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NOW PLAYING: McNary alum’s journey to alien moon leading him back to Keizer

Of the Keizertimes

When Zeek Earl was still a student at McNary High School he told his mom he wanted to make his first feature film by the time he was 30. Earl turned 30 while on the set of
Prospect, his first feature-length film with co-
writer and co-director Chris Caldwell, which will begin screening at Salem Cinema later this month.

“I wanted to be a film director since I was 14 years old,” Earl said during a phone conversation. He said taking film studies classes under the guidance of McNary High School’s Jason Heimerdinger inspired him from a young age. Earl was in L.A. this week to promote the film’s Nov. 2 opening to a wider audience.

Earl will be coming home to Keizer on Nov. 16 for a
special screening of the movie. He will introduce the film and take part in a Q-&-A moderated by Heimerdinger af

ter the film. Check the Salem Cinema website,, for details and tickets when they become available.

Prospect is the story of Cee (played by Sophie Thatcher) and her father (Damon played by Jay Duplass) who travel to an alien moon aiming to strike it rich harvesting elusive gems. The hunt turns troublesome when the pair encounter others on the same path and Cee is forced to contend with the forest’s other ruthless inhabitants, and her own father’s greed-addled judgment, while carving her own path.
Pedro Pascal, of Game of Thrones fame, plays one of the films

primary antagonists, Ezra.

In the run up to wide release, Prospect was receiving glowing reviews, but it’s been a long road to get to this point. In 2012, Earl and Caldwell put together a crowd-funding campaign to film Prospect as a short film that could be used to pitch a feature-length movie. The pair started with a goal of $18,000 and closed it out with more than $21,000 in pledges. Prospect, the short film, focused more on the father-daughter relationship that ended up as the jumping off point for the feature.

“The short film was written as its own independent thing. We probably should have written the feature film first and cut it down but we didn’t realize it at the time,” Earl said, laughing at the circumstances in retrospect.

Crowd-funding the short film also put Earl and Caldwell in touch with a number of volunteers who helped produce it. The short debuted at SXSW in 2014.

“Then it took three years after that to find the funding for the feature-length movie,” Earl said. “We wrote a feature script and rewrote that, then we had more concept art made. After getting the green light, we kind of had to figure out how to make the full-length movie on the fly.”

Earl never attended film school, his only actual film instructor is still Heimerdinger, but he stuck with his dream of making movies even when he wasn’t embracing it completely. After high school, he studied literature at Seattle Pacific University and graduated in the depths of The Great Recession. To pay his bills, he started entering contests to film commercials and earned enough credibility to launch his own production company, Shep Films, and begin financing projects of his own.

It was likely that work ethic that inspired Jay Duplass to take part in the Prospect feature film.

“In college, I watched the Duplass (Jay and Mark) brothers really closely because

they were the guys making movies and getting them into Sundance for almost nothing. They were the masters of indie filmmaking,” Earl said.

Earl said he and Caldwell got the chance to Skype with Jay and pitch him a role in the movie, but it ended up being more of a conversation about indie filmmaking than a job interview.

“I think he’d already made up his mind because he was attracted to the vibe of what

 we were doing and connected with that,” Earl said.

Landing Pedro Pascal for the role of Ezra also proved easier than expected.

“We were huge fans of him from Game of Thrones and he combines charm and menace in a way that few people can pull off. Fortunately, he really responded to the script. His character has a lot of original vernacular and a fanciful way of talking that was challenging. He described it more like acting in a Shakespeare play than filming a movie once he was on set,” Earl said.

Earl credited Caldwell with being the “master of dialogue” in the pair’s creative relationship, Earl said his main focus was in the worldbuilding and visual aspects.

An uncredited character in the movie is the setting itself, Washington’s Hoh Rainforest, a place with lush greens, hanging mosses and heavy moisture that casts an otherworldly and ethereal spell on visitors. Given the natural beauty, Earl and Caldwell committed to using as much natural lighting as they could, which led to other lessons in time management.

“When we pitched the film, we fought for a greater number of days in pre-production and actual filming. We had seven months of production design and 40 shooting days, which is about twice what the average movie gets,” he said. “Every day is a numbers game of getting as much time as possible to shoot. I think we got better as we went along, but there were days when we only got half the time we had planned for. We made a lot of mistakes, but we had the time to figure stuff out.”

With his first feature in the can, Earl and Caldwell’s time in L.A. this week was spent promoting Prospect and working on the duo’s next projects. The strength of Prospect earned them a  series development deal with Amazon and they are currently working on the pilot. Their next feature is also in the writing stages, another sci-fi film set on a fully-automated farm in the near future with only a few people left. They are pitching it as rural cyberpunk.

“We never set out to be sci-fi filmmakers, but we’re at a place where there is a demand for it and it’s a space where you can play around with big ideas,” Earl said.

Looking back at how far he’s already traveled, Earl still finds it hard to fathom.

“I took film appreciation from Jason Heimerdinger because I thought it would be an easy class where I could sit around and watch movies. Instead, I learned to appreciate film and got totally bitten by that bug,” Earl said. “Being able to bring this film back home, and have Jason there to talk about it … it’s so cool.”