It’s notoriously difficult to get a mid-budget sci-fi film off the ground. For Zeek Earl and co- director Chris Caldwell, launching Prospect, their first feature, was a process that spanned five years and two short films. They made good use of the time, though—each short garnered more attention online and on the festival circuit, thus attracting agents, producers, and financiers. And in the doldrums between pitching Prospect and getting it financed to shoot, the co-directors perfected their world-building by rewriting the script and investing in the intricate production design. By the time they were ready to shoot, they had a detailed roadmap for their $4 million budget and a firm grasp on their characters and story. As a result, Prospect pushes the bounds of the indie sci-fi genre by creating a wholly original world filled with the texture of verisimilitude.
Prospect stars Sophie Thatcher as Cree, a teenager who finds herself in a struggle for survival when she and her father Damon (Jay Duplass), who are harvesting gems hidden in the depths of a remote alien moon, encounter unexpected challenges in the frontier territory.
We caught up with Earl just after the film’s release on Hulu to discuss how he built out the film’s universe, logistically and creatively, and the lessons he learned along the way.
Assemble: Prospect was born of two short films. How did you parlay the success of those shorts into the development of the feature version?
Zeek Earl: Well, it was a period of five years! I’ll start from the beginning.
When I graduated from college, I always wanted to get into filmmaking, but I graduated into the recession. No one was hiring, so I ended up starting my own small production company with a friend. We started doing video content and commercials and slowly built this little business, but we always had the goal of pivoting into narrative film. We used the resources of that little company to do two short films. We wanted to create this business model that gave us the freedom to take a month or two off and totally focus on a creative project. Practically speaking, we had the gear to do it. Of course, we needed to raise money for production, too.
[The first short film] In the Pines started with the concept of using macrophotography to create this really strong visual atmosphere and this alien feeling as you discover that the film is about alien abduction. It was sort of a cheap visual trick, but it worked! We got into SXSW and got attention. Being from Seattle, the film community up here is vibrant, but small and hyper-local. Getting to go to SXSW, I got to meet a lot of other filmmakers. It was my introduction to the larger community, which was huge for me.
After that, my writing-directing partner Chris [Caldwell] and I started doing bigger commercials. Our business grew, and we expanded our abilities. At the same time, we had our sights set on a second short film, which we called Prospect. What we learned with In the Pines is that people liked it on the internet—it did better there than in festivals. It got the attention of Hollywood, but we were unprepared to [turn that interest] into a feature film. We never really intended on doing anything more of it. So when we approached Prospect, the idea was to make a template for a larger film—a world, a universe, characters that you could expand upon with a feature. I’ve always had an interest in otherworldly science fiction and felt like I could offer a distinctive perspective on it. We formed this plan that was very much tailored to the location of a rainforest—we wanted to cast that as an alien planet—and we started thinking about Western themes, and how to translate that into a sci-fi context.
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Assemble: You mentioned that you’d built an open-ended world. But did you have a more specific vision for Prospect the feature when you released Prospect the short?
Earl: I think we thought we did. [Laughs] Turning Prospect into a feature from the short was a three-year process. Film financing is notoriously difficult, and it took forever. We rewrote the first draft of the screenplay three times. It really evolved. That was a symptom of us being first- time filmmakers. We were learning about how to do it as we did it. I was even surprised in the editing room that some of the things that I thought were vital to the film we ended up cutting. Prospect for me was film school. It was a huge learning process.
Assemble: How did the screenplay evolve over those different drafts? Did you get input from anyone that was particularly helpful?
Earl: We got advice from Chris Weitz, who is a big Hollywood producer and director. He essentially made this project happen. He jumped on as a producer and got us very connected. He gave us really good notes that very much informed the later drafts.
Meeting with [potential] financiers, the reactions were helpful to learn from. We saw how the script played in the minds of purely financially-minded people. Filmmaking at the level we were at—the film cost just under $4 million to make—is a small budget for sci-fi, but it’s enough of a budget that you are very much in a financially-minded marketplace. That’s true even more so now than then. I don’t think we made the film necessarily more commercial because of that, but it very much guided who we ultimately gravitated towards. There were people who wanted to triple the budget and do all this CGI, and then there were people who wanted to treat it like an indie film. We gravitated towards those people. We did that because we wanted to delve deeper into the characters, but you know, if your project gets too big and you’re a first-time filmmaker, you’re very likely to get kicked off of it.
