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Talking with Greg Kwedar of ‘TRANSPECOS’

First-time writer and director Greg Kwedar describes the six-year process of creating Transpecos like a proud, but deservingly exhausted, father. The Texas-set border thriller is as much character study as it is a certifiable nail-biter; a politically-minded meditation with a throbbing pace and tightrope tension. Kwedar’s preternatural ability to blend high drama with explosive pressure cooking won him and his film the Audience Award for Narrative Competition at this year’s SXSW Film Festival and, arguably more importantly, near universal praise. Read More

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SXSW ’16 Review: ‘ANOTHER EVIL’

Anyone who ever found themselves wishing for a cross section between The Cable Guy and The Exorcism, rejoice in thy ancient cursed tongues. Carson D. Mell’s supernaturally awkward brom-dram is a conjoined twin of ghost tale hula-hoops and male acquaintanceship hoopla. A batty genre-defying lark to its close, Another Evil deals with the clumsy delicacies of fledgling friendships weighed against the silly absurdities of cloven hoofs and blessed needles. Read More

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SXSW ’16 Review: ‘TEENAGE COCKTAIL’

When high school student Annie heads to a new school, she finds herself surrounded by hostile faces. And needle-in-the-haystack Jules. The two attractive outsiders immediately strike up a kinship and a secret flame broils, leading them down forbidden passageways of mutual lust and peddled cajolery. Read More

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Out in Theaters: LAMB

Director, screenwriter and star Ross Partridge unearths a ripe splintering of soul in the fragile, complex love story that is Lamb. Adapted from Bonnie Nadzam‘s sage but harrowing novel of redemption and temptation, Patridge repurposes the byzantine dynamic of Nadzam’s words to co-exist in the cinematic crossroads of nail-ruining suspense and earnest, didactic sentiments of humanity, all the while subtly wedging in thematic elements of Vladimir Nabokov’s will-they-or-won’t-they statutory misgivings. Read More

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Out in Theaters: FORT TILDEN

*This is a reprint of our SXSW 2014 review.

Remember when tying your shoes was an impossible chore? When you could only get places at the discretion of your mom’s minivan? When you didn’t know how to cook yourself a meal so you relied on someone else’s feeding hand so that you wouldn’t starve? These, among others, are lessons that Fort Tilden‘s anti-heroines never seemed to learn. Read More

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Talking With Ross Partridge of LAMB

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One of the most interesting, complex films of SXSW 2015 to date is Ross Partridge‘s Lamb. With the film, Partridge subverts our psychological expectations, flipping a difficult concept on its head and bleeding it for all its unsettling, deep dramatic worth. From our review:

Not one to worry about getting too literal with their metaphors, Partridge frames the eponymous Lamb as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. A predator preying upon the trust of an 11-year old, Lamb’s intentions are shape-shifting and piercingly hazy. On the one hand, Lamb seems like a man of good intent and could just be seizing the opportunity to shape the maturing innocence of a neglected child. In his own words, he just wants to show her something beautiful. On the other hand, ew. That sentence alone is enough to conjure up all the yucky sentiments of 45-on-11-year old action. We instinctually associate any relationship between a middle-aged male and a twig-framed girl with a very particular (read: vile) expectation. When he reaches out to brush hair out of her face, you cringe. Even if the gesture itself might be innocent. In Lamb‘s purgatory of good sense and bad taste, we never know exactly we should feel but that rarely stops us from feeling a whole damn lot. (Full review here)

I had the chance to sit down with Ross and really dive into the tender meat of Lamb. Though I would caution you to seek out the film and consume all its juiciness for yourself before diving too deep down our rabbit hole, this is still a fitting avenue to familiarize yourself with the man and his work.

 

 

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There’s so much going on here – it’s so complex. The material is so delicate, and so fragile, that the slightest miscalculation in performance or directorial choice would have really made this house of crumble.

RP: Yeah, for sure.

How do you approach the tone, in each and every scene? How did you make it out of this balancing act?

RP: I think, early on we knew the challenges of it. I knew that I had to be patient, and I had to allow myself the truth of each scene, and not worry about appeasing. Not try to think about what’s entertaining,. It wasn’t going to try and be, certainly, seducing in any way. Really, my whole goal with it was to not get in the way of the story from the beginning. I read this book, and I adapted it, and I was like, “If I can just not put an imprint on it in a way where you can feel my involvement,” which is obviously so big, as a director and a writer and an actor. But I just wanted to tell the story as simply, and as quietly, as possible so that people can feel it on their own. I wanted to make it as intimate as possible. Tone wise, it was just a process. I was always trying to think about other characters, and my character, as subtly as possible. To take my performance levels down and not try and push anything.

It’s funny that you say that you want to get out of the way of the material, because in a sense, that is the approach, but on the other hand, without the finesse that you bring to the directorial chair, this whole thing just falls apart. Because you directed it, you wrote it, you starred in it, how much of a mindfuck is taking on all of these roles on this one project, especially on a project that is, as I said, as fragile and delicate as this is?

