In many science fiction and fantasy films and shows, much of the world-building is accomplished through word of mouth; characters explain political hierarchy in Game of Thrones, and Star Wars has always been a home for expositional monologues. Subtle world-building — references to culture and a fictional universe beyond that which we see and hear onscreen — presents a different kind of challenge for filmmakers. It’s a challenge writer/directors Chris Caldwell and Zeek Earl of the upcoming science fiction-Western film Prospect were determined to undergo.
“We always wanted to keep as much exposition and overly explained things out of the mouth of the character and make [everything] as self-evident as possible,” Caldwell tells SYFY WIRE.
This is evident even in Prospect’s opening scene, which sees two of the film’s three main characters, Cee (Sophie Thatcher) and her father Damon (Jay Duplass), working through inspection protocols and final checks of their spaceship before landing on a forest moon. They’ve garnered a contract to mine for a rare, valuable gem on the moon’s surface and are hoping to strike it rich, despite the dangers posed by the toxic environment. Beyond contextual clues, audiences don’t know much about the family’s history, why they need the money, or what makes their relationship so tense. That’s all intentional.
“We don't need to fully understand exactly what everything is, but having it there in the film I think lends it kind of a reality and… with science fiction, you're always striving to recreate that sense of reality,” Caldwell says.
SYFY WIRE spoke with Caldwell and Earl, as well as the film’s heroine, Thatcher, ahead of Prospect’s New York and Los Angeles premieres. The movie — part coming-of-age story, part sci-fi thriller, part space Western — has been lauded as an accomplishment not only in original science fiction but in the world of indie filmmaking. The feature-length project, a smooth one and a half hours, was done up on a shoestring budget and an “unusually long” 40-day shoot.
Prospect, based on a 2014 short film of the same name by Caldwell and Earl, garnered popular and critical support when it premiered at the 2018 South by Southwest Film Festival and won the Adam Yauch Hörnblowér Award, which is given “in honor of a filmmaker whose work strives to be wholly its own, without regard for norms or desire to conform.” It’s a fitting accomplishment for a pair so determined to make something wholly original.
Its originality, in part, started with the film’s unusual main protagonist — “unusual” because she’s a teenage girl in a science fiction/Western, two genres that have historically struggled with female representation.
“One of the awesome things about science fiction is you don't have to live up to any kind of period accuracy,” Earl says. “Anybody can be in outer space. And so it definitely allowed us to explore a number of options and not have to be restricted by those kind of considerations.”
Focusing on a teen girl was also a way for Earl and Caldwell to make their protagonist a truly unique character.
“It's strange to be a woman, let alone a girl in this Wild West environment,” Caldwell says. “Young females are particularly underrepresented [in genre], and when you have an opportunity [to add to that representation], we kind of wanted to take that.”
Not everyone was originally on board for the film’s star to be a young woman, though.
“One of the financing attempts that fell through was with a recognizable studio entity, and they were interested in changing the protagonist from female to male,” Earl says. “Even still, today. It’s like, Hunger Games exists, for crying out loud! It’s 2018 and still there’s this force in the industry.”
“At some point, someone literally said to us: ‘We get the father/son dynamic, but not so sure about this father/daughter thing,’” Caldwell adds.
They refused the request for a change and found financing elsewhere, keeping Cee as the protagonist.
“It was a dream when I read the script,” Thatcher says. “I usually don’t get characters with such strength and such a complex character arc.” Before taking on the role, Thatcher had two phone conversations with Caldwell and Earl to work out Cee’s backstory and the intricacies of her character that wouldn’t necessarily be talked about onscreen, but that would add to Thatcher’s performance — mostly about (non-spoilery spoiler warning) Cee’s mother, whose absence has a silent but significant impact on the character.
Along with Thatcher, who has the timeless look the directors were searching for, is Pedro Pascal (Game of Thrones, Narcos). Pascal plays Cee’s co-star, Ezra, another prospector on the moon whose ambitions and unpredictability Cee and her father are forced to navigate.
Caldwell and Earl sought Pascal out from the very beginning, having pegged him as the perfect man for the part after watching his performance as Oberyn Martell on Game of Thrones.
“The character of Ezra was very much modeled after this kind of classic, hyper-loquacious Western archetype, and Pedro has that kind of energy,” Caldwell says. “He's always dancing on the line between charm and menace, and you never quite know where he's gonna land in any situation. It takes a very specific type of actor to really nail that.”
Despite the stars attached to the project, Caldwell and Earl were still working with a limited budget for a futuristic world. And their desire to truly immerse viewers in this world and not skimp on in-world lore and technicalities sometimes proved more difficult than expected.
“In Prometheus, there's a moment that a lot of hardcore sci-fi fans complain about where they come up with an excuse — ‘Oh, the air is fine, so we can take our helmets off.’ And we were like, ‘No, bulls**t!’” Earl says with a laugh. “This is a real toxic moon. You can't take your helmets off! But that also meant our cast had to suffer.”
Thatcher, Pascal, and their castmates were running through moss-choked forests and delivering monologues through paneled helmets, as the moon’s environment was toxic to humans. The helmets were thick enough that Caldwell and Earl had to speak to the actors through earpieces and, in an unexpected twist, the directors had to bring on additional people to de-fog the helmets between takes.
Then there was the toxic environment itself.
“The most time-consuming thing was that we decided to make the toxic, floating pink dust that covers every exterior frame on the green moon. We decided to do that practically,” Earl says. “That's actually real dust that was shot in my basement... So I spent several days down there just shooting real dust, and then it was meticulously composited over every single shot of the forest, which took forever… It was a huge pain in the ass.”
The cartoon characters featured on Cee’s shirt and on the candy bars she and Ezra eat? Also an original creation. Prospect’s concept artist Laurie Greasley conceived of the characters — the most prominent of which is a tardigrade-esque creature named Poodoo — and developed a backstory. At one point, the cartoon characters’ stories were so developed that they joked about making a mock animated series episode featuring Poodoo and his friends.
From Poodoo to the music and books Cee loves (the film’s music supervisor told the directors that Prospect was the most intensive movie he’s ever worked on) to the mollusk-like creatures the gems hide in, every detail was meticulously crafted to give audiences a brief look into a fully developed world.
Earl and Caldwell compare making Prospect to going to film school. They say they won’t be working with helmets again anytime soon. As for Thatcher, her ultimate takeaway from the film is rather personal.
“I remember leaving set feeling the strength that she had at the end of the film because we filmed most of it in order,” Thatcher says. “I guess I learned from Cee to stand up for myself and trust my instincts. I think that's always important.”
Prospect premieres in theaters this weekend.