Interview: PROSPECT Directors Zeek Earl and Chris Caldwell Talk Sci-Fi Western and Wanting to Keep Things Indie

Contributing Writer; Canada (@ChrisDWebster)
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Interview: PROSPECT Directors Zeek Earl and Chris Caldwell Talk Sci-Fi Western and Wanting to Keep Things Indie

Gunpowder and Sky's new sci-fi label DUST is releasing their inaugural film, Prospect, into New York and Los Angeles theatres on Friday, November 2, and for Zeek Earl and Christopher Caldwell, this is huge deal.

The two young directors have been working to get Prospect made for most of their adult lives, and the journey from debuting the short film version in 2012 to having their feature bowing in local theatres marks the end of a journey as treacherous and emotional as the one taken by the characters in their film.

I've sung the praises of the film on these pages before, but I'll repeat myself here. Prospect wins top marks for juggling intricate world-building and character-focused storytelling on a tight budget. The production design is detailed and hearkens back to the best work of Ron Cobb or John Barry.

Prospect follows a father-daughter on a journey to a jungle moon in search of the ultimate payday, where the two quickly fall prey to unknown terrain and dangerous encounters as their mission turns deadly. It stars Pedro Pascal, Sophie Thatcher, Jay Duplass, Andre Royo, Sheila Vand, and Anwan Glover.

Following the film's limited theatrical run, Prospect will roll out to theatres across the United States beginning November 8, 2018.  

To talk about the milestone, I got both directors on the phone for a quick chat about the genesis of Prospect and what it feels like to be on the otherside of the creative process.  

ScreenAnarchy: So many filmmakers produce short films as a calling card and proof of concept for a feature film, yet so few are able to get their features made. How did you guys manage to go from short to feature in such a short time?

Zeek Earl: The answer to that question is that we didn't just make a short film. The film was an important part of a much larger package. So we had a detailed business plan aimed at a realistic budget level (under $5 million), that also outlined how we would build the detailed sets and props.

We created a physical book full of concept art that we could drop on the lap of financiers. Prospect also required opening its own design shop, which was essentially just a bunch of our friends together in a warehouse, but to do this film at a small budget required a whole case and not just the short film on its own.

So were you already pounding the pavement with the project before the film released at festivals and online?

Chris Caldwell: After our first experience with our first short film The Pines back in 2012, where we did a whole festival tour with it, we focused our strategy with Prospect. After we premiered it at SXSW we released it right online. We really wanted to get it out there right away and have as many people see it as possible.

Now that it's been so long and the feature is finally coming out, how does it feel?

Zeek Earl: Well, this process has been the majority of both our adult lives. We concepted the short film in 2012, made it in 2013, it came out in 2014, and then we spent the next three years producing the feature so it's been an incredibly long an emotional rollercoater.

We never expected the film to make it into theatres when we were working on it. The trend was that a lot of this stuff was going direct to Netflix, so it's totally surreal that I'm going to get to go to my local Regal Theatre and see Prospect.

Do you credit yourselves or Gunpowder and Sky and DUST for getting it into theatres?

Zeek Earl: For me it's about looking at the economic landscape of things. With Amazon and Netflix changing gears and they've stopped just buying every festival movie up, it's opened this new door for smaller distributors to step in a try to do these more traditional runs and there's been a lot of signs that putting movies into theatres still works.

Chris Caldwell: It's hard to make sense of anything these days, but when you see the glut of smaller films that are just being released on these streaming platforms there's so much content that it's so hard to break through, we are excited to have a theatrical release because there is something classic in that it elevates the film somewhat. We feel incredibly lucky.

Truly, if you can capture even a limited run, it offers, at minimum, an opportunity to cut through the clutter and provide additional promotion for your film.

Were you approached by some of the big streamers to distribute PROSPECT?

Zeek Earl: Absolutely, there were a number of interested parties. I have to say the second most interested party was also planning theatrical distribution so that was always the main conversation we were interested in.

So what inspired you guys to develop PROSPECT in the first place? It has a very specific tone, it's a sci-fi western, a very archetypal coming of age tale at its core, what was your initial inspiration?

