Prospect is described as a sci-fi Western. The story follows a father-daughter team searching a moon for a rare substance and finding a dangerous world and deadly foes. This is the first feature film distributed by Gunpowder & Sky's sci-fi label DUST. It opens this Friday, November 2, in New York and Los Angeles, followed by a wider distribution thereafter.
The panel at L.A. Comic Con was moderated by Scott Mantz and featured Sophie Thatcher (Cee), Jay Duplass (Damon) and writers/directors Chris Caldwell and Zeek Earl. The discussion included insights into making the film, including the creators' sci-fi inspirations and goals, the prep work and background development, the rigors of filming in costume on cramped sets and on location, and how it all came together to produce a unique experience.
Watch the official trailer here.
See the exclusive L.A. Comic Con clip (SPOILERS) here.
Mantz: What was your inspiration behind this?
Earl: The starting point was the forest where we shot the movie up in Washington state. Chris and I growing up went hiking, backpacking and camping there, and it always felt this could be the backdrop for an alien world so we starting discussing what sort of characters and scenarios could exist in this location?
Caldwell: There's a whole stew of ideas when it came to what we wanted to see in science fiction. One of the things that was most important to us was original universe science fiction. This goes back to that experience of immersion that you get when you're a kid and a lot of the films that we grew up on like the original Star Wars trilogy, Alien and Blade Runner. We wanted the world to feel like it was alive and densely detailed. And at the same time, both a factor of working with limited resources as well as a kind of Western blend, we focused on kind of a smaller, more intimate story. This isn't about heroes battling over the fate of the universe, these are blue collar people that are just trying to scrape by.
Mantz: You've got the sci-fi element, the Western element, and you also have a coming of age story. How did you blend those fusions, and balance them out?
Caldwell: Starting from the conception of the short film, which centered very much around this father/daughter relationship and the daughter being put into a situation where she has to grow up really fast, and then the other layer of that was the world-building development that we did, one of the surprising things for us over the experience of taking this film from the short to the feature film was that it took a long time. We spent a long time trying to get the financing together to get to the green light. But what ultimately happened over the course of those years was we were always going back to the script and to the world. We were working with key collaborators that were constantly pumping out ideas that just deepened the world in terms of coming up with new angles on the culture and the histories and that kind of thing.
Mantz: In terms of casting, it's an intimate film, there are a lot of quiet moments. What were you looking for when you were casting these three main roles?
Earl: One of the things that immediately stood out about Sophie's tape was that not only was she a very competent actor but that she kind of had a sense of timelessness. Prospect doesn't take place in a contemporary world; you don't want Cee to feel like a normal American teenager, you want her to feel like she's from somewhere else and Sophie had this kind of quality that she could be in a period piece, which is often how we talked about prospect.
Mantz: Sophie, how did this come about for you and how did you connect with the directors of the movie to nail down the character?
Thatcher: I was sent the audition from my agents, and a lot of the auditions I do are self-taped. I got a callback, I did the self-tape for that and they flew me out to Seattle, and I read through the script and I was really drawn to Cee's character. Her character trajectory as she grows into this really powerful young woman -- that's what struck me. When we met, I trusted them, and I feel like this is going to be a special project.
Mantz: Jay, how did you connect with these guys and their approach to making this movie, since you've done so much behind the camera as well? And when you first met Sophie, how did you formulate the father/daughter relationship?
Duplass: I read the script, and I saw their first film, a short film that basically contained the seeds of this world. The way that they hand make everything felt very familiar to me. I really just love that they have great vision and it's original. When I Skyped with them, they're super smart, super conscientious and good communicators. One of the things that I needed in order to do the movie was to see the tape of the girl that was going to play Cee because that's pretty much everything. And they showed me the tape and in the first 10 seconds I was, like, she's amazing, I'll do it.
Mantz: When you first started working together, Sophie and Jay, how did you expand on the relationship that was originally established in the script?
Duplass: We just hung out a lot at first. There was a lot of getting up to speed on the universe that these guys built, so we were just making each other laugh and getting used to it. We both understood from them that what they wanted was a very realistic rendition of a father/daughter relationship. They wanted it to be kind of hard because these guys are going through hard times.
Thatcher: We would improvise, and that helped with the mindset of the character, getting to that natural sense of the relationship.
Caldwell: The first week of shooting you guys spent it in that pod, which was a 360-degree set and it was very cramped and there were all the camera guys in there. You couldn't stand up, you were always hunched over. Aesthetically that was something we were really going for, we wanted space travel to feel tedious and arduous, it's a grind. At the same time I think that helped expedite the formation of that relationship. Because of the grind of space travel, obviously one of the movies that I really thought about was Alien, which was such a huge inspiration on this movie. Another film I thought about was Outland, just in terms of how unpleasant looking space can be. And also some of the early films of John Carpenter.
Earl: Jay, I forgot that you kind of had to go to school for this movie. We don't let the characters just push buttons and fly up into space. There's like a 10-minute long sequence of you doing all the flight stuff.
