TV Interview - Post-emancipation debut 'The Retrieval' screens second weekend in Atlanta

Director Chris Eska hopes Atlanta audiences will make the case for wider distribution

The "unlikely genre." That's what cultural critic Nelson George deemed the recent slate of successful films - The Help, Lincoln, Django Unchained, The Butler, Fruitvale Station 12 Years a Slave - that deal with "America's tortured racial history."

The latest entrant into that pool isn't predicted to be a Hollywood blockbuster, nor does it boast a star-studded lineup. It's a small, indie that got its box office debut at Atlanta's Midtown Arts Cinema last weekend.

Set in 1864, immediately following the Emancipation Proclamation, The Retrieval dramatizes the distance separating recent freedmen from freedom. Morehouse College alum Tishuan Scott stars as a wanted fugitive, Nate, set upon by a young boy, who has been sent to retrieve him for bounty hunters. The father-son relationship they form leads to a test of loyalty vs. betrayal.

Though historical dramas are usually hard sells, the film has been picked up by distributor Variance Films. Director Chris Eska hopes Atlanta audiences will help make the case for wider distribution. It was responsible for approximately half of all tickets sold last weekend at Midtown Arts Cinema.

In a telephone conversation from his hometown of Austin, Tex., Eska discussed the challenges faced in taking the award-winning indie from the festival circuit to the box office, and the traumatic ending of the film that exposes the lasting and tortuous psychological effects of slavery.

When the film debuted at SXSW Film Festival last year, it came on the heels of Tarantino's Django Unchained, Lincoln may have still been in theaters, and 12 Years a Slave was already starting to get pre-release buzz. Are you at all worried at this point that audiences might be suffering from slavery-film burnout? Or do you think those films have primed viewers for this story?

Eska: About three or four months after I finished shooting this film, they announced that they were going to make Django. And I was just incredibly upset, because in the 120 years of cinema history there were then exactly two films that were going to be about formerly enslaved black men, circa 1860, who became bounty hunters. I just went what are the odds that there are two films like that? And my script had been circling around Hollywood, so I just assumed that somebody had somehow picked up on it over the course of the last couple of years. And then when I saw Django, I saw that there were zero similarities - completely different film, different tone and plot. So then I became more positive toward the notion of Django and 12 Years.

? ?
I think that Django, 12 Years and Lincoln are only positive for us because we are a small indie, and the success of all of those films has clearly demonstrated that there is an audience that, for the most part over the last 20, 30 years, general audiences were not flocking to see. So most importantly I think it's a positive. As far as my concern that there's some sort of potential burnout, as you said, of people not wanting to see more slavery movies, perhaps that could be an issue. But the key thing I want people to know is that this is not a slavery movie. None of the lead characters are enslaved. It's post-Emancipation Proclamation. So to me, it's not a slavery movie.

What led you to tell this story?
I think it was probably four years ago, as we were coming up on the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. The seed of the idea was planted from me reading a lot of history articles discussing that lead up to the commemoration and the historical tales of the horrors and tragedies of slavery. I also read about the abolitionist movemement, the efforts made by freedmen. So we get to that point where we have Jan. 1, 1863, the Emancipaiton Proclamation and finally abolish slavery. My mind instantly went to Jan. 2, 1863 and trying to think about what that felt like and looked like, and the experiences that people had coming out of 200-plus years of this terrible institution. ... I'd never seen that on film and that's what got me interested.

You shot the film in your home state of Texas. Was it just coincidence that your lead character Nate, played by Tishuan Scott, and actress Christine Horn ended up having Atlanta ties?
As well as my executive producer, Sibyl Avery Jackson. Yeah, I found Tishuan in Texas, I found Sibyl in Texas, I found Christine in Los Angeles. And she was only briefly in L.A., then happened to go back to her home in Atlanta. Tishuan had been from Atlanta where he attended Morehouse College to Los Angeles to Houston, and had only been in Texas briefly when I found him for this role. He'd actually gone to UCLA Film School. And Sibyl had probably lived for a good 15 years in Atlanta, going to Spelman College, and her husband had played for the Atlanta Falcons. She still goes back frequently. It was all just complete coincidence but after the film festival circuit, we thought that Atlanta, for most intents and purposes, could be our hometown and the place to sort of demonstrate that their might be an audience for this film.

The film has garnered critical acclaim and lots of awards on the festival circuit, but talk about the challenges that you've faced as an independent filmmaker in trying to get it distributed for a wider commercial release.
I got back from Atlanta yesterday and there was an award that I didn't even know about waiting for me in the mail - an audience award from, I think, Omaha. The challenge is when a film is small, people say you need to have giant movie stars in your film. Before Django and 12 Years, they would've said, you have this period piece with African-Americans and it won't work at the box office. Obviously, that was proven wrong recently. But to me a lot of the things people say about why a film might not have huge success or a wide distribution, a lot of those things are easily and often disproved if you have the right film at the right time and you connect with the right audience. So I don't really let those things stand in my way. That's why we're pushing on. That's why we came to Atlanta, to prove that people care. We were responsible for about half the box office last weekend out of eight screens at Midtown Art Cinema the No. 1 art house in all of Atlanta, which means all of the South. So we're held over for a second weekend and I think we're already on our way to demonstrate this. And we're really, really hoping that we can build upon that this weekend.

One of the sticking points in films of this nature is how much agency characters are allowed to have. In The Retrieval, the adolescent character Will develops this strong father-son bond with Nate, the man he's supposed to be retrieving for a Burrell the white bounty hunter. Nate even saves Will's life a few times. So he has this seemingly difficult decision about whether or not to betray Nate. Can you talk about why you imagined this as such a hard choice for Will from a historic standpoint?
I think it can be very difficult for us to put ourselves into the mindset of someone 150 years ago, and on top of that the mindset of a 13-year-old 150 years ago. Someone who had seen nothing but oppression, enslavement and brutality and betrayal up to that point. Even 50-year-olds in 1864 had often traveled less than 10 miles from their house in their entire life. So for him to completely imagine a future where he's away from the people who have threatened to kill him if he doesn't do this is incredibly difficult. He'd never seen the free North, he'd never seen overseas, he'd never seen Africa or anywhere where someone like him could live without fear. And then on the other side of that, Nate has been on the run in hiding for about five years and the one person he decided to open up to, the one person he trusts after all this time, was sent by Burrell to kill him. And Will also probably sees Burrell as a very omnipresent, omnipotent force who seems to be all around and seems to know everything. He has a freedom of movement that Will doesn't have - horses and technology and connections and privilege. And I think it's very difficult for audiences today to understand that.

The Retrieval has been held over for a second weekend at Midtown Arts Cinema, 931 Monroe Dr. 404-879-0160. Actor will be on-hand for post-film Q&A's after the 7 p.m. Friday, 4:40 and 7 p.m. Saturday, and 4:40 p.m. Sunday shows. www.theretrieval.com.

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