We caught up with The Retrieval writer/director/editor Chris Eska while he was on the road. Ah, yes, the glamorous life of an award-winning film director on a promotional tour. "I'm on my way from Shreveport to Lafayette today to show my film to 60 people in a little church building somewhere," the Rice University grad tells us.
His sophomore effort, The Retrieval is set at the end of the Civil War and focuses on Will, a young black boy (played by newcomer Ashton Sander) who is working with white bounty hunters tracking down runaway slaves, and Nate, a freedman living in the north (played by Houstonian Tishuan Scott). It's Will's job to befriend Nate and lure him back south into slave territory where the bounty hunters are waiting. An uneasy relationship develops between the two as they make their way south, forcing Will to decide between betraying his friend or disobeying his cutthroat boss.
Eska, who grew up in tiny Ottine, Texas (population 98), got the idea for the film during the recent celebrations marking the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. "I thought, 'What happened the day after January 1, 1863? And the day after that?' Things didn't change overnight. They did officially, of course, but what was the reality of people's day-to-day life. What was that like?"
The film has been well received at film festivals including several black festivals, but Eska says the film is more than just a story about the end of slavery.
"It's not so much a film about war as it is a film about family, about being adrift and finding a home for yourself. I make films about people who don't always look or sound like me on paper but who are going through a lot of the emotional things that I'm going through, looking at the same life decisions that I am," he tells us.
Filming was dependent on finding the right actors for the roles of Will and Nate. Eska spent months auditioning some 1,000 actors in Texas and California. "We looked everywhere for Will. I knew I wanted someone who was unknown. We held auditions; we got yearbooks and school records and invited kids to the auditions. We became like stalkers trying to see every kid we could." Eventually Ashton Sander was cast through an agent.
Eska found Tishuan Scott in Houston. "Once I saw him, I knew he was Nate." Eska and Tishuan, who did not know each other before the casting, later discovered they had both been at the University of California Los Angeles School of Theater, Film and Television at the same time for a short while.
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The two men aren't the only ones on the project with ties to Houston. Executive Producer Sibyl Avery Jackson is a long time Houstonian.
Eska was at Houston's Rice University when the film bug bit him. "I was in pre-med and my roommate was the top engineering student at the school so we decided we would take a film class for an easy A, so that we could get into grad school. I just completely fell in love with film. I fell down the rabbit hole and found myself waking up at 6 in the morning on the weekends to use some rusty, old analog equipment to edit together a short film. That was it. I was hooked."
And his top engineering student roommate? "He got a job at Hewlett Packard, I think."
The Retrival is screening at the Sundance Cinemas Houston, 510 Texas. For information, call 713-223-3456 or visit sundancecinemas.net. $10.50.