After nearly 20 years in the film industry as a producer, Naveen Chathapuram has made his directorial debut with the neo-western The Last Victim. But the director role has been something Chathapuram has been eyeing since film school.
For his first feature, he assembled quite the cast with Ralph Ineson as the heinous villain Jake, whose murder spree in the beginning of the film sets off an investigation by Sherriff Hickey (Ron Perlman). Meanwhile, Susan (Ali Larter) and her husband are relocating for Susan’s new job and stumble upon Jake and his henchmen.
I recently spoke to Chathapuram about his directorial debut and what it was like to assemble a stellar, well-established cast for the film. We also talk about what led him to make this be his directorial debut, how he will accept criticism from those who don’t like the movie and apply it to his next feature, and where he drew inspiration from for the movie. The full transcript is below.
One of the things I like about the movie is that it leaves it up to the audience to interpret who the last victim is in the title. You even said in another interview that you and Ashley have differing opinions. I’m sure you and Doc have differing opinions as well. Was that always intentional or did that happen to arise as the screenplay was coming together?
It arose as the screenplay evolved. Originally, it was more of a question – Who’s the last victim? – in the original version of the script. But when Ash came onboard, and we created the current version of the script, we loved the fact that it sort of makes you think. Even when I read the script for the first time, it made me question those things. So we thought that’s really interesting, because the types of films that make you think about those things, I usually tend to gravitate more toward those types of films. I love that aspect of it.
It definitely gives you not just one solid conclusion, but it gives you multiple conclusions and you have to choose for yourself.
I saw another interview where you said you only had 19 days to film this. Is that correct?
That is absolutely correct, yes.
Oh, wow! So with a limited filming window, and this movie taking place in several different locations, how did you determine the best filming locations to capture those areas?
During pre-production, the wilderness had different stages to it. We had flatlands, where they would park the car. We would name these things. [There was] the cliff where they do the hike up or when she comes back down and then the top of the mountain and the burial ground. So, at one point in time during prep, I drew this map on this big whiteboard and then we segmented where we were like, “These are the scenes that happened here,” and on and on and on. Also, Hog Heaven and where the brothers lived – where Jake visits them. During prep, it was a lot of preparation and planning. Since I had some experience in production, I was able to wear the hat and figure it out. And it was not always supposed to be a 19-day shoot; it was supposed to be a 25-day shoot. We had a shot list of it and all those things. But towards really close to production, like really close to production, was when we decided that, “Hey, our budget won’t allow us to shoot for 25 days.” So we had to really compress it into those 19 days. When we did that, all of that preparation really helped get to a point where we could still manage it with the types of locations that we had.
One of the things I found interesting was that every single location listed when they go into certain towns, it gives the population of each location they go to. I was curious about the significance about that and what made you decide to list the population of each location in the movie.
One of the themes that we were subliminally exploring was isolation. Ashley and I both have similar experiences. I spent a lot of time in places like New Mexico and Arizona and things like that. Until then, I grew up in metropolitan cities. So it was a culture shock. You would go to these towns where it would say population: 15 and population: 5. There was this border town that I went to probably in 2004 where there was a couple who lived on a ranch and they had their property, and they had built 1800s version of the street and the courthouse and things like that. Their nearest neighbor was 30 miles away. And they were completely disconnected from the rest [of the world]. They didn’t have computers, and they didn’t have cell phones. So, when humans are isolated, [we wanted to capture] the types of belief systems and things like that. We thought it was interesting because, while you live in the U.S., a lot of people don’t realize that there are places [like this] in the U.S. So it was just to show a window into those parts. We thought it would be great, and it’s a great setting for a thriller.
It definitely gives a more closed-off feeling from the outside world and from the bigger cities where there are more resources to go.
This also has a neo-western feel to it. It kind of, to me, felt similar to No Country for Old Men. I was wondering if that was a source of inspiration for you and, if so, where else did you draw inspiration from when putting the story together?
I mean, from a setting standpoint, No Country for Old Men and Hell or High Water are fantastic classics by the greatest filmmakers alive. And they have the budgets – No Country for Old Men was about $65 million, and Hell or High Water was about $20 million or whatever it was. What we took inspiration from was the setting. We loved the setting, but, originally, the original version of the script was more along the same lines as Deliverance or Breakdown. Then when we did this, we just brought it into the setting. As far as inspirations, I go back to – I absorbed all the great westerns from Sergio Leone to Akira Kurosawa to Sam Peckinpah. And on the other hand, [there’s] Alan Parker and then obviously Coen brothers and all those guys. I don’t think there’s a particular thing, but all those influences come through as expressing your art and you’re giving a nod to some of the greats that have preceded you.
