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Arts & Culture

SXSW 2013: Chris Eska, Director of 'The Retrieval'

Chris Eska’s film “The Retrieval” is about a young boy sent to turn in a wanted man to a dangerous gang of bounty hunters. Filmed in rural Texas, the movie stars young Ashton Sanders as Will, and Tishuan Scott as Nate, the wanted man. The two form a close bond in the film, yet Will’s knowledge that he may have to betray that friendship casts a shadow over their relationship and adds tension to the narrative.

Eska’s previous feature, “August Evening,” won the John Cassavetes Award at the Spirit Awards, for Best Film Budgeted under $500,000, and made a regional star of former computer network installer Pedro Castaneda.

Texas Public Radio listeners were invited to preview Eska’s new movie in late 2011, when it was still called “September Morning.” In this interview, Eska talk about the themes of “The Retrieval,” shooting in central Texas where he grew up, and his observations of the two leads’ relationship.

Nathan Cone: I read that you considered a few different settings before you finally settled on the Civil War, and the early 1860s. India, or the 1970s... I can see how the story could work in some of those settings, but what finally led you to set it in the time period and the place in which you did?

Chris Eska: I always sort of work backwards from the themes and the emotions that I want to get at, and so what I try to do is find the characters and the settings that are going to most highlight those emotions and themes. Some of the themes in this film have to do with big life decisions, surrogate families, and the meaning of family, and also reevaluating our lives to see if we’re doing what’s best for ourselves and those we care about, or if we’re just going with the flow and sort of adhering to societal norms without really evaluating what it is we’re doing. So, to get at all those issues, I thought about contemporary Texas, I thought about India in the 1970s, places that are dear to me, and just ended up settling on what I think is the perfect setting, which is 1864, northern Virginia.

When you think about surrogate families, and people being torn apart, and trying to make connections in an isolated world. War, the aftermath of slavery, being in isolated locations out in the countryside where there are no cell phones that can save the day... all these things really highlight those emotions that I spoke of earlier.

What is it about the surrogate family and the parent-child relationship that interests you? Because there’s one in “August Evening,” and there’s a great one here in “The Retrieval” as well.

It might seem strange, but I had a wonderful, perfect relationship with my family [laughs].  But I’ve always really enjoyed mentors, throughout my life, usually in academic settings, or settings that related to my filmmaking. And now I’m enjoying being on both sides.  Sometimes I’m learning, sometimes I’m teaching. But I think sometimes that’s interesting about these surrogate families is that the film crew becomes a surrogate family for me. We all sort of drop out of society together and form this little commune, often in very remote locations to shoot the film. It’s wonderful to see these emotions develop during the shoot...and it sort of bleeds over into what’s on the screen.

Let me ask you about Ashton Sanders (“Will”) and Tishuan Scott (“Nate”), because they have to develop a relationship in order for it to show up on screen. How did they do that on set in order to create this wonderful surrogate father-son relationship on screen?

I tried to shoot as much as possible in chronological order so that their relationship could develop over the course of the shoot. Tishuan plays the surrogate father figure in the film, and he is naturally a teacher and a mentor, and so you got to see that relationship build on set. They were actually staying in the same house in this small town [where we shot], so I think all those things, they came together naturally. You don’t have to force it. 

Will has to make a hard choice at one point in the film, and he even asks Nate if he’ll go to hell for making that choice, which may be wrong, but he feels he’s painted into a corner. Ultimately, it’s out of his hands...But what changes does Will go through over the course of the narrative? 

He’s exposed to someone who makes decisions not purely based on selfish intentions. He actually witnesses someone who is a different type of peronson, and he even says that in the film, he says “I’ve never seen a man like that.” And his bounty hunter partner says, “Yeah, he’s different because he’s worth more.” But the boy is able to understand that Nate is a different type of person who can actually show him a better way to live.

Late in 2011, you offered a preview screening of this film [then called “September Morning”] to our Texas Public Radio audience. I wanted to know what kind of feedback they gave you on the film, and how that influenced your construction of the final product.

I like to have these preview screenings with audiences around Texas before we finalize the film, not because it’s the Hollywood process of decision by committee, or trying to make everybody happy, but you just want to make sure the audience understands what’s going on [laughs]. Just because things are clear to [us filmmakers], you want to make sure they actually *see* the knife in the frame, or they understand that crucial line of dialogue. These are the things that I’m looking for.  And of course we did learn things, such as my actors, and the way I direct them, can be very mumbly, with these accents and mannerisms that I’ve given them. We took that into consideration and reworked the sound mix to make sure people could understand some of the crucial lines and sentiments. 

Did shooting in rural Texas influence the film’s design or budget?

You have to go really far out there, in order to get away from all the noise, all the cars driving by, the airplanes, not seeing power lines, and so once you get out there, you’re very focused on the film. And it’s a location that I’m very comfortable with, because I grew up in a town of 100 people, and my childhood was just sort of running through the woods, creating trails, exploring, and feeling very comfortable out in nature. Obviously it’s a little different for my actors from Los Angeles, but everyone kind of eased into it, and came to really love these locations. I never intend for my films to look beautiful or glossy or anything like that, but even in the dead of winter, it’s difficult to make Texas look ugly! I just sort of went with it, and my cinematographer, Yasu Tanida and I would just be out there in a space, and we would frame a shot up, and say “why make this ugly and gritty when we’re surrounded by all this beautiful Texas landscape?”

I don’t think I’ve spoken to you on tape since you won the Cassavetes Award at the Spirit Awards [for “August Evening”]. What was that experience like?

I’m not going to say ‘surreal,’ because people always say that [laughs]. It was wonderful. I cannot believe how many people connected with what initially seemed like such a personal story. But the more we dug into it, the more we saw that all families are the same, and I think people will hopefully feel that way about this film as well.

"The Retrieval" will World Premiere at this year's SXSW Film Festival on Monday, March 11, with additional screenings on Tuesday, March 12 and Friday, March 15 Saturday, March 16.