Duplass: Yeah we went through the sequence of what it means to undock your pod from a space station, to launch toward a planet, to land it in an atmosphere, to go through atmosphere, to pull a parachute. It was a sequence of no less than 25 directives that I had to memorize. It started to seem really freaking intimidating. What we ended up doing is we did it live, you guys filmed it for me, ordered me through all the buttons to push and then I basically spent the next two weeks memorizing this sequence. I spent way more time on that sequence than I did on the script! It's kind of like a Toyota Corolla, this pod, it's an old piece of equipment in this world, so it had to be as if it's what I do on a regular basis. It had to be very seamless.
Earl: So they're going to this toxic alien moon in essentially a Gold Rush scenario to harvest this valuable substance out of the ground. And you had to learn how many steps for that?
Duplass: That was probably another 25.
Earl: And the other thing I want to point out is that there are several original languages that we developed for the film and you see in the first few minutes of the movie Sophie writes it fluently. It's super impressive that she had to learn an entirely new way of writing. How long did that take?
Thatcher: It took like three weeks, because you sent me it before filming.
Earl: It's like a four-second shot and I think that's the only time you see it.
Mantz: How did you make it all feel so easy-looking?
Thatcher: I called you guys and we discussed her backstory, and this was months before filming, so I had an idea of who she was.
Caldwell: A lot of this conversation we're having now about all this tedious detail goes back to it being a stylized space Western adventure but at the same time we wanted it to feel really grounded within its own world. We get off on those little details. Apollo 13 was one of my favorite movies growing up. We were big NASA fanboys and we wanted to capture some of that. We wanted to go through that experience with the characters. Not only that, part of the premise of the film is that these people don't have a lot of money, and spacecraft and good equipment are expensive, so they're in the space equivalent of a U-Haul, something that's rented, that a bunch of people have abused, and they're risking their lives. So a lot of the tedium that these guys had to go through was to give the world that grounded feel.
Mantz: Sophie, because you're in every scene, do you ever get to the point where you're, like, whoa!?
Thatcher: The scariest part for me was being able to portray her character arc gracefully. It helped that we were filming it in order. I remember leaving the set feeling more confident as Cee feels more confident, as she starts standing up for herself. The feeling stayed with me.
Mantz: So you filmed this chronologically, which is a luxury in this field. How rewarding was that for you to direct a film just as you wrote it?
Caldwell: I think it was really important because the entire film is through Cee's eyes and we wanted to preserve that trajectory. At its heart it is a coming of age story, and we wanted to preserve that.
Mantz: Both of you, you're in a spacesuit the whole time. What was that like?
Thatcher: The first week was really difficult because it wasn't easy to breathe but then they worked through that. It kind of served as an acting tool: Once I put on the helmet, I became that character.
Earl: You know like in Prometheus, and a lot of sci-fi movies, about five minutes in they come up with an excuse to take their helmets off. We didn't in Prospect. Our characters don't get to escape this environment. It's a survival story: They're stuck on this toxic moon, they're stuck in their environmental suits, and I think we must have set some sort of record for amount of scenes in the suits. I had to ask Jay before this if he had permanent neck damage and thankfully he does not. But we really didn't realize what we were signing out cast up for because this was a physically rigorous process. We were out on location in an actual rain forest hiking in these suits. Thank you, guys.
Thatcher: They gave me a helmet just a couple months before so I could get used to it.
Earl: Yeah we shipped Sophie a motorcycle helmet to strengthen her neck.
Thatcher: And I took some martial arts classes ...
Earl: That's part of it. You're trained astronauts. Miners, really. You've got to be like, "Yeah I wear this thing all the time."
Duplass: Like Sophie said, the whole first day she and I were freaking out. We were like, we can't breathe! We were doing these walking scenes and I couldn't say the lines because I was hyperventilating. And I was like, it feels like I'm nervous but I don't feel nervous; I think we don't have air! It's so disorienting. You're trapped in this thing, these guys are talking to us on headphones, other people are talking but you can't hear them, you're in a rain forest where it's beautiful for the first 24 hours then it's just stuff to trip over. The next day we would cut holes here. The first week we were just adjusting the helmets. And the suits, like we need a pee hole in the suit otherwise it takes 25 minutes off set to go urinate somewhere. There was a lot of strategy involved.
Mantz: Sophie what was it like to spend the majority of your screen time with Pedro Pascal (Ezra)? It's a battle of wits but it's also an uneasy alliance.
Thatcher: Their connection is really interesting. At first she doesn't trust him but then she opens up to him and tells him things that she probably never told her father because they spend so much time together they have to trust each other if they're going to make it out alive. And Pedro is just an amazing guy. He brought this energy and this lightheartedness to the set that really helped.
Mantz: Tell us about casting Pedro for this movie.
Caldwell: We were big fans of Oberyn, from his work on Game of Thrones. We just asked him to be in the movie. For Ezra we always knew he was going to be a challenge. He's kind of modeled after that classic Western hyper loquacious archetype. I can't imagine anyone executing that better. It's the type of guy that's always wavering on the line between being super charming and being super menacing and you never know where he's going to land in any situation. Pedro just has that magnetism. All credit goes to him.
Mantz: What were some of the ways you were able to improvise?
