2018 is a big year for Seattle at the SXSW Film Festival—three films from local directors are premiering there this week. One of those films is the sci-fi Western Prospect, the first feature-length project from local production company Shep Films.
Shep Films was created by Pacific Northwest natives Chris Caldwell and Zeek Earl. Graduating in the midst of the recession in 2009, Caldwell and Earl started their company small: they began filming commercials and built up their production apparatus over time. They were eventually able to produce their first short film, “In the Pines,” which screened at SXSW and other festivals in 2012.
Prospect began as a short film, which premiered at SXSW in 2014. It tells the story of a teenage girl and her father attempting to strike it rich on an alien moon before they run into danger. The short film caught attention at the festival, which led Shep Films to begin working on a feature-length script.
Even with support from established industry professionals, getting Prospect off the ground took time. “The first major challenge was getting the movie financed, being a first-time team,” says Earl. “We had several false starts.”
Having the script and a successful short film helped the team make their case to financiers and ultimately get funding. “I think particularly if you’re a first-time director, it’s useful to have this proof-of-concept short,” says Caldwell. “I think [with] the script alone, it would have been more difficult to get financed.”
Caldwell and Earl were set on making the film in Washington from the beginning. “The alien landscape for the majority of the film is the Hoh rainforest on the Olympic Peninsula, which is a location that both Chris and I had personal experience with hiking and backpacking. It was always this fun idea to cast that part of Washington as this alien planet,” explains Earl. “The forest itself is a big part of the movie.”
Caldwell also stresses the community aspect of their decision to film in Washington, “We’ve developed a good group of collaborators who are all based out of Seattle.”
Earl adds, “Even though the crew and filmmaking community in Seattle is small, it’s a very passionate, positive community.”
In collaboration with Seattle film crew and local creatives, Shep Films found ways to produce the props, costumes, and sets needed for their original world. “We needed the machine that could build all this stuff. The result was us pulling together our own shop, and it was kind of this eclectic mix of people from all backgrounds,” says Earl. People with backgrounds in everything from cabinet-making to cosplay worked together in the film’s warehouse in Wallingford. “All these unusual skillsets came together, which was probably the most exciting and gratifying part.”
The strength of Washington’s film community shines in its dedication and compassion, in Earl and Caldwell’s telling. “The crew went above and beyond,” says Caldwell. “L.A. producers would show up, and they’d be looking around amazed at how good the vibe is on set.”
Shep Films was met with support and advice from the local film crews and industry, as well as the Seattle Office of Film + Music as they learned the ropes of producing a full-length movie. “It’s great to have an advocate who can help us get through hurdles to get it done,” says co-producer Brice Budke, describing the Office of Film + Music’s support in navigating bureaucracy to secure long-term production and crew parking and assisting in securing film locations. “It’s nice to have one contact who can advocate across departments.”
Shep Films also got help and advice from a local producer and Mayor’s Film Award recipient Lacey Leavitt and other established Seattle filmmakers along the way. “It’s crazy because Lynn [Shelton’s] movie Outside In and Megan [Griffiths’] movie Sadie are both [screening at SXSW] too, and there are people who worked on all three films, and they’re all playing at South By this year,” says Earl. “So it’s pretty exciting.”