By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes
It’s going to be a big week for McNary High School alum Zeek Earl.
On Sunday, March 9, his latest film, Prospect, will make it’s debut at South by Southwest (SXSW), an Austin, Texas-based music, film and interactive festival spotlighting indie talent. But, he might have chosen another profession entirely if it wasn’t for the enthusiasm and insight gleaned from Celtic film studies teacher Jason Heimerdinger.
“I took film appreciation from Mr. Heimerdinger my freshman year. I thought it was going to be a super-easy, filler class,” Earl said. “On the contrary, Mr. Heimerdinger taught us actual film theory and I loved it. I was inspired to take the actual productions classes and went from there.”
Earl, a Seattle-based filmmaker, debuted his first feature at McNary as a fund raiser for a friend’s cancer treatments, and he’s parlayed lessons from Heimerdinger into a full-blown filmmaking career.
Earl spent more time in the film room of McNary than any other in the school. When he ran the gamut of classes Heimerdinger offered, Earl took on film-specific independent studies to round out his experience.
“I took some creative writing as well and doing student leadership helped a lot with learning how to plan productions,” Earl said. “I was definitely encouraged and given avenues outside of class to show and promote my films which in a way is really the foundation for the business side of what I do now professionally.”
While churning out movies made with casts comprised of friends nearly every year of his high school career, Earl entertained the idea of going on to film school, but opted to pursue a degree in English and creative writing from Seattle Pacific University. He graduated in 2008 at the height of the recession.
“Having no luck finding a job in the creative industry, I turned to making ads with friends much as I had made movies in high school for a variety of online contests. I was successful enough to pay off my student loans and, ultimately, start a production company, Shep Films,” he said.
While commercials and contests were paying the bills, Earl kept his eye on making a segue into narrative films. His first short, In the Pines, a tale of alien encounter, debuted at the 2012 SXSW festival. Staying focused on the story and using the same equipment he used for the paid jobs, Earl pulled it off with a budget of $3,000.
In the Pines eventually won Best Sci-Fi Short at the Eugene Film Festival, and it wasn’t long before he decided to tackle another narrative. In 2012, Earl and his production partner, Chris Caldwell, released a teaser for their next project, Prospect, and launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund it.
Prospect is a sci-fi story about a girl and her father searching for materials on a toxic planet. The goal of the crowd-funding campaign was $18,000, but it ended with more than $21,000 in pledges and something else Earl didn’t expect.
“It attracted the help of volunteers who chipped in to complete the film and attracted the attention of a manager in Los Angeles now helping us find a place for our first feature film, a big-screen version of In the Pines,” Earl said.
All the help, and extra money, allowed Earl and his team to spend months creating detailed costumes for the Prospect shoot and and allowed him to spend time out of the office filming in Washington’s Hoh Rainforest.
Once Prospect debuts at SXSW, Earl hopes to make the short available for free online. He and Caldwell are also preparing a feature-length version to shop around in LA.
While he’s experienced success that’s hard to find in an overly-competitive industry, Earl said it’s his classes at McNary that paved the way.
“I can’t be more grateful for the random set of circumstances that placed me in a classroom with Jason Heimerdinger – a teacher who had the training and took the art of filmmaking seriously. Where art classes in public high schools can often be relegated to a lower standard, Jason was critical of my work and pushed me to new levels,” he said. “This didn’t just propel into what is now my chosen profession, but a literal obsession. I now, 12 years after that first film appreciation class, eat, breath, drink and live filmmaking. All in all, that’s McNary High School’s fault.”