How to Direct Your First Feature Film
Tips from the trenches for first-time feature filmmakers.
“Partner with as much experience as you can, particularly the AD. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Use shorts as an opportunity to explore with less at stake.”
Earlier this year, a low-budget scifi western called Prospect popped up on our radar after winning a special award at the SXSW Film Festival. It builds on co-writers’ and directors’ Zeek Earl’s and Christopher Caldwell’s short film by the same name, itself a SXSW select. We’ve been counting down the days until the feature film’s theatrical release, so we were delighted when the good folks over at Gunpowder & Sky reached out to connect us with the filmmakers.
Before we explore how Zeek and Christopher created such a compelling film for their feature debut while facing considerable financial constraints, let’s take a moment to review the synopsis and watch the trailer:
“A teenage girl and her father travel to a remote alien moon, aiming to strike it rich. They’ve secured a contract to harvest a large deposit of the elusive gems hidden in the depths of the moon’s toxic forest. But there are others roving the wilderness and the job quickly devolves into a fight to survive. Forced to contend not only with the forest’s other ruthless inhabitants, but with her own father’s greed-addled judgment, the girl finds she must carve her own path to escape.”
Hello, Zeek and Christopher! I absolutely loved Prospect. You tell a western-inspired story of frontier survival while suggesting a much larger, “hard scifi” world, trusting the audience to keep up. There’s a foreign alphabet; obscure equipment; patterns of speech reminiscent of a Cormac McCarthy novel; strange cultures gestured toward but not fully articulated… Although the film stands on its own, I wanted more! In a way it reminds me of Duncan Jones’ 2009 classic, Moon. Awesome stuff.
So, let’s start at the beginning. Prospect began as a short film:
How did you guys come up with the initial concept? Why tell this specific story? Narratively speaking, what convinced you to make the jump from short to feature – ie., why did you feel it required more screentime? Or was the goal always to use the short as a sort of springboard into your first feature?
The goal for the short was always to be a proof-of-concept for a feature, establishing the tone, texture, and basic premise. It also served as the first experiment with our low-budget production design philosophy. We knew we wanted the world of the film to be rendered practically – favoring physical props, costumes, and sets – and the short allowed us to test the waters of this approach, which we eventually scaled up for the feature.
If you don’t mind my asking, what was the short film’s budget? What about the feature film’s budget? In each case, how did you get the financing together? I ask because financing is a step that virtually every indie filmmaker struggles with, especially in context of a feature film debut, as Prospect is for you guys.
Between a Kickstarter campaign and some personal funding, the short film’s budget was under $30k. The feature landed in the very low millions.
We started pitching the feature immediately following the short film’s premiere at SXSW. We didn’t have a script yet and ended up choosing not to take any development deals to maintain control over the development process. We did, however, promptly connect with excellent partners in our producers at Depth of Field and Ground Control and our agents at WME, who guided us through what became the 3-year journey of finding the financing.
In part due to the unconventional production approach to the film (which included opening up our own production design shop, a 7-month pre-production period to accommodate the large amount of production design, and a 40-day shooting schedule) it was a bit of a tricky sell. There were a lot of false starts and excruciating doldrums before we connected with Bron Studios, who believed in our weird vision for how this film would get made.
In retrospect, one of the things we were least prepared for in the pitching process was how much of an emotional grind it can be. You have to be poised to hit the ground running at any moment as you sit for months only to have everything crumble at the last moment. There’s a lot of anxious waiting.
Our coping mechanism for this was to channel as much of that energy as we could back into the material. Anytime a deal fell through, we’d go back to the script and see what we could improve. Inspired by Jodorowsky’s Dune, we continued to work with our production designer to mock up new designs and generate more concept art, eventually putting together a big coffee-table book we could slam down onto tables at pitch meetings. And, together with our producer Brice Budke, we were constantly reevaluating the budget and finding ways to make the production plan more airtight.
By the time we got the green light, we had devoted years of additional development to the script, design, and budget for the film until we essentially had a ready-to-go package. There were numerous times we were on the verge of tabling Prospect, where it didn’t seem like it was going to happen, but each time we went back out, the pitch was that much more compelling. Eventually, we got a bite. And once it came time to go into production, we were far more prepared then we would have been had the green light come sooner.
That’s so inspiring! How long did it take to write the script? Who provided feedback, and how many revisions did you go through?
It’s hard to say. As described above, we were working on the script off and on for a three-year period while also pitching the movie and working on commercials to pay the bills. There were a couple big rewrites, but distinct revisions quickly became a blur of constant tweaking, with regular input from our producers as well as friends, family, and anyone we could get to read the script.
