Interview by Bears Fonte
My favorite film at SXSW this year, having had a few weeks to let it all sink in, was most certainly PROSPECT. Based on a short that played the fest a few years ago, Zeek Earl and Christopher Caldwell’s film follows a father-daughter mining team harvesting gems on a toxic planet. Their ride home is about to bolt, they’ve barely made enough to make the trip worth it, and they run into a group of scoundrels on the planet willing to do whatever they can to get at the family’s take.
With more in common with a western than a traditional SciFi film, PROSPECT avoids all the possible clichés and instead builds off complicated characters and a really packed production design. The performance by Sophie Thatcher as teen (and rookie miner) Cee is positively ‘next’ worthy. Considering she holds her own with NARCOS actor Pedro Pascal and SXSW-fave Jay Duplass, Thatcher is one to watch for the future.
I had a chance to sit down with Earl and Caldwell at the festival.
BEARS: I was five minutes into the movie and thought “I feel like I’ve seen this before . . . Oh YEAH!” The design is so specific. I love every time I see a short made into a feature. What were you most excited about exploring more in getting to make a longer version of this film?
Caldwell: It’s interesting because the attack for this thing almost feelings like one continuous development process. We always intended to expand the world into a feature. We conceptualizd the short to be the foundation with the tone, aesthetic and character that we were always planning on blowing open and expanding on. One of the biggest things with our priority of world building was trying to achieve as much depth, detail, sense of historical context, culture — all those things. We wanted the world to feel expansive and alive and even though we’re telling a focused story about just some blue-collar people in the middle of the woods that nobody cares about, it’s not about saving the world. We wanted the backdrop to feel like it extended well beyond the limits of the film.
Earl: The other thing I wanted to throw in there was diversity. Even the space suits, they’re not all made by the same manufacturer. It’s not monolithic. You can go to REI and either buy Patagonia or Northface. We wanted to have our equivalence in the world. It’s that struggle of keeping it feeling cohesive, but at the same time bigger. Not purpose-built for this scenario. This is a universe where people make all sorts of decisions.
BEARS: I don’t think I’ve ever seen that in a movie. That idea of different space suits, made by different manufacturers in the same film.
Caldwell: Graphic design was actually a huge part. We wanted to be sure every little thing had some sort of branding or logo on it because if this is rooted in a believable, immersive universe, these were built by manufacturers and purchased by people. Having that sense of origin to everything so that you’re really telling the story through all the artifacts of the film.
Caldwell: One of the cartoon characters we created in the Prospect universe, Poozo, we put on the characters sweatshirt. Poozoo has several other characters that you’ll see on chocolate bar wrappers. We made a comic book. A lot of this stuff didn’t make it in the movie. Some of it got thrown away but it was there as part of the detail.
BEARS: That’s great. That’s actually one of the questions I was going to ask you because for me, science fiction is all about world building. We only get snippets and I really like that because it feels like there’s a much larger universe. I feel like you guys know this world really well.
Caldwell: We’re sitting on other scripts that we’ve developed in the same universe. We’ve written about the universe in different areas. That’s really what it’s all about for us. If you shoot something in a real world setting, either contemporary or historical, there’s a lot of reference material or it’s just built into the world that there is so much detail, everywhere you look. If you’re building a completely fictional universe, the biggest challenge is not feeling like it’s purpose-built for the movie.
BEARS: Tell me if there’s one little thing that you wanted people to notice, a little Easter Egg that you’re excited about. Some sort of world building thing that no one is going to notice unless you talk about it.
Caldwell: I think it’s prominent enough, but we have a spiritual leader of the Prospect universe who’s played by one of my old time family friends, Riz Rollins, who is also a DJ in Seattle. You’ll see him majestically dressed and he has this big Pope-like hat.
Earl: He’s a religious icon and portrait. You can see those scattered throughout the film. We wanted to create some sense that there was some common religion. You’ll see evidence of religious icons scattered around. There’s multiple. One of them is my four year old son. One of them is Riz Rollins. One of them is his cat.
Caldwell: I would love to get him in the sequel if we can bring him in as an actual character. That would be the best.
BEARS: I love father-daughter stories. And I was excited about a father-daughter story taking an unexpected turn, and the relationship between Cee and Ezra, who becomes a bit of a surrogate father. Can you talk a little bit about pushing and pulling the audience with the script and how we felt about our marauder character?
