Robert Orlando, owner of Nexus Media, likes to tell stories. And the story he tells about Princeton is one that is not too flattering. “Princeton has a low media IQ,” he says. Constantly overshadowed by the ad agencies, film studios, and publishing houses of New York, Princeton is an intellectual powerhouse, but Orlando believes its academic thinkers and business leaders often lack the media savvy to get their brilliant ideas and products out into the minds of the public.
But like any good marketer, Orlando offers a solution at the same time he points out the problem. Orlando’s studio, Nexus Media, has been expanding ever since moving to Nassau Street from New York in 2008. Its most recent addition, completed in May, is a gigantic green screen of the kind that’s difficult to find outside of a small radius around Manhattan.
A green screen is a backdrop that allows the producer of a video to change the background of a shot, usually using computer graphics. Chroma-key techniques make particular colors appear transparent during film editing so that a new image can be shown instead of the color. Older chroma-key sets used blue for this color, but green became the industry standard in the 1970s. Today making a green screen can be as simple as buying a green-colored sheet, but for a more consistent result and easier shooting, studios like Nexus prefer to use larger backgrounds painted a particular shade of the color.
The screen allows Orlando to proceed with his own filmmaking ambitions because his company is about more than just creating content for corporate clients. In fact, Nexus Media is a three-part beast. As a creative studio, Nexus has made promotional videos for clients like Johnson & Johnson, Sandoz, Merrill Lynch, Princeton University, and Novartis. As a marketing firm for mid-sized organizations, the company has produced branding, web design, and graphics for nonprofit groups like Isles and Children’s Futures, and companies like Bai Beverages, the makers of health drinks that began in Princeton and enjoyed a success story of its own (U.S. 1, January 8, 2014).
And lastly, as a filmmaker, Orlando has directed several documentaries: “A Polite Bribe,” which tells the story of St. Paul’s mission to unite the early Christian Church with the help of a large amount of gold, and “Silence Patton,” his soon-to-be released documentary about General George S. Patton’s disagreements with his superiors over dealings with the Russians at the end of World War II.
The release of “Silence Patton” will be accompanied by a marketing blitzkrieg that includes an actual Sherman tank at the premier in Indiana, and a custom-brewed batch of Patton pilsner made by Evil Czech Brewery.
As a storyteller, Orlando is drawn to enigmatic characters like St. Paul and Patton, who accomplished great things but not without attracting a great deal of controversy. “Maybe I am one myself,” he said.
Orlando grew up in an Italian Catholic family in New York, where his father owned a small transportation consulting business for which his mother worked part time while raising children. He got his first video camera at the age of 8. Movie making “came naturally,” he recalls. “I was attracted to it very young,” he said. When he went to college, he pursued his childhood ambitions, and eventually enrolled at the School of Visual Arts in New York, where he was a classmate of Brian Singer, who had grown up in West Windsor. “We were competing directors, though not anymore” Orlando said of Singer, who went on to direct The Usual Suspects and a series of X-Men movies.
Orlando founded Nexus and operated the company in New York for a time. In 2008 he relocated to Princeton for various business and personal reasons. On the personal side, his wife, Margaret “Margo” Orlando, administers Princeton University’s mid-career fellowship program. The couple lives in Princeton and has a son, Dante. On the business side, Orlando said that proliferation of digital technology in the early 2000s signalled a change in the media business and an opportunity to bring his talents to a place where before it would have been less desirable to locate a production company.
“I thought that after the digital revolution, there would be screens all over the place. It would open doors to people everywhere who have great ideas,” Orlando said. “I could live anywhere.” Princeton, being halfway between New York and Philadelphia, seemed like a good place for his ambitions. “I could establish a satellite company that would be of New York quality, but it would be located here,” he said.
Orlando’s studio reflects the eclectic directions of Nexus Media. There’s the green screen and the marketing materials, but the overall decor is heavy on posters for movies that Orlando reveres: Touch of Evil, Sin City, Batman, Blade Runner, and the like. “I’m a big fan of film noir,” he said. There’s also a bookshelf overflowing with works of history, biography, and film theory. On another shelf is a model of an American Sherman tank and a German panzer that Orlando likes to use to demonstrate how tank battles proceeded in the hedgerows of France where Patton fought some of his most famous battles.
Orlando has worked for the past few years on “Silence Patton,” which dives into the end of Patton’s life and his relationship with his fellow generals Eisenhower and Bradley, and President Roosevelt. For the film, he scoured the existing scholarship and interviewed experts about a topic that still raises controversy more than 70 years later: could Patton have prevented the Cold War?
It is a little known fact that at the end of WWII, as allied armies closed in on Berlin, Patton agitated for the U.S. to launch an attack on its allies, the Russians. He saw the Soviet Union as a rising threat as they advanced from the east, rolling over the collapsing Germans and occupying much of Eastern Europe. He warned that the U.S. would have to deal with them sooner or later. He also believed that having been worn down fighting against the German armies, they were more vulnerable than they ever would be again.
“We promised the Europeans freedom,” Patton wrote. “It would be worse than dishonorable not to see them have it. This might mean war with the Russians, but what of it? They have no Air Force anymore, their gasoline and ammunition supplies are low. I’ve seen their miserable supply trains; mostly wagons draw by beaten up old horses or oxen. I’ll say this; the Third Army alone with very little help and with damned few casualties could lick what is left of the Russians in six weeks. You mark my words. Don’t ever forget them. Someday we will have to fight them and it will take six years and cost us six million lives.”