Caldwell: A lot was put in to the language, the way that the characters speak. Like Zeek mentioned early, it almost has the feeling of a period piece. We wanted the tenor of the language to feel like it was from another time, which is a hard thing to improvise. I think Jay brought some of that into the set, where you were suggesting playing with the lines and improvising a lot more, which was a really fun, we ended up using quite a bit of it.
Duplass: I've always used improvisation in my movies. It's about humanizing language in interaction and I just feel like when improvisation is on the table and the other actors in the room know that anything could happen it creates a feeling in the room. I feel like audiences understand when all bets are off and when a moment is potentially dangerous. Once you and I started improvising we were in a place where anything could happen or be said so you get off the pattern of memorizing lines and waiting for your time to talk. It's more about listening and tuning in to what is being said. What these guys are looking for is a very human, very vulnerable and tense interaction.
Caldwell: It's interesting because on the flip side of that you have a character like Ezra and he's often the one who's driving the conversation. His language is steeped in all of this kind of fictional vernacular. The way Pedro talked about it, he compared it almost to performing in a Shakespeare piece because you have to internalize the meaning. We were throwing all kinds of lingo into his lines.
Mantz: For Sophie, there's not a ton of dialog. A lot of it is a nonverbal performance which is more challenging because you don't have the words to fall back on. What was that like?
Thatcher: The thought of keeping the audience engaged with just my eyes was really scary to me. Like I said the helmet helped. Once I put it on, I was in the mindset of Cee.
Caldwell: So much credit goes to Sophie for realizing this character and that there is a shape to her journey. So much of that is not on the page in dialog. So much had to be done non-verbally. We didn't fully comprehend how risky that was, for the entire emotional journey of the film to be in that space. We were incredibly lucky that Sophie was able to do it so well.
Mantz: You guys set up your own facility to work on the movie, come up with the production design, edit the film; there's a whole backstory to that, so tell us about it.
Earl: We couldn't just call up a Hollywood production design house. We had to completely start from scratch so we rented an old boat building warehouse in Seattle. Chris and I had been sort of acquiring friends who could make things. These people had never worked on a film before. We had a bike builder who designed the spaceship you were just watching. We had a friend who remodeled houses. We had a friend who was just laid off from Boeing who was an electrical engineer. Our production designer's background is in medical insurance. All these people were watching YouTube videos on how to make stuff. We assembled an entire shop. Our core group got to 16 to 20 people. We fought for seven months of pre-production which is a really long time for an indie film. Indie films usually sometimes only get like five weeks. And we told our financiers, look, if you give us all this time, with this small group of people in a warehouse, we can make this whole sci-fi world. And that's what we did.
Caldwell: We always knew, and this is due to our influences from classic science fiction films before green screens and CG were so prevalent, we wanted to channel some of that texture into this film. We wanted this world to be rendered in real physical artifacts -- the props, the sets, the costumes -- and we also wanted to see how far we could push an indie film budget in terms of rendering a scope of detail that was hugely important in making it feel real. So that practical approach was very much a part of the DNA of this film.
Earl: We had a producer come down from Canada to oversee the film and he laughed because of how much more production design there was than on the average film that he was involved in. Honestly, half of it doesn't even show up on screen. We developed advertisements, brands, all the tags on the clothing. There's a whole set of cartoon characters that appear throughout the film as part of this fictional childhood TV show. For me that's the really fun stuff. There's another layer of stuff behind the movie that you're watching.
Mantz: Let's talk about the wardrobe design for the spacesuits.
Earl: Our approach is to start gathering so many inspirations and so many little pieces that you eventually end up in sort of original territory. So the suits that Sophie and Jay wear are a little more inspired by the '60s and '70s space race. Again, we wanted Prospect not to feel contemporary, we wanted it to feel like it was from another time and place, so we used a lot of older inspirations. It feels strangely in the past. There are a whole variety of designs. This guy, Zed [actor Chris Morson, in costume and seated to Earl's left], is from another planet and culture, and you don't really get his backstory, but we actually wrote it out. We created, at the beginning, a kind of Prospect Wikipedia with everyone's backstories, their economic situations, why they all land together on this planet. So even though you don't get Zed's full story on screen, you sense that there is a bigger world and bigger history behind the smaller story that you're watching.
Caldwell: In a lot of science fiction you see a homogenous aesthetic being applied where it's all under the umbrella of some giant corporation or military organization. Given the Western fusion we were trying to channel these are all freelancers, independent people who bought their gear from an outfitters or like an REI equivalent, so every costume has manufacturer's labels and branding on it, they all came from different places. We wanted to feel that diversity of sources, that everything from pop culture to the gear that they're using was coming from all different places across the universe.
I caught up with Zeek Earl after the panel to discuss inspirations, and he acknowledged that the reference to early John Carpenter films was related to his cult classic Dark Star. (Dark Star was Carpenter's first film and has been an influential sci-fi movie renowned for its independent quality, resourcefulness, vision and humor.)
While the influential sci-fi films they mentioned all shared a theme of corporate exploitation, Earl suggested that Prospect's more intimate story means that such larger scope issues might form part of the backdrop but aren't at the forefront of the main narrative being told.
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