Earl: I don’t want to give too much away but the character of Ezra, played by Pedro Pascal, was very much an exciting character in the traditions of westerns where you have that loquacious, stylized dialogue. Pedro is just perfect for riding that line of charisma and menace, you never know where he’s going to land on something. As far as the father-daughter story goes, that was interesting thinking back because that was established six years ago when we were doing the short. One of the early points of reference wasone of my favorite movies, Sophia Coppola’s “Somewhere,” where you have a father-daughter dynamic that’s predicated on a young girl who, by virtue of borderline neglect, has to fend for herself and become independent and establish skill sets that she wouldn’t in other circumstances.
BEARS: Tell me about building a whole film around a young actress who has never done a feature before. How did you find her? What were you excited about with her?
Caldwell: Sophie did a self-tape. She’s out of Chicago and we’re in Seattle. We did a nationwide casting call. We saw some people in LA but we mostly got tapes…she had the best tape, and no one beat it. Working with her was an absolute pleasure. Her age was not even a factor or consideration. She was on-point. Production-wise, we made a very complicated movie. They’re in space helmets that are very difficult to shoot in. They were in uncomfortable costumes. There were all these things that were derailing in the production process. She was not one of them. She was doing exactly what she needed to do.
Earl: We wrote this ten-page scene of dialogue that’s all in space helmets. We quickly realized we were out in the middle of the forest and where we wanted to get several takes, we only got four. Sophie as a younger actress, there was the expectation — maybe naïve — that you’d have to work a little bit harder to try to get it where you needed it to go, but Sophie saved our ass.
BEARS: Tell me a little bit about working in a low budget sci-fi and how working in this price range affects what you can and can’t do, and how you plan the production.
Caldwell: I don’t think what we could and couldn’t do wasn’t necessarily the primary metric for what we attempted to do.
Earl: One of the most unique things about this film is the part of the pitch where we told potential investors from day one is that we needed to open a shop. We needed to have our own warehouse and hire a team of people who are going to custom build this movie and that’s the only way we know how to do it, on a budget. We’re also up in Seattle where that end of the industry isn’t very large. We got a lot of puzzled looks and a lot of rejection, and then the Braun and Kirk Financier finally gave it a shot. It was the most life-giving, joyful process to have seven months of time with a huge, talented army of artists. They’re not working on any other movie. They were just working on our movie. They’re being paid for eight-hour days but they’re sleeping at this warehouse! Injecting just as much detail as possible.
BEARS: I also really like the choice of the planet. Obviously that was a choice you made back in the short. A jungle planet that has a very different feel from most science fiction films. You get a little bit of that PREDATOR feel. You’re combining genres. Did that influence what you wrote?
Caldwell: Well, that’s one of the coolest things about the whole rainforest where we shot, which is in Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. It’s a place we grew up in. Hiking in college. Even before we made the short film, we realized we need to make a science fiction film here, just because it’s so awesome. It’s the Northwest but it still feels like the jungle. It’s just so dense. It was square one. It informed the writing, yes, but it predated the writing, so it was always going to be there. That jungle vibe, where you have these small groups of people. It made it so it was difficult to have larger operations so there’s this sense of people are out there, trying to mine these gemstones, but it’s prohibitive to larger operations with big machinery. It has to be these rogue, sixth-sense prospectors that can suss it out of the ground. It keeps it more on the small scale, like lo-fi, Western, vibe.
Earl: I really wanted it to be a really beautiful place. I love that contrast that it’s an entirely hostile world, but at the same time, easy on the eyes.
BEARS: What’s floating in the air?
Earl: Toxic spores.
BEARS: So, how did you do that process?
Earl: That is all, painstakingly, practically shot dust, layered in, shot by shot, over four or five months. Horrendous, horrendous process. But I absolutely love it and wouldn’t change a thing.
BEARS: So it’s literally two shots on top of each other. One just has dust.
Earl: Yep. It means our show had thousands of VFX shots. It was, for the size of the movie, a ridiculous VFX pipeline and we owe so many people who really went over the top to make this happen for this textural decision that I think looks really good.
PROSPECT world premeried at SXSW last month. You can check out the original short here.