Tom Hammock is responsible for some fantastic production design work on some of the biggest independent horror films in recent years including You’re Next, V/H/S/2, and All The Boys Love Mandy Lane. When he is not busy designing these great films he is also busy creating fabulous graphic novels . Recently released from Archaia and BOOM! Studios is Will O’ The Wisp from Hammock and artist Megan Hutchison. The story follows a peculiar young girl, Aurora Grimeon, who is forced to move to Ossuary Isle after her parents die from eating strange mushrooms. What ensues is a dark young adult adventure that combines elements of the supernatural with the slasher genre. It’s a unique concoction, and the creative team has built a world that is magical and grim to go along with it. There’s also an adorably bizarre pet raccoon named Missy.
More recently however Hammock has been busy writing and directing his latest project The Well, a post apocalyptic film starring one of my favourite actresses Rena Owen from the classic film Once Were Warriors
The Well is a post-apocalyptic thriller set in the very near future. Fresh water, our most valuable commodity has run out and society has collapsed. In a drought-stricken Oregon valley, a greedy water baron, like so many railroad and cattle barons of yesteryear, is determined to clear out every survivor, even by the most violent means. Only our heroine Kendal, a brave 17 year-old grown far beyond her years, stand in the way of this villain and the evil water corporation that supports him. This harrowing story is built on action, suspense and compassion for one girl's gritty determination to fight for what's right, no matter the cost.
Hello Tom, how are things with you?
Hey Jim. Things are great. I really appreciate you giving that awesome coverage to my graphic novel Will O’ the Wisp. It’s great to be back so soon in a different medium. I’m in Texas at the moment designing Sean Byrnes (The Loved Ones) new film so I’m staying very busy.
Production Designer, author and now director, do these all serve to satisfy a common creative desire or do they feed different aspects of your creative process?
They are all tied up together in a common creative desire. The experience of writing graphic novels in many ways is halfway in between the experience of writing a film and directing a film. It’s a screenplay combined with a shot list and storyboards. I always see production design as building a world, and one goes through that process with both graphic novels and film.
Looking through your list of credits I see that you worked on an ad campaign for Grapenuts. What the hell are Grapenuts? And do you like them?
Wow, doing your research. I did work on several ad campaigns for Grapenuts. Grapenuts are an American cereal and I don’t think grapes are involved in any way. It’s kind of like granola. I’m not crazy about them, but maybe that’s because when you’re around a product constantly on a commercial shoot it tends to “destroy the magic” so to speak.
What exactly is the role of a Production Designer?
The best way to think of the production designer is as being the architect of the film. Creating the world of the film and making sure the film has a cohesive look. Sets, locations, props, and depending on the director, wardrobe, make-up, visfx, all conform to the visual rules of the world that we come up with to back up the story and characters of the film.
In terms of production design are there any films where you thought “man, I wished I had done that”?
I think the easy answer is to pick any huge film like Batman Begins and say, I wish I’d designed that. I think the realistic answer is to look at the type of American independent films I design. If there was one film I wish I could have designed from that type of film, it would be Brick. The film really creates a world and has such special performances, direction and cinematography. And those collaborators have gone on to do amazing films. It would have been great to be able to collaborate with Rian Johnson and his team.
And are there any where you think “Boy that sucked”?
I think in general much of 80’s television. Its a pet peeve of mine and just has become so noticeable in hindsight in so many 80’s shows, that when a door is closed and the whole wall shakes.
What's your favourite set flub in a popular movie that most people would never notice? Besides the "Three Men and a Baby" ghost
Pretty Woman where Julia Robert’s croissant turns into a pancake is pretty genius.
What are some ways you've learned to cut corners, budget-wise, in building a set?
The easiest way is for the director and cinematographer to know exactly what they want to shoot so that only the walls that will appear in the shot are built and dressed. For a fully dressed set, avoiding building ceilings is a big savings.
Are advances in technology marginalizing the role of traditional set design?
