Writer/Director Tom Hammock has been the production designer on 25 films, including “You’re Next” and “The Guest.” His directorial debut with “The Well” put all that experience to good use, as he selected the perfect location, costumes, music and cast for this post-apocalyptic drama about survivors trying to stay alive in a dust-bowl-like world where water is the most precious commodity.
The movie is horror. It is thriller. It is social commentary. It is a reversal of all the normal stereotypes. And it is good—very, very good!
The film was shot in an area 2 hours outside of Los Angeles between December 1st and December 18th as quickly as possible, using 45 grueling set-ups in an 8-hour day. At the heart of the movie is a 17-year-old leading lady, Haley Lu Richardson as Kendall. When hired, Richardson had only one previous screen credit: an Arizona matches ad. (Richardson also appeared recently in an indie comedy, “The Young Kieslowski.”)
Had there not already been a movie entitled “Kick Ass,” this part would qualify. Richardson’s background in dance helped her to perform strenuous fight sequences. She is a real find. She appears in every scene of the film and the entire story is told from her point-of-view.
Hammock has created a dry desert world of Mad Max-like appearance, but without the larger-than-life characters of that franchise. These characters are real people who are desperately struggling to survive while a greedy water baron named Carson sets out to systematically exterminate all of them. He calls them hangers-on, saying, “If they’re alive, they’re consuming my water, and they can’t consume my water without my consent.” Carson is central to the story and is well-played by veteran character actor John Gries (“Taken,” Napoleon Dynamite”), whom Hammock met at a genre film meet-up in the L.A. area that Hammock hosted.
As we are told, “If the company drains all the water away from the aquifer, they control the whole valley.” Kendall, the 17-year-old survivor and her boyfriend Dean (played by Booboo Stewart, depicted as dying from kidney failure), is told by her boyfriend, “There was a time when a man owned the land, he controlled the water, but things are different. He who controls the land controls the water.”
This is a modern-day parable regarding wealth (in this case, water) and its unequal distribution. It is timely, making the film rise above generic film genre categories and become commentary on the world around us today. Ironically, oil is essentially worth little in Hammock’s world, while water is the most precious substance after a 10-year drought devastates the area. With a real drought ongoing in California, the theme is even more current.
And that Australia-like desert which is one of the biggest “characters” in the entire production? It’s near where Tom Hammock grew up, 2 hours north out of Los Angeles. All the farms are actual houses that were abandoned by their owners when the land, planted in alfalfa, turned to dust. (The script’s reference to years prior when rice paddies flourished had me initially wondering if the film location was somewhere in Asia.)
Carson and his red-haired daughter Brooke (well played by “America’s Top Model” contestant Nicole Fox) and crew view their task of killing all the settlers in the valley in these stark terms: “Think of it as the extinction of a species…You have to kill them. The vagrants only suffer. If it weren’t me, it’d be someone else.” They even take a minister along with them (Michael McCartney) who pronounces, “Pray for each of these desperate thirsty souls. Ten years of no rain.”
Since Kendall (Richardson) spends much of the film either hiding from Carson and his men or actively overcoming them in hand-to-hand combat, rifle or samurai sword in hand, the cinematographer, Seamus Tierny, did a great job properly lighting her as she crouches in a dark attic shrouded in a foil wrap to fool the heat-seeking machines the searchers use, or fighting men twice her size in stark sunlight in the next. (When asked about the lighting, Hammock said, “The majority was lit by a white sheet and a pizza box.”)
All of the normal power structures in the film are turned upside-down: it is Kendall, the female character, who is doing all the fighting (not completely new, since “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent”). It is her boyfriend, Dean, who is weak. Plus, ironically, it is water, not oil, which is the source of all conflict.
Kendall and Dean, her boyfriend, have an old Cessna airplane hidden away that they hope to use to escape to a more favorable climate, but they first must find a distributor cap that fits. Much of the story concerns Kendall’s efforts to find this distributor cap, an homage to the original Road Warrior film.
The rest of the story is Kendall foraging or checking on or rescuing a small boy at a nearby farm, Albie (Max Charles). Kendall struggles not only with the exterminators who wear truly horrifying outfits (and, at times, gas masks) but also with her own compassionate impulses. As the cliché says, “No good deed goes unpunished,” which proves true more often than not in the plot, co-written by Hammock and Jacob Foreman.
The costume design by Emma Potter is terrific, as is the spare musical score by Craig Deleon, who often scores for Michael Bay or Apple commercials. There is also an ongoing, menacing wind sound. Director Hammock, when asked what was most daunting about the filming, cited the windy dust storms in the area, as well as achieving the defining image of the leading lady coated in oil. They put Haley in a flesh-colored wet suit and made the oil out of black children’s paint, but the temperature was still in the thirties—cold and uncomfortable for their determined actress, shown submerged in the slimy stuff in the movie’s most famous still.
This is an excellent, entertaining psychological study on a par with “The Babadook” in that neither is straight horror. Each is a well-drawn psychological thriller—but the Uma Thurman-like “Kill Bill” action vote goes to “The Well.”
Don’t miss it. This enterprising young director should be going big places in his film future.
“The Well” premiered at the L.A. Film Festival. It played at the Chicago Film Festival on October 19th; a production deal is nearing completion.