FrightFest Glasgow Interview with Alan Scott Neal, director of Last Straw

A chat with the creative behind one of the best from the fest

James Whittington
March 10, 2024

NYX: Did you know from a young age that you wanted to work in the film industry?

ASN: Absolutely.  Early on I knew there was nothing else I really wanted to do other than work in film.  I would steal my parents VHS camera in the early aughts and I would recreate scenes from M. Night Shyamalan’s Sixth Sense / Signs and Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead / Army of Darkness.  Somewhere, in some box, in some basement, are terribly shot recreations from those movies starring my two brothers and two best friends.  I do recall getting into so much trouble once because I shot over some home movies.  I feel quite bad in retrospect.

NYX: How did Last Straw come about?

ASN: I went to film school with Taylor Sardoni, the writer of LAST STRAW.  Several years prior to actually shooting the movie, I was stuck in a job I felt was very toxic.  One day, after I couldn’t take it anymore, I quit Jerry Maguire style (and sadly no, no one came with me).  I went to a coffee shop nearby, sat down, and considered my next life move.  After a bit of introspection, the first thing I did was write Taylor.  I said, “Send me whatever scripts you have.  We’re going to make a movie”.  He obliged.  The one that stuck with me was the script for LAST STRAW.  He had gotten an agent out of this script right out of film school and the option had just reverted back to him after a version of it had stalled at a production company.  I read it and once I got to the end I knew it was going to be my first feature as a director.  The way he anchored us in Nancy’s experience.  The thrill ride of it all.  The twists and turns.  The way it moved.  It was a MOVIE movie.  Fast forward 5 years (yes, it took that long to finance and put together) and here we are playing in Glasgow.

NYX: This is your first feature in the director’s seat, were you nervous on the first day on set?

ASN: There was a certain amount of anxiety leading up to the shoot and around the fact that I had finally been given this huge, once in a lifetime opportunity - to direct a feature film.  I felt an overwhelming sense of duty to getting it done right - for the investors of the film, for the producers of the movie who put faith in me as a first time feature director, to the actors who were trusting me with their performance, and, most of all, to Taylor Sardoni, the writer, who trusted me with his screenplay. But once I was on set, all of that disappeared and all the training and prep work kicked in and we just met the challenges of each day and problem solved our way through the shoot.  But honestly, I didn’t have the luxury of time to feel nervous on set.  Our budget was so tight, the scope of the film too big, to ever take a moment and consider my own personal feelings once we were in go mode.  It definitely wasn’t healthy from a mental health perspective, but we got it done.  Mostly I just kept thinking to myself - I’ve got to put everything I have into this one since it might be the only time I get to do this.

NYX: The location of most of the movie is a traditional American Diner, did you have much time to shoot there?

ASN: We searched and searched and searched for the right location for months before we shot the film.  The original version of the script was set in the desert of the American west.  But as budget constraints became clear, I realized we were going to have to shoot the film much closer to home on the east coast.  In the end, one of our producers, Cole Eckerle, came through in a pinch.  He had found a diner in the Hudson Valley, New York that had been sitting vacant for several years following the death of the owner (it felt haunted).  Cole tracked the new owners down and we were able to rent the place for an entire month and completely take it over and make it our own.  And to that end, a huge shout out to our production designer Daniel Prosky who came in and made a completely empty and vacant diner look and feel lived in.  I think he did a remarkable job as a one man production design crew.

NYX: Jessica Belkin delivers such a mesmerizing performance, she’s angry at life but vulnerable who has to find strength, how did she prepare for such a demanding role?