What was the co-writing process like? For example, did you puzzle over each and every word together, or did you divvy up the scenes and tackle them separately?
There was definitely a process of finding the most natural way to collaborate, though we had already been working very closely together for years in commercials, so we had an instinctive sense of each other’s strengths.
Also, to support the script, there was a lot of worldbuilding we had to do, which yielded additional writing as we essentially created an encyclopedia in Google Docs of backstories, cultural origins, political histories, etc. This was developed together with our core production design team, who was also pumping out new concepts and designs.
From a writing perspective, when you have a stream of ideas coming at you about how each element of the movie could look or function, you’re able to integrate them more meaningfully into the script. So collaboration was less a challenge and more just a part of the DNA of our writing process as the world, the story, and even the practical designs featured in the film were developed simultaneously.
What a cool and unique process! So what were your first steps after the script was locked and the financing was in place, entering into pre-production? There’re a million things that must come together once the proverbial train is in motion, especially when you’re doing so much world-building… Where did you start?
First thing we did was lock down the lease to an old ship-building warehouse in Seattle and start gutting it. This became the hub of the film from pre-production through post. Within a couple weeks, it was a functional workshop and production office. Prior to casting and a lot of other pre-production logistics, we were in full swing building props, costumes, and sets, because the volume of stuff we wanted to create was going to take the full 7 months before production.
That’s totally understandable, considering how fully-realized the production design is throughout. Instead of a sleek, futuristic world, Prospect paints a picture of an unforgiving frontier where a single mistake could cost you your life. The aesthetic reminded me of 1970s scifi (especially Alien). What was your inspiration? Where and how did you build the sets (especially the lived-in spaceship interiors)?
We definitely drew a lot from the sci-fi classics we grew up on (Alien, Blade Runner, the original Star Wars) as well as a lot of NASA and Soviet space-race-era designs. Prospect is a frontier story about blue-collar nobodies trying to scrape by. We wanted to acknowledge the economics of this in the design, which is why everything is so lived-in and worn down. These people can’t afford the best, brand new gear. Everything is haggard, bought used, and repaired many times over. The pod that Cee and Damon fly down onto the moon is a low budget lease, the space equivalent of a Uhaul. We wanted it all to feel grounded within its world, functional and utilitarian.
It definitely does, even in the wardrobe and props! Where and how did you build them? Everything seems to have a purpose in this world, even if that purpose is not immediately clear to the audience – I think especially of the harpoon-like “thrower” and its charger. How much concepting did you have to do before the execution? What did that process entail?
This is in large part due to the multi-faceted development process described earlier. We were always looking for opportunities to integrate compelling functionality into the story. While we worked with talented vendors on specific items, the bulk of the props and costumes were made in the warehouse by our in-house team, comprising many of the same people who had been developing Prospect with us long before we were actually making it.
Nice. Where did you guys shoot the exteriors? The verdant greens of the forest reminded me of Annihilation – a dangerous, alien world indifferent to human struggle and ambition – as did the pollen-like particles floating around. They add so much to the foreboding atmosphere.
It’s the Hoh Rainforest on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. In many ways, the location was the impetus for the whole story. We spent a lot of time in college hiking and backpacking around the state and always had a simmering desire to turn the Hoh into an alien backdrop. It’s where we shot the short and ended up shooting much of the feature in the exact same locations, down to individual trees.
Woah! What camera(s) did you shoot on? What lighting and stabilization gear did you use? I love the tight, handheld aesthetic throughout. The shot of Cee going for the gun around 27:48 was especially impressive; I imagine it required some serious choreography.
We shot the film on RED cameras with custom lenses made specifically for Prospect. The lenses featured re-housed vintage soviet glass to bring a softer texture to the sharpness of the digital image. The exterior scenes out in the forest were shot primarily using natural light.
It’s beautiful. On the sound front, since much of the dialogue occurs while characters have their helmets on, I’d be curious to know how you approached audio. What gear did you use? Did you have to do a lot of ADR?
Sound in the helmets was definitely a challenge, but we wanted to preserve the integrity of the toxic environment as opposed to coming up with excuses for the characters to take off their helmets. Our sound engineer created a system that allowed the actors to talk seamlessly into each other’s earpieces, also giving us the ability to tap into the feed for direction.
That’s so cool. You guys were innovating right there along with the characters! Beyond the dialogue, the music and sound design work in tandem to make the world feel lonely, isolating, alien… A true galactic frontier. How much of the sound design came from production audio versus foley/stock effects? How hands-on were you guys in creating the soundscapes? Were they something you considered before production, or did you find your way to the sound of the world of Prospect more during post-production?