RP: I sometimes don’t know but I think that’s the key. There’s very few experiences you have as an actor, and as a director, or just being in this business in any rung, that is blind faith. And you read something, you read a piece of material where, for the first time in my life, when I read this, I had no fear. At all. I contemplated how it would land with people but my desire to want to do this, and take this risk, were so strong. That had never happened to me. I’m not that kind of person. I don’t make decisions very quickly, except for on this, when I was directing. It all became very clear, and it was very certain all the time. So I think sometimes you just have to give up to that. In life, sometimes there’s things you give up to. There’s an instinct that you’re supposed to be doing exactly what you’re doing, right in this moment. I just kind of held on to it, to try and make it and to try and keep clear of that.

So both yourself and Oona are just phenomenal in the film, and so much of the movie rides on these performances. She blew me away!

RP: Can we talk about her forever?

Can we?

RP: For real.

I know that she won a Tony, and she was nominated for a Grammy at 10 years old. Is that basically where you found her?

RP: Yeah. The casting director was never like, “You have to meet this person; she won a Tony and was nominated for a Grammy.” The casting director – Alison Esher – she’s from New York, she’s known me for years. We have a great relationship. In the pursuit of casting this, we knew that if we didn’t have the right Tommy, we would never do it.

Oh, totally! It falls apart.

RP: So it’s like, “Okay, let’s start the process.” Alison, early on, said it wouldn’t be that difficult. “What do you mean, it’s not that difficult.” You hear about people searching for years. She said, ‘It’s not going to be that hard. There’s only about five girls who actually, probably can do this role. And you’ll know.” I think that makes me feel better – I’m not sure. We saw a lot of girls, and there were a few that I walked into the room, and I met Oona, and as soon as I walked in, she had these little glasses on, she was kind of in her own little world. She was like, “Hi, how are you?” Just was non-phased about everything. I just looked at her, and she was this young girl who was so much an individual, and confident in who she is, and was so unique an individual at 11-years old. It’s infectious.

So, at some point did you kind of sit her down and go, “Look, this is a really delicate role, and we’re playing with some really culturally touchy issues”? Was that a conversation you had with her parents, or with her, and how did that go?

RP: I felt like I was going to have to have that conversation, and that was a worry of mine, but it never happened, in the sense that it didn’t have to happen. Oona, we don’t give enough credit to kids, and how intelligent they can be. She got this right away. She totally got this. And there were other families who, the parents of other kids, who understood the compassion and the empathy we were trying to go after. I thought I was going to have to do the sales job, and really talk to them about why I was doing this, and what my intentions were. Oona’s mother had read the script, she was in Chicago – one of her other daughters was working on a movie – and Oona wasn’t going to audition because she was so busy. She was in school – she could have done after-school stuff. She could have cared less. Her mom read the script, and called her husband, and said, “You have to get Oona to this audition. She has to play this part.” I met them as we were considering – we sat and had lunch. We talked about everything other than that, because they were like, “We get this. And she gets this. We would be so thrilled to have her on this, and she gets exactly what it’s about. She really wants to do this.” The irony is that we cast her, and two days later, she got a call from Harvey Weinstein, who basically offered her the lead in Anton Fuqua’s movie ‘Southpaw’ that’s coming out with Jake Gyllenhaal. And there was actually a moment where our schedule… where we thought we might lose her. But Oona’s like, “I’m doing both movies. I’m not not doing them.”..The performance is just phenomenal. As I mentioned in my review, I wouldn’t be surprised to see her pick up a Supporting Actress nomination, even though she’s very much a lead here.

RP: Anything that comes her way, I think, is well deserved. We were constantly.impressed. On day two, we shot the end of the movie – the last scene in the movie, which is such an emotionally charged end. Her second take, even the boom operator was crying. We were all crying. You could hear people being emotional and we were like, “This is something so rare to see.”

On day two?

RP: On day two. From that moment, everyone was just so supportive, and knew there was something special in this girl, in this performance, and in this story. It was a real collective effort. Everyone from my producers Nell Eslen, who really took charge of this whole thing. Jenn, and Taylor Williams, who has the balls to fund a movie like this. I can’t give enough credit to someone like him, who says, “You know what? I see this. I want to be a part of something like this. It’s different. It’s unique. How many opportunities do you get to do that?”

We’re giving a lot of credit to Oona, as we should, but her performance really pivots on yours. And you are just so perfectly disorienting in the role. There’s just scene after scene where I’m literally just standing on the edge of my seat, biting my nails, like, “Oh God, he’s reaching out to touch her. Don’t do anything weird! Please don’t do anything weird.” You play that so perfectly. There’s just this fine line that you’re riding and threading the needle so carefully. For you, from a performance perspective, is this something you could define as a pinnacle in your career?

RP: I don’t really have any control over that. I know it was a huge opportunity when I read it. I was like, “Wow, this is such a complex character.” The main reason I wanted to play it so badly was not, “Oh, this is going to be an amazing career thing.” It’s just that I knew that in order to tell this story, the intimacy the actor would have to have with girl would be so monumental. I don’t think I could have translated that while working with another actor, while having the energy, and the dichotomy between that. I had to make sure it was right and that’s just one more step in making sure that those two actors actually get along, and that I have the trust between them. It was like instead of having a straight line, it would have been a triangle. And, ultimately, when playing the character, all the other stuff, the fine line and the tension that were there, I had to trust that all of that stuff would take care of itself, and that I always had to come at the character from a place of love. And that every action and everything that he did and said was really genuine, and for the best intentions, and for the best reasons. Sometimes that’s the way human beings are – I think they come from a place of goodness. The nurturing gets caught in the way of that.