ASN: One of the biggest notes Taylor Sardoni and I got from the very beginning is Nancy wasn’t “likable” enough.  And that always rubbed us the wrong way.  What does that even mean?!  I don’t ever recall getting that kind of note for a male character.  And so to that effect, we knew if this is upsetting certain people, then we were doing something right.  And so we doubled down on it. Nancy is frustrated.  She’s angry.  She’s stuck in her life.  She’s stuck in a world where it’s man after man after man telling her how to act, how to live, how to smile etc.  Hell, I’d be pretty pissed at those circumstances too.  From a casting perspective, we had to find someone who had a natural charisma and charm while also believably playing the angst and the anger of the character.  We auditioned so many talented actors, but most either had just the charm / charisma and not the angst or the anger, or vice versa.  But when Jessica auditioned, she was naturally able to strike a balance between the two.  And we knew she was our Nancy. I can’t speak to Jessica’s process but I know she showed up to set fully formed as the Nancy we all had in our mind and just killed it scene after scene, day after day.  She was ride or die and gave it her all.  And I think the results are there on the screen.  I got very lucky with this casting find.

NYX: The rest of the cast support her by bringing their characters to life with real care and never become cliché, did they have much time to rehearse?

ASN: I take that as the highest compliment!  Thank you!  Cliches are certainly something I actively strive to avoid at all costs.  I really want to surprise the audience on every level.  From plot and story to performance.  As for rehearsal, we had zero time to rehearse.  The actors showed up on set and it was go time.  I’ve worked as a casting director for several years as my “day job” and really it’s just been boot camp for how to work with actors effectively.  It really trained me on how to give concise and precise direction to get to the right emotional places necessary. But also truthfully, I was very lucky to have such a truly talented cast.  Taylor Kowalski, who plays Jake, and I have collaborated multiple times.  We came up together in undergraduate studies and he’s been in everything I’ve ever shot so we have our own shorthand language of working together.  I’m lucky I’m friends with one of the best up and coming actors out there - someone who can connect to humour but also those darker corners of the psyche.  Chris Lopes who plays Petey was a real pro and a pleasure to work with.  I put him through the ringer on set and he rose to the challenge.  It was important to me on a personal level to push a character with a developmental / intellectual disability to what I consider to be new and unexpected places.  Joji Otani-Hansen is someone whose audition I had saved from another project I had been casting for and was looking forward to working with and always knew he was going to be my Bobby character (even if he didn’t ha!).  He had a combination of innocence and eagerness that the role required but didn’t push it. Tara Raani went out of her way to fly back and forth during her Grown-ish shoot to play the role of Tabitha, Nancy’s friend.  I felt bad for all the back and forth travel between NY and LA but it was totally worth it for her big hilarious moment when she comes into the diner at the climax of the film.

NYX: The movie is built on tension and a superb plot twist, was it difficult to get this right?

ASN: I think a film like this lives or dies on prep work.  And to that extent, there was a ton of it.  I kept a notebook tracking each character emotionally in the context of the story so in the thick of the shoot I could quickly reference that to put me in the headspace of each character when needed.  It kind of looked like one of those journals a detective finds in a film and makes you think “Oh, this person is truly insane.  Book him.  Guilty as charged.” My cinematographer Andrey Nikolaev and I created an extensive spreadsheet tracking what we wanted to visually achieve scene to scene and character to character.  We also test shot most of the scenes on our iPhones the weekends before the upcoming week’s shoot to make sure our plan would work in the edit.  We shot the film to be cut together in a very specific way.  There was no “coverage”.  We had to make sure what we intended was effective.  But that was really what I think allowed us to set ourselves up for success and not get stuck in the editing room wishing we got this or that etc.  Also we were able to show the actors the desired blocking and shots and worked towards that (allowing for surprises and changes of course). I also created a working document called” LAST STRAW - Rules of the World” which broke down what I wanted to accomplish creatively with the film and artistically from department to department.  It was kind of like a guidebook I and anyone on set could reference when working on the film.  I set a few rules for myself as a director: Direct like a sledgehammer.  Put the viewer through the ringer.  Engage the viewer directly.  Shoot scenes with the least amount of shots in the most effective way to experience the emotions of the characters.  As for the quote-un-quote plot twist, this is the thing that kept me up at night before, during and after the shoot.  Especially trying to find a way to really FEEL the moment when Nancy realizes what is actually happening.  And to make sure the audience is going along with the events of the film and for it to be something that you buy on an emotional level. In post production, I was so concerned about keeping the tension palpable throughout that my first delivered cut to the producers was actually shorter than the current festival running time.  I was so eager to get it right and not have the film drag that I was a little too cut happy right off the bat.  My editor, Nate Whiteside (who I think did a stellar job and has a great eye for performance and tension), remarked to me that this is the first time he had worked with a director who was eager to cut stuff out of a movie.  Rarely is the editor begging to keep stuff in the film.  It’s usually the other way around - an editor fighting to cut things out of a film.  But I’m glad he did.  We found the right rhythm and found the right places to let the film breathe.

