A film of two halves

Alan Scott Neal and Taylor Sardoni on writing and shooting Last Straw

by Jennie Kermode

Last Straw
Last Straw

Director Alan Scott Neal and screenwriter Taylor Sardoni are in Sitges when we connect to discuss their latest film, tucked into a corner of a sunny courtyard, buzzing with festival excitement. Their film, Last Straw, is screening there and at Beyond Fest in the same week, which is a lot to digest given that neither of them has enjoyed this level of success before. The film follows a waitress, Nancy, through one terrifying night when she finds herself hounded by masked figures at the diner where she’s working alone – before flipping round to show us the same story from the point of view of one of her assailants,Jake, and managing to make us feel some sympathy for both. They developed the concept together, as Taylor explains.

“The film started a long time ago, for myself first, and then I brought Alan on after a few years, and we took the concept and developed it to the core of what it is today. It started off as an inkling of an idea to get a smaller production going, something that was manageable and accessible and something that we could get made. Alan and I went to film school together and we came up at Columbia University MFA programme, and he was a director and I was a writer. And every single project that were trying to get off the ground, it just felt like it would roll up that hill and roll all the way back down, and were getting sick of that.”

“I think we're kindred spirits in the movies that inspired us to become filmmakers. And it's there in the script,” says Alan. “I was excited to take it and run with it visually with the kinds of films that we learned from, Hitchcock and Friedkin...”

“...and Carpenter,” adds Taylor.

It’s very much rooted in small town life and the experience of growing up in a small town. Taylor tells me that Alan was able to bring personal experience to bear on that.

“Yeah, I grew up in a very small, rural, Southern town in the American South,” says Alan. “It informs my whole life experience. Even though I've left that – I now live in New York – it inspires me creatively to tell stories about the kinds of people that live in those kinds of towns and the lives that they live and the things that are unspoken, where I'm from. People hide behind this thick veneer, and it hides this resentment and this anger and this frustration. I really love all of those southern gothic writers that really get in there and get their hands dirty with all of that drama. “

“The original story was set in Anywhere, USA, and location wise, we weren't as specific,” says Taylor. “It was one of the great things that Alan brought to the project later in the game. And, of course, when production started to angle towards specific locations and ‘Where can we shoot?’ Alan really brought that grime and that grease and that kind of specificity to our locale that just changed the whole game.

“Thematically, that made a lot of the things that I think were under the surface of the script really potent, and that was something that I was trying to lean into with a lot of the polishes and tweaks I was doing. Everything that Alan was saying about his upbringing brought another layer to this onion and really just made it unique.”

“You know, it's interesting, we were talking earlier about how, obviously, genre films are what made me want to make movies, horror and thrillers,” says Alan. “But the ones that stick with me are the ones that have a point of view and scratch at the surface of something about the people and where they're from and the things that influence the way they act and the way they perceive the world. I was interested in bringing what I knew to this script because T wrote this amazing, tight thriller, and we were just like, ‘Okay, let's make it as specific as we can and that'll just give its own flavor that is unique to us.”

It opens with Nancy discovering that she’s pregnant, but doesn’t take a familiar story route from there. Nevertheless, throughout what follows, we can see that she's thinking about what she's going to do with her life, and there’s that feeling of being trapped in that small town.

“That's one of the things that reverberated for me early on,” says Taylor. “And then Alan and I discussed this idea that Nancy feels really stuck in her place and trapped at this time. And in the beginning of the story, this pregnancy feels like one more problem, when in reality, throughout the film, she's really processing it. She's really understanding what that may mean.

“There's a universality to that small town life and feeling like everything that happens to you makes you stuck. I don't think all of us have gone through an atrocious night like Nancy, but we have gone through those experiences that make you come out the other end looking at things in a whole new perspective. And of course that's what the film's about, right?”

Different perspectives, I nod. Because of course Jake's also having a crisis with needing money for medicine.

