'Prospect': How a Low-Budget Sci-Fi Made a Dirty Universe With "Poop Tubes"
Directors Zeek Earl and Chris Chaldwell explain the intricate design of their debut sci-fi feature using only the barest of resources.
The future is filthy in Prospect, a new sci-fi film from Gunpower & Sky’s DUST in theaters on November 2. Dirt fills every frame as blue-collar characters evade death on the daily, carving out a meager existence with barely functional tools on a toxic planet on the fringes of space.
It’s no place for any teenager to be, yet it’s where the young Cee (played by Sophie Thatcher) must survive.
A feature-length version of directors Zeek Earl and Chris Caldwell 2014 short of the same name, the feature-length version was filmed in the same parts of Seattle’s Hoh Rain Forrest as the original. The budget stayed small too, but Earl and Caldwell used that to their advantage to tell a grim story of survival set on the dismal, unimpressive frontier of space.
“It comes down to this core philosophy that this is not a movie about impressive, magical technology,” Earl tells Inverse. “We wanted the film to look dirty and rundown. Our characters are blue collar, everyday working people. It was important the backdrop matched that.”
Besides spending painstaking months adding an actual layer of dirt into every exterior shot (a process achieved by filming the dirty air in the directors’ actual basements for “a miserable day”), the filmmakers informed their universe via intelligently-designed costumes and props that hint at civilization millions of lightyears and a full tank of gas away.
In Prospect, a father (Jay Duplass) and his young daughter, Cee (Thatcher) seek out their payday on the hazardous “Green Moon” until they meet the morally ambiguous Ezra (Pedro Pascal, Game of Thrones). While these characters might reminiscent of other sci-fi ensembles like Firefly and Cowboy Bebop, no one in Prospect plays the hero. They’re all just desperate folks on the frontier, rubbing credits together.
“Nothing is new. Nothing is shiny, because these people can’t afford it,” Caldwell says. “The pods they drop in is the space version of U-Haul. Their gear is second hand. When you don’t have the means to replace, you repair, hence the patchwork and things held together with tape.”
While everyone in Star Wars seems to dismiss the Millennium Falcon as a pile of junk, you never really believe it’s actually going to fall apart. Even in other, grimy sci-fi films like Annihilation and Blade Runner 2049, the future still looks anti-septic.
In Prospect, on the other hand, the characters are stuck with second-hand tech, many of them outfitted with unseen (and gross) functions that help create a fleshed-out and logical universe.
Take the spacesuits for example. It’s never used in the film, but there is an actual “poop tube” designed on all the suits. Its purpose is rooted in the logic that these characters would be working nonstop and can’t pause for a “break” on an environmentally hazardous planet.
“That matters to us,” Earl says. “We wanted to have the weight of reality. Economics exist, people struggle. That goes all the way to the ‘poop tubes.’ We don’t want to overlook fact out of convenience.”
An earlier draft of the script actually did feature the “poop tube,” where Cee would have emptied her bag before she meets a few strangers on a planet. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your perspective), that scene didn’t make the final edit.
“I was sad that got cut,” Earl says. “I wanted to show the world we thought that through.”
"We wanted Prospect to feel like a period piece from a time no one is familiar with
Thatcher’s most significant prop, though, is Cee’s headphones, which gesture at a world away from the frontier. (Specially designed for the film, they allowed the actress to listen to her own music during filming.) The filmmakers used Turkish pop from the ‘70s and ‘80s for Cee’s “playlist,” which is just foreign enough to not be familiar.
“We wanted Prospect to feel like a period piece from a time no one is familiar with,” Earl says. “A lot of our design inspiration was the Space Race, to give this impression of ‘everything is old’ from a distinctive time.”
“If you’re building a world from scratch, you are compensating for detail you take for granted,” adds Caldwell. “The real world is imbued with pop culture. We wanted that depth. We’re focused on a small story but there’s evidence there is civilization, there are bands making music. A big part of [Cee’s] character is yearning for civilization, a normal childhood, while she’s out in the fringe.”
The “rundown, brokenness” of Prospect was strongly emphasized by Caldwell and Earl’s production studio, the Seattle-based Shep Films. The entrance to their prop shop where much of Prospect was designed and created had emblazoned on their entryway: “Technology cannot save you.”
Says Caldwell, “That was a mantra for the film.”
Prospect is out in theaters on November 2.