One of the joys of being a festival programmer is finding a film that in no way is a festival film, or at least a typical film for your film festival, playing it anyway, and having the audience love it. Back in 2012 when I was programming Austin Film Festival, a quirky Sci Fi action comedy came across my desk – two You Tube survival experts who somehow have to save the world from a killer virus, rogue Russian nuke-armed military, and a horde of zombies, that film had the equally ridiculous title THE LAST MAN(S) ON EARTH. I’m not sure I ever asked why the parenthetical plural, but considering the ridiculous tone of the film, I’m sure there would have been some bizarre reason. I was new at the fest, and I had to convince almost everyone there why we should play it, but for me it came down to two things, structure and commitment.
Structure is something seldom mastered by screenwriters, especially working at the indie level who often feel they are ‘above the rules’ (they’re not). MEMENTO has excellent traditional structure despite being completely backwards and forwards simultaneously.
In THE LAST MAN(S) ON EARTH, Writer/Director Aaron Hultgren manages to find a way to tell this over the top story in such a way that still allowed for lots of character growth, rising and falling action, and a high octane plot that never gives you a moment’s rest. But the true triumph of the film is in its commitment. This is a crazy project, drawn from a web series, that manages to cram blockbuster set pieces into an indie budget, while asking the audience to believe that its characters can somehow ‘go epic mode’ and become indestructible action stars. It’s literally a crazy movie, made by a set of crazy people, and some of the most fun I’ve ever had in a theatre.
In the film, Wynn and Kaduche, who make their own instructional videos on You Tube about saving a child with anecdote blood from a horde of zombies and drinking your own pee, learn from a mysterious ‘oracle’ that the world is about the end. The oracle, another cyber-lebrity, enlists them to steal a government contaminant virus and other tasks, although it becomes very clear he may not be telling them the whole truth about what he knows. Along the way, their friendship goes over and through some hurdles as they often have to choose between saving their best friend or saving the world.
Kaduche, Marcus’ former best friend, gave up on ‘going epic’ to reach zen complacency. Violet, their boss at the climbing gym, is Wynn’s hopeless infatuation. This film has everything: zombies, nukes, explosions, romance, bromance, and vast quantities of unnecessary titling on the screen, a logical aesthetic choice given its online legacy.
Fast forward more than two years later and the apocalyptic comedy finally sees a wide release, hitting VOD, iTunes, Amazon, Xbox, Google Play and Vimeo On Demand. I had a chance to catch up with Hultgren before the release to talk about the long crazy journey from web series to feature release.
“We all wanted to do something creative, but we didn’t really have anyone who was going to give us any money or means to do that,” Hultgren says about the original incarnation on You Tube. Producer Joe England had this crazy idea about survival experts and he asked Hultgren to come onto the project and write it. “We finished the first season and we had this crazy idea that if we can make a web series why can’t we make the movie?” he says, “we didn’t want to make a short film because we didn’t think we could recoup the investment, but we figured we can make a feature that was decent enough we can probably get a distribution deal that will further all of our careers …. [dramatic pause]And so we were really naïve.”
The original episodes are all still available online and are fun to watch, but the best one, and the one that paved the way for the feature was ‘Decapitating Zombies.’ “It was the only episode that we put preproduction time into,” admits Hultgren. In fact, prior to the fifth episode of the series, the writer had never even met Brady Bluhm, who plays Wynn, one of the leads. In addition to voicing Christopher Robin in a series of films and tv projects, Bluhm is best know (and much advertised on the Last Man(s) promotional material) as the Blind Kid from Dumb and Dumber (a role he reprised in the recent sequel).
“Mostly I’d just write the scripts and then send them to Brady and Charan [Prabhakar, who plays the other lead, Kaduche] and they would get together with our cinematographer Eric [Dove] and just the three of them would shoot.” After the final episode of the web series, England put together a small business plan to raise the money and Hultgren cranked out the Last Man(s) feature in two months. One month after that, they were filming.
