DVDanger: The Last Survivors

A different kind of post-apocalyptic teen heroine

Bloopers. Deleted scenes. DVD special features sometimes blur together. But the contribution of The Last Survivors star Haley Lu Richardson may be unique in film history. She said, "I got an email from them saying, 'just wanted to know that it's OK with you that we just put your audition and offer on there.' I was like, 'my offer?'"

"I think [the producers] were half-impressed and half-worried by how much I wanted to do myself." Haley Lu Richardson gets down and dirty in The Last Survivors, out today on DVD and Blu-ray

It turned out that the producers had recorded the call, and have included Richardson's delighted response on today's DVD and Blu-ray release, as a reminder of a great moment in her career. She said, "I was so over the moon. It was the first big opportunity that I had ever been given, and I was just shocked that anyone would want me to be the lead in their film."

Her elation is a long way from the dark and dessicated action of the film itself. Richardson plays Kendal, one of the final holdouts in the parched desert that used to be Oregon. In this eco-thriller, rain is a long-gone memory, and the last few wells are drying up. Still a teenager, Kendal is forced to become matriarch, warrior, and physician to the ragtag stragglers and raiders that cross her land.

Richardson described the part as a refreshing change from the normal action parts available to actresses, especially young ones. She said, "We're starting to see more strong women characters, but for a young, teenage girl to be able to save the day, and to be so incredibly strong and relentless, is an absolute dream."

Under its original title of The Well, this was one of the highlight screenings of last year's inaugural Other Worlds Austin science fiction festival (See Water Wars, Dec.5, 2014). It was also a homecoming of sorts, since writer Jacob Forman and director Tom Hammock came up with the premise in 2006 while driving cross-country to work on Texas-shot All the Boys Love Mandy Lane.

That means it's been almost a decade between the original idea and this week's home release. In fact, it's been four years since they shot the film. Hey, no one claimed that indie filmmaking was a high-speed industry. Richardson said, "It's been a very long road."

Richardson's casting as the stoic but highly moral Kendal was almost accidental. Hammock explained that they were looking at other actresses when their casting agent suggested they open up the field. He said, "Haley came in and we had her back two or three times, and she just got better every time."

When that DVD-worthy call came, it was like a bolt out of one of The Last Survivors' cloudless skies. A dancer by training, Richardson had only just moved to Los Angeles, and was sharing a studio apartment with her mom. But when she got the script, she said, "I would lay in bed at night and read it, and I remember us both getting super into the script and fighting for Kendal."

She admits, she didn't expect to be the one to get the call. In hindsight, she thinks that probably helped the performance. She said, "Because I was 17 and it was my first movie, I don't think I fully recognized what a responsibility carrying a movie and carrying a scene was. I wasn't in my head that much, I just went ahead and did it. Now, that would be impossible for me to not build the pressure up in my mind."

That enthusiasm bubbled over into the film's action sequences, and Richardson wanted to do as much of her own stunts as she could manage. "I think Tom and Jacob were half-impressed and half-worried by how much I wanted to do myself."

She spent three weeks training with the stunt team before shooting, and she credited two things with helping her adjust to an action role. First, her own background as a dancer, because onscreen fighting is basically just another form of choreography. She said, "We were just getting all the moves down, the forms, just so it became second nature, because then when you're actually filming, the performance has to come out."

The second factor was the team of stunt coordinator Casey Adams and her stunt double Mandy Kowalski, who helped her learn the basics, like holding a shotgun safely. Richardson said, "Kendal is a young woman who never had to shoot people before, so she wouldn't necessarily have to fight like a pro, but still I didn't want to look like a complete idiot, and you have to be safe."

Not that her stunt team could help her prepare for everything. One of the film's most memorable moments is when Kendal drags herself out of a pit, covered in a black, sticky mass of oily goo. "That was the most miserable day of my life," she said. "It was not actually crude oil, but it was chocolate syrup, canola oil, and black tempera paint. It was literally freezing outside, and it got in every single crevice of my body you can imagine."

The Last Survivors (Dark Sky Films) is available on DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD today.

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