Gavin Schmitt Interviews Thomas Hammock
Thomas Hammock is a rising star in the world of horror and genre films. A graduate of the American Film Institute, he was the production designer on approximately thirty films, including “You’re Next” and “All The Boys Love Mandy Lane”. He is also the writer of the 2014 graphic novel “Will o’ the Wisp”. For his latest project, Tom is making his directorial debut.
“The Last Survivors” (affiliate link) takes place at what’s left of the Wallace Farm for Wayward Youth. Seventeen-year-old Kendal (Haley Lu Richardson) and the few others that remain barely scrape by while dreaming of escape. When a greedy water baron, Carson (Jon Gries of “Napoleon Dynamite” and “Monster Squad”) lays claim to what little of the precious resource remains underground, Kendal must decide whether to run and hide or bravely fight for the few cherished people and things she has left. Co-starring Booboo Stewart (“X-Men: Days of Future Past”), Max Charles (“American Sniper”) and genre veteran Barbara Crampton (“You’re Next”, “Re-Animator”).
I spoke with Tom on July 23, 2015.
GS: In your bio, you write that you traveled the world while your father studied venomous creatures. That might be something our horror fan audience would like to hear more about.
TH: It’s kind of fascinating. My dad is a professor and studies venoms, poisons, all that kind of stuff. And you know, if you’re bitten by a black widow and you go to the hospital to get anti-venom, somebody actually had to milk that spider or scorpion or centipede to produce the compound. It’s not like you can just take a pill. So I grew up with my dad going to deserts and studying all that crazy stuff. It was kind of fun.
GS: So, a pretty routine childhood then?
TH: (laughs) Yeah. Just from being out in those kinds of places, I’ve sadly been bitten or stung by all kinds of things. The worst would probably be a scorpion that got me in Laos. I was wretchedly sick. But it runs the gamut from bee stings up to things that are way worse. There are safer ways to spend one’s weekends growing up.
GS: You’ve worked with Adam Wingard a few times now. How did that relationship come about?
TH: Actually, it came about because we were on some independent film panels at Comic-Con and just became friends from doing the low-budget panels. I was there for “All the Boys Love Mandy Lane”, and he was there for “Pop Skull”. We just became buddies, kindred spirits. I was running a film series – which I still run – in L.A., which consists of genre films. He was a regular at those. And then when he got “You’re Next”, he asked if I wanted to do it. I said “totally” and we’ve been making stuff together ever since. Including “Last Survivors”, which he was kind enough to cut for me.
GS: If people remember nothing else from “You’re Next”, they remember those now-iconic masks. How much credit can you take for their design?
TH: I would definitely call it a team effort. Simon Barrett, the writer, he had written in the script about the individual animals, about the masks. So he really had the idea. We tried a couple other masks, but we always knew we just wanted cheap Halloween masks. It always bugged Adam and me that in “The Strangers”, there’s no way the killers are going to put that much time into their masks. This is more like people just bought animals masks from a 99 cent Halloween store, spray painted them and were off on a rampage. But what became the really difficult thing… I didn’t foresee this, but it became interesting. Adam does really long takes. So these masks are shown in a single take in pitch blackness, behind a candle, with electric light, overhead light… so the masks ended up having thirty or forty layers of airbrushed paint that were very thin. This gave depth to them, and allowed them to read under all the different lighting conditions. Otherwise Adam would have to cut and switch the masks out with variations that were darker or lighter. I love those masks. So much went into them, and yet they look so simple.
GS: Before you started “Last Survivors”, you were on a project with Adam that fell through. Can you talk a bit about what that was and if it will ever come out?
TH: It didn’t go anywhere. It was an erotic thriller, but dark and violent. It was an erotic thriller that we were going to shoot in (South) Korea. I don’t know if it even had a title. It was the “Untitled Adam Wingard Project”. Fortunately, it quickly became apparent that it was too difficult to make a film in Korea using a Western style of filming. They have their very own style, and a different way that they’re set up to make movies. It just became too hard to adapt. We couldn’t bring in our style and mix the two, they were too far apart. So the project fell apart, and it got to be so late in the year that Adam decided we just needed to direct something. So I moved ahead with “Last Survivors”, (affiliate link) or “The Well” as it was called at the time.
GS: One film used for inspiration was Okamoto’s “Sword of Doom” (1966). Aside from just the idea of sword fighting, what connection were you going for with that one?
