My interview with Tom Hammock, arranged by Screen Relish – thank you again for the opportunity.
Just over a week ago I sat down to watch the intense and exciting post-apocalyptic thriller THE LAST SURVIVORS, eager to see what was in store for my first ‘screening disc’ experience. It is safe to say that I was blown away by the 95 minute feature. See the plot description below which I have lifted from my very own review:
“In a world full of greed and survival, seventeen-year-old Kendal (Haley Lu Richardson) spends her days protecting her ill brother Dean (Booboo Stewart) and the others she cherishes around her like Alby (Max Charles), whilst harbouring the remainder of water on their land, collecting batteries for a burned out plane for their planned escape, and helping any innocent souls she crosses paths with.”
A couple of days after watching, I was given the opportunity to interview the director of the film: Tom Hammock (seen above on the set of YOU’RE NEXT on the right alongside director Adam Wingard). I could not resist! I had so much admiration for this film, and the cast and original score in particular, so I had many questions to ask…
Screen Relish: A lot of work has clearly gone into the making of THE LAST SURVIVORS – how long did it take to bring the film together?
Tom Hammock: The film actually came together exceptionally quickly. The film was greenlit off of a little short story Jacob Forman and I had written. We wrote just one draft of the script and that was what we shot. So we went into production really quickly over the course of just a few months. Post took around a year since we were relying on favours and waiting to fit into breaks in collaborator’s schedules. And during post I had to take a break to go design THE GUEST.
SR: How would you say your previous works on YOU’RE NEXT and THE GUEST helped with making this film?
TH: Absolutely. Every film I do as a designer is an opportunity to watch a director work and learn from it. Just the chance to see what works and what doesn’t is incredibly educational. Specifically with YOU’RE NEXT and THE GUEST, working with Adam Wingard (director) and Simon Barrett (writer) has been an amazing intro into the genre world. They have been incredibly supportive through the process and actually convinced me to direct THE LAST SURVIVORS in the first place, when a film we were on together got delayed. Adam actually did a bunch of editing work on the film while we were prepping THE GUEST.
SR: People will see this film and immediately draw parallels with the MAD MAX films – would you say you take this as a compliment? I also drew my own parallel and I wanted to know what you feel to this comparison – THE BOOK OF ELI?
TH: For sure. A huge compliment. Here’s a little bit of trivia for you. The distributor cap that Kendal is searching for throughout the film to rebuild the airplane engine… that’s actually how Max is introduced in the first film Mad Max film, putting a distributor cap into his Interceptor. We decided to use that exact distributor cap in our film. That being said we were trying to do something quite different from the world of Mad Max. Really more of a great depression, dust bowl type story and world rather than one filled with punks. We liked THE BOOK OF ELI a lot. We’re huge Cormac McCarthy fans, and it seems like Gary Whitta is too… love that comparison.
SR: Something which stuck out to me was the original music in this feature. I wanted to ask how much input you had into this or was it something Craig DeLeon came to you with and you approved?
TH: Jacob and I had a great collaboration with Craig. He was recommended to us through a mutual friend who directs documentaries (Craig has scored some great docs.). We really bonded over a love of THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES soundtrack and the work of Warren Ellis, Nick Cave, and Marco Beltrami. All three of us brought ideas to the table, and worked together to limit the types of musical instruments we’d use in the score so there was a logic holding the film together. From there it was really just about talking through the intent of each scene and then Craig was able to go off and compose. He really brought an entirely new layer to the film. On top of that he played a number of instruments in the film and brought in friends to play others so a fair amount of the score is recorded live, which is rare for a film this small.
SR: What would you say was the most challenging aspect of the production?
TH: I’ll divide this into a couple of answers. Overall for the cast and crew the dust storms were incredibly challenging. It’s just really hard to make a film under those conditions. We were shooting in an area where it really is a modern day dust bowl. All those houses in the film are actually family farms where the water table was drained too low, and the top soil just dried up and blew away. The families walked away from their farms. Really sad and harrowing to be shooting in those locations. You can see places where the soil had been blown into 10 foot high dunes against the houses.
For Haley Lu, I’m sure she would say the portion of the film when she was in the oil; both in the oil pit itself and afterwards in the sword fight. It was freezing cold when we were shooting that and she had to be drenched in oil so she was constantly wet for several days and did many of her own stunts in the sequence. I think she fought through that discomfort to give an amazing performance.
SR: The casting of Haley Lu Richardson was superb! It was the first I had seen of her and I look forward to seeing her in more films in the coming years. From the extras on the disc it doesn’t seem like you had a hard time picking her to fit the role – I just wanted to know if this was the case and what it was like working with her?
TH: We tried pretty hard to not cast Haley Lu, and made her come audition three or four times before we offered her the role. There were a number of very experienced actresses fighting for the role, but Haley Lu just kept blowing us away every time she auditioned. We were concerned because she actually hadn’t really had any film experience at that point in her career. She’d moved to LA with her mother to pursue her dream of being in film and we discovered her through an open casting call. Our film is rigorously from Kendal’s pov (although that erodes over time as her world falls apart), so we weren’t just looking for a lead actress, we were looking for someone capable of being in nearly every single frame of the film. That’s a lot to ask of anyone, let alone a first timer. If she wasn’t there, if she wasn’t present in each scene, we couldn’t cut away. Obviously we’re thrilled with the choice she made and she came through with flying colors. I’m sure you’ll be seeing her plenty in the years to come.
SR: How well received has it been by audiences?
TH: The film has been received incredibly well. We’ve been really lucky. The film has had a great festival run and is coming out both in the US and UK as well as a lot of territories over seas. We had our UK premier at Grimm Up North, which is an incredible festival. I lived in the UK for a time growing up so it’s really exciting to have the film being released there. With a film like this which rides the line between a couple of genres (which is where I think the films I admire most tend to fall) there is the danger that it falls through the cracks because it’s too violent for traditional festival programs, but too art house for midnight programs. Thankfully we got the best of both worlds.
SR: With such a great directing debut I have to ask if you have any other projects in the pipeline. Is there anyone you want to collaborate with or join forces with?
TH: Thanks so much. I do have some other projects in the pipeline. I have a graphic novel out now called “An Aurora Grimeon Story: Will O’ the Wisp”. It’s sort of a teen horror story. Jacob and I have some other projects bouncing around that we’re trying to get off the ground as a follow up and I’m actually in Canada right now designing Adam Wingard’s new film so I’m really content as far as collaborators. It’s great to be in the genre film community where everyone is so supportive.
You can read my review of THE LAST SURVIVORS here. The film is released is now available on DVD.
Many thanks to Tom Hammock for taking the time during his busy schedule to speak to Screen Relish.