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Lo-Fi Meets Sci-Fi: Writer/Directors Christopher Caldwell and Zeek Earl on the Making of ‘Prospect’

November 2, 2018Ben MK

When it comes to sci-fi, space may no longer be the final frontier. However, by no means does that imply that filmmakers have ceased to find new and innovative ways to tell stories in the genre.

Enter Prospect, an indie sci-fi tale set in a not-so-shiny future that follows a teenager named Cee (Sophie Thatcher), who finds herself stranded on an alien moon. But this moon is no barren wasteland, and Cee is far from alone. Facing a series of unforeseen threats, she teams up with a rogue treasure hunter named Ezra (Game of Thrones' Pedro Pascal). And together, these two unlikely allies must reconcile their differences as they attempt to survive the planet and make their way back to civilization.

Now in limited theatrical release after making the rounds on the festival circuit, Prospect is a perfect example of storytelling that serves to propel the genre forward, and I caught up with writer/directors Christopher Caldwell and Zeek Earl to find out more about the making of the film.

Prospect is based on your short film of the same name. Where did the idea for the original short come from?

Caldwell & Earl: After our first short, In the Pines, we knew we wanted our next project to be an all-out sci-fi set in an original world and the proof-of-concept for a feature. The idea was ultimately born from the location. We did a lot of hiking and backpacking in college and always had the simmering desire to turn Washington's distinctive Hoh Rain Forest into an alien backdrop.

I was very impressed with how real the world of the film felt. Even though it's a sci-fi setting, the lived-in quality of the production design, the dialogue, and the way the characters operated in this world all contributed to making it feel incredibly grounded. In turning that short into a full-length feature, what was your process for scaling up the narrative, as it were, to ensure you didn’t lose that essential grounding in reality?

Caldwell & Earl: The short set up the building blocks, but for the feature we wanted to blow open the world as much as we could and really lean into the frontier vibe. The goal was to create the feeling of an expansive universe that extended beyond the film, that we were just getting this one perspective into a much larger world. This philosophy informed much of the production design... the level of detail, the sense of history, pop culture, and economics. When you're building a world from scratch, you have to go to great lengths to compensate for all the texture you take for granted in the real world.

The film also blends the sci-fi elements with characteristics of the Western genre, such as in the way Pedro Pascal's character speaks. What was the motivation behind — and also the draw of — combining these two genres?

Caldwell & Earl: There's a long heritage of western influence on science fiction and, from the beginning, it was always a natural fit for Prospect's wild, blue-collar story. Particularly with the dialogue, we wanted it to feel like it was on a cultural continuum, steeped in frontier vernacular, almost as if we're watching a period piece from another dimension.

Speaking of Pedro Pascal, what did he, Jay Duplass and Sophie Thatcher bring to their roles that was perhaps different or more than what existed of their characters on paper?

Caldwell & Earl: We were incredibly lucky to work with the caliber of cast we did. Prospect was always designed around a relatively simple narrative that needed to be grounded in strong character performances. Particularly with this kind of science fiction, you're walking a fine line. Things can get goofy real fast. It's the people that occupy these fantastical worlds that make it real... or not.

Jay gave us a broken father, desperate to provide, but somehow lost along the way, grounded in the reality of economic strain and single-parenthood. Ezra was huge gamble, lobbing mouthfuls of lyrical jargon, but the moment Pedro stepped on set, we knew he had it in the bag. He understood exactly what we were going for and his incredible instinct was necessary to weave real emotion through all the loquaciousness. And with Cee, so much had to happen off the page to make her compelling, and we owe all of that to Sophie. With such a quiet character, the burden of the performance is in between the lines and Sophie filled it with life... teenage angst, petulance, vulnerability, but at the same time, depths of courage and quiet strength.

Were there any particular films or filmmakers that served as an influence on you while making this film? Am I correct in sensing that David Cronenberg was one of them?

Caldwell & Earl: Aesthetically, we drew a lot from the classic sci-fi films we grew up on... Alien, Blade Runner, the original Star Wars trilogy... those tactile films from the '70s and '80s before the surge of computer-rendered spectacle. Tonally, we've always admired the Coen Brothers and drew a lot of inspiration from their Western oeuvre. They're some of the greatest world-builders, weaving a distinctive tapestry with each of their films in which place and person are inextricable from one another.

With Prospect, we wanted to bring a little bit of that feeling into the sci-fi arena. While Cronenberg wasn't a direct reference, we've always been drawn to opportunities within sci-fi to revel in the gross and organic, and wanted to imbue the harvesting process with some of that texture.

Last but not least, what's next for each of you? Alternatively, what kind of projects would you like to tackle next?

Caldwell & Earl: While we never set out specifically to be sci-fi filmmakers, we've found ourselves very happy in the genre. We're currently in development with Amazon on an original universe sci-fi series about a space-faring trophy hunter with a bit of a medieval flavor. We're also working on the next feature script: a near-future murder mystery set in the American Midwest on a fully-automated commercial farm.

Prospect is now playing in New York and Los Angeles and opens nationwide November 9th, 2018.

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