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Interview: 'The Retrieval' Helmer Chris Eska Talks to S&A About His Approach To Slavery-Set Film

Interviews
by Vanessa Martinez
February 4, 2014 2:50 PM
2 Comments
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Chris Eska’s award-winning sophomore film The Retrieval is schedule to screen at the upcoming Pan African Film Festival that takes place in Los Angeles, CA, which runs from February 6-172014, celebrating its 22nd anniversary.


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 (see our review of the film HERE). 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
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)
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.

VM: Any distribution prospects?

CE: We have gotten the film out to all the large distributors and we’re getting requests from distributors every day. I’m hoping to figure something out in the next month or so, but we’ll just have to see.

PAFF is celebrating its 22nd anniversary this year, screening a total of 172 films - 37 documentaries, 23 short documentaries, 55 narrative features, and 57 narrative shorts, as well as 11 webseries in the new category of new media - all representing 46 countries.

For more information about the official selections, visit the festival’s website athttp://www.paff.org/paff-2014-films-selected/.

Watch a clip from The Retrieval embedded below:

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2 Comments

  • Donella | February 4, 2014 4:00 PMReply

    I saw the movie and asked the director whether he based the bounty-hunting theme on any real events in history.

    He said no. The movie is a total fictional creation of his mind.

    This helped me understand why the story fell apart towards the end when the boy, who begins the tale socially-adept at negotiating hard terms in an adult world, persisted in making stupid choices with no logic to justify them.

    Nicely-shot, skillfully-directed, powerful performances... but hunh (?) on the Django-like Western bounty-hunting theme and the boy's bizarre decision-making at the end.

  • AccidentalVisitor | April 11, 2013 10:12 PMReply

    Vanessa, thanks for the interview.

    I simply don't get what is needed to attract traffic on this site in regards to topics. Well, maybe I do. :/

    This film seems to be the real deal. Audience winner and grand jury winner of festivals. Great reviews from Variety and Hollywood Reporter. An actor who is getting all sorts of acclaim. A story that on the surface seems interesting as well as unique to the African American experience.

    And...yet...crickets. That's all the attention it gets.

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