And you don’t know where to direct that love in many circumstances. I think one of the many interesting dichotomies of the film is just what audiences bring to the film, our abject biases, right? You see a young girl and a forty-five year old guy traveling cross country, alarms are going off all over the place. In most every case, as they rightfully should. For how culturally unacceptable this relationship is, there is a thing of beauty and grace to it. Talk about what that is.

RP: I obviously agree with you. I think there is. We can go to movies all the time, and we can make moral judgements on less things, or we don’t make moral judgements on other things. People spend fifteen dollars and watch people mindlessly kill one another. And then all of a sudden, this becomes a huge thing. THAT becomes entertainment to us. Nobody questions that anymore, at all. And so, I find it ironic when people are so pissed and up in arms about this. It’s like, these are human emotions, and people are frail and people make mistakes. And yet, where does our empathy lie, and how far will we go? And how will we actually cure the ills of our past or the ills of our future, if we can’t find a little more empathy in the world, and try and really understand, instead of immediately judging. To watch people just kill each other, I don’t go to those movies because I just get nothing out of them. That’s where we are, as a society. That’s become okay but a relationship that’s built on complexity, and you can’t really define what it is, that is less easy to see. People want to say, “He’s a monster,” or “He’s disgusting.” It’s not there. People want it to be. It’s like a Rorscach test.

And that’s where this movie thrives. It’s these expectations… you saddle up to them, you look over the edge, but you never cross that precipice, and that’s what makes it so fascinating and so interesting.

RP: Yeah. People have mostly agreed. We were testing it all along. It’s exciting that people are seeing the movie the way you’ve seen in. The story within is actually far more satiating than the confines of our own judgements, at this point. People are excited to be questioned, and they’re excited to feel something they can’t idenitfy. That becomes a new experience. Hopefully, it’s worthwhile.

And that, again, is another reason why this film is such a breath of fresh air. It takes you in these directions that you don’t anticipate and that comes down to the source material. I haven’t read the book, but I plan to – I’m so intrigued, and I’m so compelled to read it now. Can you talk about it. I read in the press notes that you were immediately like, “This has to be turned into a movie.” But what was that thought process and the process of it becoming a film and also some challenges that you didn’t anticipate?

RP: Right. Well, when I read the book, I immediately knew that I wanted to make the film. The rights weren’t available – a very well-known actor had the rights before me, and he was trying to develop it before me.

Really? Can you say who?

RP: He’s one of my favorites. I love him as an actor, too. Kyle Chandler had the movie rights. I think it’s okay to say. He was so busy, and he and his wife were going to team up on how to do this thing, but his schedule got crazy. He and the author are still friends, and it was a real honor to have him there. I just wanted to make it, and the challenges of it were the poetry of it. The language of David Lamb is what I wanted to hold on to as much as possible, because I felt that the heightened language he spoke in was so reminiscent of his heightened belief in who he can become. Somebody other than himself, somebody completely otherworldly, because he’s so stuck in this banal world of bleakness. He wants to believe in something better and more beautiful. Keeping that language was going to be tricky. I said this before; the first two-thirds of the movie made sense to me, in the book, but the ending, the climax of this film is a very psychological climax. It’s not action based, it’s more of an emotional peak. So, how do I make that as intriguing as possible? Ultimately, it was a feeling of relief, obviously. That would be climactic enough, keeping the tension and the stress of trying to figure this out. And then, finally, we start releasing. We give it in a way that offers some hope, in a very strange way. All the things that you want to think this person is, he doesn’t turn out to be. You don’t get that feeling, “Oh, I knew he’s going to do this.” Actually, you get just the opposite. You have to question everything about this character, because he’s just the opposite.

It’s funny that you mention the third act, and this idea of release, because, for me, I felt like until the very last frame of the movie, I didn’t let out a breath of air. Because you’re still so much on edge, even until that very final moment! Even then, fade to black, and you just have to process it. It was a film that I sat there for 10 minutes afterwards, dissecting in my head how I felt about it. That’s an unfortunately rare experience in this industry – where you actually have to think after a movie.

RP: There’s a moment in the credits, where’s there an extended period of black, before the first credits come up. The credit is the directing credit. It wasn’t like I wanted to keep it in black the whole time, but I felt like I didn’t want to put names on the screen right away. I felt like people would really be effected, hopefully, and wanted to give it as much time as we possibly could, where they could just be a little bit neutral for a little while, listening to this beautiful song by Angel Olson, a spectactual song. It was almost like, if you could just sneak the credits in, on the side, people are not going to be in the frame of mind to just start reading credits.

Also, going off the end of it, one thing I couldn’t stop think about was, what are the implifications and the ramifications of the events in this film? I just wonder where is she five years down the line? Where is he, ten years down the line? Is this something that crossed your mind?