TH: It was really two-fold. On one side, you have the technical bit of shooting swordfights. So that was our go-to for sword work, because sword work is dangerous, hard to do and hard to shoot. That film was our guide to give us a feel for it. But also, that film has such beautiful lenses and the main character goes on this incredible arc. It’s sort of an evil arc, one that bends towards madness. While we weren’t sending Haley Lu towards madness, we definitely wanted her to go on this enormous journey like the character takes in “Sword of Doom”. So that’s where that came from. I know it’s a bit of an unorthodox reference for a post-apocalyptic film.
GS: It is, but you’re right about how beautiful it is. Criterion released it on Blu-ray earlier this year and it’s just so good.
TH: It’s just so beautiful. I look at that movie, and I think… you know where he’s exiting the temple and there’s that one long take through the tree trunks that just follows him? It reminds me of that shot in “Oldboy” in the hallway with the hammer. I’ve always loved that movie. Any excuse to watch it again.
GS: You’ve said the location you filmed “Last Survivors” in had abandoned homes with possessions still inside. What sort of things did people leave behind?
TH: It’s so depressing. You’re correct. These were family farms that had been left behind. The farmers had drained the water table, the topsoil blew away, and they just walked away from it. We found everything from tricycles to stuffed animals buried in the sand, family photos, and even closets full of clothes. Some of this you see in the film. Dishes. Anything you can think of. It was pretty harrowing. We augmented it, brought in our own stuff, but really this world exists. That’s what’s kind of scary about it. I knew about it because when I was growing up – collecting scorpions with my dad – we drove through those areas on a number of occasions. When I was little, they were wheat and alfalfa farms. And it was getting worse and worse. When I went back this last time, I knew it was perfect.
GS: I didn’t realize the destruction was so recent. The homes seem like something out of the Dust Bowl.
TH: Yeah, it’s pretty bad. And there’s a bit of scandal going on there now, because these companies are coming in and trying to buy up the land. Not because they want the land itself, but because they can pump this super-deep groundwater up. It’s not feasible to use this water for a farm, but for other things it’s useful. So now they’re trying to drive other people off the land to get access. It’s a very odd and depressed area.
GS: You’ve commented that one of the hardest parts of the production design was aging the costumes, something most viewers might not even notice. How did that process work?
TH: It’s one of those things where people notice it when it’s not done right. So basically, the costume department headed by Emma Potter (another “You’re Next” alumnus) would take a coat sand wash it ten or twenty times with tennis balls. Then they’d go in with sandpaper and sand the seams, pull the seams out. Grind it down so it appears threadbare in spots, but still natural. Things had to be stained, so when the dust kicks up you have that sort of halo of dust around it. That’s how they got it to look like that, because we want to make it look like these people had only a couple changes of clothing. Films like this, the money is not in the clothing itself but in the aging process. In production design, the whole goal is to convince the audience that the world we create really exists.
GS: You used real guns and squibs, which seems to be a dying art. How important to you was it to have these in-camera effects?
TH: I wouldn’t have done it any other way. It was enormously important. We actually went out and got a buddy I’d worked with, Josh Hakian, and he had just finished making “Last Stand”, the Arnold Schwarzenegger film. Josh actually had some explosives leftover, some squibs leftover. So he brought them to our shoot. We literally had only one take on each squib. But I think it reads so well. People can use digital blood, but there’s nothing that compares to seeing the cloth just tearing apart. I don’t know, I love that. I think you’re right, sadly, about it being a dying art. I don’t know if anyone will ever do as good as Sam Peckinpah and “The Wild Bunch”, but you have to try whenever you can.
GS: You’re setting yourself a high bar with Peckinpah.
TH: I know it. I have no idea how he got so much blood out of his squibs. We triple-squibbed people and they still couldn’t equal what he did. The guy was a genius.
GS: You’ve worked closely with (writer) Jacob Forman and (art director) Megan Hutchison for over a decade on countless projects. When one of you gets hired, do the other two come along as a package deal?
TH: It’s so project-specific that it’s not necessarily a package deal. Megan actually doesn’t even do many movies anymore. She illustrates comic books that I write. For Megan, a lot of times I would say “I need Megan to be the art director or assistant art director for the graphics”. I would always love to work with Jacob, but he’s big time now. I’d love for us to be a package deal, but you know… he’s on to bigger things.
GS: Now that you’re in the director’s chair, you’re on to big things, too.
TH: (laughs) I try. As long as I get to keep making films in the genre world, whether it’s directing or designing, I’m happy.
GS: That’s the spirit. Thanks, Tom.
TH: Thank you. I appreciate it.