Earth to Echo, director Dave Green and writer Henry Gayden’s heartwarming sci-fi adventure about friendship and extraterrestrial encounters, takes a refreshing narrative approach inspired by today’s generation of DIY storytellers. When three close friends – Tuck (Brian “Astro” Bradley), Munch (Reese Hartwig) and Alex (Teo Halm) – start to receive strangely coded messages on their cell phones just as their small Nevada suburb is about to be demolished to make way for a new highway, they embark on one last thrill together and document their adventure as it unfolds. Opening July 2nd, the PG-rated film also features Ella Linnea Wahlestedt.
In an exclusive interview, Green and Gayden talked about the challenges of capturing a young audience’s attention in today’s world of superheroes and tech savvy storytelling, the film’s roots in the found footage genre, the decision to tell the story from Tuck’s perspective, how they found the charismatic cast of young actors and directed their raw performances, the cool look 19-year-old illustrator Ross Tran came up with for Echo, what they learned while making the film, and their upcoming projects: Lore, an action adventure starring Dwayne Johnson, and a new collaboration with producer Andrew Panay. Check out the interview after the jump.
HENRY GAYDEN: I had this story I was telling about that. My good friend, who I used to work for, was my old boss. He’s in his 80s, and he has a grandson. His grandson, when he was 10, told my friend, “I really like Henry because he looks me in the eye and talks to me like an adult.” I think that does more than any kind of explosion. If you actually talk to a kid and it’s like, “Hey, this is what you’re like and it’s tough. We’ll be real.” I have a little brother and when you talk to them that way, I think that is the first step. There are many steps, but that’s the right first step, which is what I try to do and what we tried to do with them.
Can you talk about your unique storytelling approach and the decision to shape the story from the main character’s point of view, with Tuck filming their adventure as it unfolds, then narrating, editing and posting their experiences on YouTube?
DAVE GREEN: To be honest, it actually came about in post. We had shot the movie as if it was found footage, as if the kids went on the adventure. They documented it straight, like raw footage, and it was left there. And then, when we started watching it, there was an idea that came about to make it feel as if Tuck had not only shot the movie but had cut it together himself. We thought this could not only lend the movie so much more warmth, because it now comes from the intimacy of a narrator who is telling you the story and saying, “This is my story,” and sharing it with you, but also it unlocks the key on what the potential of the format could be. So yes, there’s a rawness to the movie in certain regards with the way it’s shot and the immediacy of it, but at the same time it allows us to push the format forward a little bit in the same way that we had never seen a great looking found footage movie do before Chronicle. We had not seen a found footage movie that had built on previous found footage movies in the way that we had and hopefully has unlocked the potential of where you could go. I don’t want to say that in the next movie we’ll pick us up, but I’m just saying…
GAYDEN: Well no, but also what you’re saying is it was a great gift to us to be able to have Tuck talk to us, because it is his movie, and now you suddenly have him talking to us, and then you have these shots of the kids as they’re getting older. Now we can show those things and give an example of what they were, and that’s actually more relevant to what kids are doing on YouTube than just shooting footage. And so, it really came to life. I mean, it was already alive, but it took on this whole other dimension that was real exciting to work on. It was great.
How did you find this charismatic cast of actors that are believable as close friends who have known each other for a long time?
GREEN: The casting process, like our producer Andrew Panay has said, was fast. The casting directors found hundreds of kids, but we ended up seeing just a portion of those, and then ended up auditioning a portion of those. Auditioning is a very strange process as an actor, because you walk into a room, and there are five people watching you, and there’s a camera, and you have to say the lines. Once we got through that process with the kids, and we found the kids that we did find, I told them that I wanted them to feel empowered on set and have the flexibility to tell us that we were wrong from time to time and to say, “No, I want us to stand here” or “I want to say this because I think this phrasing is better.” Also, when we were auditioning the kids, I wanted them to feel the same kind of freedoms, whether that was giving them a script they’d seen and then saying, “Here, let me do an improv with you” or “Let me see how you bounce off of the casting director,” to see if they could think on their toes. When we were shooting those very quick nights, you had to have them working in concert with each other and with the camera operator. Everyone had to be very much on their toes.
Can you talk about the cool visual effects and how you found the look for Echo, the alien?