RP: Oh, of course. Actually, the last day of rehearsal with Oona, we rehearsed together for about a week in New York – my last question to her, before we actually would have seen each other later in Wyoming, was, “I just want to know what you think.” The characters dropped off in the end, and you say goodbye. Where do you go? And she literally, without a beat, said, “I go home, and I tell my parents that I ran away for a while. And then I go into my room. I probably take a shower. And then I go about my life.” And I’m like, “Do you tell anybody what happened?” And she says, “No. Because he gave me something that I think is going to be a gift. It’s going to help me.” So that was the hope. To hear it from an 11-year old girl, at the time that we’re making the movie, that that’s how she assessed it, I was like, “If an 11 year old can understand this so clearly, then hopefully everyone else can.”

Then there’s hope for the rest of the world.

RP: You would think. My character, I believe, this is the one opportunity to make a lasting imprint on something, on somebody, before his demise. I’m not so hopeful for Lamb, I’m not so hopeful for his outcome. I know that there’s a moment in it, for him, like he always does – that’s he’s so conflicted about it, like he’s this awful person or beast, but yet, he’ll smile, once or twice, in memory of what she gave him, and what he gave her, and maybe that might make some sort of difference in his life, if it continues, at all.

That’s one of the things that’s interesting about Lamb as a character, is his acute awareness of who their situation could be interpreted, and you see that played out in so many moments, particularly in the moment when the girlfriend…

RP: Lydia.

Yes, arrives in a cab. And you’re like, “Oh no! This is going to be a disaster!” And it kind of is a disaster. That’s another thing where I’m like, “What happens there? What does she do with that information?” But I think, for him, there is a semblance of a spiritual rejuvenation, in his ability to give his love away, in a very pure, almost non-reciprocating way. He’s not doing it to gain something, necessarily.

RP: I don’t think he’s capable of gaining. I think that he wishes he was capable of gaining love he could have received; from his dad; from his mother, who split…

From his wife…

RP: From his wife. From his younger brother. Here’s a guy who’s just so damaged. It’s just too painful when someone says to him, “I want to love you. I want to care for you.” He doesn’t think that he deserves it and he’s probably very angry, and he doesn’t understand how he’s capable of being loved. And if people put that on him, he doesn’t respect them. “Why would they want to do that?” That’s not the right thing. It’s really sad.  There’s a part of the movie, that’s always one of my favorite parts, when he’s out with Tommie, and he’s talking with her while his girlfriend is there, and he says, “Do you promise me that you will always call me Gary?” Which is not his name, which is the person he would do anything to be, to be anybody other than who he is. That’s really hard – it’s heartbreaking.

I guess, kind of in conclusion here, where are you headed to next? Are you planning on directing another feature?

RP: Yeah. We just literally finished, so I’m planning on doing another feature, sooner rather than later.

Behind the camera?

RP: Behind the camera. The next one, I’m not sure I’ll be acting in. I don’t feel the necessity to be acting in all of the movies. And, in fact, one of my favorite experiences on this shoot was when I just got to direct, with Scoot and Mary and Lindsay Pulsipher and other people who are in scenes. That will be, definitely, the trajectory – to find another great piece of material, whether I write something or not. We’ll be touring this around for some time, I’m sure.

Where are you headed to next?

RP: We’re not sure. We have a few festivals that are reaching out, and we’re just kind of still just here at the premiere stage. We’re hoping to get it in as many places as possible.

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Out in Theaters: THE HEART MACHINE

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Would you fall in love in the wild, wild west of romance that is online dating? What if you believe that your betrothed were living in a foreign country only to discover that they are instead a mere stone’s throw away? Would you get jealous? Angry? Violent? Director and writer Zachary Wigon provides his surreptitious take on the ‘romance as app’ generation in what can only be described as a wry, 21st century romantic thriller in the superb The Heart Machine.

Virginia and Cody live in a world where people, and by extension potential lovers, are available at the press of a button. It’s how they found each other in the first place. Exactly which medium connects the two starred-crossed lovers isn’t important.  It’s some ChatRoulette/Match.com hybrid where interests are complimented, and people are summed up in bite-sized, infographic widgets. Everyone becomes a Buzzfeed list. On paper, Cody and Virginia are a perfect match, another successful e-copulation born of algorithms and personality profiling. The ying fills in the yang, the yang fills in the ying.

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In their very first Skype conversation, things appear to be going well. Their laughs are easy and genuine, their chemistry awash in the emotional distancing and persona creation that only the internet allows. Through the peephole of their computer cameras, they seem to cook up something of a fondness for each other. In the moment of signing off though, Virginia pulls a rabbit from her hat, revealing that she’s living abroad in Germany and won’t return for six months. Not to Cody’s knowledge, she’s totally lying. It’s an instinctual move on Virgina’s behalf, distancing herself from potential emotional attachment, a helpless response to likely adoration. To him, her strange behavior that surrounds this geographical farce should have been a tell-tale sign to back off, but that’s only what we can expect from an emotionally cognizant and mentally furnished partner.

But you can smell the stink of desperation off Cody, a dopey but genial type played to ambiguous perfection by John Gallagher Jr. From the first scene, he’s suspicious of Virginia’s tall tale but has so little going on in his life that he can’t help but get snagged by in its rabbit hole. Gallagher is great as the discerning cuckold, cryptic in his intent and often impossible to get a read on. His is the kind of smiley face that could be hiding a cold blooded serial killer.

