THOMAS S. HAMMOCK INTERVIEW
Interview conducted by Giuseppe Infante
With an impressive resume as a production designer for such films as V/H/S/2, You're Next, and The Guest, Thomas S. Hammock makes his directorial debut with the very impressive The Last Survivors. He was kind enough to talk with HorrorTalk about his first feature.
Giuseppe Infante: The Last Survivors might not have the budget of contemporary apocalyptic films such as Mad Max: Fury Road, but it stands shoulder to shoulder with much bigger budgeted films of the same vein. What is it do you think gives The Last Survivors a much higher cinematic quality than its low-budget and indie counterparts and feels like a much bigger budget than it is? What do you think contributes to that?
Thomas S. Hammock: That's very kind of you to say. It's scary how tiny our budget was in comparison to those films and frankly even in comparison to most indie films, even those that are viewed as being small. We shot much of this film with just a six-person crew. I think the production value comes from a couple of places. We were really careful to focus the money and time that we did have, which is a skill that comes from having designed a lot of films. While we didn't have any money, we did have some time and we took advantage of that. For instance, we spent months and months scouting to find the perfect locations knowing that we couldn't afford to build or dress any locations. There are only two scenes, which we shot that didn't make the final film (in each case due to not being able to afford a key visfx shot). Thus we spent all our time shooting scenes, which would be in the film instead of shooting a lot of scenes and then sculpting the film from a lot of material. A lot of our cutting was done on the page.
Also, Seamus Tierney, the cinematographer, and I concentrated on getting a healthy number of setups per scene, so we had options within the scene. Often indie films feel that way because scenes are covered in just a few setups or even just one setup, while larger budget films have more coverage options. This is especially apparent in the action we shot. In particular it comes from doing the stunts in camera, not being too cutty, and adhering to doing things in camera with real squibs (and then sweetening the blood a bit after) using real guns with blanks, and practical blood every chance we got. God I love real squibs. And lastly, that the crew, while tiny, were all friends. We'd worked together on a lot of projects, so we had a great short hand and were able to move really efficiently.
GI: How long was filming and what was the weather like in the Mojave Desert?
TSH: Oh, man. That weather. It might not look it in the film because of the brilliance of cinematographer, Seamus Tierney, making it look really hot, but in reality it was freezing cold. The temperature would generally be right around freezing in the mornings. There were also a lot of dust storms (the shooting locations being in a modern day dust bowl), which helped to give some scenes that beautiful yellow look, but were really difficult to shoot in. It rained twice. Once during the lone night scene as Kendal is running across the desert to the Dover farm. It is pouring rain (you can see it on the ground if you look carefully), but again Seamus was very clever with how the scene was lit, so it's impossible to tell. And lastly and fittingly, the final shot of the film is the shot where Kendal passes in front of the oil derricks at the end of the movie. It was in the pouring rain and security shut us down on the final setup.
This was a really quick shoot. We shot 18 days up in the desert, and then a few days on stage in the "attic" set back in Los Angeles. That's a little deceptive, since we were shooting a daylight film right around winter solstice, so we only got eight shooting hours a day.
GI: This is your directorial debut, but you've worked on films like You're Next, V/H/S 2 and The Guest as a production designer. How did working on those films influence the way you directed The Last Survivors?
TSH: I was lucky enough to have Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett, the filmmakers behind those films, be exceptionally supportive of this project. I was able to talk through a bunch of the scenes and potential direction with them, which helped enormously. I think using the strong POV for the Kendal character (we remain with Kendal almost exclusively throughout the film. She is either in every shot or it's her pov, although that pov erodes as her world falls apart) came directly out of working on those horror films and from watching a ton of horror films. Adam is really strong with POV as well, and really pushed me to push that single POV choice to an extreme for this world.
GI: The term "stay lucky" is used several times in The Last Survivors. Does it have any significance outside of the film?