NYX: The music in the movie plays a vital role, were you able to license all the tracks you wanted?

ASN: I knew early on that I wanted LAST STRAW to be a music movie.  So many of my favourite genre films have incredible needle drops.  The one I kept referencing through production was that Fixx song “One Thing Leads To Another” placed in Ti West’s HOUSE OF THE DEVIL.  I’m still obsessed with how well that plays in the context of the film.  I really wanted the music of the film to be diegetic aka from the actual world of the film and not just laid over in the soundtrack.  And since the film takes place in a diner, I wanted to make the jukebox its own featured character. In terms of licensing tracks, I generally shot for artists that I admired.  I sent several direct letters with my plea as to why their music needed to be in the film and why they should work with us financially since we had such a small, miniscule, music budget.  I think it certainly helped that I sent the scenes from the film with their songs cut into the edits to show how effective the needle drops would actually be.  I am forever grateful to: Tender Misfit aka Ariel Beesley for contributing two incredible songs from her upcoming album, the band Desire aka Johnny Jewel and Megan Louise for contributing one of my all time favourite songs “Saturday” for the climax of the movie, and for GRLwood for contributing the song “I’m Yer Dad” to the dancing scene (and to what has become most people’s favourite moment in the film).  But the biggest coup was landing Alan Palomo aka Neon Indian as the composer for the film.  I’ve been a fan of his music for several years and I reached out through a friend of a friend and much to my surprise he dug the movie and was into contributing original compositions for the film.  I gave him just a little bit of direction - that I wanted the score to sound like the bastard lovechild of Tangerine Dream and New Order.  I think what he delivered was that and then some.

NYX: What lessons in directing did you learn whilst making Last Straw?

ASN: On a macro level, I learned that what I called the “no bullshit” rule actually worked.  Meaning if anything, at any time, felt false or didn't ring true or smelled of quote-un-quote bullshit on set, anyone on set could and should pull me aside and call bullshit and we could talk it through to find a better way to handle said creative issue.  It happened a few times at various stages of production and I know it made the film stronger.  I hand picked the crew and so I admired their skill and expertise and knowledge and opinions and I wanted to make sure that everyone felt like they could have a voice and a stake in the final product.  Because in reality, as a director, what you’re really doing is overseeing a huge collaboration.  On a bit more of a micro level, I think personally for the next one I would love to try and find a way to loosen up the shooting style.  I was so caught up trying to build tension in the scenes and through the camera work, I would really welcome the opportunity to shake it up for the next one and find surprises on set.  And to work with a bit more humour in the next one.

NYX: Will you be nervous when the movie is shown at FrightFest Glasgow?

ASN: I’m thrilled to be showing LAST STRAW at FrightFest Glasgow!  I lived in the UK several years back when I studied abroad and some of my formative genre film experiences took place in Wales when I was studying at University.  I can’t wait to get the film in front of UK audiences.  And come on!  FrightFest!  It’s truly an honor.  Glasgow is a dream city.

NYX: So, what are you working on next?

ASN: Taylor Sardoni and I are cooking up our next project project.  Can’t spill too many details but it’s certainly in the same vein as Last Straw but taken to the next level.  Also writer / actor Angela Wong Carbone and I are collaborating on a feature film about a serial murder set in the American South.  A little bit Silence of the Lambs, a little bit Sharp Objects and a little bit True Detective with our own unique twist and featuring a predominantly AAPI cast.

NYX: Alan Scott Neal, thank you very much.