GREEN: The alien came from this illustrator who was in college at the time. He was 19. His name is Ross Tran.
GAYDEN: He’ll be famous in 10 years (laughs) or 2 years.
GAYDEN: Or already is for all I know. He’s great.
GREEN: He did the sketch. I had talked to him on the phone. He was staying with his mom in San Jose. I was like, “I’m making a movie.” And he was like, “I don’t know who you are or what you’re talking about.” I told him who Echo was. Henry had given me these photos of the baby owl and the Tarsier ape, and I sent those to Ross and I said, “This is a robotic creature with a soul. He’s just as much biological as he is electronic.” He did this fast sketch and sent it over. It was the very first thing that he drew, and we were like, “Oh wow, I love this thing,” and we honed it from there.
GAYDEN: It should be said to Ross’ credit, Dave went to a lot of very reputable character designers. What they came back with was not what we were looking for, and then this 19-year-old kid just hit it out of the park. It was so cool. And then, Dave, Ross, Noel (Ekker) and I were there designing in the same office. Ross was there from the very beginning of the movie.
GREEN: It sounds a little silly. It’s like, “Oh, there’s this 19 year old who designed this thing.” But what was cool about it, for us, is just like the movie is this empowerment story about these kids who think that they are very small and can’t accomplish anything, there were little seeds of that in there.
GAYDEN: They’re there in the inception and the creation of the movie. You’re right.
Have you had a friends and family screening yet?
GAYDEN: Not really.
GREEN: No. A lot of my friends and family are coming [for the premiere] tomorrow…
GAYDEN: Mine too.
GREEN: …which is the ultimate judgment, because if they don’t like it, then no one will. (Laughs)
What did you guys learn about yourselves in the process of making this movie?
GAYDEN: That’s a great question. Can you go first? I have to think about it.
GREEN: Sure. I don’t have an immediate answer, so I’ll just start talking and come up with something.
GAYDEN: Yeah! Start talking!
GREEN: I have these two photos on my wall that say, “Stay calm,” and then there’s another one that says, “Be nice.” I think looking at the whole movie and the process of making the whole movie, it was important to me to create the kind of environment on set where people felt like they had a good experience, a positive experience, and hopefully the same in post, even though there were times that were hard. I would say overall that, even though it was a movie that was much larger than any of the shorts that I had made before, I felt like if I went into things with the right attitude, they would come out alright and that we could end up getting to a version of the movie that we loved.
GAYDEN: Mine is connected. As a writer, you sit in a room and you write a script, and it’s very structured. Usually, life is very structured and you create something that’s very structured, and then you give it to people and hope that they do exactly what you said. (Laughs) Right? That’s the thing. What was interesting about this, both on a page level and on a meta level, is that we were flying by the seat of our pants. I was writing for the day before sometimes. I would go in, and I would sit with the actors, and I would talk to them on set if they wanted to talk to me about the character and stuff. And then, I would make sure everything worked no matter what I expected or thought would be the right answer. And then in post, just when you thought you’d built the movie the right way, suddenly that structure needed to be blown up. So, it was constantly learning that you have to be completely flexible with everything. If you’re making a movie, there is no real structured way. You just have to always be available to change with whatever is happening.
GAYDEN: That was a great lesson for me, because being there for pre-production and post, I learned not to be such a tight ass. I could just roll with the changes. It was really fun, and it became more fun because of that.
What are you guys working on next that you’re excited about?
GAYDEN: We’re working on Lore.
GREEN: We’re really excited. It’s an action adventure movie.
GAYDEN: With Dwayne Johnson.
GREEN: We’re just working on the script and starting to roll up our sleeves on it, but it’s going to be a lot of fun.
GAYDEN: It’s a lot of fun. And then also, we have something with Panay that we’re going to go out with somewhat soon that’s pretty exciting. They’re all on the same team that did this. We’re going to try and go out and do something else.
GREEN: We created an awesome family on Echo that we love.
What kind of film is it?
GREEN: It’s also an adventure movie of sorts.
GAYDEN: It is with a little older characters. It’s sort of the same heart and same adventure but taken to an older space.
Do you have a cast in mind yet?
GAYDEN: No, not at all. We haven’t even gone out with it yet.