There was a lot of excellent foley and sound design work, a creative collaboration with Impossible Acoustic, who also worked on the short film, so we were pretty aligned at the onset of the project. There were a lot of fun opportunities and blank slates… from finding the right flavor for the original gun technology to the ambiance of the forest itself. Particularly in sci-fi, so much of the world’s atmosphere is cultivated discreetly in the sound design.
Agreed! I’d love to hear about the challenges and triumphs of working together as co-directors. What were the advantages? Disadvantages? Did you have any creative disagreements? If so, how did you resolve them? More generally, who did what – ie., how did you divide and conquer?
There were surprisingly few creative differences, owed in large part to the way we developed the script. We spent years ironing out the film prior to shooting so when we arrived on set, there wasn’t much left to disagree about.
In retrospect, one of the surprising advantages to co-directing was emotional support. It’s an intense and harrowing experience making a feature, and we were grateful to have each other to lean on and the ability to divide our attention to focus on separate things simultaneously. We went to school together, directed short films and commercials together, and ran a business together prior to making Prospect, so our dynamic grew organically over time. By the time we were shooting our first feature, we had an instinctive sense of each other’s strengths, knew when to (tactfully) get up in each other’s shit, and when to defer. This dynamic is also what allowed Zeek to shoot the film.
Amazing. It’s so special to have a close creative collaboration like that.
Together, you guys accomplished an extraordinary amount with practical effects, but I’d love to hear what elements were created using visual effects, and how. The more you can share – insights into your greenscreen backdrops, foreground filters, VFX workflows during pre and post-production, etc. – the better! Our students and readers are always curious for a peek behind the curtain, demystifying movie magic.
Again, texture was key. Since so much of the film is rendered practically, we couldn’t let the VFX disrupt the immersion with incongruity. To achieve this, nearly all VFX shots were integrated with some kind of practical element in close collaboration with our VFX Supervisor Ian Hubert. Space exteriors were shot though the dirty glass of real windows. The dust was real, shot practically in Zeek’s basement, then painstakingly layered into every exterior shot to match depth and camera movement.
Prospect is a low-budget film, but it never feels cheap. How did you pull that off? What was the key to achieving such a high production value with such relatively limited resources?
The passion of our crew, in particular the production design team. Many had never worked in film before, coming from a mixed bag of backgrounds ranging from industrial design to cosplay; and this diversity of perspectives became a core part of the identity of the film, both in design and execution.The warehouse became a close-knit collective of artists with a personal creative stake in the film. Density was the mantra and we tried to weave as thick a tapestry of original artifacts as we could. It was the tireless efforts of this team, hurling a cyclone of plastic and epoxy at the screen, that made it look the way it does.
I love that spirit of openness and camaraderie! Speaking of, you landed a great cast, including indie film legend Jay Duplass, Game of Thrones veteran Pedro Pascal, and the mesmerizing Sophie Thatcher, who says more with her facial expressions than reams of dialogue could. How did you rally such established talent to your cause? What convinced them to sign on?
We’re still humbled by the caliber of Prospect‘s cast. All the talk of worldbuilding and production design would be for naught if it weren’t occupied by a real, emotional human story. What convinced them? You’d have to ask them, though we keep going back to the efforts put into development, and perhaps this is another example of it paying off. By the time we were casting, we knew the story and we knew how to talk about it. We also knew that what we were trying to do was unconventional and highly ambitious, and there’s something exciting about that.
What challenges did you face while directing your first feature film? How was the experience different from directing a short film? How was it the same? Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give to first time feature filmmakers? What about to first time short filmmakers?
For us, one of the major differences and biggest adjustments between making a short and a feature was painfully obvious, but still took a lot of acclimation. It’s bigger. The machine is bigger and slower and harder to keep moving forward. For the short, we had a crew of around 10, run and gunning around the forest. We were sloppy, but we were agile. When we went back out into the woods for the feature, we had a crew of over 60 and a pile of complicated props and costumes. Those first few days we had to come to terms with the fact that we’d be working with maybe 3 or 4 takes when we wanted 8.
Partner with as much experience as you can, particularly the AD. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Use shorts as an opportunity to explore with less at stake. Shooting a short film version of our first feature allowed us this exploration and lent us a creative confidence going into the feature, which was vital considering all the things we weren’t confident about…all the things we’d never encountered before.
Wise words! So what’s next for you guys?
More sci-fi. We’re in development on a series pilot about an intergalactic trophy hunter…a frontier sci-fi with a medieval flavor. We’re also writing what we hope will be the second feature, a near-future murder mystery set in the American Midwest on a fully-automated commercial farm. Rural cyberpunk, if you will.