SXSW FILM 2013
By Don Simpson | March 24, 2013
Independent filmmakers have typically steered clear of historical dramas because of the unruly budgets that are associated with recreating accurate costume and production design, but that did not scare away writer-director Chris Eska (August Evening) from making a Civil War drama. Eska enlisted the people who care most about historical accuracy, Civil War reenactors, to round out his cast and assist with the authenticity of the costume design and props. It also helps that The Retrieval is limited to only three primary characters who spend a majority of the film roaming across the densely wooded (and ageless) forests of East Texas. Eska’s unwavering desire to achieve perfection in his productions does not hurt matters either, because the production quality of The Retrieval is damn near flawless. Speaking of flawless, that just about describes Ashton Sanders, Keston John and Tishuan Scott’s performances as well.
We sat down with Chris Eska in the cafe of the Violet Crown Cinema to discuss making high-quality period pieces with limited funding.
Don Simpson: Very few independent filmmakers dare to make period pieces, what prompted you to take that risk with this film?
Chris Eska: We are always pushing ourselves in ridiculous directions, trying to do something different, trying to stretch ourselves. Also, once we come up with a concept, we can’t turn away. I don’t even make concessions in the script, I don’t write with budget in mind. I just write whatever I want to do, whatever film I want to watch. Then, we just find a way to make it happen. The only way we could even make The Retrieval happen was with the help of reenactors — people who are just fascinated with this time period, people who have all of these period guns, leather and costumes. For the little skirmish scene in the film, 50 people drove from all over Texas — sometimes over five hours — and camped on a private ranch the night before the shoot in early February. They came out to work on the film just for BBQ. That’s all we had to give them. Also, Caroline Karlen (production designer, costume designer) and Lily Walker (costume designer) really went above and beyond, making items from thrift stores work as period clothing. It would have never been possible otherwise.
DS: Did the structures and buildings need to be constructed or did you specifically scout out land with period appropriate structures already in place?
CE: It was a combination. Anything as large as the space we are in now, we did not build; but anything smaller than this, we did build. We went to two separate state historic sites to shoot three scenes in the film, to show larger period structures. Otherwise, our production designer, the rest of the crew and sometimes even the cast went out into the woods and built the smaller structures. The shack that features prominently in the climax of the film was built from scratch using pieces of wood from old buildings that was reclaimed. Burrell’s camp was also completely built from scraps, just using the logs that were found around that space.
DS: How much historical research went into the making of this film?
CE: As far as props and costumes, things like that, we got the help of historians from the University of Texas and other places. We also just relied on the reenactors who spend a good part of their waking life making sure that everything that they have is period accurate.
DS: How did you research the historical intricacies of the characters’ use of language?
CE: Some of the research was listening to the Smithsonian’s recordings from the 1920s of formerly enslaved people to get a sense of their voice. Also, written histories that were transcribed from oral histories, to get a lot of the syntax. I then walked it back a little bit to make it feel ever so slightly more relatable and modern. I don’t have any problems about that. I think it is perfectly fine to take tiny liberties with syntax and accent, especially since we don’t have any actual voice recordings from the 1860s.
DS: Describe your process for getting the actors into their characters?
CE: I tend to work in a rather strange way. I make the actors memorize every line of their dialogue. Then, we go over the blocking over and over again, until they don’t have to think about any of that. Everything is completely mapped out until its almost robotic. Then, I encourage them to think about the script in the context of their own lives, and think about situations that may not be exactly like what is in the script but that they can relate to. Now that they don’t have to think about the dialogue and the blocking anymore, they can start to bring a lot of their own personal experiences and emotions into the roles. Their performance then becomes very genuine and natural. They are able to be in the moment without worrying about anything else. That’s just how I like to work, and its definitely not right for every actor, but I find it is good for actors without a ton of on camera experience.
DS: What attracted you to this subject matter?