I actually think it’s to the contrary. While there are films from time to time like Sin City, which are primarily green screen, generally I feel like technology has allowed for set extension on built sets so even more can be achieved now. And that still calls for the traditional set to be built.
The first film you worked on was All The Boys Love Mandy Lane, how did you come to work on this film?
Oh, this goes back some time. On my first day of graduate school at the American Film Institute, I teamed up with a screenwriter named Jacob Forman to make a short film. It was a post-apocalyptic exercise, way too ambitious. The film itself was a disaster, but Jacob and I really hit it off. In our second year, when he set about to write a low-budget feature that several of us hoped to make after graduate school, I talked him into making it a horror film. We both love horror films, and locked ourselves away at a friend's cabin at Mammoth to watch every horror film we could get our hands on. Every small-town Texas film we could find, too. I worked really closely with Jacob on the script, reading every draft he wrote, advising him on set pieces, and on what we could actually shoot and what we could never afford. At the same time, I spent much of my second year at AFI designing Mandy Lane. I remember Jacob had all my research images and material up on the wall of his living room for inspiration while he wrote it. Not sure how his girlfriend felt about that. Anyway, we were able to go out with a script and full design package to try to get the film financed.
How did you feel going into your first full on feature film? Where you more nervous about the film than say one of your ad campaigns?
For sure. Ad campaigns are great, but you do them and then they are forgotten. Movies live on and have a life of their own, so the pressure is greater, but so are the rewards (Not financial, but to one as a film maker.).
Did you ever see the ghost of the girl who supposedly suffocate in one of the bedrooms in the house used in the film?
I didn’t see the ghost myself, but two crewmembers swore they saw her in an upstairs window. Considering the house was built into a cemetery in real life, this certainly seems possible. And it was very creepy to be in the house, prepping for the film with a limited crew in the dark. What an incredible house. The owners have since fully restored it to it’s appearance during the American Civil War.
Looking back at the film how successful do you think your work was? Was it a case of “if only I had a slightly bigger budget”?
I would have loved to have a bigger budget for Mandy Lane and there are a few details I’d love to fix. But overall I think it’s a successful film and is successful in terms of design. I don’t think people realize how much was built for that film. Almost everything was modified in some way. For instance, the windmill was built and put up at many locations. The cattle pit was built from scratch and aligned to the sun’s path on that day of shooting. We even built or restored most of the furniture for the house since we didn’t have money to even rent furniture. We were such a tight group of filmmakers from going through film school together that we were able to schedule the film in shooting order so that we were able to build 3 separate sets from the wood we bought for one single set. Shrinking the set in size each time as we made cuts in the wood, which we screwed together rather than nailed so it could be reused.
Most people won’t realise that you make an appearance on screen in the film. Do all your films feature that little Hitchcock moment from you?
Not all of them, but many do. It’s just the nature of independent film making that you help out in any way you can. Interestingly in Mandy Lane, Michael Welch and I have the same build, and we didn’t have him on set with us for a fair amount of principle so I double him in quite a bit of the film. I still have my matching costume. And then there is a bit of an odd story regarding my hands, which keep racking up an impressive list of credits. They are in Mandy Lane, but also by chance in You’re Next, The Guest, the VHS series, The Last Exorcism… so they are steadily building an impressive list of horror credits. Maybe they need their own agent.
Of all of the films that you have worked on, You’re Next is my favourite. When you signed up to the film did you have any idea this would be a film that would spilt genre audience right down the middle?
We had no idea. We just went out and tried to make the best film we could make. I am particularly proud of the look of the film, being unusually beautiful for a genre film. And of course I love that the masks and that the blood logo I made ended up being the logo for the film. That fans are tattooing the masks and the logo on themselves still blows me away. How cool is that!
Would I be wrong in saying the film was created with its tongue firmly in its cheek. While the film is full of shocking moments I strongly believe that at its heart beats a wry comedic look at the slasher movie genre?
You would be spot on! Adam and Simon first pitched me the film as a horror take on a screwball comedy. From that point I was in. That’s why it’s best seen with an audience so you have permission to laugh, so to speak.