You worked as a producer for nearly 20 years on numerous movies and a television series called Brown Nation. You also were a first assistant director for Beyond the Soul. How did all of that help you into wanting to become a director and what made you decide that now, with this movie, would be the right time to take that next step?
I originally went to film school and got into the field to direct. But, early in my career, I was really intimidated. So I went to sets and I saw the responsibilities a director had. So I wanted to really go and learn nuts and bolts production. So I started as an AD and slowly worked my way up to be a producer. Then I found out that there’s a whole new world of financing that you need to really understand. It was not all planned. On one hand, I was side-stepping directing and actually stepping into the chair and saying I want to direct. But at the other time, I went on this productive journey where I learned about everything. And there came a point where there was a crossroads where I had to decide, “Do I continue on this path, or do I start from scratch and say I want to be a director now?” And that’s when I chose The Last Victim because the original version of the script was very contained, had a few characters. I loved the setting and I loved the fact that it was a thriller. And I loved that it wasn’t going to cost a lot of money at the time. So I just picked it up. It definitely grew from when I first started. Once I went to Ashley, or Ash, he delivered his script and it was much more ambitious than the original version. And the film, now that I’ve gone through the filming process, I have to say it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. But it’s a learning process. You grow as an artist, you grow as a technician, and you grow as a filmmaker. So I’m really glad that I chose this. Even though it was more instinctual than a logical path, I’m really glad that I chose this as my first film.
Going back to that intimidation feeling that you had, being on this set and having this be your first film, with so many veteran actors in it, was there ever any sense of intimidation on your part? Did you ever have any sense of doubt that there would be things that would not go well because you had so many actors that have well-established careers and have worked with well-established directors?
It’s actually to the contrary. While we were giving the offers, I was obviously intimidated. Ralph [Ineson] was the first to come on board. When I read Ash’s first version of the script, as I was reading the voiceover, I had just watched The Witch a few months prior. And I read the voiceover in Ralph’s voice. That was the first person we went to and offered to. He had the insight and the foresight to come on board. He had a quick video conference with me, and then he accepted the role. So that brought a lot of credibility. That also gave me a lot of confidence that “Hey, if you’re able to communicate your vision.” Obviously, Ali Larter came onboard. She asked a lot of questions, and once she found out that I had a strong vision, she decided to step in and support me on that. And then finally when Ron Perlman came onboard, it was more of a celebration. And on set, yes, there’s a part of your mind that is sort of disconnected and is kind of in awe. But you are in the moment, and you are in the moment to moment. You’re just collaborating and glad to have great collaborators. It’s also once the casting is done, a lot of that relies on the actors. And I rested assured that it was in good hands for them to bring what’s on the page to life.
Some directors, when it comes to making movies, they’ll pick a genre and stick with that. I’m thinking like Wes Craven mostly doing horror and then directing Music of the Heart. Other directors tend to be more versatile and do a bunch of different genres like Danny Boyle or Ridley Scott. Where do you see yourself with your directing career in the future? Do you want to be more versatile or do you want to do one genre and then take a sidestep here and there?
No, I definitely want to be versatile. I’m genre-agnostic and I’m a lover of cinema. I’d like to sink my teeth into [anything]. What I look for is great characters and great writing and a compelling story – something that speaks to my heart. Whatever that is, I want to explore those genres. Hopefully, I’ll get to do that like Danny Boyle or Ridley Scott, as you mentioned, or Sidney Lumet.
With this being the day of release and, with every movie, you’re going to have the people that praise it and the people that will criticize it. With the feedback that you receive, both positive and negative, how are you going to take that and apply it to the next movie that you direct in the hopes of appeasing a wider crowd and making it more universally acclaimed?
Absolutely. When you hear positive reviews, you learn to trust your instinct. You just believe in your instinct. Because, you know, you’re making momentary decisions that are microseconds, and there are millions of these positions that end up becoming a movie. So you have to rely on your instincts a lot, and I think the positive reviews help you do that. And when there are criticisms, I think it shows you that there is still work to be had, especially smart criticism that is in line with the vision of the film. And when they understand what it takes to make a movie and they keep in mind when they compare between $200 million movie and a $2 million movie. As a filmmaker, I’ve learned a lot from reading Roger Ebert’s reviews, and over the years, I’ve learned from it. So what you do is, when you get criticism, you keep it in the back of your mind and the next time when you’re prepping and things like that, you can look at it and have it as a meter or gauge for you to say, “OK, how do I overcome that weakness and how do [I] get better at the craft?” That’s what I take from that.
On behalf of Cinema Sentries, I would like to thank Naveen Chathapuram for taking the time to speak to me about his directorial debut. The Last Victim is now playing in select theaters and also available to stream on many digital platforms such as Google Play, Amazon, and Vudu.