No matter his intention, Cody never comes off as the irascible type, even when what becomes a full-blown investigation drives himself towards the deep end. There’s moments where we don’t know if when they finally meet he’s going to hug Virginia or stab her and the not knowing is most of the fun. Instead of confronting her about it (like a normal person would), Cody escapes into a fantasy of himself, letting this new persona of a ragged sleuth take the wheel. As an outdated, wannabe noir detective, he’s inefficient but tenacious. He’s the J.J. Gittes of Brooklyn. But his femme fatale may be the end of him.

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Virginia (Kate Lyn Sheil) is a salacious soul, a libertine of the new sexual frontier who uses her iPhone like a map to genital gold. Letting it guide her to new and uncharted carnal encounters like a treasure hunter, she comes across as cold and heartless. But while Wigon originally only wrote her as a small part to Cody’s larger quest, her final place in the film is much more substantial and rounded. A lascivious side is accented by her bookwormish other half; the art enthusiast and glory hole hussy all wrapped into one complicated young enchantress. Wigon may pass judgement on her at first, but goes on to attempt to truly understand her. The Heart Machine is not Wigon’s damnation of feminine guile so much as Shiel giving a masterclass on it.

Since the inception of apps literally designed to track down horny people in the closest possible vicinity, the world of relationships increasingly invokes a compartmentalization of love and sex. To have the two worlds wrapped in one risks too much, it dangles too much to lose. To Virginia, sex is a physical act, love the pick me up after your shotgun lover doesn’t want to cuddle. The Heart Machine is about world’s colliding, about the harlot losing her mask and the beau his sanity. It’s a bittersweet game of cat and mouse that brings a much needed 21st century update to the romance thriller and will keep you on the edge of your seat and thoroughly entrenched in the characters. While the internet makes promises of covert encounters, anonymity only works when you keep your circles separate. The question is: Are you secret, are you safe?

B+

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Talking with Zeek Earl of PROSPECT

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After premiering at SXSW 2014 in the Narrative Shorts Competition, Directors Chris Caldwell and Zeek Earl have been generating a lot of buzz around this mysterious story and the possibilities for a new series. Following it’s online release on Vimeo yesterday, Prospect has garnered a lot of attention from filmmakers and fans alike and the reaction is near-unanimous: it’s definitely good enough to merit a feature.

 

Prospect takes concepts from various sci-fi: within you can find some Star Wars, a fistful of Gravity, even a touch of Elysium. While the lush green landscape might seem friendly, the goings-on within are anything but. Prospect imbues the film’s scenic indie beauty with an ominous threat, a mystery. There’s something out there that we can’t touch. This is a new frontier, a place full of mystery and madness.

The 13-minute short, which feels more like a preview of something greater to come, follows a father-daughter combination living on an unidentified foreign planet. They seek a mysterious “Orolack,” a goopy gook that perhaps hides some terrific power. Certainly, it has some greater value, but that isn’t what they’re here for. Something deeper spurs them onwards: a dream of a better life back home, who knows? They’re spatial forager, but bigger monsters are on the hunt.

The story is mysterious and just oblique enough to engender a curious inquisitiveness. Earl and Caldwell have created a short story that’s vividly complex. The truth behind everything is hidden beneath a layer of cosmic dust. It’s got that Jumanji feel to it: you’ve come across a strange story in the attic—your curiosity urges you to open it despite an ominous feeling of imminent danger.

“This is not our world. We are aliens here,” says the father. Prospect aims at humanity’s underlying fear, the hidden: where are we welcomed, if not here? What is our home? It may look friendly, but Prospect‘s visuals instill serene discomfort. Floating dust particles create a sense of rift, like this world was torn apart long ago. Maybe an alien race once lived here. Something terrible happened in this forsaken place: ravaged, all that is left is an element whose power is unknown, and the people who risk their lives to discover it. There is something here we have yet to see that needs salvaging; something in the depths and core of this landscape that tremors, leaving behind a world broken and decomposed.

Complete with a forested space-planet, cool space suits and a Cthulu monster, Prospect is absolutely worth the watch. There is much more than meets the eye with Prospect. So believes Director Zeek Earl, who has great passion for the project and even bigger dreams to achieve: a potential feature that might come of it. Read on to learn more about the local director’s genre exploration, filming on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, and the endless possibilities Prospect has to offer.


Q: The main thing about Prospect is the fact that it takes place on this “alien” world that we don’t know too much about. There’s this distance between us and them, there’s this strange existence on this planet. How much do you think it was an exploration of the beyond, and how much do you think it was an exploration of our own planet, of our own humanity and interaction?

ZE: I think you’re going the right places. It’s definitely an exploration of humanity. We’re playing around a lot with genre, in a certain aspect. To me, it’s really a Western… My personal definition of a Western is—or at least Western’s I like—there are environments where the absolute extreme ends of humanity end up, and why they’re there is really interesting to me. You have these really hostile environments that people go to for all sorts of reasons. So, in Prospect we obviously have the “prospectors:” people going there to get rich, who are willing to make that risk. But there are all sorts of people in that environment: they’re there for religious reasons, they’re escaping. That’s something that we’re excited to explore, perhaps with a feature version.

