In 2011, amidst unsuccessful and recession-induced job hunts, longtime friends Chris Caldwell and Zeek Earl decided to form their own production company, Shep Films. At first, their Fremont-based company focused on making commercials, but the two decided they wanted to grow in more creative directions. Soon, Shep became a place where Caldwell and Earl could create short films—like In The Pines, which debuted at SXSW in 2012. Now, though, the duo have continued their development and are set to release their first feature film, Prospect (based on a short film of the same name) for this year’s SXSW. The feature—which follows a young girl (Sophie Thatcher) on an alien planet as she fends off harm coming at her from all sides—is tense, dramatic, and includes some standout cameos that I won't mention; it also stars Pedro Pascal and Jay Duplass, the latter of whom is involved with another Seattle-produced film that is also showing at SXSW, Lynn Shelton's Outside In.
To get a sense of how the ambitious debut came together, I chatted with Caldwell and Earl about some of the film’s odd details, and what they learned while making it...
What made you want to make a movie about the difficulty of getting home—and then set it in outer space?
Caldwell: I think a big impetus for the movie were these immersive worlds full of depth that feel like they’re alive. Then we wanted to use that type of platform to tell a story that’s a little bit more focused, about the characters that nobody cares about. We wanted a Star Wars-level universe but we weren’t concerned with the fate of the world, just this one girl’s experience and survival.
Earl: We were Star Wars kids growing up. We loved these big worlds. But, personally, I was always attracted to the weirder characters as a young person. When you grow up, you experience more sophisticated films. But I always had a desire to combine that depth of world building with actual characters, interesting people, to make it feel relatable.
How did you come up with the harvesting of precious gems idea?
Caldwell: A lot of this stuff was established with our short film, which played at SXSW in 2014. But many of the themes come from Western influences. Like, these smaller characters on the wild fringes of an original universe. In a lot of ways, there’s a gold rush parallel. It’s about people who have no money, flinging themselves into extreme and desperate situations to change their lives. In a lot of ways, it’s how people went out on the frontier to try and strike gold. The harvesting is of this cosmetic gem, valued for it’s aesthetic uses. And these people are throwing their lives on the line for a false value.
Earl: As far as the harvesting, we wanted it to involve a process that required skill and knowledge. We wanted it to be a dirty job. You had to get down there and do it. And we thought it would be a fun idea to have something beautiful coming out of something disgusting—we were always trying to make it grosser.
Where did you shoot the movie?
Earl: We shot in two locations. One was in the Hoh Rainforest on the Olympic Peninsula, a place Chris and I have been attracted to for years. We’ve been hiking and backpacking along the Hoh River. We shot the short there and it’s a place I routinely visit. When it came to shooting the movie, there were specific trees that I had ideas for. It’s a really intimate, personal place for us.
Then, the other side of it, we shot all the spaceship interiors in Seattle. One of the weirdest things about this movie and it’s process is that Seattle, as a film town, isn’t really set up to do production-heavy films. And it was always our plan to create the actual infrastructure. So, we made a shop, got a warehouse in Fremont, hired everybody, got the tools and made all these spaceship interiors. The space also functioned as a production office and studio—really, it was like our clubhouse. The Prospect family spent seven months making all this stuff there.
Was it difficult to get the movie made?
Earl: Getting a feature film financed as first time directors, especially a movie of this magnitude, is a marathon. After we made the short film, that got us connected to our producers. The main producer, Chris Weitz, is this big time Hollywood guy. He loved our short and gave us the resource of his company to try and get it financed, which took years. Numerous finance deals fell through. But after years and years, we found a company in Canada, Bron Studios, which took a closer look and decided to take a gamble and it worked out.
Caldwell: The short was always intended to be a feature, but in retrospect, we didn’t really know what we were doing. It premiered at SXSW and picked up steam because we put it online immediately afterwards. We took a trip to L.A. to take meetings and just scrambled to put a treatment together. But the short continued to do well online. We’d met a handful of folks at SXSW who were trying to capitalize on their short film, hoping to get distribution. But we thought it was much more effective to get as many eyes on it as possible and leverage that into people getting excited for the feature in the future.
What’s next for Prospect?
Earl: It premieres Saturday [March 10]. After that, it’s unknown. We are for sale! We’re talking to prospective buyers. We submitted it to SIFF and hopefully they like it. The future is largely unknown.
How did the process of making the film change or challenge you?
Earl: I think the process just made me realize the limitations of being human. Chris and I wrote and directed it together and I was the cinematographer. I shot the movie and was incredibly involved in the production right alongside our production designer. I wanted to do everything, right down to the shade of pink on a prop. But you just can’t be that way. You have to hire an amazing team and I slowly learned to rely on them.
Caldwell: Throughout pre-production and production, it was beat after beat of realizing how ambitious some of the things we set out to do were. Like extended monologues with all the actors in space helmets! A lot of what we learned—it’s like the old platitude—it’s a team effort. We couldn’t have done it without pretty much everyone across the board going above and beyond what was expected.
Earl: This film kicked the shit out of us. But as soon as we stopped, we wanted to make another one.