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Interview: 'The Retrieval' Helmer Chris Eska On His Approach To The Slavery-Set Film (Opens At Film Forum, NYC)

Shadow and Act By Vanessa Martinez | Shadow and Act April 3, 2014 at 12:17PM

Interview: Chatting w/ 'The Retrieval' Helmer Chris Eska About His Approach To The Slavery-Set Film (At Film Forum, NYC)
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The Retrieval

Variance Films has partnered up with director Chris Eska to release his powerful Civil War drama The Retrieval, which opened in New York City at Film Forum yesterday, April 2ndbefore expanding to additional theaters beginning April 18th

To buy tickets click HERE.

Star Tishuan Scott won the Jury Award for Best Actor at last year's SXSW Film Festival, for his performance as Nate, a fugitive freed man who comes across a young boy and his uncle, both who are sent by a gang of bounty hunters to capture him. The film was also the winner of the jury award for Best Narrative film at the 2013 Ashland Independent Film Festival.

Eska, who admits he is very hands-on, specific and “directorly” when it comes to his approach to filmmaking, has crafted a very unique and compelling story, which boasts nuanced performances from its leads. I had a chance to speak with Eska, and he elaborated on his modus operandi as a director and inspiration for The Retrieval.

S&A: What inspired you to write the Retrieval? Are you a history enthusiast?

CE: I do appreciate history, but I would not say that I am. I wrote the film because I was simply interested in telling a period film. I usually come up with the themes and the emotions I want to write about and share with an audience. I start with the emotions first, then I tend to work backwards to find the setting of the characters that are going to most highlight those emotions and themes. So, you know, we initially were going to make this film on the Texas-Mexico border in contemporary times; same general emotional relationships, choices, decisions. My last film was in Spanish and it was shot in Texas, so I thought I should push myself and try going in a different direction. Then we were also going to make a film in India in 1970’s again with some of the same themes and emotions. Then we started to think about how we wanted to make a western perhaps, and we sort of decided it would be great for the story if you wouldn’t solve all your problems with a cell phone call. And I think about war, and you think about the aftermath of slavery and you think of all these desolate locations. They all sort of force to this with a crucible where you’re going to have feelings of isolation; you’re going to have families that are torn apart, you’re going to have chaos and danger. People are trying to find connections and away to sort of form these surrogate family relationships that I like to explore.

VM: So it wasn’t necessarily that you were looking to do a film set during slavery, just a universal story that could have taken place in any time period.

Director Chris Eska
Director Chris Eska
CE: Yeah. I don’t know if it’s naïve or pretentious or both, but I really feel like what film does best is to shed the universality of the human experience and it can if you approach it in a sensitive way, and so, I love to write about characters who are going through similar emotions that I go through and similar choices and decisions, but even with characters who don’t sound like me on paper. I do that for a couple of reasons. One is what I talked about which is showing a universal experience, but also it’s just helpful for a writer and director to get that distance so that I can actually tell what it is about this story and situation that are going to resonate with an audience. A lot of times filmmakers will make a film that’s completely biographical and about “that summer that changed my life” and a lot of the times it may be difficult for them to sort of step back and realize which parts of the story are going to actually connect with the audience and which are going to be distractors, get off topic or break up the flow. It’s a strategy that I’ve used for all three of my last films and it’s something that I’ve seen in a lot of my favorite films.

VM: How much research did you do? Where you concerned about people not embracing a film set in this period?

CE: We were definitely concerned and wanted to make sure we did it right. Of course, we relied on the help of a lot of historians and with the help of research. I had a whole team of interns doing research and bringing things to me. I was trying to make sure we did things the right way and sensitively, but you know in a post-Django world [laughs], I sort of felt like it’s going to make the subject matter a lot easier for audiences to accept.

VM: How did you work with an inexperienced young actor like Ashton Sanders, who pulled off a phenomenal performance?

Ashton Sanders (left); Tishuan Scott (right)
Ashton Sanders (left); Tishuan Scott (right)
CE: What I tend to do with non-actors or first-time actors is very specific. I make sure they memorize every single line and then go over blocking with extensive rehearsals. I even flew into L.A. with the other actors, and we rehearsed for days in the backyard. It sounds incredibly specific to the point where it could become rote or robotic because I tell them, “lift your cup after this line” and “tilt you head down after you say that line”. I make them memorize all the blocking so that they don’t have to think about it at all when the camera is rolling. They’re not nervous or unsure. That sort of frees them up. I’m not the kind of director that tells them, “Ok, I want you to think about the time your cat died.” What I do is encourage them to think about their own lives and what’s going on in the scene and how it could relate to their lives, and their families, or situations that are meaningful to them. That’s when I can step back and they can bring their own ideas and emotions to it. Then it becomes quite naturalistic. Of course an actor like Tishuan [Scott] has a lot more experience; he’s older. He’s already won best actor at SXSW. I’m projecting big things for all of the cast.

Variance Films has partnered up with director Chris Eska to release his powerful Civil War drama The Retrieval, starting with a special preview engagement, beginning this Friday, March 14th in Atlanta at Landmark’s Midtown Art Cinema, followed by an opening in New York City at Film Forum on April 2ndbefore expanding to additional theaters beginning April 18th

To buy tickets click HERE.

“With The Retrieval, Chris has not only created a window into a little-known corner of history, but a stunning film filled with amazing performances, beautiful images, and a fantastic tone, all surprisingly rare things in independent film,” said Variance’s Dylan Marchetti. “Audiences are going to be blown away by the combination, which I think is on par with the best that big-budget Hollywood has to offer.”

“My cast and crew poured their hearts into this project, and I can’t wait to finally share the film with everyone on the big screen,” said Eska. “It’s exciting to partner with Dylan and Variance because they have a genuine passion for connecting with theatrical audiences, and they understand all the new and changing ways to make it a success.” 

The Retrieval was produced by Jacob Esquivel and Jason Wehling, and executive produced by Alan Berg (Arts + Labor), Tom Borders (Sixth Street Films), and Sibyl Avery Jackson

Ashton Sanders and Keston John also star.

More on the film via its website, www.theretrieval.com, and/or Facebook page www.facebook.com/theretrievalfilm.

Watch the film's brand new trailer embedded below:

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This article is related to: Chris Eska


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