Neither Roosevelt nor his successor, Truman, shared this view, and few historians believe a war with the Soviets would have been the easy victory Patton promised. However, some historians believe the president was naive when it came to Stalin. When negotiating with Stalin and Churchill about how to deal with the defeated Germans and reorganize Europe following the war, Roosevelt agreed to let Russia keep much of Europe under its influence as a “buffer zone” against possible attacks from the West. In his writings and comments to others, Roosevelt said he believed that Russia could be convinced to pull back from total domination of countries such as Poland and Czechoslovakia if the U.S. and Britain showed good faith and a desire for peace.
“FDR had tipped so much power towards Stalin, and Stalin had plans way beyond what the other Allies comprehended,” Orlando said. “He was very naive of what Stalin’s intentions were. He called him ‘Uncle Joe.’” Orlando wrote an article, “Costly Enchantment,” about FDR’s relationship with the Russian dictator, arguing that a tougher policy towards Stalin could have prevented the proxy wars of the next 40 years, as well as the suffering of nations under Russian domination.
In reality, according to Roosevelt’s policy of not antagonizing the Russians, and not leading a war-weary nation into a ruinous third world war, the U.S. sought a more conciliatory stance. Rather than drive hard for Berlin and Prague, the capital of Czechloslovakia in 1945, they advanced slowly on a broad front. They also demanded the Germans surrender unconditionally, despite efforts by some high-level Nazis to surrender with terms that could have ended the war earlier and brought Germany into a Western orbit.
Toward the end of the war, Patton began to see the Nazis as less of a threat than the Communists, and accordingly wanted to re-arm the Germans and together with them fight against the Russians. Orlando believes that if the U.S. and Britain had listened to Patton and pushed harder towards Berlin, they could have left the Russians in a weaker position and in control of less European territory.
On several points, history has proven Patton right. Once secure in control of the Eastern European nations, the Russians showed no signs of loosening their grip, and the Cold War ensued, leading to a heavy toll of lives around the world.
As an entry point to all these issues, Orlando’s film raises questions about Patton’s death in December, 1945. Months after the war, Patton’s inflammatory comments had not gone over well with his superiors and the 60-year-old general found himself leading not an army, but a group that had the job of poring over war records to learn military lessons. He was scheduled to return home, most likely to a post at a military academy. One day he was riding in a staff car when a truck, driven by a drunk soldier, made a sudden turn and caused a fender-bender. The other occupants of the car were unscathed, but Patton failed to brace himself for the impact and was struck in the head and hospitalized. He died 12 days later of pulmonary edema and heart failure.
At least that’s the story as recounted by the witnesses to the event, Patton’s doctors, his widow, and history in general. But in the 1970s, an alternate theory was proposed that Patton was assassinated by either Russian agents, Truman, Eisenhower, or some combination thereof. “Silence Patton” discusses this theory and the possibility that Patton’s death was arranged in order to “silence” him from speaking out about the lost opportunity to confront the Russians as well as Communist influence within the U.S. Orlando declined to say whether he actually believes this theory, and admitted there was a lack of forensic evidence and witnesses to back it up. But he said he understood why there was suspicion about the general’s death.
Orlando believes that Patton’s attitude towards the Russians still has a lesson to teach modern-day leaders: that tolerating aggression can lead to further aggression down the road.
As he prepares to release “Silence Patton,” Orlando is expanding Nexus Studios.
The green screen will allow Orlando to expand in new directions. Now he can conduct interviews for documentary-style productions with whatever background he likes. He can also use it to achieve more advanced visuals than before for commercials and such. “I’m really looking forward to trying different ways of using digital backgrounds and creating 3-D worlds,” he said. Orlando said the screen is a high-end resource that is hard to find in central New Jersey, (Studio City NJ in Trenton relocated to Philadelphia in 2013) and that he was working with nonprofit groups to find ways of letting them use it, too. “There’s nothing like this around here. You have to go 25 miles in either direction.”
Orlando’s ambitions as a filmmaker reach for the stars. He said if he were given an unlimited budget to make a movie, he would make a sci-fi trilogy that combined elements of Star Wars and Blade Runner. “It would be a more adult version of Star Wars; a dystopian future world where I would use classical themes and redemptive themes big in scope,” he said.
There are a great many art filmmakers who turn to commercial work to pay the bills, but Orlando doesn’t see Nexus that way. When talking about his projects for corporate clients, he is equally animated as when discussing what might have happened if Patton had been allowed to press aggressively towards Prague and Berlin in the spring of 1945.
The key to both kinds of endeavor is good storytelling, he said. “Ultimately, at the center of it all is storytelling, for everything. It’s the same exact skills. To the average person, ‘telling stories’ means not telling the whole truth. But the stories I tell are grounded in information and narrative.”
In a marketing setting, Orlando said, storytelling often means setting out a problem, then explaining how the product or service being marketed can solve that problem. “Whatever the format and length of the video, you use the same techniques no matter what,” he said. “You construct a narrative, approaching it diagnostically like a storyteller would. What is the central action for success?”
To Orlando the story is key even when producing something like a corporate training film. Traditionally, teaching is done using logic and evidence. But Orlando said those modalities are not enough to drive a message home. “What appeals to humankind is narrative. It’s a holistic way of looking at life, because it doesn’t start with the closed circle of logic, it starts with human needs, and human universals, which everybody can identify with.”
Nexus Media, 20 Nassau Street, Suite 103, Princeton 08542. 609-430-8286. Robert Orlando, www.nexusmediasite.com.