While the average college student might try to boost his or her GPA by taking a slacker course or two in ceramics, food science, or weightlifting, Chris Eska, who attended Rice University and planned to follow in his father’s footsteps in the medical field, once decided “to get an easy A” by enrolling in a film class.
The plan backfired in a most auspicious way.
“I just totally fell in love with it,” said Eska, who was raised in Ottine, Texas, 60 miles east of San Antonio. “I found myself waking up early on the weekends to go in and edit short video projects.”
With a population of 98, it’s probably safe to say that not many physicians or filmmakers come out of Ottine, a very small town in western Gonzales County. After graduating from Rice in 1998 with a degree in sociology and art, Eska had a decision to make — stay the course and go to medical school, or pursue a newfound passion and see where it would lead.
Eska made his choice and the following year he trucked it to Los Angeles where he was accepted into UCLA’s film-directing master’s program. Eight years and five short films later, he has completed his first feature, August Evening. The independent film, which was shot in Gonzalez and San Antonio, tells the story of an undocumented farmworker and his widowed daughter-in-law as they face the fears, pleasures, and disappointments of everyday life.
“It’s been a long road,” said Eska, who is credited as the director, writer, and editor of the film. “I’ve been making short films for about 10 years. You make different films with different ambition levels. It came time to make a feature because that’s the only way you can really get any attention.”
Eska got his moment in the spotlight when August Evening made its world premiere at the 2007 Los Angeles Film Festival on June 24. Less than a week later, he was presented with the Target Filmmaker Award, a distinction that included $50,000, the largest cash prize of any American film festival.
“I felt like I had to make a film about things that are important to me, like family,” Eska said. “`Winning the award` was unexpected. I would have been fine just showing it to a couple of friends and my parents in their living room.”
The film was also honored with the Best Ensemble Acting Award, although most of the cast were first-time actors.
“`Chris` helped me a lot and made me feel at ease,” said lead actor Pete Castañeda, who made his acting debut in the film. “He seemed to know how each of us was thinking and had just the right words to help us.”
In June, the L.A. Weekly called August Evening “a welcome throwback to a time when American independent movies were something more than ‘calling cards’ for their makers to leave at the doors of the Hollywood studios.”
“One of my goals in filmmaking is to … capture the universality of the human experience,” said Eska, who lists directors Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line), Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
(L’ Enfant), and Edward Yang (Yi yi) as inspirations. “I’m not all that interested in making $100-million movies. Most of what I want to say can be said without that type of budget.
“I think a lot of young filmmakers are interested in wowing the studio executives. It’s always with something flashy and violent. These days, it’s very common to see a movie about a bank robbery that went bad and tell it from three different points of view, and backwards. For me, I just want to tell something straightforward and heartfelt.” •