Earth to Echo follows three adventurous friends (Teo Halm, Brian “Astro” Bradley, and Reese Hartwig) who are spending their last summer together in a small Nevada suburb; their families are being forced to move away due to new freeway construction. But before their time together comes to an end, the three boys venture into the desert to find the source of mysterious signals they are all getting on their cell phones. Their journey leads them to a tiny alien they dub Echo, who they are soon helping to reclaim the pieces of his crashed spaceship so that he can return home.
If that story sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because Earth to Echo is an unabashed family film that earnestly attempts to channel the spirit of an earlier generation’s classics like E.T. and The Goonies. But it’s told in modern terms; the boys film their adventures on their video cameras, with Tuck (Bradley) the one who eventually edits it all together.
The real mastermind is director Dave Green, making his feature debut after working as an assistant on Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy and creating a series of short films and videos on his own. We caught up with Green via phone to discuss his influences, using the “DIY” format (don’t call it “found footage”) and finding the right look for little Echo, the movie’s extraterrestrial star.
Den of Geek: This is your first feature after making a lot of short films. How did it come your way?
Dave Green: You know I’d been making a lot of shorts like you said and kind of grew up making them a lot like the kids in the movie, around the age of 12 and 13, kind of messing around with the video camera. So that was me when I was a kid, just kind of making shorts with my buddies and goofing off. And then after school I kept making shorts and never really stopped doing that. I made this short that the producer of Echo ended up seeing and he called me in for a meeting and just said, “Hey, I like your stuff. I like your comedy chops and I like your cutting style. We have this project that I think you might dig.” And he kind of gave me the pitch for what Echo was which was at the time just one sentence. It was, “Kids go out in the middle of nowhere and they find something.”
That’s all it was. But it was enough to kind of get me excited because it was part of the vibe of things that I grew up watching and loving. And it also just kind of reminded me of myself, being that age messing around with a video camera, which is in some way what the main characters of the movie are doing…so anyway, after our first conversation I called my writing partner, Henry Gayden, and he started coming up with ideas and it all started rolling out of that first meeting.
What were some of the other ideas that you and Henry had about what the kids go out and find?
They were all sci-fi stuff. I think it was a monster at one point. I think it was an alien at one point that did not have any robotic qualities. It was just kind of more organic and more of a squid-like thing. And then I think there was one other discussion about it being just a magical thing at some point. But, you know, a lot of those were all just like design discussions. We knew the creature was going to be small, we knew he was going to be small enough to fit into a backpack and we knew he had to be kind of small and lovable. So when we were talking about that and when we were designing what that creature would look like, there were a lot of things kind of thrown at the wall.
I think it’s safe to say that E.T. kind of towers over any film along these lines, and you also mentioned The Goonies and Stand by Me. Were all those sort of seminal films to you growing up?
Some of them were and them some of them I found later. Actually Goonies I found way later in life when I was 25. Everyone was talking about it like it had become this cult movie, to be honest, and I hadn’t seen it when I was a kid for some reason. I ended up watching the same movies over and over on loop as a kid, some of them were Amblin movies and Back to the Future and E.T. and Gremlins, and then some of them were like John Hughes movies that I just loved growing up on, like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I also loved Beetlejuice and Batman growing up. Growing up in the ’80s, movies then seemed to not take themselves quite as seriously as they do now…I feel like today a lot of what we see is just one tone and that tone is dark.
What do you find inspiring and/or challenging about the DIY format?
There are challenges because as a filmmaker you have a certain number of tools in your toolkit and some of those are just the language of what movies have become: you’ve got music, you’ve got sound, you’ve got light and you’ve got art direction. And you’ve got the ability to crosscut the things that your characters don’t know about. With this format, you can’t use every single tool but the fun in that challenge and in that handicap is, when we were building the movie, I’m obviously thinking like the filmmaker I am but I’m also thinking about what I would have done when I was 13 years old in putting a scene together and how would I shoot this and how would I tell the story.
We thought halfway through making this movie, first of all, a lot of these “found footage movies” never address who actually assembled the footage. It’s always bothered me. So we thought, you know, just in the spirit of our movie and in the spirit of this being a kid empowerment story about these kids who go on this adventure and do everything themselves and kind of go from being very small in their world to being very large in their world — in that spirit we were like, why not say that in addition to shooting, documenting this whole adventure they also put it together. And they added sound and they added music and they added voiceover. And they didn’t have helicopter shots so they added Google air flyovers.
The whole movie is kind of their document, which Henry and I talked about it and we were like, it’s cool because it actually kind of gels with the way kids are living their lives anyway today which is like you go out and you experience something and you shoot it and you post it and you talk about it. So it was fun to think about how we could evolve the format a little bit and push it forward and add a little bit of an author’s voice to it. So that was fun but for sure it was challenging.
Were the kids adaptable to the way you were making the movie?
Yeah, for sure. They were all stars and, you know, they weren’t really friends before we shot. They had to create a fast friendship on set. So I was lucky in that they delivered a lot on their own but it was fun and challenging…it was funny and unconventional, especially for the cast, because many of them hadn’t been in a movie before so it was a fun and crazy way of learning how a movie is shot.
I read that Echo was a physical creation for the most part, so I’m guessing it was an important thing for you to have a physical Echo there.
It was a little bit of both. I mean there are some shots in the movie that you’ll see that are completely mechanical effects and that is the animatronics that Legacy Effects built. That was really cool. And then there’s some shots in the movie you’ll see that are a complete CGI creation. What really helped the CG artists — I’m sure they could have created on their own — was that we would shoot a plate and have a little prop Echo in it and it would give the CG artist all the information they needed about how this thing should be lit and how its skin texturing looks and how it also reflects blue light on our kids which is impossible to do otherwise. Plus having a little guy on set was great for the kids.
Is it true that Echo’s initial designer was 19 years old and living at home?
Yeah, it was crazy. One of the first people who started designing on the movie was a friend of mine named Noel Ecker who was designing the little cylinder that Echo crash lands in. He’s a really talented mechanical designer — he can draw incredible guns and technology and machines and cars and stuff. He would see me walking in and out of my office every day frustrated with some of the designs I was getting back from some of the bigger creature houses in town who had submitted designs for Echo. All of them felt too squishy or too weird or too slimy or like a handful of worms.
We really wanted something that you could see right away and feel sympathy for and feel emotion for, without a great deal of a “getting to know you” period which we don’t have. So I was showing Noel the sketches and he said, “Oh, you know who should design that thing is my buddy Ross.” I think he was 19 years old at the time. He was living in his mom’s house in San Jose. He was on summer vacation from some art center in Pasadena. I gave him a call and at first he didn’t believe me. I said, “Hi Ross, my name’s Dave Green, I’m making a movie. My friend Noel said you could design something amazing.” I wasn’t sure if he believed me. Then he basically just emailed me some pencil sketches and like right away I was like, this is the first version of Echo where I feel like I actually care for him and he elicits actual emotion. And that very first pencil sketch was really close to what ended up being the final thing.
Any ideas of where you want to go with your next feature film?
Thanks for asking. I’m thinking about it right now and looking around. Echo was really fun — it’s a really fun family movie to do and I probably will take a minute before I do another family film. I love comedy and I love just darker stuff from time to time. But what I love about Echo, which I want to take with me into future projects is really the tone and that feeling of fun, whether it’s an adventure movie or something a little scarier. It’s that feeling of fun that I really want to continue with.
Earth to Echo opens in theaters Wednesday (July 2).