CHRIS: My roommate and I took an “easy A” film class at Rice University while preparing for med school, and I just fell in love with the process of filmmaking. I completely switched gears and went to the graduate film directing program at UCLA.
After traveling in Asia for a year during a leave of absence, I shot my thesis film, Doki-Doki, in Japan and it premiered on the national PBS series Independent Lens. After film school, I returned home to Texas to shoot my first feature, August Evening, which received a national theatrical release and won an Independent Spirit Award.
Where did the idea come from and what was the writing process like?
CHRIS: I think the seed of the idea for this film came a few years ago as we were approaching the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and especially the Emancipation Proclamation. I had been reading about stories of tragedy and sacrifice and hard work that got us to that point as a nation, but then I thought about what happened the day after the Emancipation Proclamation, and the year after and all the many years of that sort-of gray period between slavery and true freedom and how that’s rarely shown in films.
Also, all my films originate from themes that are important in my life, and then I search for the setting and characters that will most highlight the emotions. I find that by writing characters who might not seem exactly like me on paper but who are facing similar emotions, I’m able to gain distance from the material in order to focus in on the aspects of the story that will resonate with the audience. It might sound naïve, but I think film can demonstrate the universality of the human experience and connect us through a shared catharsis.
For example, my Japanese-language film Doki-Doki was about my own isolation in Los Angeles; my Spanish-language film August Evening was about changing families in Texas and Japan, etc. All my films explore the themes of surrogate families, finding ways to make connections in an increasingly isolated world, and the reexamination of our path in life.
With The Retrieval, I initially considered setting the story on the contemporary Texas border or in 1970’s southern India before realizing that this historical rural setting would best draw out the emotions. War, slavery, desolate locations, and the lack of technology all combined to tear apart families and cause displacement and isolation that required difficult choices in order to find one’s place in the world.
For the nuts and bolts of writing the script, I first create a very detailed outline and treatment until I know every beat of the story. Only then do I begin writing the script at five pages a day, strictly following the treatment.
CHRIS: Based on the reception of my first feature, we found a handful of local private investors to fund the majority of the production, then supplemented that with an Austin Film Society grant and additional support from several friends and family members. These days it often makes more sense for indies to use semi-self distribution, so if we don’t receive the right offer then we’ll share revenue with theatrical and ancillary partners.
CHRIS: I feel I shouldn’t make the film until I find the perfect cast because they are crucial to bringing the screenplay to life. So I'm very thorough. Very. I have a history of working with non-actors and first-timers, so my casting assistants and I went to every middle school within 200 miles of Austin and either held on-campus auditions or looked through yearbooks to send letters to the kids' parents to encourage them to come to our auditions. We saw hundreds if not thousands of non-actor boys.
But to my surprise, I found my perfect Will during an old-fashioned run-of-the-mill audition in Los Angeles. Still, it was the first time Ashton Sanders had been on film so it was very exciting to guide him through the process.
For the other lead, Nate, Tishuan Scott was one of the only main actors I found in Texas instead of Los Angeles. It turned out he had actually attended UCLA graduate school at the same time as me, but our paths had never crossed.
What kind of camera did you use to shoot the movie -- and what did you love about it and hate about it?
CHRIS: We used the RED One with the Mysterium chip. I loved the 4k resolution, the price, and the ease of editing native 4k R3D files. I hated the latitude (which was still less than film) because we often had to choose between exposing for the sky or the skin tones, plus there was some firmware issue that made the camera freeze and reboot every thirty minutes!
CHRIS: Of course it’s very difficult to create a period film with accurate uniforms, weapons, horses, saddles, buildings, etc. on such a limited budget, but my production designer and costumer did a tremendous amount of research and were incredibly resourceful.
We discussed historical photos of clothing, then took video of the actors wearing rented examples that closely resembled the photos. Then the design team created original costumes from scratch or distressed and altered modern clothing to appear period correct. We also designed the characters’ personal belongings and built wooden structures out of reclaimed antique wood.
A huge amount of help also came from historical re-enactors who advised us and lent us weapons, saddles, uniforms, and other props because they care so much about seeing that time period represented correctly on film.
What was the smartest thing you did during production? The dumbest?
CHRIS: The smartest thing was surrounding myself with the most intelligent, sensitive, and hard-working cast and crew I could find, and relying on them instead of trying to do too much myself like usual.
The dumbest thing was assuming the Texas winter would be as mild as it usually is--we actually captured snow on film in Texas, which is quite rare and painful if you aren’t prepared.
CHRIS: I actually haven’t moved on to other projects yet since I’m seeing this film through distribution! But hopefully next time I’ll learn to finally accept that even when things are going rough on set or spiraling out of control, that it’s never as bad as it seemed once you get in the edit suite. Just trust in your preparation and stay relaxed.