I just finished up a post-apocalyptic week with a screening of the Guy-Pierce-starring THE ROVER (review to come) and director Tom Hammock’s THE WELL, which made its world premiere at the LA Film Fest last Thursday. Hammock’s film follows teen scavenger Kendal, who, with her boyfriend, remains one of the last hold outs in a dust-covered valley slowly being taken over by ‘water baron’ Carson (played by Jon Gries, Taken, Napoleon Dynamite). I had a chance to speak with Hammock hours before the premiere about his rather dark vision for our future and he told me the setting came right out his childhood. “I grew up spending a lot of time in the desert because my dad’s a biologist,” says Hammock, “there were all these areas that when I was little were alfalfa fields and wheat fields and family farms between Los Angeles and Mammoth. Over the course of the last twenty years or so, they drained their ground water too low, and the top soil blew away, just like in the dust bowl, and all these families walked away from their farms.” This tragic human-induced geological change provided the perfect playground for Hammock’s story. “We shot in this really sad area, Lucerne valley,” he explains “where we literally were shooting in family farms with possessions still buried in the sand. So all that’s real, like sand pushed up ten feet on the windy side of the house.”
Hammock co-wrote and co-produced the film with Jacob Forman, who wrote one of my all time favorite Texas horror films, ALL THE BOYS LOVE MANDY LANE (on which Hammock served as Production Designer). The look of the film was central even in its earliest stages. “He and I have this sort of unique process where, when we’re starting a project,” explains Hammock, “at the same time we’re doing treatments, I do a whole lot of visual research like I’m designing the film and build these booklets of locations and props and photos of characters and that way we can constantly refer back to it when we’re writing.” One of the best things about THE WELL is how complete the world feels, and the way the audience is just thrown into it, with very little explanation. This was by design, according to Hammock: “every futuristic movie starts with the globe spinning and just telling you what exactly has happened, we wanted to be different because we felt like that would make the movie more real.” The titular ‘well,’ which has kept Kendal and her boyfriend alive in the wake of the mass exodus, has dried up, and now Kendal must find a way out. Her quest for a distributor cap that will fit their broken-down plane becomes desperate and her search leads her further away and closer to the gas-masked goons that do Carson’s dirty work.
Carson is heartless, but really just an extension of the power hungry industrial tycoons that exist today. He even has a somewhat forgivable driving reason, leaving a legacy for his daughter Brooke, a cold-blooded killer about Kendal’s age. “We really just tried to give it a different look from other apocalyptic films,” says Hammock, “you know you have the punks and the cannibals and all that stuff, which is fantastic for those films, but seemed a bit far-fetched for us. The closer we kept it to reality, the scarier we thought it would be.” So this isn’t Mad Max fighting over a tank of gas. In fact, the twist is especially nice when Kendal must break in to Carson’s compound, actually swimming through a pool of oil. Hammock wanted to “make the oil the waste product, as opposed to, you know you go to all the oil derricks now and they pump out that waste water.” Hammock also enjoys that so much of the film is rooted in science and what’s happening now, saying “a lot of the stuff is within one step from reality.” Even Kendal’s search for the distributor cap is “mechanically correct,” he brags, it’s “the one thing you can transfer from a car engine to an airplane engine.” This sequence is also an overt reference to the same seminal post-apocalyptic film they seemed to be distancing themselves from: “if you think back to the very first Mad Max, the character is introduced putting the distributor cap into his interceptor,” says Hammock, “that became the basis for Kendal’s quest for our whole movie.”
Another aspect of the film that stands out in contrast to a majority of films in the genre is the strength and central importance of the lead character. “There was a very specific thought behind that,” says Hammock, “we just kind of wanted to take the protective stereotypes we have in samurai films and westerns – which in many ways is what this is – and to turn them on their heads.” So in The Well, the young girl is protecting the boyfriend, looking out for the child, fighting the bad guy. The actress, Haley Lu Richardson, really had to be up for almost anything. “We went through three or four auditions,” Hammock says, “and really put her through her paces because we have this really unique situation in the film where it is single point perspective film so she is either in every frame or its her p.o.v.” There is also a great deal of fighting – guns, swords, and hand-to-hand – and Richardson’s background as a dancer allowed them to shoot the sequences “in camera and really give us the 70s feel.” Instead of cutting on each kick or hit, says Hammock, “we just keep it all in one take and let them fall all the way to the ground, so it feels more brutal.” The actress came to the production through a general audition despite what the director describes as a lot of interest from some pretty notable teenage actresses who were fighting for the role. Soon she found herself covered in dirt and traipsing through the desert with a sword. “The hardest sequence for Haley was the oil sequence,” says Hammock, “it was thirty degrees when we were shooting, so it’s brutally cold and she had to be wet and covered in this slime the whole time, but she has to give a really good performance and be on top of her physicality for the sword fight.” But Haley was fearless, despite the director admitting, “when we told her yes, immediately that night Jacob and I took her mom and her out to dinner and basically tried to talk her out of doing the movie.”
The female bad-assry of the film does not end there, with Carson’s daughter, Brooke, being one of the most memorable characters of The Well. Hammock says, “we just love [having]the two-headed evil empire, one of whom is male, one of whom is female.” Brooke’s story, if the narrative was twisted around, could almost be just as compelling as Kendal – what has lead her to this place where she hunts down squatters with her father and executes them? Another strong female character is Skye, an injured girl Kendal gives water to for one last trip across the desert. An eagle-eyed viewer will recognize the actress Jacqueline Emerson as Foxface from the first Hunger Games film. Her storyline provided Hammock with one of the most difficult scenes to shoot. “For me as a director,” says Hammock, “when Kendal finds the jar and, spoiler alert, the dead body in the wasteland, there’s no foreground, no background, and you have Haley who’s this really young as an actress at seventeen, having to go through five or six different emotions in the space of a very short amount of time.” It’s a solid, quiet moment of drama in a post-apocalyptic science fiction film, a nice showing of the depth of Hammock’s film. Hammock continues, “there’s nothing to cut to, there’s no where else to be, its’ just the actor and an object and a void.” The scene is also important to whole film, as “that little mini story is really the story for the audience of what happens to Kendal if she doesn’t act.”
THE WELL is a rare science fiction film that delivers up it vivid setting and then lets the storyline play out very organically. Once the world is established, everything is very real and emotionally driven. The performances, especially from Richardson as Kendal and our two-headed villains (Gries and Nicole Fox as Brooke) are full of both intensity and subtlety, something seldom seen in a genre film. The fight sequences, although they start slow, begin to pile up as the story nears its final show down. They are all just cutthroat and very physical and natural. There are no Matrix-freezy spin crap here, and in this case, the indie budget the team worked with, really helps them. Director Tom Hammock has worked on 25+ films as a production designer (including The Guest and You’re Next) and his keen eye puts the film a step a head of most every other post-apocalyptic stories. The simple, direct and instinctual story will win over anyone willing to look into our razed future.
Director Tom Hammock’s THE WELL plays again Tuesday, June 17th at the LA Film Fest, where it’s one of the few true genre pictures screening. As if that’s not enough, Hammock points out “we are the one shot if you want to see a poor girl floundering in a pool of oil.”