“Exactly,” he says. “Which was, for me, the more personal side that I had tried to bring into it earlier on. Alan was one of the advocates for making Jake as grounded as possible as an antaagonist for the first part of the story. And then, of course, we get his subjective experience in the second half, understanding where he came from and the frustrations of having to deal with the administrative side of mental health, and things that I have experienced before, as so many people have, triggering a spiral into something much darker and much more dangerous. But yeah, in a weird way, they mirror each other. They're going through a lot of the same things. And this is a miscommunication that unfortunately sets them up on this violent night.”

So how early on did they decide that they wanted to film it in two halves?

“You know, the split was there from the beginning from Taylor's script, and that's really honestly what drew me to the project,” says Alan. “I was thrilled at the idea that I would be able to really use perspective and use the camera to tell all these different emotional stories. I get to tell, visually, two very different emotional stories and then combine them in this third, almost omniscient point of view near the end of the film when it becomes more of like a third person rather than a first person.

“ I really love Park Chan-wook's The Handmaiden and Hitchcock's Psycho, which have this unexpected twist but then this sort of challenge to how you tell this story that people have already seen and how do you tell it in a way that shows they're experiencing it in a different way? And that is obviously done through the performances, but also in the visual language. And so that was exciting for me.”

Taylor nods. “Jennie, I'm sure that you may have noticed, and I'm hoping that people really catch onto it, but something that obviously is not in the script, because it couldn't be: Alan specifically used different takes for the repetitive scenes and shot through those different perspectives. So Nancy's perspective, there's a certain take that we use, and then later on, when you see that moment again, it's a completely new perspective because it's from Jake. And that, to me, was what made it. I tried to be really bold with the script structurally, and then he took it to another level of making it so bold in the performances.”

I had wondered what their shooting process was like, i note, because I figured that they were going to have to do each version of each scene close together, so that the continuity was right, but it would also have been necessary to set a completely different mood.

“To be completely honest with you, that was the puzzle of the film,” says Alan. “There were days when it felt like it was breaking my brain, and the DP's brain, but it was really important that we emotionally tracked this. Essentially what I did was, when I saw it from Nancy's perspective, I took the script and I was just like, ‘Well, how is she feeling in this scene? And how can I shoot it in the minimum amount of shots to feel what she's feeling?’ And then I took that same scene that Taylor had written in Jake's storyline, and I looked at it and I said ‘Well, what's the tension here, and how do we shoot it to pull out that tension that he's experiencing?

“They're completely different, and we would shoot them on the same day, but we would shoot it through one perspective and then we would reset. I'd have the conversations, and then we would shoot the whole sequence again from a completely different emotional point of view.”

Taylor laughs. “And silly me, from the writing standpoint years ago, I'm thinking, ‘Oh, this is going to be easy. We film half the movie.’ But it made it even more difficult for these guys because it was about tracking everybody's emotionality throughout and making sure that it made sense. And it was a puzzle. But I also think that the puzzle was the key to making it successful.”

“It's what made it special for me,” says Alan. “And also, I had my own challenge I set for myself, which was that I would never use the same shot twice in the whole movie. And so I had to go the extra mile to really tell their stories. How do I never repeat anything? So it feels like you're seeing it fresh and for the first time.”

Alan has a background in casting. Did that help when it came to fighting the right actors and communicating all this to them?

“That was a real treat for me,” he says. “I've worked in casting. I've worked on a variety of shows and projects, and I've actually saved a lot of actors and talent over the years. People that I admired that maybe got close on a project or I saw something in and maybe they weren't right for it. And I was just like, ‘Oh, they would be really great for this movie.’ And we had an audition process, saw a bunch of people, but I would say that my top choice that I had saved ended up being the choice because it was just so obvious.