Q: A lot of people see Prospect as a Sci-Fi but I didn’t see it as fiction as much as it was an interpretation of reality.

ZE: Yeah. What we associate with Science Fiction now, or in general, are sort of big concepts. “In the future it’s going to be like this.” But our movie, I wouldn’t even necessarily say it is in the future. It’s in a different kind of world altogether.

Q: What kind of moral or ethical questions do you think that raises?

ZE: [Laughs] I mean it’s a short film, so you only get to do so much! I always feel limited. I feel like we started and let’s just think, it could get a lot more interesting. I think the essential crux is that there’s this girl who’s been dragged to this planet by her father, and at a certain point he’s taken out of the picture. Where we kind of get to in the short film is that she’s put in the driver’s seat. She’s in the position where she’s now making the decisions. She decides to go for the gold, and kill this guy, but where does that get her? We just start to tease at that. Again, hopefully in a larger film we can do a lot more.

Q: Why did you choose a girl, choose to have that father-daughter relationship? Obviously that’s been trending a lot currently, with stories like Divergent and the Hunger Games, just an exploration of the feminine side and their handle of social structure and loss. Why do you think you went that direction?

ZE: For us it goes back to the Western angle of it. It creates some more interesting situations, to have a young girl in this crazy environment. A lot of it is hard… [Laughs] It’s hard because there’s this whole feature thing that we’re trying to make too… I guess in a larger world—we only get to tease at it in the short—she’s an unusual character there. You generally have these rough, violent characters, so when they interact with her you can have these surprising things happen because she’s not the norm in that environment.

Q: You talked about these violent characters. One thing that I really liked is the antagonist in this, the kinda “Cthulu” character that you guys had—

ZE: [Laughs] Interesting that you mention that.

Q: What was the process behind creating the design and who this character was?

ZE: Yeah, his backstory. It’s a short film—[laughs] it’s the third time I said that! I just need to own it, it is what it is! [Laughs] We wanted to create this character that had been on the planet for a really long time. You don’t know why. Perhaps he’s not struck it rich as he hoped to, perhaps he got stranded there, perhaps he lost a partner or something. He’s been there too long and he’s turned to desperation. A lot of where our design nods were coming from is that his suit is less fresh; it’s been slowly eaten away by the environment. He has a much more complicated filter system because he’s had to alter it and do all these other things to it. Again, none of this is explicitly in the movie, it’s kind of queued in the production design. We wanted to create this more desperate character. He has that filter, he has a different air system. He’s sick, he’s not well. He’s trying to get off this planet and trying to get rich like everyone else.

Q: I actually thought he might have been the best acted of the group. He did a really good job with the suit and in general giving off that really ominous feeling.

ZE: [Laughs] It was a big endeavor to make that suit, for sure.

Q: Really?

ZE: Yeah! There’s not a huge film industry in Seattle, so we got lucky to run into a guy with some really amazing production design experience. I would say that, [laughs] possibly more production design was put into that suit than everything else combined. It probably wasn’t wise even, but we just got carried away, it kept getting more fun and we had more ideas and we got more of this built-out world. It took months and months. The father and daughter, they have space helmets that we bought off Ebay. They’re high-altitude Chinese flight helmets. But, the prospector’s helmets, and everything else is all custom-made. So, you know, we were making molds for his helmet pieces, he has this one “power arm” as we called it—the arm was like an accordion type apparatus—that was all hand-sewn. It took ridiculous time and effort but the two guys who were making it—Matt Acosta and Nick Van Strander—just went all out.

Q: That’s definitely what I’m most excited about if you guys do get to make a feature, to see all the different space-suits for all the different “Sectors” or atmospheres that come together and make this world a different place. You talked about production. $28,000: was that spent mostly on the costumes, was it spent on cameras?

ZE: Pretty much, it all went into production design and production support when we were actually shooting. My producer Chris and I, we run Shep Films which is a commercial company here in Seattle, so we actually have access to all the technical tools for the most part. Cameras and stuff were things that we already had invested in as part of our commercial business. Really, all of that money went into buying materials to make everything, we had to pay location fees, we were putting up transportation and housing and feeding our crew—which ranged from 18 to 25 people for four-five days. It’s funny, things pop up all the time. For example we only budgeted so much for radios, so we got these cheap radios that you get from REI or something, but then we tested them and they worked terribly in the forest. It was really important that our crew be able to communicate over distances in the forest, so then we had to rent these nice radios. Just little things that you don’t anticipate really add up.

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First-time actress Callie Harlow plays a rogue Prospector seeking wealth alongside her father on a far-off planet.

Q: What was the biggest challenge? You said you didn’t have much experience in After Effects, or at least making the dust particle effect we see in the movie. Was that the toughest thing or was it more the production itself?

ZE: When I think through making the film, it’s definitely a matter of what stage you’re in. We had really big challenges with production design: making little things, running out of time, running out of money. But then we completed that, so then we went to production. And that challenge was hugely logistical. Getting all these people organized and getting on set, managing time and everything. The weather was an obstacle, so we had to coordinate with all the weather patterns. We did all natural lighting, so that was challenging. And, as you pointed out in post-production, it was very tough to do this dust stuff. It was a very different type of challenge. It involved me sitting down, weeks on end, by myself, in front of a computer, not freaking out in the forest in a matter of hours. We edited in Premiere, color graded in Resolve and the dust and stuff were made in After Effects.