The film is classed as mumblegore, what exactly is mumblegore?
Mumblegore is a film that uses the filmmaking principles of mumblecore (actor improvisation, very low budget, and I personally find generally not caring much about the look of the film) and then making a genre film. Is You’re Next in this category? I’m not sure. It certainly has the improvisation, but we went to great lengths to craft a heavily planned out film and we cared a lot about how it looked.
The soundtrack credits consist entirely of three different recordings of "Looking for the Magic". Whose idea was that?
Adam Wingard (the director of You’re Next) is really incredible with music. That was all him.
Over the course of your career you have worked some great names, have you ever gotten star struck?
That doesn’t really happen to me with true stars. It’s the character actors that I can get star struck when I meet. For instance, I met Michael Wincott (The Crow, Dead Man, Alien Resurrection) once while buying multiples of rugs for a bloody sequence. He was shopping for a rug as well and asked me my opinion on his choice. (Since I was buying so many it must have looked like I knew what I was doing.) It was hard to get my opinion out. He’s so fantastic in so many films.
Let’s fast forward to your latest project The Well This marks your debut as a feature film director. What made you decide to make the leap to the man in charge?
In this case, I’d actually been on a film with Adam that had fallen apart. It was late in the year when that happened so there wasn’t really the opportunity for me to pick up another film to design. The opportunity came up to direct The Well and Adam and Simon encouraged me to take it. They were both really supportive through the whole process. Both actually do stunts in the film and Adam did the early cut of the film so we could make sure we had all the coverage that we needed. Then Adam went off to work on The Guest and I actually had to take a break partway through cutting The Well to go design The Guest as well.
As well as directing The Well you also wrote the screenplay? How long did it take to you reach the final draft from the initial inception?
This was an interesting one. Jacob and I wrote a really short treatment for The Well back in 2009 and then put it aside when we both got too crazy with our own work. Then in 2012, the Federighi brothers, for whom I designed the feature Adventures in the Sin Bin, asked if we had a project we wanted to make. They basically green-lit the film off the treatment and Jacob and I wrote the script in a couple of months. We cast the film immediately and started shooting.
Did your experience as a production designer help in anyway with the writing process?
It helped enormously. Jacob and I have a writing process where we partially design the world and characters while we’re writing the treatment for a film. We search for and print up photos so we have a visual bible. That way we have visuals to refer to when we are writing and we can be specific. It really helps for world-building screenplays and that’s what the two of us try to write together. I use a similar process for my graphic novels of building a visual library for the world early in the writing process.
So writer and director, how did you prepare for this daunting task, knowing that the buck stopped with you?
Normally I would have liked to spend a lot of time preparing, but on this one, it came together so fast that we just had to go shoot. The cinematographer, Seamus Tierney, and I literally didn’t get any prep together. He was shooting in India and flew back, we picked him up at the airport, drove him to set, and started shooting. There wasn’t time to shotlist anything except for a few of the fights, but Billy Federighi, the executive producer (he’s a great director) and I did figure out the transition between each scene so we knew what we were coming from and going to. That said, I wouldn’t want to go into a film “dry” so to speak without any traditional preparation again.
The film has a great cast, did you do an open call or did you already have an idea of who you wanted for the roles?
We had an idea of who we wanted for each role with the exception of Kendal. We did an open call for that lead role just to cast the net wide. We ended up with serious interest from a number of meaningful actresses, but Haley Lu just kept blowing us away in her auditions (she had to audition three times) so we took the risk and went with her. It paid off in a big way for us.
One of the stars of the film is Rena Owen, who starred in one of my all-time favourite films Once Were Warriors, what was she like to work with?
That’s fantastic you love that film. Jacob and I do, too, and we specifically asked Rena to be in our film because of her incredible performance in that film. It really is staggering to watch. She was so generous with us even though she has a smaller part. Sometimes actors won’t commit fully for a smaller role, but when you see her scenes you can just see the commitment in her eyes. She wanted to be on set at all times to be there for the other actors in the scene with her when many actors would have wanted to wait in their trailers because for the trying conditions (dust storms, extremes of heat and cold…).