Chris Caldwell: A lot of it goes back to our experiences with science fiction from our childhood. Films like Alien, Blade Runner and the original Star Wars trilogy.

We were the kind of kids who had the Star Wars visual encyclopedias and poured over all the guns and ships and gear and there was always something compelling about that level of immersion. And that's what we wanted to channel into Prospect, create a large, alive world that you could really sink your teeth into, but at the same time telling an intimate, character-driven, focused story. That's where the Western influence comes in.

Zeek Earl: And we're both pretty big Coen Brothers fans, and love creating characters that are very full and distinctive to certain environments.

Speaking of the characters, Pedro Pascal is a standout here. It's to your credit as writers as much as his as a performer, I think. In my own review I mention that he feels right out of DEADWOOD. Can you talk about the decision to push his character so far into that realm? Were you ever concerned about creating a Western caricature?

Chris Caldwell: He was very much modeled after that kind of loquacious, Western archetype. But at the same time we tried to create an original vernacular. So it's not like he'd plucked directly from a Western, there are a lot of turns of phrases, lingo and jargon unique to this world. This was also done to support the world building efforts across the board. It was very helpful. And we wanted the film to feel almost like a period piece rather than a slick futuristic movie.

I'm sure you're still in touch with Pedro. Can you confirm he's starring in THE MANDALOTRIAN?

[Laughter.]

No.

Alright, I had to try!

He keeps his cards pretty close to his chest. We wish we knew.

Speaking of STAR WARS, in their review, Variety wrote that PROSPECT felt like what a standalone STAR WARS film should be. As fans yourselves, what was it like to read that?

Zeek Earl: You can imagine how gratifying it was to read that and have that be recognized even though we were trying to do something a bit different.

The STAR WARS franchise is under a lot of scrutiny right now. Would you ever want to direct a STAR WARS movie?

Zeek Earl: I'm not going to say I never want to direct a Star Wars film because that's always an interesting proposition. I'd say, right now, we're looking at staying independent for our next few projects at least. We built a very unusual production apparatus up here in Seattle that we want to grow and work on a slightly larger movie, but not a blockbuster because we still want to grow our skills.

Chris Caldwell: One of the biggest influences Star Wars had on us was the audacity of creating a completely new universe, creating something you can explore across multiple characters and stories, and we wanted to create a sense of that with Prospect and it's something we hope to continue to do with future projects.

I want to mention Sophie Thatcher as well. She's great in the film. Was it challenging to find a young actress who could shoulder a film like this?

Chris Caldwell: We did a nationwide search and saw a lot of tapes from people all over the country. It was a long process, but Sophie very quickly rose to the top. She has this kind of timelessness that we were looking for.

At the same time, I don't think we fully understood what we were risking casting a minor as the lead of our first feature film, so we were incredibly lucky that Sophie was as good as she was.

One of the elements that helped was that, although this is Sophie's first feature credit, she was already a beast in the Chicago theatre scene. She was the star of an Ann Frank production that played more than 200 shows a season, so we knew she had the endurance. It was a 40 day shooting schedule and she was in every scene of the film, so she was able to manage that quite well.

You mentioned wanting to work on your own stories moving forward, can you talk about what's next for you guys?

Zeek Earl: Amazon had learned about our unique production apparatus and approached us about developing a show in a similar vein to Prospect. So we are working on a series with Amazon, but where Prospect leans into the Western genre, this new series will lean more medieval, blended with science fiction.

Along with that, we are working on a feature script that is rural cyberpunk, if that makes any sense at all. It's near-future, set on earth, takes place in a vast underpopulated landscape where robots are farming and it's about the humans left in this very alien-feeling future world.

That all sounds incredible, guys. Congrats on PROSPECT, good luck with the theatrical run and we definitely look forward to whatever you've got coming next.

Thanks! We really appreciate that.

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2018Chris CaldwellDustGunpowder and SkyInterviewPablo PascalProspectsci-f-iSophie ThatcherwesternZeek Earl

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