Q: You shot on Blackmagic Cameras. What did you like about that camera, what didn’t you like?

ZE: I really like the camera. We didn’t have the bones to shoot on Alexa, which is my favorite camera. But the Blackmagic is a good second: it has really great dynamic range, a really great texture. They’re crazy cheap for what they deliver. The cost difference between a Blackmagic and higher end cameras is just incredible. We jumped on them right away. I like the color profile better than the RED cameras, which are extremely more expensive. I prefer to shoot on Blackmagic than on a RED.

The challenge with Blackmagic: it has a pretty tight sensor, which turned out OK in the forest because you can generally just keep backing up as much as you need to. In the tent scenes, which were really tight, I felt like we weren’t in complete control of those. Now they make something called a Speed Booster—which we have, but it didn’t exist back then for this model—that widens the whole angle, makes it more similar to a 35mm perspective. That’s really awesome but we didn’t have that back then.

Q: When did you film this?

ZE: Uhh… [Laughs] April of last year. A long time ago!

Q: Well there you can get a perspective of how long it takes to make even a film this short.

ZE: Yeah, interestingly our first short film that we made actually took like two weeks to make and cost like no money. It’s totally based on the type of film you’re making. It’s interesting seeing the comments on the film. There are a lot of people saying, “Why did you make this film? Why did you take so long to make this film?” and they’re right. You can definitely make cool stuff for less money and less time, and we’re hoping to do that with a feature. But we are really trying to do something original with the production and design.

Q: How tough was it to film on the Peninsula?

ZE: The funny thing about filming in the rain forest was that it was supposed to rain the entire time we were there, and instead ended up being freakishly sunny. We had planned for rain including building custom rain gear for all the equipment. With the crazy weather change we decided to film at dawn and dusk instead… so the challenged turned from escaping the wet to having to get up really early. It was a lot of driving and long days, but it was such an incredibly beautiful place to hang out in we didn’t mind at all.

Q: What do you feel you learned the most from this project, going forward?

ZE: Oh man. For us, this was so much bigger than anything we had ever done. It involved so many more people, so much more planning. I can’t believe how much we burnt on every single facet. Assembling a crew, approaching production, approaching post-production, the whole thing just really showed us new stuff on every single level. I can’t even plant it. It was so across the board, we feel much more confident about making a film now than we did a year ago.

Q: What advice can you give to somebody who may be looking to make a short or a feature, who maybe has some lofty goals but doesn’t have money, or the time, or maybe the ambition? What would you say?

ZE: Well the ambition, I can’t do anything about. [Laughs] You’ve got to have the ambition. When you’re making a film, you have to have a tremendous amount of drive and perseverance. It’s not a casual endeavor. Our first short film, which really launched our career, was made for practically nothing. It’s called In The Pines and it was us just hiking around. We had one actress, and we hiked around in the woods for a couple of days. We built a concept around our limitations. We didn’t have money. We had a camera that could do limited things. We had this idea and it was a simple idea and we were able to execute it with practically nothing.

I’ve never been to film school, but you can’t just “Dream Big.” [Laughs] That might be the antithesis of what your goals should be for the future, but don’t dream big. You’ve got to figure out what you can do, and then do that really well within those limitations. People will admire what you can do with those limitations.

Another little bit of advice, the internet has been hugely important to our career. Our first short being a “Picked By Staff” on Vimeo really opened up a world of opportunities for us. Film festivals have been awesome and great but where we really see things happening now is online. Find your audience, find your niche, and make something for that niche. They’ll buoy you up.

Q: You’ve raised a lot of money on Kickstarter, would you like to stay grassroots, raising money online or are you looking forward to working with a budget maybe more studio-financed?

ZE: Both? We built up with Kickstarter, one of the bigger things that we got from it were the volunteers, the people who offered their services, time and connections that were even more valuable. I don’t think we could, very easily at all, raise the money for a feature on Kickstarter. We actually met with some people from the company down at SXSW. What they suggested to do was raise part of the money online, maybe for one element of production. We want to stay in control of our films, and the types of films that we want to make, we can make them very inexpensively from an industry perspective. We want to make a movie on our own terms, and make it in Washington.

Be sure to check out Prospect and other projects from Zeek Earl at ShepFilms.com, and don’t forget to catch the short online

http://vimeo.com/90049558

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SXSW Review: THE HEART MACHINE

“The Heart Machine”
Directed by Zachary Wigon
Starring John Gallagher Jr., Kate Lyn Sheil, David Call, Libby Woodbridge, Louisa Krause, Halley Wegryn Gross, RJ Brown
Drama, Thriller
85 Mins 
United States

Would you fall in love in the wild, wild west of romance that is online dating? What if you believe that your betrothed were living in a foreign country only to discover that they are instead a mere stone’s throw away? Would you get jealous? Angry? Violent? Director and writer Zachary Wigon provides his surreptitious take on the ‘romance as app’ generation in what can only be described as a romantic thriller in The Heart Machine. Read More