The film is set in a post-apocalyptic world were water is scarce, is the film a pure thriller or is there an ecological under current to it?
There is an ecological undercurrent to the film for sure. On the surface, it’s pure thriller, but having a real base to the story is what I think makes for the best sci-fi and horror.
You have made, the sadly still rather, unusual choice of having a female heroine. Was this a decision made during the writing process?
Absolutely. Jacob and I made that decision at the very beginning of the writing process. While the age of the principle characters involved would have made the film unique even if the lead was male, it was so much more interesting to put a young woman in the typically male role of protector.
What attributes does Haley Lu Richardson bring to the role?
Haley Lu brought and incredible intensity and an ability to give a great performance even under the most trying of circumstances (like being covered in fake oil). She’s a dancer, so she just had that movement and control which let us get stunts and action we normally wouldn’t have been able to achieve with a performer of her age. She’s in practically every frame of the film, so it’s one thing to come in and give a good performance for a few days; but Haley Lu came in and carried her part of the film.
In terms of production, what’s the hardest part of setting a film in a post-apocalyptic world?
In the micro-scale, the aging of the costumes; in the macro-scale, the building of the world. So much of it has been done before in terms of post-apocalyptic films that we were looking for a new look. We approached the issue like we were really making a period film in the American Midwest during the dust bowl, rather than a typical post-apocalyptic film. No Mohawks or punks in this world.
Why do you think post-apocalyptic films are still so popular?
I think one of the reasons people go to films is to see the extreme, to experience an existence that is different from their own. Post-apocalyptic films allow for that voyeurism in spades.
And what makes your film stand out?
Sounds corny, but I think audiences will see and feel the care that everyone put into this film. I had amazing collaborators whom I could never afford to hire for their true rates, and yet everyone on this film rallied around the material because they recognized it would give them the opportunity to try things they had never tried before, and to feel things (our actors said this a lot) that they hadn't felt for far too long. A great example of this is our title sequence and main-on-end sequence. Those generally get ignored in indie films, but we convinced the title designer of A Beautiful Mind, Jakob Trollback, to design it for us. We had no money so he was restricted to what he could shoot on a table top. It’s hard to describe what a phenomenal job he and his team did. As a solution they did time-lapse, microphotography of pools of water evaporating, and produced this elegant, mysterious, sequence, which captures the essence of what was at the heart of our film.
It's unusual for an independent film of our general budget level we have real set pieces, including real action, stunts, real pyro & blood work and in-camera sword fights. Casey and Zack, our stunt choreographers, were incredible and helped us do so much in camera. It gives the film a throwback feel in the action. When someone hits the ground they are taking that fall for real (you can tell by the swirling dust) which I love.
The film will have its World Premiere in The Beyond Category at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival. So how nervous are you?
I’m not nervous yet, because I’m literally writing you from set on Sean Byrne’s new film and we’re working like crazy. But as soon as I get to LA for the premier I’m sure it will sink in and I’ll be nervous.
Do you have any plans to do anything special at the premiere?
I wish I had some grand plan to let you in on, but I don’t think we’re doing anything crazy. Just a Q n A.
Have you had any feedback about the film yet?
The only feedback we’ve gotten is from a really incredible curtain raiser from the LA Weekly. Here’s a quote and a link.
"Apocalyptic nightmare The Well doesn't need a gimmick — it's as brutal and beautiful as genre flicks get, which makes sense, as director Tom Hammock production designed great-looking thrillers You're Next and the upcoming The Guest. In her character's search for fresh water, young star Haley Lu Richardson survives some unsettlingly real battles, including a ragged fistfight against a guy in a burlap mask." -- LA Weekly
Thank you Tom for taking the time to do this interview good luck with the premiere. Do you have any final words for the readers?
Thanks so much for having me and for these amazing questions. I really appreciate it. Let's do it again.