A week ago, I shared with you the short film The Last Man, by director and production designer Gavin Rothery. I loved the simple yet effective story he told, and the world he built to tell it. Over email, Gavin shared with us how he designed and produced the various pieces of the film, from the sets and costumes/props to the cost breakdown of this independent film project. It's really frank detail that I hope could be useful for other directors working on their own shorts. We started by talking about why he wanted to tell this story of isolation and loneliness in a dystopian future.
How'd you come up with the idea with The Last Man? What made you want to tell this kind of story?
I came up with the idea originally by wanting to do something with the "last man in the world" trope simply because I like it. It's always appealed to me in film and there were some films made in the 70s and 80s that I really enjoyed as a kid, especially "The Omega Man", "The Quiet Earth", and the BBC TV dramatization of the novel "Z for Zachariah". I grew up in the 80s in Yorkshire in North England, and it was quite a bleak place during the cold war. I lived a half a mile away from a large power station in a small town called Elland, and my childhood was haunted by dreams of nuclear bombs going off over the power station and the entire town being vaporized. At school, we had a feature on our curriculum to watch a film called "Threads" twice a year, so I must have seen it at least twelve times going through school. It's the British version that focuses around a nuclear attack on Sheffield (itself only 30 miles from where I grew up), and it's an incredibly gritty, terrifyingly ordinary portrayal of life in the North of England being utterly destroyed in a sudden nuclear war. It seems hard to believe now, but we were brought up to think that the Russians could just attack us at any second, and we would only have a four minute warning. The people and places in this film were exactly the same as where I lived, so it was very easy for me to imagine the entire world being destroyed at any random moment. It all felt very serious and heavy to me, even as a little kid. So it might sound perverse, but I've been imagining the world being destroyed by chemical, biological and nuclear weapons since I was a little kid.
I've always had a bit of a problem with the way the "last man in the world" trope is used in film. The story is always set out like this and inevitably the "last" person (usually a man) ends up meeting some other people. Often at the end of the film this band of survivors will close out their story setting off to join a community they have heard about that is often nearby (Looking at you I am Legend). I hate his--they were never the last people in the world. It's more like "lost man in the world" than "last man".
However, I understand that a compelling film needs to have certain ingredients such as characters pursuing goals to some ultimate conclusion, and I can see how an entire feature length film featuring a sole character with nobody to talk to and no clear goals could be very hard to pull off. I think the best example of this done well is Castaway starring Tom Hanks, and even he wasn't truly alone because he invented Wilson.
So with this in mind, I thought that a "last man in the world" scenario was suitable material for a short film, where I could basically tell a story without anybody talking too much. I liked the idea of a film that was almost silent, as it made things that bit harder and as I'm at the start of my career shirt towards directing, I'm always up for getting out of my comfort zone. Plus, I was into the idea of indulging in some destruction porn.