One of the biggest influences on the script was the actor Sharlto Copley, who was interested in playing Pedro Pascal’s character for a while. We had a meet-and-greet call with him that turned into a three-hour improvised lecture on screenwriting. The guy is an amazing improvisor. He had these really strong opinions that were a good shock to Chris and I in terms of how he saw the movie. We ended up doing a huge rewrite because of that. He didn’t end up doing the movie, but I think he ended up making the movie a lot better. He shook things up. It was such a long, crazy process, but I’m glad that we had that time. If we’d have shot the first version of the script, who knows if the film would have worked.
Assemble: During that time, I’m sure you had time to work on the concepting of the film’s production design. Tell me a bit about that process.
Earl: The production design was very DIY. We did the short film with a close circle of friends who had very good taste and could make things, and we executed the feature with that same circle of friends, just expanding upon it and adding more artists. That was one of the biggest benefits of having the short film become more visible online—it drew artists to us. As opposed to reaching out to any institutionalized production design company upon getting financing, we just worked with this art collective that we had been working with for years. We ended up several layers deeper than you would get time for in a normal film production process.
Assemble: What was most important to you in terms of world-building when it came to the script?
Earl: For me, it’s the most fun thing to do. It’s what I’m naturally drawn to—creating a world that feels really complete and seamless. I’m one of the really annoying sci-fi fans that just can’t take sci-fi seriously unless I feel totally immersed. I’m really nit-picky about details; if I’m bothered by a certain bit of production design, that will ruin my experience [of a film].
To be able to design this world and execute it was really thrilling, because we had not only a long development period, but we fought for seven months of pre-production, which for an indie film is massive. We opened up our own shop. Every day, I was with this really cool set of people we’d assembled. None of them were pros in the industry. You meet a lot of production design professionals, and the business is speed. They never have very much time. But the people that I was working with didn’t even know that you were supposed to rush through set dressing, so they built complete environments. All of our sets were 360! It was a passion project for everybody. Almost nobody had worked on a feature film before. It was very stressful and chaotic—probably a lot of inefficiencies because we didn’t know what we were doing half the time, but these people were always willing to work into the night to finish something just because they wanted it to be immaculate. When you have that extended effort across the board, it creates something that’s really special.
Assemble: What was the philosophy behind the design? I noticed it was very retro- futuristic and practical.
Earl: It comes down to the feeling of the story. We didn’t want the production design to feel that futuristic. We wanted it to feel like a period piece. We wanted it to feel lived-in. We wanted you to feel like technology is not going to save you. These helmets around their faces are just a thin layer between them and their survival. We wanted it to feel like it would be their decisions that would drive the story, not the technology.
Assemble: How did you work with the DP to build out that vision in the cinematography?
Earl: Well, I was the DP! [Laughs] I co-directed the film, so that allowed me to also shoot it. At times, we could split it up. I could focus on rendering the visual side of things, and he could work with the actors.
I had a really long time to figure out how to shoot the film, which is good—I absolutely needed it. I was driven to make something that would distinguish itself in the genre.
Probably the most notable thing is that we had a set of custom lenses made by this British guy Richard Gale who takes old Soviet optics and rehouses them along with some new glass to create cinema lenses that have a very organic, soft texture. They have these custom aperture rings so you can actually unscrew the back of the lens and insert an aperture shape of your choosing. If you look at the bokeh of the film—the out of focus space—it’s being stretched like an anamorphic lens, but even more so. There’s a 3x anamorphic stretch. What that means is that when you’re looking at the moss of the forest, when it’s out of focus, it’s being warped vertically to an extreme degree. That was not only to create a distinct texture for the film, but it also makes this earthly location even more alien-feeling on a subconscious level. It helps sell that immersive experience.
Assemble: Is there a particular scene that you remember was a challenge to shoot and direct at the same time?
Earl: Probably half of them! [Laughs] One in particular is that we didn’t realize how hard it would be to work with the helmets. There are airholes, but still, there’s limited oxygen, so doing long takes is hard, moving is hard, they fog up constantly. We developed a quick-swap visor system, so if a visor fogs up, it’s magnetic so you can rip it off and put on another one. We had to get a whole support staff just to handle that.
