It seems that every year a low-budget independent film emerges, seemingly from nowhere, that strikes a chord with audiences all over. What these films lack in name actors or fast-paced narratives, they more than make up for in relatable and sometimes heartbreaking human emotions. This year the little indie that breaks out of the pack could very well be August Evening, writer-director Chris Eska’s poignant feature film debut.

Winner of the 2008 Spirit Awards’ John Cassavetes Award (given to a feature film made for under $500,000) and the Best Film Awards at the Los Angeles and Woodstock Film Festivals, August Evening is steadily acquiring buzz. Stephen Farber of The Hollywood Reporter credits the film as, “Perfectly honed, naturalistic acting and visual lyricism.” August Evening will open in limited release September 5 and roll out on more screens in October.

The multi-generational Texan tale follows the moving relationship between undocumented farm worker, Jaime (Pedro Castaneda) and Lupe (Veronica Loren), his young, widowed daughter-in-law. Castaneda, who was a computer network installer and had never acted prior to the film, was nominated for a Best Actor Spirit Award in 2008 alongside such veterans as Don Cheadle, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Frank Langella.

In anticipation of the film’s theatrical release, MM spoke with writer-director Chris Eska about his experience making August Evening.

Kyle Rupprecht (MM): You returned to your hometown in south Texas to find inspiration for your debut feature film. Would you consider August Evening autobiographical? If so, how?

Chris Eska (CE): Every film you make should be autobiographical. Even if it doesn’t directly relate to your life, the emotions certainly should.

Parts of August Evening come from my own family, but it also comes from stories I’ve heard about friends’ families from Mexico, Japan and India. I like that the characters don’t sound exactly like me on paper, but that they’re going through the exact same emotions I experience. My previous film was set in Japan and my next film might be set in India. It might sound naïve, but I want to make films that show the universality of the human experience.

MM: How did the story for August Evening arise? Is this a film you’ve wanted to make for a long time?

CE: I only decided to make the film a few months before we started shooting, but there was a long process leading up to it. After film school I crashed on a futon for a year and a half just watching three DVDs every day and taking notes. I was frustrated by my inaction until it boiled over, so I finally decided to make a change. I went to Sundance in 2005—without a film—and ended up walking out of one of the most critically acclaimed and hyped films there because it was so terrible. My friends thought we could do better and convinced me to make a film after that experience.

Castaneda in August Evening

MM: What are some of the roadblocks you encountered on the way to August Evening‘s theatrical release?

CE: We were lucky and had no real roadblocks. But it was painful to decide where to premiere the film, which is crucial to finding distribution. We chose the Los Angeles Film Festival, which was definitely the right decision. Not only did we win their $50,000 Target Filmmaker Award (more than the budget of the film), but we also signed a distribution deal with Maya Entertainment at the after party on the premiere night.
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MM: What would you consider the best aspects of shooting such a low-budget film? How does it allow you to be more creative? What are the negative aspects of it?

CE: I have so many friends with horror stories about having to compromise either at the production stage or later during post and sales because they don’t own the film. When your budget is as tiny as ours, you can self-finance it, which gives you complete creative control. Another great aspect is that our crew was completely comprised of people who actually wanted to be there, not just people showing up for a paycheck. Working with enthusiastic creative friends is a million times better than being surrounded by bored “professionals.”

We wrote a film that could be made for little money, so I didn’t compromise very much on locations/props/actors. The only downside of the low budget was the lack of time, which means being miserable from lack of sleep and watching my producers slowly lose brain cells.

MM: What moviemakers inspire you most? How so?

CE: Terrence Malick, because he maintains independence while using studio budgets to express his personal vision. I also admire the Dardenne brothers because they are able to continually garner acclaim and make a decent living by sticking with their low budgets, trademark style and the same cast and crew.

MM: What advice can you give to aspiring moviemakers who are creatively driven but lack the necessary funds to get their dreams off the ground?

CE: Just make your film for whatever funds you have because if you wait around for huge outside financing it will kill your dream. And don’t worry about being slick, because the slickest filmmaking around is TV commercials. Even $200 million studio films can’t compete with TV commercials in terms of dollars spent per second. But you can beat them all by actually having emotional substance in your film.

MM: What’s up next for you?

CE: I’m spending most of my time traveling and working on the theatrical release, but in my spare time I’m working on scripts about cave diving, the Mexican Mafia and life in rural India. Hopefully they’ll all turn out different from what anyone would expect.