Fiendish Conversation

SIFF Directors Zeek Earl and Chris Caldwell Talk Sci-Fi in Seattle

The guys behind Prospect are Seattle locals and want to keep it that way.

By Stefan Milne May 23, 2018

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Caldwell (left), Earl (center), and producer Brice Budke (right) at Prospect's SIFF premeire. 

Image: Ezra Asfaw

Zeek Earl and Chris Caldwell met at Seattle Pacific University and in 2010 formed a production company Shep Films, making shorts and commercials. One of the shorts, Prospect, has now become their first feature. The sci-fi story  follows Cee (Sophie Thatcher) and her father (Jay Duplass) as they mine for a precious mineral on a green moon with a toxic atmosphere (filming took place in the Hoh Rainforest on the Olympic Peninsula and in a studio in Fremont). Soon Ezra (Pedro Pascal), another miner, tries to rob them, kicking off a story that's menacing, touching, and darkly funny. Prospect premiered at SXSW in March and sold out all its showings. On May 7 Variety announced that Gunpowder and Sky bought the distribution rights and will release the film later this year in the U.S.

This past Saturday, Prospect had its Seattle premier at SIFF. You can catch it again on May 24 at SIFF Uptown Cinema or May 30 at the Shoreline Community College Theater

I caught up with Earl and Caldwell to talk about the very local production.   

The setting in Hoh rainforest is so important to the film. Did that precede the story or come after it?

Earl: Yeah, the Hoh was a big part of the inception of the idea. Chris and I grew up here and had both gone backpacking and camping here. It’s a great setting for an otherworldly type environment. We just started thinking of what stories could occur in that environment and we started gravitating toward a lot of Westerns. We did the short film out there four years ago first. Then we went back to a lot of the same locations.

That’s interesting. I noticed a lot of western influence here. I kept thinking of the Treasure of Sierra Madre and True Grit.

Caldwell: I think from a very early point we were drawing from a Western inspiration. We started out talking a lot about spaghetti Westerns, Sergio Leone and that. True Grit emerged as a pretty prominent reference when we realized we were doing a borderline adaptation. A lot of it was due to the type of science fiction that we wanted to do. A focus on everything feeling utilitarian. These are blue collar type characters trying to scrape together a living out on the frontier.

I remember reading something a few years back about how one of the brilliant things about Star Wars was that everything in was run down and kind of looked like garbage. The rundown aspect of this movie came in part because of the Western influence?

Caldwell: One of the things that we wanted to acknowledge, if not focus on, is the sense of economics. These are people who are strapped for cash and there’s incentive to get to the next echelon of lifestyle. So the ship that they’re flying is a rental and has been abused like a U-Haul. Their gear is probably purchased used. You don’t get to buy a shiny tool or gun when yours breaks. You have to fix it, because things are expensive and space travel is expensive. I think that sense of economics and history—that every object in the film has a life of its own—plays to that aesthetic.

What prompted you to want to make a small scale sci-fi movie to begin with? Indie sci-fi seem to be their own genre. You don’t get to have the huge special effects and epic sweep of most sci-fi. Was there anything you looked toward for inspiration in that smaller realm? 

Caldwell: We grew up on the Star Wars visual encyclopedias and movies like Blade Runner and Alien. One of the ambitions was to do a science fiction film in the low-budget space that does not lean as heavily on CG and VFX and really be similar to those classic sci-fi films.

Earl: We did something really unconventional. We opened our own personal production design shop. We rented a big warehouse out in Fremont for a year and hired our own staff of 40 people to make all of the spaceships, costumes, props, to a level of detail and quantity that is way beyond what our budget would normally command. It was really hard to get this movie financed. It took four years and numerous failed attempts, because most people in Hollywood took a look at our business model, and it didn’t make any sense to them. It took a leap of faith from our financier, who scrutinized the plan and decided we were giving them a great deal. We had seven months of pre-production time to make all this stuff. So in a lot of ways we were trying to buck the limitations of other films in our budget space.

The two leads are excellent, and in very different ways—Pedro Pascal and Sophie Thatcher. How did you land on those two actors?  

Caldwell: Pedro read the script and connected with it. Hopefully as is evident in the film, he has a very natural handle on the part. [His character] Ezra is kind of molded after  a classic loquacious Western type. He has to ride that line between charm and menace. Pedro is sort of the master of that. 

For Sophie we did a pretty sweeping nationwide casting search. That meant watching a lot of tapes, and Sophie very quickly rose to the top and kind of saved our asses throughout the production. I don’t think we fully realized the riskiness of putting an entire first feature on the shoulders of a young actress, a minor, and she was a pro.

Anything you want to add?  

Earl: Chris and I have lived in Seattle for 10 years, and we’re trying to plan our next couple projects in Washington. We’re trying to make film here happen.

Caldwell: Earlier in our careers, there was a lot of pressure to relocate. But the rain forest being such an integral part of the story—there was never a question of moving production anywhere else. We got to take advantage of a unique location in the Northwest and hope to do more of that in the future.

May 24, SIFF Cinema Uptown, $11

May 30, Shoreline Community College Theater, $14

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