own money each month to rent the location that houses the sets), Neutral Zone Studios is available to any fan production wanting to film there. Among the fan series that shoot at the studio regularly are DREADNOUGHT DOMINION, AVALON UNIVERSE, and of course the aforementioned Tales from the Neutral Zone. And even more fan projects are slated to shoot there in the coming months.
Typically, I interview Ray Tesi about new Neutral Zone episodes, although for the previous release, the wildly popular DOOMSDAY, Ray tag-teamed with JOSHUA IRWIN on the interview , as Josh had stepped up to co-direct, along with being director of photography as well as editor. And with their latest release, Josh was once again director of photography…with VIC MIGNOGNA returning to Star Trek fan films for the first time since the end of STC to direct. With Ray’s approval, this time I reached out to Josh to field the questions, and so we began our interview.
Now, Josh is one of the busiest filmmakers in our community, serving not only as showrunner for the Avalon Universe fan series but also helping out on a whole slew of other productions in all sorts of different capacities. As such, it was probably appropriate that I ended up interviewing Josh via a recorded phone conversation while he was driving more than 1,000 miles from his home in Bentonville, Arkansas to Frederick, Maryland to help shoot some videos for FARRAGUT FORWARD!
So naturally, I began the interview asking Josh about all of these other projects he’s been working on, and…well…sometimes interviews just go in unexpected directions. So please accept my apologies that Josh and I don’t start discussing The Test of Time until PART 2 of this interview! But trust me, the stuff in PART 1 is just as fascinating, and I really do recommend that you read the whole interview. You won’t be disappointed.
And speaking of not being disappointed, take a look at The Test of Time, as it turned out REALLY well…
And now, here’s Josh Irwin…
JONATHAN – ‘You ‘know, Josh, with all of these different fan series that you’re helping out on, you are rapidly becoming the American SAMUEL COCKINGS! [Sam does the VFX for dozens of different fan films and series.]
JOSH – That’s actually kinda true, and I was even joking with him about that…that he and I are working on a lot of the same projects outside of our own stuff.
JONATHAN – And which fan films are you currently working on in some capacity?
JOSH – So for Avalon, we have three left on the current cycle. We’ve got KNIGHTS OF THE VOID, which is gonna come out July 28. Then we’ve got CRISIS ON INFINITE EXCALIBURS, which we’re hoping to release on Halloween. Then THE ONCE AND FUTURE CAPTAIN next year. And those are shot. So it’s a matter of just getting them through post, and then there’s gonna be, like, two pick-up days left for all of those films.
JONATHAN – What is it with you and releasing Avalon films on October 31?
JOSH – Well, it’s tradition. We released GHOST SHIP on Halloween…’cause it was a zombie movie. And it’s, like, that’s our lucky day! I think for Crisis, where that’s applicable is everybody is playing dress-up. You’ve got these actors playing all these different versions of the same character. So there’s just something sort’ve Halloweenie about that.
JONATHAN – Okay, so outside of Avalon, what other fan films and series are you working on right now?
JOSH – I’m gonna be shooting the next episode of THE FEDERATION FILES so that DAN REYNOLDS can have the director’s chair on that. Usually, he does a lot of the technical stuff. And this time, I’m going to take over a lot of the technical duties on at least that film so he can have the creative freedom he wants to tell his own story.
JONATHAN – What exactly are these “technical duties” you speak of?
JOSH – Well, the technical is all the ways that you use the various electrical devices to create the art form. You’re composing the shots with the camera. You are essentially painting the picture with the way you light the set. Lighting goes so much further that just turning the lights on and aiming them at people. It’s a whole composition. You are literally going to create the mood of the shot or of the scene in a lot of ways with how you light it. Is it darker? It is brighter? Is it warmer? Is it colder? You use lighting to create points of emphasis within a shot. And then, the thing with sound is that people only notice it if it’s a screw up. No one ever watches a great movie and says, “It’s sounds amazing!” They get immersed in the story. But if they’re noticing the sound, then it’s taking them out of the story.
Those are all really important aspects of film production. Whereas what Dan’s going to be concentrating on is the actual storytelling aspect from the standpoint of the motivations of the characters, the story itself, what the characters are doing, the emotions that the scene’s trying to create. He’s going to be concentrating on the big picture, while I use the technical details to support the story that he’s trying to tell.
JONATHAN – Thanks for explaining that. So what else are you going to be working on?
JOSH – We’re gonna do a Jurassic Park fan film with GLEN WOLFE that is somehow also a crossover with I Dream of Jeanie.
JONATHAN – Huh? I’m intrigued! Tell me more!!
JOSH – I haven’t read the full script yet, but that’s what we’re doing.
JONATHAN – Will it be an episode of The Federation Files?
JOSH – No, it’s a separate thing he’s doing. Glen is still going to be doing The Federation Files, but he’s starting a different series that’s going into different fan film genres. So he’s doing a Jurassic Park; he’s gonna do Stargate. I think he’s gonna do something else, too. So I’m gonna help with those. And we’ve already shot a little bit of the Jurassic Park one where we found some Jurassic Park jeeps—
JONATHAN – In Arkansas???
JOSH – Believe it or not! There was a guy in Arkansas who owned two authentic, screen-accurate Jurassic Park jeeps. And we ended up having to do the shooting earlier than we planned because this guy was about to sell these jeeps. He already had a buyer for them, and so we had to go out very quickly and shoot the scenes that required the use of these vehicles so we could get them on camera before he sold them.
JONATHAN – Wow, this interview is going places I never expected! Speaking of which, all of those projects are going on inside the state of Arkansas, but I know you’re doing stuff out of state, too, right?