“You know the gentleman that plays Jake? He and I had worked on a couple of different projects, but this was our first feature together, so that was great to have him play such a featured role. But I also really valued the process of finding Petey, the gentleman with Down syndrome. It was really important for me to find somebody that would be able to bring that character to life and to have an inner life and to have their own wants and needs and to showcase that. And Chris Lopes, who is our actor, came on a zoom with T and I, and we did a work session, and he was just absolutely fantastic. I mean, he blew us away. That was the big discovery for me for this film, was that process.”

I ask about the location, which really suits a Hitchcockian approach, staning in an exposed area and with windows all the way along its length.

“Funny enough, yeah, that was a challenge,” says Taylor. “When we narrowed down our search of vast locations and said ‘Okay, we want to do this in upstate New York. We have ties there, we have our producers, weknow a lot of people, so that's where we want to go,’ we then started to try to find our diners, and it was – I mean...”

“We knocked on every door physically,” says Alan.

“And also cold called, and cold emailed. And one of our producers, Cole, was just hounding the New York Film Commission to try to find a place, and found a place that was across the Delaware River. It was an old 1950s diner that had been sold and had been...”

“Uprooted, taken across the river by boat and put on a new parcel of land and had yet to be opened. Floated up the Hudson...”

“Up the Hudson, yeah. It was just sitting there waiting to open. They built like a back, the kitchen and that kind of stuff. But that diner itself was real.”

They got a great deal, Alan says, getting access to it for foiur weeks on the proviso that they drum up some interest ahead of its opening.

“The amount of people who drove by and said, are you guys open? And we said, no, we're filming a movie here but it opens in a couple of weeks,” He laughs. “So I think we succeeded in that. But, yeah, that location was a godsend because it really created the atmosphere that you see there is in real life.”

“We were at night,” says Taylor. “Those red lights – I’m telling you, that was scary for us.”

“Because it's generally a single location film, it was really important that we got the right diner,” says Alan. “I scouted and went and saw so many diners in person. I was getting very discouraged because I didn't know if were going to find the version that I had in my head. And then just out of nowhere at the last minute, this lonely diner on the side of the road in the mountains materialised and it was vacant and it was truly amazing.”

“Also, if you remember, it was pretty gutted,” says Taylor. “We went in with our production designer, and because this is lower budget movie, it was all hands on deck creating that lived-in feel. I don't know, every time I watch it, I feel as if those are the diners that Alan and I separately grew up in, that you frequent with friends. That's where all these late night conversations about movies and stuff started.”

They’re thrilled by the film’s festival success, he says.

“We are honoured. And I have to say, this is a surreal experience. This all started so many years ago. And you write different projects, you develop different projects. Things don't get off the ground, things fail. Things don't fail. Whatever. We are now in a place where we are screening at festivals that we ourselves have followed, that we have attended.

“It's a surreal experience to be around crowds that are horror lovers like us, and horror lovers for schlock, for blood, for elevated, just passionate genre cinema fans like ourselves. We made this movie for ourselves and just hope that people caught on and people dug it. And now be here with film fans, it is surreal. It's an honour. And I kind of keep saying to Alan, ‘Pinch me,’ because are we really screening our first feature at these cool places and getting some really cool responses.”

Alan nods. “It's very exciting because Taylor and I, we tried to put this movie together for years, and it started, for me, I was working a job and I quit. I called him and I was just like, ‘We have to make a movie. Let's talk about it. Let's do it. It's been too long.’ And now, five years later, to have actually edited it, screened it here with these amazing crowds, with incredible filmmakers, it's beyond validating. It's just very exciting.”

So where do they go from here?

“We are developing more projects,” says Taylor. “With the success and hopeful success of The Last Straw, Alan and I have been saying ‘Let's make something that is bigger and better and fun and adjacent to the things that we explored here, but in maybe a more meaningful way, with maybe a more meaningful budget.

“There's one project specifically that we are developing, Alan as the director and myself as the writer, and we're hoping that the response is strong and we're hoping that these stories that we are just kind of obsessed with and can't get out of our heads, we get the privilege to continue to make them over many years.”

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