Science-Fiction Cinema

Inaugural Other Worlds Austin comes into focus

Science-Fiction Cinema

The Well

Water Wars

When the near-future eco-drama The Well screens at the Other Worlds Austin science-fiction film festival, it will be a homecoming of sorts. After all, if it wasn't for Texas-shot All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, writer Jacob Forman and director Tom Hammock would never have made their debut feature. In fact, says Forman, "I don't think either of our careers would have happened without Mandy Lane."

Back in 2006, the pair was on midsummer break between their first and second years at the American Film Institute when they traveled to Bastrop to work on the revisionist slasher. After shooting wrapped and "eating way too much queso," Hammock recalls, "we took some time and drove back through eastern New Mexico, and there are all these towns where they've run out of their groundwater and they have to ship drinking water in every day." The drought didn't end when they got back to California. "At the south end of the San Joaquin Valley, there's a water crisis and it's been going on forever. People will feel the impact on their wallet as the price of pistachios and stone fruit goes up."

Those images struck a chord in Forman. He'd traveled extensively while growing up, then took an internship with High Country News, a not-for-profit newspaper covering environmental issues in the American West. "It took me a very short time to realize that the issue of water was at the heart of every story. Every mine-development story, every land story."

The two were inspired to write what Hammock called "a near-future story without the Mad Max craziness," and so sprung forth The Well. A decade after the last rainfall, the last human stragglers in a once-lush Oregon valley eke drops of water from an aquifer. Kendal (newcomer Haley Lu Richardson) tries to show some compassion for those struggling in the dust, while caring for her ailing friend Dean (Booboo Stewart from the Twilight franchise). It's the westward expansion in reverse as the pioneers see their resources dwindle. Then there's violence in the form of the self-proclaimed lord of the valley, Carson (Jon Gries) and his aristocratic/psychotic daughter Brooke (former America's Next Top Model winner Nicole Fox). They think all the water remaining is theirs by birthright, and they'll steal or execute to control it all.

Forman and Hammock were already considering a handful of actresses when they came across Richardson by accident. Hammock says, "On a whim, our producer Chris Harding sent out a casting call to get 20 or 30 girls, just to give us a perspective. Haley came in and we had her back two or three times, and she just got better every time."

Prior to that, her only experience was in a fire-safety commercial, but the pair knew quickly that she understood Kendal's compassionate nature in desperate times. Forman says, "Part of that comes from the fact that Tom and I are optimists, but a huge part of that just comes from the natural joy and charisma of Haley. It was amazing to see her switch on a dime between hardcore performance and her natural, bubbly personality."

A dancer by training, Richardson quickly had to pick up a lot of the mechanical skills of acting for camera. That included Forman and Hammock's particular sense of fight choreography. The pair had previously worked with the same team who created the ground-and-pound style of John Wick. Hammock called their work "very influential" ("We taught them everything they know," deadpanned Forman), with Richardson's attacks based mostly on self-defense and quick kills, rather than elaborate set-pieces. However, that came with risks for their lead's facial features. Hammock says, "Haley's not very tall, and we had quite tall stunt guys. Striking downward safely, it was quite hard for them to avoid hitting anywhere else. So her face got some pretty serious punishment."

The Well, Galaxy Highland, Thu., Dec. 4, 7:42pm

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