TSH: Originally it was "get lucky", but we ended up deciding that might be an odd thing to say. Ha! Actually, Jacob always works really hard when he's writing dialog to make it seem not just like it belongs to the characters, but that it belongs to the place. We figured that even though this place is a combo of the future and a dust bowl past, that most important part of "place" is that these characters were orphans at this orphanage and they would have a few insider phrases or actions (like spitting on the knuckles as a sign of respect when passing a dead body since moisture is precious). So it originated from trying to give the orphan characters (Kendal, Dean, Alby) a few insider phrases and actions.
GI: One thing I wondered while watching the film is this setting is Oregon. What about Japan? France? Nigeria? Iceland? Is the rest of the world desolate, with few survivors scattered out?
TSH: We loved the idea of setting the film in Oregon (a place that is so universally viewed as being green and lush) and then shooting the film in the California desert. We spent a long time scouting to make sure that the architecture of the buildings and the mountains matched Oregon (presumably after wild fires would have burned the trees). A couple of friends from Oregon reviewed all our location pictures to make sure we were matching convincingly.
Post-apocalyptic films tend to be told on a vast scale, and we wanted to tell an intimate, little story to set our film apart. What happens in a single valley, which could then be applied to the greater world. It's key to our story that there isn't enough communication for Kendal and Dean to know what's going on in the greater world. In instances like this, I think the world just shrinks and shrinks for the characters. However, for this to have occurred, I'd imagine the rest of the world is in varying stages of drought and desolation too. Perhaps Mad Max, Book of Eli, Steel Dawn and other post-apocalyptic worlds are going on concurrently in other places.
GI: There is this overall yellowish tinge to the film. Was that done in post-production, or did you use a special lens?
TSH: We did use really beautiful Panavision Primo lens, which gave very beautiful flares, but the lens didn't contribute to the yellowish tinge. There were a lot of dust storms while we were shooting, so in some scenes that look occurred naturally where there would be dust between the sun and us. The ground is really light and it reflected so much sunlight that it gave the footage a washed-out look as well. We fell in love with that look and then in color correction, our colorist, Nick Hasson, adjusted the look of all the other scenes to match. I also thought it was a nice, naturalistic and just plain hot look rather than the super-desaturated, almost grey look which one often gets with post-apocalyptic films.
GI: What genre would you consider The Last Survivors and why did the title change from its original, The Well?
TSH: The title change is actually quite interesting. I love The Well as a title. However, the title was changed purely for translation issues. Most American independent films don't end up getting distribution in Asia. However, in the case of our film, there was a bunch of interest right away. The Well translated in a couple of languages to something like "place to get water" and similar phrases which aren't appealing titles for a film. So the distributor decided to just change the title in general so it could be consistent and would translate better.
I think The Last Survivors falls in between a lot of genres, which is what I love about it. Jacob and I love working where different genre's overlap and we tried to infuse this film with that. It certainly is scifi. Post-apocalyptic, that's a little harder since it technically is that genre, but the aesthetic is more of the dust bowl or WW1 past than the future. Western, samurai and action for sure. I think there is certainly horror in there, not just in terms of scenes, but also in terms of how the film is cut and the overall structure of the film surrounding the journey of a young woman.
GI: They eat peaches of all the food that could be chosen? Is this symbolic? Are you a fan of the band, The Presidents of the United States of America?
TSH: Nice eye. It is symbolic. And visual. The peaches really pop visually within the color palatte of the film. We wanted a fruit or vegetable that would be really noticeable. Originally, since we had culled green from the world of the film so that nothing suggested water. Thus we wanted the fruit or vegetable from the past (the time of water) to be something green, but canned vegetables turn a bit closer to green/grey and didn't seem appetizing, so we went with peaches. The translucent quality they have just captured the light beautifully. They are also symbolic of long life in Chinese and Japanese culture, so that seemed like a good choice for Dean to be eating at that particular moment in the film. And also since those peaches would lead directly to the downfall of those two characters, it couldn't just be any random food. It had to have more meaning to it.
I remember being in school when that TPOTUSOA song came out and I wasn't a fan. I actually don't know if I've heard it since; perhaps I should revisit it and see if it's improved with time. (Watching the video right now.) Hmmm….I don't believe time has been kind to that track.
Thanks so much for the interview.
HorrorTalk.com would like to thank Thomas S. Hammock for his time! You can see The Last Survivors by clicking one of the links below.
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