“It felt almost like writing a TV script,” the writer/director says, “when you know the world, and you know the characters.” In a lesson that should be learned by every indie filmmaker, the script was carefully crafted around the team’s most precious resources, props and locations. Hultgren had everyone to make a list of everything that they could use to shoot this movie that would cost us no money, and that became the foundation of many of the sequences in the film. “We knew that Joe [England]’s dad owned this crazy warehouse out in Salt Lake City,” he recounts, “that we had access to a fire truck, and cool cars, and to free printed materials. And we knew that Brady’s family co-owned a climbing gym in Riverside, California. His parents owned a Hummer, so we could use that in the movie. … The Marcus character works in a preschool because Charan’s uncle owns a preschool.”
Of course not everything on the list made it into the movie. “Joe’s dad owns a series of underground bunkers,” he says, “the issue we had is that the one we wanted to film in was near Denver and it has no electricity. It was like a big bomb development facility. So that was like the coolest location that we wanted for the third act for the Oracle’s Underground bunker but we just logistically couldn’t get out there. Then we figured out a way that we could get everyone out there but not how we could light it.”
An adjustment of location was not the only thing that changed in that third act, as Hultgren admits that despite squeezing a lot of big budget ideas into a low-budget film, there was definitely a realization of what they could and couldn’t pull off. “We’re just so naïve,” he says of his third act, “the first time I wrote it, it was such a big blockbuster type of climax that you have probably 100 exploding propane tanks, you have this multi-pronged battle in a single location.” Once he was on set filming (another part of the film), it became clear to him that his words on the page actually became action he was going to have to direct. One early sequence, storming a scientist’s lab, he says was “originally written as scenes that we could probably spend three days shooting, but we ended up having like five hours.”
Despite some rewrites, the film still bursts with insane action. Hultgren is most proud of lighting off smoke bombs on the lawn of a Pasadena mansion, designed by the same architect who did the Pantages theatre, and spraying down a mob of zombies with the hose from a fire truck. “We had the Salt Lake City fire department help us fill the tank with water and teach us how to use the hose,” he explains, and “all the zombies were there volunteering their time to be in the movie, we weren’t paying them, we were hardly feeding them, and they let us pelt them with water from a fire truck hose, that was pretty amazing.”
The pace of THE LAST MAN(S) ON EARTH is relentless, there is always something life threatening going on, even if it is just the end of a life-long friendship. This is not a slow-burn of a movie, and it ends up having a pace that allows you to enter the mindset of these heroes, who are always on the verge of the world ending. “We went really over-the-top,” Hultgren says, “we tried to create something that really spoke to the YouTube generation, I always called it like a PG-11 type movie, the crowd that has grown up with these viral videos and everything happening so quickly.”
It always feels like at any time the film could go completely off the rails, and yet it always comes back to story, and this tight ensemble of characters. The ‘epic’ team are bold and over the top, but the actors really sell it, and that makes for a fun ride. “We don’t play them stupid,” he says, “even though a lot of silly things are happening, the joke is never on the characters.” Originally the screenplay (and film) included a lot more character development but during the editing process, much of that was stripped away, in service of this break-neck pace. And it’s not as if the characters are simple, they all have several issues which overlap with each other, but the actors fill them with such life, explaining things is really unnecessary.
Again, it goes back to commitment, and one of the things I find so refreshing about Hultgren’s film is it doesn’t feel the need to prove things to us, or to admit when it’s gone over the top. So many films nowadays are “wink-wink” at the audience and self-aware, and Last Man(s) never does that. These characters fully believe that they can go into epic mode. “Essentially epic mode is just about believing in yourself,” defends Hultgren, “but the idea that these guys think that by closing their eyes, holding hands and screaming they can become invincible superheroes, there is an innocence to it.”
So the message at the heart of the film is ‘believe in yourself.’ Or maybe, considering the plot, believe in yourself but not everything you want to believe in. THE LAST MAN(S) ON EARTH is a true cult flick. It’s not going to be for everyone, but if you are willing to let a madmen drive you down the Autobahn in a fire truck, this is a film you will love. The characters are larger than life but with real heart, and it’s laugh out loud funny.