By John Beifuss
Has Henry Gayden — whose new movie, “Earth to Echo,” is now in theaters — palled around with Tom Cruise?
Why, yes, he has. But that was before he became a movie industry professional, back when he was a kid in East Memphis, watching films rather than writing them.
During the shooting of director Sydney Pollack’s version of John Grisham’s “The Firm” in 1992 in Memphis, the Tuckahoe Road home supposedly occupied by lawyer Mitch McDeere (Cruise) and his wife, Abby (Jeanne Tripplehorn), was “about seven houses down from my own,” said Gayden, who was 11 at the time and already obsessed with movies.
The film set “basically ended at my house,” he recalled. “So that means everyone who lived in those houses got access to the set and could walk around. It was a dream come true. I just didn’t go to school for several days, and my parents were fine with that.”
One day, Gayden and a friend waited outside Cruise’s trailer until the star came out. Cruise walked with the kids for about 10 minutes, “and he was really sweet. He remembered our names the next day, which blew our minds.”
The experience gave Gayden a close-up look at both the glamour and tedium of the movie business.
“I remember witnessing firsthand how exciting it all was,” he said, “and also how repetitive and boring it can be, if you’re on a film set and you don’t have any real reason to be there.”
These days, Gayden, 34, has a reason to be there. He was involved in “Earth to Echo” from start to finish, from the film’s 28 days of shooting in Southern California, which began in April of 2012, to the completion of postproduction some three months ago.
Directed by Gayden’s friend and collaborator, Dave Green, from a story idea by producer Andrew Panay, the movie was “greenlit” and in production before the script was finished, so Gayden was writing material almost until the day the film wrapped.
A sort of Close Encounters of the Middle School Kind, “Earth to Echo” is a found-footage family adventure film about a small, beeping alien who recruits a trio of bike-riding suburban kids to help him return to his home planet. Parents will think of “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,” “The Goonies” and the more recent “Super 8,” and perhaps notice that Echo — as the robotic interstellar castaway is dubbed — resembles a cross between WALL-E and Buppo, the mechanical owl from Ray Harryhausen’s “Clash of the Titans.”
The owl resemblance is intentional. “Dave wanted big expressive eyes, and I found a Google image of a baby owl,” Gayden said. The idea, he said, is that Echo is “a little injured bird of a creature.”
“We were never trying to make ‘E.T.’ for the next generation,” insists Gayden. “We were aware of all the tropes we were using, but were trying to imbue them with authenticity and be earnest about it.
“We looked at it as a movie about kids. There has not been a movie we can think of in many years from the perspective of kids that doesn’t condescend and that honors that perspective, the way ‘E.T.’ and ‘Stand by Me’ did.” (He points out that the Spielberg-produced “Super 8,” a 2011 film about kids who help an alien escape Earth, included scenes from the vantage points of some adult characters.)
The latest example of the burgeoning “found footage” genre launched 15 years ago by “The Blair Witch Project” and galvanized by such successes as “Paranormal Activity” and “Chronicle,” “Earth to Echo” is presented as if it were constructed from cellphone and digital video footage captured by a group of friends on a sort of science-fiction scavenger hunt.
“What’s great about found footage is you can actually shoot from the perspective of kids; you can even shoot up at the adults,” Gayden said.
Some critics have complained that “Earth to Echo” is too derivative, but Gayden said watching the film with its young, target audience has been a real hoot (to return to the owl theme).
“There’s a sense of ownership they have with it, I think because it’s honest about being a kid,” he said. “Kids know when you don’t’ respect them. They’re complicated. They’re like little adults.”