We had plans for everything, but I don’t think we ultimately realized what the cost of that was. It was such a logistically difficult film to execute. As a result, we got to do [fewer] takes. We got to spend less time perfecting certain scenes. The days that were really hard were because of logistical reasons that limited the time we had. The best days were the days when the logistics didn’t get in the way and we got to focus on perfecting the scene.
Assemble: It looks like you used mostly natural lighting. What was your approach?
Earl: In the forest, particularly, it is almost complete natural lighting. That’s partially because any lights had to be more or less in-scene because they would reflect in the visors of the helmets. But natural lighting was what we planned on from the start. I love natural lighting. I love working with the forest in the Pacific Northwest. It was really the only way to [shoot] it—the logistics of getting generators and grips out into the middle of nowhere, particularly in protected tree-dense areas, is really hard. If you just learn to work with the natural light, you can get some really beautiful, interesting footage. However, it limits your shooting time. That’s why barely anybody does it. You may only have a four-hour window because of the angle of the sun. But these were risks I was willing to take because I was a first-timer, because I was naïve.
Assemble: It did seem like you and Chris were willing to take a lot of ambitious risks because you were first-timers.
Earl: We were both ignorant idiots, yes.
Assemble: How did you and Chris navigate the process of co-directing?
Earl: Chris and I went to college together and started this company right out school, and we’ve been working together now for over ten years. It’s just kind of our system that developed. We both know each other’s strengths and weaknesses very well. We know each others’ territory— what things we need to discuss, or what decisions we can just kind of make independently. It was a very harmonious process.
There was one scene were I wanted [Sophie Thatcher’s character] to push a button on her suit, and Chris thought that was stupid, and we got into a two-minute argument about it. Everyone thought it was the funniest thing because it was the first time something like that had happened, you know, 25 days into shooting.
Really, this film was so difficult to make, that to make it with someone else was amazing. You have this support system—you’re not just sitting there alone having to make every single final decision. That’s exhausting. The energy required creatively to make this film was little above- average.
Also, we cast Jay Duplass in the film. The Duplass Brothers are one of the most famous co- directing pairs. We were able to ask Jay all these questions about how he and Mark co-directed films. We learned a lot and got a lot of great advice.
Assemble: What was some of that advice?
Earl: On their HBO show, which was a really intensive effort, there would be days where Jay would say, “Today, you’re President and I’m Vice-President.” They would just kind of pivot like that, and that’s fine if you’ve done the prep correctly. You should be able to sub in and out interchangeably, depending on each other’s energy levels.
Assemble: You used some practical effects as opposed to VFX.
Earl: I did a lot of practical VFX—things that are not computer-generated. They’re physical, but then composited. It’s a fine distinction. For example, the dust from the rainforest is from my basement. It’s not a computer-generated effect. For me, particle generators all look fake. So I just got a camera and spent two days in a very dark space, kicking up dust from the floor and capturing it from different angles and from different lenses, and we made a library that was then composited onto each frame. That took way longer than we anticipated. A computer-generated effect would have saved probably a month’s worth of compositing, but I’m absolutely in love with and stand by the final effect. It feels so much more organic.
Similarly, the father and daughter’s drop-pod—the interior plays a big role in the movie, but every time you see an exterior, that’s an actual miniature. But we didn’t bring that miniature on site and trick you, perspective-wise, to put it on camera—the team was working on detailing that while we were shooting, and then in post-production we took it out to the park to match the lighting, shot it, and then composited it in. The level of detail is so much more real and high fidelity compared to a computer-generated model.
Assemble: Now that you have your first film under your belt, what will you do differently next time, that you learned as a result of trial and error on this film?
Earl: It’s like a million small things. To boil it down, it really comes down to time management. If you’re an aspiring filmmaker who’s only worked on short films, you maybe don’t realize that’s the biggest challenge of making a feature film. When you’re making a short film or a personal project, your biggest resource is time. You are doing everything yourself. You’re making less content overall, and you can spend more time perfecting it. When you’re doing a feature film, you just don’t have that luxury. You have a certain amount of days, so every complication means spending time. Going into Prospect, I don’t think I realized what I would be spending my time on, and how valuable that time is.
Now, I’m working on several scripts, and even as I’m writing, I’m thinking about spending that time. It’s like, I want a full two days to pull this off, and I’m going to do this a little differently so I can accomplish that in one day. I’m a perfectionist, so to essentially call it quits on something because we ran out of time is the worst feeling. I’m going to do everything I can to avoid that on the next one.