Chris Eska is a film writer, director and editor whose most recent film, The Retrieval, will open Friday, April 18 at the Sundance Cinemas: Theatre Houston. The Retrieval tells the story of a young boy on the outskirts of the Civil War who is sent north by his bounty hunter to retrieve a wanted man. 

Chris Eska is a film writer, director and editor whose most recent film, The Retrieval, will open Friday, April 18 at the Sundance Cinemas: Theatre Houston. The Retrieval tells the story of a young boy on the outskirts of the Civil War who is sent north by his bounty hunter to retrieve a wanted man. 

Eska was raised in Ottine, TX (pop. 98) and received a dual degree in Sociology and Visual and Dramatic Arts from Rice University (Sid Richardson ‘98) before attending graduate school at University of California, Los Angeles in the MFA film directing program. He is best known for his films Doki-Doki (2003), which premiered on the PBS series Independent Lens with an introduction by Susan Sarandon, and August Evening (2007), which was nominated for and won many independent film accolades, including the $50,000 Target Filmmaker Award and the John Cassavetes Award. 

In creating The Retrieval, Eska also worked with other Rice alumni, including producer Jason Wehling (Lovett ‘98) and sound mixer Joey McKeel. This is the second film with Eska for both Wehling and McKeel. 

 

Thresher: So you’re a Rice alumnus. What were the circumstances in which you first discovered your passion for film?

 

Eska: “I was pre-med, you know, following in my father’s footsteps. But waking up at 5 a.m. on Saturday to make films — I knew I had to change my path. During O-Week, the upperclassmen took us to the River Oaks [Theatre] to watch Barcelona. It was the first arthouse film I’d ever seen, and it opened up my world. Even though I didn’t start making films right away, it led me to the point where I first started being interested in film. We shot films all over campus, and I remember the President sent out a letter that said ‘you should help these guys with whatever they need.’ Rice was incredibly supportive, and that’s something I’ll always remember.”

 

Where did the idea for this film originate? Are you drawn to this particular historical period, or was it the narrative you had in mind first?

 

“Specifically, this idea came to me a few years ago as we approached the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, which I wrote about. I wanted to explore what that period of transition was like. I also have very specific themes and emotions that run through all my work. Those are the importance of the surrogate family and the importance of making connections in an increasingly isolated world. Hopefully, [the themes] will also encourage the audience to reevaluate their paths and how the decisions they make affect others. [In The Retrieval], the chaos of war and the aftermath of slavery force the characters to reach out and make connections just to survive, really.”

 

The austere scenery really captured my attention. Where did you film? 

 

“The film was entirely shot in Texas. A lot of it was near my hometown of Gonzales, and then probably one third of it was shot in east-central Texas, near Woodville. We also shot around Houston at the George Ranch Historical Park. We had to find a place where highway noise wasn’t an issue. You have to get out there in the middle of nowhere.”

 

You are the writer, director and editor. What is that experience like?

 

“When you write it, it’s this perfect version, and then when you direct, it’s nonstop compromise, which is kind of frustrating. For my first feature film, I didn’t look at it for nine months after we shot it because I was so demoralized [by the shooting process]. In my mind, because it wasn’t the perfect vision that I had, it was very difficult for me to come to terms with the differences between the screenplay and the final product.”

 

I can understand that, because after putting so much work into the film it must be hard to see it chopped up. 

“It’s your baby. You want it to be perfect. It’s very much like raising a child, and then at some point they turn 18 and and are out there in the world, and you just have to see what happens.”

 

There is a lot of contention over film school these days. Do you think it’s still valuable for students interested in entering the industry?

 

“It’s very debatable. Most of the people at UCLA film school were in their 20s and 30s, so it was a good opportunity for me to learn from people who had more experience with film than me. I would recommend it if someone else is paying for it; however, I would like to mention that I learned everything I needed to know about filmmaking from my [Rice] film professor Brian Huberman. My sociology professor, Elizabeth Long, was also very influential. I take a lot of sociological approaches to my filmmaking.”

 

Do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers?

 

“Go out and make the film that you can with the budget that you have. Don’t wait around. It will kill your dream — waiting around for money that may never come. You can never compete with Hollywood in terms of production value, but where you can have an advantage is in telling stories and connecting with the audience about real life issues that are important to them. That emotional connection is something that Hollywood oftens fails at. Don’t try to compete with Hollywood — beat Hollywood in terms of storytelling.”

 

There will be a student group attending the premiere on Saturday, led by VADA professor Brian Huberman. The bus will leave at 3:30 p.m. from the Rice Media Center, and tickets are subsidized by Rice Public Art. Eska would also like to encourage students and professors to take part in the Q&A session which will follow the

screening.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.