JOSH – Yeah, I’m going to be shooting the next episode of DREADNOUGHT DOMINION. I’m going to be directing several upcoming episodes of Tales from the Neutral Zone. And I’m working on two fan films for newcomer fan filmmakers, trying to support them and their journey.
JONATHAN – Just like you did for me with INTERLUDE.
JOSH – Exactly. One of those fan films, THE LOST STARSHIP, is pretty much finished and will be out in the next few weeks.
JONATHAN – Awesome! Can’t wait to see it. Now, when you say you’ll be “shooting” the next episode of Dreadnought Dominion but you’ll be directing several upcoming episodes of Tales from the Neutral Zone, how do those two tasks differ for you?
JOSH – It’s the difference between telling my story (when I’m directing) versus helping GARY DAVIS and RANDY WRENN (on Dreadnought Dominion) tell their story. I use my skills for both but in different ways, but I’ve got this personal philosophy that I’ve used in working on other fan films—’cause I’ve worked on a lot of other people’s fan films, including Interlude—that I’m going to work as hard on anybody else’s film as I would work on mine. And in some instances, I’ve worked a lot harder on other people’s films than I have on my own.
JONATHAN – I certainly put you through the ringer on Interlude!
JOSH – That you did, Jonathan. That you did!
JONATHAN – But let me ask you a stupid question: why? Why put in all of this work on other people’s fan films when you already put so much effort into your own series?
JOSH – It’s simple. I love filmmaking, I love Star Trek, and any day that I can be on a film set making Star Trek makes me happy. And I feel that, with fan filmmakers, we’re all in this together, and we’re here to support each other. I kept going around to so many different sets and hearing people say things like, “Imagine what we could all do if we worked together.” And that really hit hard for me. I was like, “Imagine what we COULD do if we all worked together.”
And so, I want to help other filmmakers. I want to help them create beautiful stories. Randy Wrenn is a very talented writer, and those guys know how to tell emotional stories. So if I can take my skill set and make their story beautiful and really help them put on screen what they want, that kind of thing makes me happy. It’s creating art.
So I think that filmmakers should be trying harder to help each other instead of competing with one another. I think that that defeats the point. Art is art. It’s expression. It’s beauty. And creating beauty is more important than ego.
JONATHAN – Well, I’ve actually noticed a lot of that cooperation starting to happen lately with a whole slew of fan filmmakers…not only you and Sam but lots of others, as well.
JOSH – Yeah, and I think that’s absolutely amazing because, as everybody knows, there’s been a lot of drama in fan films. And there was a time when you had to be in this camp or that camp. But those days are gone, and that mentality is eroding away, and it’s a wonderful thing. For example, you see VANCE MAJOR involved in a lot of other people’s projects or Sam Cockings involved in a lot of other people’s projects or myself involved in other people’s projects. And it’s like we’re building a fan film universe—or fan film multiverse—where we’re all just one, big, happy fleet. And what’s neat about it is there are a lot of different fan filmmakers who have a lot of different skillsets. And if you can combine those skillsets, you create a better product for everybody.
For example, Glen Wolfe is really great with costumes and props. And I’m really good with a camera, and TYLER DUNIVAN’s really good directing actors, and Ray Tesi’s got really beautiful sets. So when we shot Once and Future Captain, Glen Wolfe was down there providing costumes for not only Avalon, but he provided costumes for Tales from the Neutral Zone. And Tyler Dunivan and I are co-directing the next episode. And so you’ve got this Tales from the Neutral Zone on Ray Tesi’s beautiful sets, being shot by me, co-directed by me and Tyler, utilizing our actors from Avalon, and Glen Wolfe providing costuming and art direction. And the result is just amazing. It really elevates the quality of a project when so many talented people come together.
JONATHAN – Okay, one last question before we FINALLY shift into talking about Test of Time. With all these trips back and forth between Arkansas and Georgia and lord knows where else you’re traveling to, you’re literally driving thousands and probably tens of thousands of miles! Doesn’t that take its toll on you?
JOSH – No, because I like it. I really, really enjoy traveling. I love road trips, even when we’re going two and a half hours to Harrison or Flippin to shoot at WARP 66 Studios for Avalon, I love that drive. I love the drive to Kingsland. I adore going all the way out to Las Vegas or to Phoenix or to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where we shot some of those gorgeous outdoor scenes for AGENT OF NEW WORLDS. It’s exciting for me. It’s my way of exploring the universe. It’s living life.
And a lot of this getting out of my shell and starting to go all over the country to work on fan films, it was the bright spot of Covid. 2021 kind of became the Year of the Road Trip for me. I really loved it. And again, I really love making Star Trek, I love traveling, and I love filmmaking…so no, it doesn’t take its toll on me at all. I’d do it every day if I could get away with it.
JONATHAN – Well, that brings up another question (I know, THIS will be the last one before we switch to The Test of Time!). It takes you about 12 hours to drive each way from your home in northwestern Arkansas to Neutral Zone Studios in southeastern Georgia, and you do it a LOT. Even if you shoot on just a Saturday and drive back on Sunday, you still have to take a Friday off from work (unless it’s a long weekend). And you’re often doing multi-day shoots. How are you getting so much time off?
JOSH – Well, the company I work for is really generous with vacation time, and I do utilize some three-day weekends and other holidays from time to time. Nevertheless, I have burned all but a day and a half of my vacation time at this point, so it’ll be several months before I can make one of these long trips again (unless they fly me). But my company gives me the vacation time, and as long as I coordinate my efforts with the rest of the team, they’re fine with it. It’s no big deal.
JONATHAN – Okay, it’s finally time to talk about the actual fan film! Ready…?
Next time, in Part 2, Josh and I discuss The Test of Time, how he began working on fan films for Tales of the Neutral Zone, and what it’s like when VIC MIGNOGNA is your director…