CE: I always find the themes and emotions that I want to deal with first. I want to express things that are important to me in my life. Then, I look for the characters and the settings that will best highlight those things and draw out those emotions. It is important to me to not make a film directly about it, instead I find characters who do not sound like me on paper but are going through similar situations as me. By setting these situations in their place and time, I achieve the distance that I think is necessary for a director to have in order to figure out what will truly connect with the audience. Otherwise, you are so caught up in your own personal experiences and the details and can’t see the forest for the trees.
The themes in this film are similar to my other films: the meaning of family and surrogate families, and making difficult life decisions. The biggest theme in this film is reevaluating your life and questioning whether you are actually doing what is best for you and the people you care about, or if you are just going with the flow and following what other people are telling you to do. It is also about finding ways to make connections in an isolating world, which has been a theme in my last three films — war and the aftermath of slavery and being in these desolate locations really push that theme into a territory that really highlights it.
DS: Did something appeal to you specifically about the subject of slavery and telling this story via African American characters?
CE: Because we backed into the story from the themes, the setting was never really a direct, conscious choice. It is kind of difficult for me to remember how we came about it… I know it was initially going to be set on the Texas-Mexico border and be in Spanish, but I thought I shouldn’t do that since my last film was in Spanish. Then, it was going to be set in India during the 1970s, but I decided that there had been a lot of crossover India-American films recently, so I probably shouldn’t do that. So, then, I started to think that I really wanted to be out in the woods and make something almost like a Western. We started thinking about the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil War. I felt like Hollywood didn’t really want to make films about these issues, but then of course Lincoln was a big surprise and there seems to be a lot of other new films coming out that cover similar territory. A few months after we had finished shooting The Retrieval, there was an announcement in the trades that [Quentin] Tarrantino was going to make Django Unchained. That was shocking! Now there have been exactly two films in the 120 year history of cinema about formerly enslaved black men who turn into bounty hunters circa 1860. Obviously there are zero similarities between the two films in terms of tone, emotions or anything like that. And I think [Django] is only good for our film, it sort of cleared the way and got people used to the subject matter and time period.
DS: How much of the final look of the film was captured in camera versus what was handled in post production?
CE: I don’t like to shoot looks or lock in anything when I don’t have to. We shot this completely flat, completely natural; but even in post we tried to maintain a fairly natural look as well. We pulled out a bit of the greens, but I wanted to preserve the browns and blues, for a natural-yet-cinematic look. Our colorist Joe Malina helped a lot with that. It is very difficult making those decisions. I don’t like how everything feels so permanent. When you are in a rush at the end, and you have been working on the film for two-and-a-half years, and someone wants to make a huge decision about how the film will look forever, I just want to sit down and think about it for a while. I think we made the right decisions.
DS: Something that caught my eye was the steel gray skies, which we don’t see all that often in Texas.
CE: A lot of that is just waiting as much as we could for the gray skies. It was also an incredibly cold winter, which is rare for Texas. There is actually some real snow, but some digital snow as well. Also, if you shoot with a camera that doesn’t have proper latitude, sometimes you have to pull out the sky, and that takes away the blue skies.
DS: How do you balance your perfectionism with being able to finish a film?
CE: We almost didn’t finish this in time for SXSW, and I will tell you right now that it wasn’t my fault. I surround myself with people who are also perfectionists. There was some fire flicker during a campfire scene and the frequency of the camera was off during the day of that shoot, so it looked like a European disco instead of a campfire scene. My producer taught himself After Effects, then spent a good month picking through every single frame that was too dark, then brightening it up, changing the color saturation and hue, and rotoscoping out all of the characters. We spent the last four days, staying up all night, making sure every single frame was perfect. It was something that most people probably would have never noticed but it was important to us to do it right. We talked about it for three years, and we finally did it right before the festival.
DS: Are there any lessons learned that you walked away from this production with, specifically with regards to making a period piece on a tight budget?
CE: Find people who are excited about the project and really want to be there and make it happen and get it done right. You can’t make a film like this — that would typically cost millions of dollars to make — without that.