In a time where most movies are sequels, reboots, YA adaptations, or superhero films, it comes as a surprise when a live action family film like ‘Earth to Echo’ comes around. The film is about 4 friends who are about to be separated when a development company buys up property to put in a freeway where they live. As a last adventure together, they decide to try and figure out what is interfering with their cell phones. Their journey not only takes them to Echo, but brings them to an understanding of themselves they didn’t know existed.
At a press junket for the film, filmmakers Andrew Panay, David Green and Henry Gayden spoke about what it was like to bring this film to the big screen and the challenges of telling a story with an 80s family vibe to the tech savvy kids of this millennium.
How was this film pitched?
David Green (DG): It was the three of us. Do you guys want to dive in?
Henry Gayden (HG): My recollection is that we sat down and I would talk about my feelings about aliens growing up and how I felt about it and we would talk about the sort of movies we loved and what we missed. And then… really the story came about pretty naturally. I would pitch them the story and then Dave would talk about how we would visualize it in this medium and how it’s gonna be different and new and modern.
DG: And I stole all the best jokes from his pitch. I stole them and got to say them in the middle of the pitch…
HG: Did you?
DG: I did.
HG: I don’t remember. I’ve forgiven him. (laughs)
DG: And then we shot this little one minute video that was a clip and had friends of friends and kids who were in this little clip. It was the first act of the movie basically truncated in this little one minute clip and they’re saying “Our phones are messed up. Let’s go check it out. What do you think it leads to? I don’t know. It’s very mysterious.” And they find the cylinder that Echo is kept inside.
Andrew Panay (AP): The short film that was done… I was always begging these guys to go out and shoot me something we could show the studio what we wanted to do tonality in short form, because the truth of the matter is you can make a great movie, but how are you going to sell it. So we tried to figure out how we were gonna sell this thing and so we shot this short. These guys went out and made a great short which is actually very similar to the first teaser trailer that was out about the kids finding the cylinder. It’s actually almost shot for shot, very similar. So it’s really kinda of an incredible story because we kinda did a home video movie before we started [filming]. Then it just evolved from there and we were running gun. We had the idea… I think I sat down with you guys in April? And we were shooting in August.
The movie is filmed in a found footage style, even utilizing an iPhone to film some of the sequences. What made you decide to use this style of filming?
AP: I think it’s so fun. What’s great about the movie is look how far technology has come. Look at how effective it can be. Most importantly look at what’s happened to the generation… well, forget about that. How about the adults. I mean, everybody’s one is on Facebook, everybodys doing selfies, we can do 3D mock ups from that to text messaging to filming yourself and documenting your own.
This film is very different than the films we see nowadays.
DG: But I think the advantage was it really challenged us to tell the story from the kid’s point of view and create a kind of intimacy with those characters that you really wouldn’t have otherwise. I think the format of the movie makes you feel like “wow I really just had an experience with those kids”
AP: It definitely doesn’t feel like a TV show. It doesn’t feel manipulated because the truth is you’re seeing on camera what is happening. That’s it. That is it. We can’t manipulate performances. I think the kids were pretty rad in this film. The truth is, that’s raw. That’s raw right there. We’re not cutting away from them because we can’t. It’s all on camera so it’s here to hear back to here. All live. One shot like a play. So I think the kids deserve a lot more credit, if they’re not getting the credit, they deserve a ton of it.
DG: My favorite movies are always shot with perspective in mind whether it is the kids in Jurassic Park getting attacked in that T-Rex scene . The camera is inside the car, you’re rarely cutting to an over the shoulder of the T-Rex because you are telling the story from the audiences point of view and so what it really let us do is make the audience feel like they were in the shoes of those characters.
Echo is obviously an important character in the film. What were some of the parameters you were looking at when you were designing his look?
DG: We were looking at a lot of things with had, for whatever reason, giant eyes and a little baby form, In part of our discussions we were saying if Echo is crashed, maybe his eyes would have been cracked and how sad that would be and how much would that draw you in. Almost like a little Mr. Magoo who doesn’t know which direction to look because his eyes were fractured. So Henry sent me this Google image of a little baby owl that if you look at it it’s like all eyes. So I had that on my wall and then I had a little tarsier monkey, baby, that was had giant bubble eyes and little hands wrapped around a tree and we gave those to some designers and said we love the feelings that these photos are giving us because you are immediately love these little guys and we wanted to make sure the audiences when they finally get to see Echo there is a sigh of relief and something that draws you in. You need to take care of this thing. It’s adorable.
AP: Dave just kept walking around going “I just want it to be cute!” I was, “Okay, I got it.”
DG: Some of the other designs were freaky. There’s one where he had a lot of little arms.
AP: And I would say, “That is not cute.”
DG: There are movies that have anthropomorphized things that are not necessarily cute but based on the amount of time that we had to connect with Echo in this plot line, we wanted to feel that warmth right away so that is why he’s as cute as he is.
To help the young actors in their interaction with Echo and make audiences believe, how did you try to make the alien as real as possible for them?
AP: We also had a real robot and we also did a lot of CG. A lot of CG.
DG: The tricky thing is when they manufactured that little guy, we went to Legacy Effects who, they’re the former Stan Winston Studios and they are incredible — they did Iron Man, they did Jurassic Park they are amazing — and they said the challenge of Echo is how do you pack all that robotics into something that is that tiny. When he showed up on set a couple weeks into shooting and we said “Great! He can do all these things but there were certain emotions like we wanted him to breathe and we wanted him to do many things at once that we could only really do in CG. I have to say that it was really just our actors who made it come to life. There were certain times I had to say “Reese, it’s Echo” and he his eyes would have to light up and he would have to smile like he’s holding an alien and that’s really all him. I wish I could say we gave him something but it comes from the kids entirely.
What do you hope movie audiences will get out of the film:?
AP: We wanted to inspire kids and parents. I think that both Dave and Henry, to be honest, get all the credit for the movie. It’s got a childlike feel but it also definitely nods to all the movies that I grew up with and that’s what we wanted to accomplish… We just really wanted to pay homage to some of those great movies that I grew up with.
HG: Dave and I wanted to tell this story for a bit. Whenever we talked to people about it, they’d be like “this is great. This is a great story about children. Can Woody Harrelson be in it?” Well no because it’s not from the kid’s perspective. Andrew just gave us a chance to actually to tell a story which is rare these days in live action from a kid’s perspective and we just wanted to honor that because the thing I love about those [80s] movies is that they don’t pander, they don’t condescend they look you right in the eyes of the child and treat you like an adult. They are complicated and have a lot of feelings just like me. That’s what we wanted to achieve and that’s what we wanted to pay homage to because those hearts in those live action movies, you don’t see anymore.
AP: That’s what we’re excited about. As an adult, heartbreak stinks, saying goodbye is awful, getting in to an argument with a friend is terrible and when you’re twelve, heartbreak stinks, having a girl say she doesn’t like you is terrible, having a friend make fun of you is the worse. The difference now is that as an adult you can process it a little better.
DG: Maybe (smiling)
AP: Maybe. I’m still a mess. I still get in the fetal position when I get broken up with. What we love is that we wanted to bring that back a little bit because it is lacking in the marketplace and everything is about the big superhero movies, which I love, don’t get me wrong, I’m there, but what about a family movie that actually doesn’t talk down to kids or down to adults. So we wanted to take a swing.
In the end, ‘Earth to Echo’ hopes to inspire and empower kids in the same way ‘E.T.’ and ‘Stand by Me’ did in the 80s and the filmmakers hope that the film leaves you feeling that same childhood sense that you had when you were a kid that anything was possible.