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SXSW Review: SEQUOIA

“Sequoia”
Directed by Andy Landen
Starring Aly Michalka, Dustin Milligan, Sophi Bairley, Todd Lowe, Joey Lauren Adams, Demetri Martin
Comedy, Drama, Romance
86 Mins
United States

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Coming to terms with your own mortality is not something that a 20something should have to do. But disease has a will of its own. Instead of drifting off to sleep in some cushy bed at a ripe old age or being blindsided by a simple, but nonetheless devastating, twist of change, disease is the worst of fates because you have to live with the knowledge of what’s to come. Anyone with cancer or AIDS can look at where they’ll be a few months or maybe years down the line, how their humanity and agency will be whittled away until they are a shell of what they once were. This hellish circumstance demands a timeline marked with fates worse than fading away physically. It involves the slow death of self; the disappearance of what gives you meaning into a vacuous machine of needs, a pill-popping potato of tubes and drips. For the self-sufficient young adult, there is no crueler sentence.

In this Kevorkian-as-criminal age, people in this demoralized position are faced with only two options: sticking it out until the bitter end or taking their own lives. In both impossible cases, there is no dignity. We live in a generation where the ailing must suffer for their sufferings, where shame accompanies pain, where people who just want to crawl up like a dog under a shed and close their eyes are seen as criminals by the merciless laws of the gun-totting right. Instead, the victimized are strong-armed into dying penniless and in excruciating pain. After all, that’s the American way.

Sequoia tells the story of Riley (Aly Michalka), a 23-year old with irreversible oral cancer. Laid out with news that she’s entered the fourth and final stage of her affliction and faced with the reality that the next step in the process involves sawing off  her lower jaw (even though the odds would still be 80% against her favor), Riley has decided to take her own life in the serenity of Sequoia National Park. She muddles up a few bottles of sleeping pills, spikes her water with it, and waits for the white light.

Along the way, she runs into Christian-on-a-mission Ogden (Dustin Milligan) who becomes an unlikely confidante. In the spirit of good Christian spirit, he agrees to accompany Riley through her final day after her plans with her younger, helplessly punk rock sister Van (Sophi Bairley) fall through. Ogden soon knows that Riley’s  slurped down her deadly cocktail but the moral dilemma to follow overcomes him. Likewise, audience members are prompted to ask themselves where they side here. Is there a right choice or just a shitty situation no matter how the dice fall? Likely the latter, but again, that’s up to you.

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Back at the homestead, Van crashes her dad’s car and is forced to spill the beans to her and Riley’s separated and heedless parental unit. Dad, Oscar (Todd Lowe), swallows the news like a sack of potatoes, choking on the idea of losing his daughter so imminently, while Mom, Bev (Joey Lauren Adams), aided by new psychologist boyfriend and resident douche Steve (Demetri Martin) shrugs it off as a cry for attention. Their little girl is going to off herself, Oscar pleads. They have to do something.

Instead of trying to come to terms with Riley’s lucid justification for suicide, they rush across the state to her side to try and stop her from fulfilling her one tragic wish. There’s no intellectual vigil to hold, no meditative stasis, their gut reaction is the instinctual response of an animal whose young is in danger. They protect witlessly, they defend without thought for what they’re fighting for. 

Disease is the death of possibility, it’s being teether to an IV. It’s watching medical bills skyrocket past reasonable sums, the only will that you’ll then be able to pass on. It’s bearing witness to the forlorn faces of loved ones trying to remain strong for you. Suicide may be an escape but to call it cowardly in this circumstance is simple-minded and borderline pigheaded. Let’s just say that if there is a God turning those who have decided to take their own lives rather than rot from the inside out, I would love to give him a piece of my mind.

An old wives tale says that if you touch a baby bird, the mother will abandon it, leaving it to starve to death. Of course the anecdote is bogus, an invention of moms who don’t want their children poking around at nasty birds. In the animal kingdom, animals are irrevocably tied to their offspring (that is when they’re not busy eating them). No matter how many feathers may be ruffled on your young, most will battle against all odds until the bitter end. Old feuds fade, past wrongs erased, in the moment of trigger pulling, there is only the need to save your young. Ironically enough, at least in Riley’s case, this parental instinct becomes more a curse than anything. Instead of just letting her go the way she wants, they demand to keep her around, jaw or no.

Writer Andrew Rothschild said the idea for Sequoia came from a nightmarish period where he had himself convinced he was riddled with cancer. Thankfully, he did not. All his  worrying was for naught. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case, a truth that Riley knows only too well. His helplessly affecting story is much a commentary on the US health care system as it is a solemn ballad to those who took their lives for just cause. It’s heartbreak city but at least it tries to laugh its way to the end of the highway.

With Rothchild’s tenderly biting words married to Michalka’s soul-melting performance, director Andy Landen proves there’s still a place for storytellers with a unwavering voice and a powerful message. He makes Sequoia painfully honest and emotionally gutting, wistful but never sentimental. Watching it unfold is like listening to your mom tell the baby bird story. Michalka plays the baby bird perfectly, putting in an absolutely devastating performance, marked equally with wry deathbed humor and a kind of frankness only someone on their way out the door can offer. Disheveled and morose though she may be, baby momma still brings the worm in the end, but at what cost?

A-

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