SXSW: 'The Retrieval' Filmmaker Talks Slavery, Civil War Re-enactors and Tackling the N-Word (Q&A)
AUSTIN -- Being an independent Texas filmmaker means relying on your nearest resources in order to get the shot you want, like offering free barbecue and gas to a group of U.S. Civil War re-enactors in order to shoot a period battle scene.
You can't say Chris Eska, writer/director of the Civil War slave drama The Retrieval, isn't resourceful.
A former med school student, Eska got the filmmaking bug while attending Rice University in Houston. After honing his craft with short films, Eska released his first feature, the critically-acclaimed August Evening, in 2007. The film, shot completely in Spanish, focused on the familial relationship between an undocumented farm worker and his young, widowed daughter-in-law.
Using the backdrop of the Civil War, The Retrieval, which premiered Monday at SXSW, follows a fatherless teenage boy named Will (Ashton Sanders, making his feature film debut) who is sent on a mission by a gang of bounty hunters to retrieve a wanted former slave under false pretense. The film explores the emotional bonds between surrogate families, the struggle between loyalty and betrayal, and clinging on to one's moral compass. The film also stars Tishuan Scott, Keston John, Bill Oberst, Jr. and Christine Horn and was shot on remote ranches in the southeastern part of Texas.
Scott won a special jury acting prize at the 2013 SXSW Film Awards for his performance.
Although the film shares coincidental similarities with Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained (both are set during the time of slavery and feature a bounty hunter plotline), Eska's film is dramatically different in story and tone.
Eska spoke to The Hollywood Reporter at SXSW about tackling the subject matter of race and slavery as a white filmmaker, his use of the n-word in the screenplay, and how he was able to lure that group of Civil War re-enactors with gas and barbecue.
The Hollywood Reporter: What sparked the idea for this film?
Chris Eska: All my films start off with themes and emotions that are important to me, and then I look for the setting and the characters that are going to best highlight the emotions and the themes. In this film, the themes I was interested in were mostly a big choice in your life, a big decision. And that’s run through my previous two films (August Evening and the short Doki-Doki). Are we doing what’s best for ourselves and for those that we care about? Are we just going along with the flow? Or are we adhering to norms without really seriously considering our actions and our path in life? I also like to talk about the meaning of family and surrogate families. When you have war and the chaos from war, and all the terrible things that happen in the wake of slavery, it tends to tear families apart. It puts people in difficult situations. They have to make really tough decisions.
THR: Sticking with those themes, were the Civil War era and slave characters your first choice to set the film?
Eska: I was originally going to make the film on the Texas-Mexico border in contemporary times. Then I realized my last film was in Spanish and it was in Texas, so I should do something different, push myself a little further. Then we were going to make it in India in the ‘70s. Just because I love India and travel and I also love the films from there. Then I started to think we should do it out in the woods so that there are no cell phones you could solve problems with, like a Western. Then we slowly worked our way into the outskirts of the Civil War. It’s not a war movie, but it has those elements of genre. It has little bits of Western, of war, of a road movie and of suspense. At the core, it’s just an emotional drama.
THR: The film shares incredible similarities with Django Unchained even though your film was shot prior to Django's release. Both films share a bounty hunter storyline set in the era of slavery. Why did you specifically choose that plot and timeframe?
Eska: I definitely think it’s something we haven’t seen very much. Prior to this recent spate of films, there haven’t been a lot of films exploring these issues in history. And sort of related to what I was saying earlier, what I like to do is find characters and settings that I think are important and interesting and that aren’t necessarily explored in all the different ways that they could have been. So I find the theme first, the emotions first; and then I find these characters that maybe don’t sound exactly like me on paper. But they’re going through the exact same things as I am, same emotions, same core decisions. I find that that gives me a little bit of distance. [Some filmmakers] will make the film about what happened to them that crucial summer when they were 16 or something, you know? They make the exact story and they have a lot of trouble gaining distance and figuring out what it is about that story, about the themes and emotions, that are actually going to connect with the audience because cause they’re tied up in this one specific set of events that happened. I want to make sure that I don’t lose sight of that. By gaining that distance, it allows me to focus on what I think is going to connect with the audience and still be personal.
THR: As a white filmmaker, did you have reservations about tackling the subject of slavery and race?
Eska: Of course. It’s important to go and talk to historians, to do the research and study and, most importantly, to involve people on your team who are going to make sure that you do it right. I would never pretend to be an expert going in, but if you rely on the help of people who are knowledgeable and who have spent their lives thinking about these issues and studying them, they can really help you.
THR: The teenage lead in the film, Ashton Sanders, gives an impressive performance for his first-ever feature film. How did you discover him?
Eska: I have a history of working with first timers and I really enjoy it. Ashton had just turned 15 when we shot the film. I'm incredibly thorough, so I didn’t want to just go to the agencies in L.A. and New York. What I did to begin with was go to every single school within about 200 miles of Austin and either do on-campus auditions or send letters home to parents encouraging them to come out to auditions in Austin and San Antonio. I had people come from as far as Houston and Dallas. We probably saw about 500-600 kids there. Then we also saw another 500-600 from Texas agencies, Louisiana agencies and Los Angeles. And, you know, to my surprise after all that hard work, we found him through an agency in Los Angeles, but he was fresh. He did not have the experience. He had never been on film before. So it was still exciting for me to take him through that journey. I like starting from scratch and the two of us building it together and figuring out what kind of actor they’re going to be. I think it’s crucial with the first major role how it's going to inform the way you work in the future. I want to be a part of that.
THR: In writing the screenplay, you, much like Tarantino with Django, took some liberties with the use of the n-word. Tarantino caused quite a bit of controversy with it, but still ended up winning the Academy Award for best original screenplay. From the writer’s perspective, how did you approach its use?
Eska: The most important thing is to try and be true to the way people speak. That was always my goal. And for the record, there are probably over a hundred mentions in Django where in my film [it's quite less]. It’s always about realism. It’s always about trying to be true to the characters and the way things actually are. I do that with every line in the film. I go through and I think about what someone would actually say and I have the actors say it out loud, and not just with this issue, but with anything. We keep reworking it, trying to make sure that it’s just right. So nothing rings, at least to my ear and to the actors’ ear, nothing rings false.
THR: Did any of the African-American actors speak up about the word's use? Given the word's history and the current controversy it can spark, were there any reservations on set?
Eska: The actors were really on board from the get-go. They were completely supportive of the script.
THR: Being an independent film with a very modest budget, the Civil War battle scenes were very realistic. How did you manage to pull that off?
Eska: Those were a lot of Civil War re-enactors who came out for free because they love the period thing. We hired one stunt person. The rest were Civil War re-enactors who camped on the ranch that we were shooting at. We gave them barbecue and gas for the horses. They provided all the weaponry, too. There's probably 40 people in it. It seems small in terms [of a battle scene], but 40 people are 40 people for an indie film. And all those gunshots are happening there. They’re not digital gunshots. It's actual black gun powder and it’s smoky and chaotic and the horses were yelling. Ashton looks scared as he’s running through that battle because he was scared.
THR: Where do you see this film going from here? What does the future hold?
Eska: I guess that’s up to distributors. We're going to continue to play festivals. I would hope we gain distribution to get it out to as many people as possible because we think it’s important.