The diner at the end of time

Francis Galluppi talks about making The Last Stop In Yuma County

by Jennie Kermode

The Last Stop In Yuma County
The Last Stop In Yuma County

Sometimes the most amazing thrillers come out of nowhere. A director with little in the way of material assets but with a vision they’re willing to fight for and a good measure of that other vital ingredient, luck. Francis Galluppi wasn’t sure that he could pull off The Last Stop In Yuma County, but he went for it anyway, and the result wowed audiences at Fantastic Fest. When we met towards the end of the festival, I ask him what persuaded him to take on such a challenging ensemble piece for his first feature.

“Oh, I think just being really naive,” he says with a grin. “Just not having a fucking clue what I was getting myself into and just telling a story that I actually believed in and then realising quickly ‘Okay, this is a huge ensemble in a single room. I need to be prepared.’ And so it was just a lot of prep. There was a lot of constructing sequences with my DP and figuring out how to make it work in a single room, also while trying to not make it feel like a stage play.

“I also knew I wanted each character to feel important, so I was jumping on Zooms with all the actors and just talking through the script and going through every line, anything that felt contrived, like rewriting it on the spot. By the time we were on set, everybody had a very clear understanding of who their character was, and we were able to blast through it, which we had to because we had a pretty short shooting schedule.”

It begins with a travelling knife salesman who gets stuck in a little diner when the petrol station next door – the last one in the vounty – turns out to have run dry. He’s cheered up by the friendly conversation of waitress Charlotte, but when two bank robbers on the run arrive there, also out of fuel, the two find themselves as hostages, trying to pretend that nothing is wrong as the diner gradually fills up with other people.

It struck me, I say, that the title suggests this is a place which would often be visited by fugitives on their way to the Mexican border.

“You know what? I never really thought about that,” he says. “I mean, I always knew it was the last stop before the border, and they were trying to get into Mexico. Yeah. Maybe this is just the go-to spot for anybody robbing a bank in Arizona. There you go. You just sparked a sequel.”

So where was it actually filmed?

“We shot in Lancaster. It's this set called Four Aces, and I think you might notice it a lot more after seeing this, because I certainly did. I see it all the time now in commercials and TV shows. But when I actually found the location, I was completely unaware of that. I was just like, ‘This is a beautiful location,’ and I constructed the script based off the location. So I went in there and took a bunch of photos and drew an overhead of the diner and just started writing the script specifically on the location. But yeah, it was in Lancaster, California, in the middle of nowhere. It's kind of weird out there but we had a great time.”

The colours work really well there, I observe. That’s important to making it work as a film, and not a theatrical piece, despite the fact that we rarely leave the diner.

“Yeah, well, that was just a lot of long conversations with my production designer, Charlie Textor, figuring out how to make this place feel really lived in and like it was personal to Charlotte and her family. And then in terms of the actual colour, my DP [Mac Fisken] and I went and rented the camera prior to the shoot and went and shot some stuff and then went back and we coloured it. We actually created a look that we brought on set with us, so we were able to monitor everything off of what, eventually, the final look is going to look like.

“We didn't shoot on film, but we did our best to emulate film as much as possible. Originally, I really wanted to shoot on film, but the budget just would not accommodate it. Now there's so many tools out there where you can make digital look pretty close to film. Not exactly, but close enough for an indie film.”

It does look beautiful, but something else that has to be just right is the balance of tension and comedy. How did he approach that?

He shrugs. “That was always in the script. It is funny, though, because I think I always looked at it as a dark comedy, sort of neo-noir. But a lot of people did read the script and they didn't find it as much of a comedy as I did. But I had certain actors in mind that I knew were going to really swing for the fences and be larger than life, so as soon as we got people like Nicholas Logan as Travis and Connor [Paolo] playing Gavin, and started seeing what they were bringing to these characters, I really just let them go for it and we just really leaned in. In the first few days of set, we all quickly realised ‘Okay, we're going for it.’ But with the tension, that was always there, that was always really meticulously worked out.

“From there, we just got to go ‘Okay, we are doing this really suspenseful sequence and then we're cutting out of this into Travis spilling coffee all over himself.’ I'll be honest, there's a few moments of that when I was like, ‘What the fuck are we doing?’ I kept having to convince myself ‘It's going to work. It's going to work.’ It's just really strong performances. I think that helped us a lot.”

There’s a moment in which we hear the strains of Roy Orbison on the jukebox and we know that something bad is going to happen.

“My background is music,” he says. “I went to college for music. I played drums and in punk bands my whole life. And so I kind of have a playlist of songs that anytime I'm listening to these songs, it's like I have a sort of cinematic visual and I'll add them to the playlist. And sometimes when I'm writing, I'll just listen to music. I think I've always wanted to put Crying in a movie, and this just seemed like the perfect place to do it. And I'll be honest, that sequence, nobody believed that was going to work. A lot of people were like, ‘Really? You're going to put a music video in the middle of your movie?’ And I was like, ‘Yes.’

“It took a lot of convincing. Even on the day, people were like, ‘What are we doing? We're shooting 120 frames. What is Francis doing?’ But I had prepared for that scene so much, I was shooting it in my living room with just my wife and I on an iPhone, shooting in slow motion and making sure it was all going to work. And I think it did. I'm really proud of that sequence, but on the page did not translate. It was like, ‘Begin slow motion.’ It's really jarring reading that in a screenplay in this type of movie. It was weird, but I'm glad it worked out okay.”

There are an awful lot of characters in the film, and yet he manages to make us feel something for each one. Were they all there from the start of the writing process, or did they emerge during development?

He smiles. “I always knew I wanted it to be like a clown car, just stacking more characters and more characters. But yeah, when I write, I usually tend to have a bunch of characters in mind and write extensive bios on every character and not necessarily implement all of that into the script, but just have a really strong sense of who these people are. And then once I have that, then I can just kind of go.

“All the characters were there in mind when I was writing. I always knew Jim [Cummings] was going to be the best version of The Knife Salesman and Jocelin [Donahue] was going to be the best version of Charlotte. And so I really fought to get these actors and that took writing letters and jumping on a Zoom and convincing them and getting really fucking lucky.”

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