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Variety described Prospect as the film that, “the stand alone ‘Star Wars’ films should feel like.” A vast and thrilling vision of a distant world, populated by rich, fully realized characters, the feature film debut of writer/directors Christopher Caldwell and Zeek Earl is shaping as the American indie discovery of 2018. Much of the buzz is thanks to lead actress Sophie Thatcher, the 17 year-old Chicagoan who brings to life ‘Cee’, a teenager forced to grow up very quickly when marooned and paired with scoundrel Ezra (Narcos star Pedro Pascal). Ahead of the film’s Australian Premiere at the SciFi Film Festival in Sydney, SCREEN-SPACE spoke with the trio via a three-way phone hook-up (Sophie in L.A.; Christopher and Zeek in Seattle) that brought the friends back in touch for the first time since their triumphant World Premiere at SXSW…

SCREEN-SPACE: How did the relationship building start on Prospect? Sophie, when did you first get a sense of what Zeek and Chris were looking for in their protagonist? And guys, what questions about the character of Cee did Sophie answer for you both?

SOPHIE: I met with them via FaceTime, and we discussed at length Cee’s character and her backstory. I was immediately drawn in by her place in the otherworldly aspects of the Prospect universe. It felt full and unique, rich in detail, and Cee’s trajectory through the universe was really interesting. She started off as more reserved and timid and just tagging along with Damon (Jay Duplass), but when she is forced to start a partnership with Ezra she begins to stand up for herself, speak her mind. I admired that very much and took very seriously the positive message that sent out to young girls.

CHRISTOPHER: A lot of what we saw in Sophie came down to a gut feeling about her. This was our first time casting for a feature film and we did a widespread search for the role. It came down to a lot of intangibles, frankly. One of the real challenges of the role is that it’s a fairly quiet role, a lot of her trajectory happens internally and wasn’t exactly all there on the page. Sophie had to bring to life so much of Cee non-verbally. We could sense the chemistry over the course of our interactions until she emerged head-and-shoulders above anyone else for the role. (Pictured, right; co-directors Zeek Earl and Chris Caldwell with their SXSW Adam Yauch Award)

ZEEK: And this was a really hard movie to make. Physically arduous, the costumes were uncomfortable, a lot of on-location work. It was 40 solid shooting days during which our lead had to be in every scene essentially, so we also had to find someone who we were convinced could handle that. Turned out Sophie was, like, the most professional person on set.

SOPHIE: Oh, right (laughs). The first week was the most difficult, because we were still trying to figure out how the visors worked, and how the helmets worked. And I was already anxious about this being my first feature film, so those visors, ugh, and not being able to breathe properly (laughs). But that also became an acting tool; once I put that helmet on, I was Cee.

SCREEN-SPACE: Crafting and nurturing the complexity and chemistry of the relationship between Pedro Pascal’s Ezra and Cee is one of the film’s great triumphs. How did that take shape?

SOPHIE: It’s an interesting connection they develop, with Ezra serving as kind of a ‘broken father’ figure who ultimately lets Cee open up and form a strange bond with him. It helped to go through a similar process with Pedro while filming and actually get closer to him. And it worked the other way, too, with Cee’s determination and grit softening Ezra, which happened as Pedro and I worked together over some long days. Pedro and I really connected, from the very first time we spoke, because he’s such a warm person in general. (Pictured, above; Pedro Pascal as Ezra)

CHRISTOPHER: All credit to the actors as far as chemistry is concerned. It is something that came together so much better than even we imagined. Ezra is such a different character to Cee, it is a very odd paring on paper so the chemistry came out of the nuances that Pedro and Sophie brought to the table.

SCREEN-SPACE: A lot of press coverage for the film is focussing in on its roots in the classic American western narrative. What came first – your love of sci-fi or your love of westerns?

ZEEK: Honestly, it’s a hand-in-hand thing. The aesthetic was always very sci-fi, the two of us having grown up on Star Wars and Alien and Blade Runner, and we always wanted to make a world that was a little more gritty and retro-futuristic in that way. Thematically, though, the starting point was in a western kind of headspace. It is a low budget film and we designed it knowing much of the shoot would be out on location in a rainforest and much of it was conceived from the perspective of what you can do with a small group of actors in a frontier environment. And those types of stories naturally go very ‘western’. (Pictured, above; Pedro Pascal as Ezra, and Sophie Thatcher as Cee.)

CHRISTOPHER: What we were setting out to do was this very particular ‘frontier sci-fi’ and the western flavour emerged from that. When you have these blue-collar types, risking their lives to make a living out in the wilderness, the western tonal influence was inevitable.

SCREEN-SPACE: Roles such as ‘Cee’ are few and far between for young actresses. Hailee Steinfeld in The Coen’s True Grit or Natalie Portman in Luc Beeson’s The Professional come to mind, but there are not a lot of examples from which you can draw comparisons or inspiration… 

SOPHIE: Well, both of those parts were absolutely great inspirations. Also, the independence that Jennifer Lawrence displayed in Winter’s Bone inspired me. But, you’re right, there aren’t that many roles out there other than the ones you named, which were perfect.

CHRISTOPHER: I remembered we talked about some of the Miyazaki protagonists as well…


CHRISTOPHER: …from Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, which have these strong female lead characters. I don’t think there was ever really a direct reference, but I grew up on those movies and there is definitely something of their DNA ingrained into Prospect. I think tonally they are probably closer than True Grit or The Professional, although we certainly did draw on those as well.

SCREEN-SPACE: Your film’s other great asset is the intricacy of the world-building. Who had the experience to help pull of this degree of conceptualising?

ZEEK: Well, no one in the film had the correct background for doing this kind of thing (laughs). We had been running a commercial production company in Seattle for a few years and got to know a lot of people who knew how to do those things, so we formed a sort of art collective. The guy who built the spaceship came from a background building bikes, and we had friends with experience in home carpentry who helped out. We had an ex-Boeing engineer, and a guy who wanted to get out of the firearms industry come design and build our fake guns. We had the budget of a small, indie horror movie and we wanted to create a huge Star Wars-like universe. We didn’t have the option of going through the conventional industry channels, so we made our own production design shop. It was funny when producers who had a lot more experience would show up on our set, they were blown away by how much more detail there was than on other, bigger sets. I’m guessing a lot of that grew out of our amateurism, where we thought, ‘Well, we don’t know what’s going to be on camera so lets just make everything!’ (laughs) But that made for a totally immersive experience for everyone, I guess, which must have helped. (Pictured, above; Sophie Thatcher, as Cee)

CHRISTOPHER: We wanted to have a very utilitarian look for everything. This piecemeal production design team really complimented that aesthetic intention, in that it wasn’t industry types coming with a lot of experience making props, but it was industrial designers and graphic designers coming from experience making functional products who were open to left-field ideas.

PROSPECT will have its AUSTRALIAN PREMIERE at the SciFi Film Festival at Event Cinemas George St Sydney on October 20 at 6.00pm. Full ticket and session details here.

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