Indian American director talks to the American Bazaar about the joys and challenges of delving into an independent project
Producer turned director Naveen Chathapuram’s latest thriller, ‘The Last Victim,’ starring Ron Perlman and Ali Larter is a labor of love that was conceptualized 15 years ago!
Set in the wilderness of the American Southwest, Chathapuram was stunned by the closeting environs when he first visited Arizona; he knew he had to set a story amidst the intriguing isolation of these vast lands. Also shot in Canada, “The Last Victim,’ was released in the US in May 2022.
The film follows a group of outlaws pursued by a sheriff after a crime goes wrong. The adrenaline packed thriller has its emotional moments when the gang meet Susan, an anthropologist and her husband Richard.
The story takes dramatic turns and keeps you glued on what may be coming next. Everything from the robust subject to the treatment of the movie looks like an ode to true-blue Hollywood thriller with a rustic sass.
Chathapuram, also known for ‘Cash and Brown Nation,’ talks to the American Bazaar about his directorial debut and the joys and the challenges of delving into an independent project with a strong storyline.
AB: Let’s talk about the original idea for your film. When did the initial inspiration strike you?
NC: The original idea for the film was introduced to me by Dr. Neal (Doc) Justin, a friend, and an anthropologist, about 15 years ago. I was intrigued by the genre, the setting — a small, desolate, “southwestern” town, and the cast of characters.
Having grown up watching films by the likes of Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, Clint Eastwood, Alan Parker, and the Coen Brothers, the proposition of dipping my toe into a similar world excited me.
When I decided to direct, I took the original screenplay to an up-and-coming writer, Ashley James Louis, who adapted it to its current form.
AB: What were your initial thoughts about going ahead with an independent production, about the location – small town, deserted locales? Did you think it would connect with the wider audience? Were there any apprehensions?
NC: Multiple factors come into play when considering making a “low budget” independent production outside the “deep-pocketed” studio or streamer system.
First, to me, was the genre. There is a timeless quality to certain genres, including neo-Westerns and noirs. Unlike a movie budgeted at tens of millions of dollars that must cater to a broader audience base, these cater specifically to a narrower but more loyal fanbase of the sub genre.
Secondly, though ambitious, the screenplay was relatively contained – a minimal number of characters and locations (the film takes place in a small town and the desert wilderness).
There is also something primal but timely about a survival story. Although the film does not take itself too seriously, we conceived this movie (pre-pandemic) in the aftermath of an already fractured nation divided by socio-political ideologies.
The world of “Susan” and “Jake” could not be more diametrically opposite (socially and economically) – so the collision of their worlds naturally brings up those elements.
Even though we were careful not to be didactic, it was inevitable that some of our present observations and experiences would find their way into the fabric of the film. But make no mistake, at its core, the film is an entertaining, slow-burning, neo-Western noir thriller.
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AB: As soon as the film opens one realizes that there is going to be blood and gore. Was it a conscious choice to brace the audience at the onset?
NC: Yes. Several genre films of the 60s and 70s opened with a prologue scene that would set the tone for the film. Sergio Leone was known for executing tense, elaborately choreographed, slow but deliberately paced, explosive openings that would put the remainder of the movie in motion.
To me, the opening scene of ‘The Last Victim’ is meant as a nod to that era of films.
AB: The performances of all the cast members — Perlman, Larter and even newbie Legg have got good reviews. How much of a role do you think as a director you played in getting the right performances that the role commanded?
NC: Ultimately, the credit for the performances goes solely to the actors. As a director, my role was to choose the best actors to play each character and to make sure that we were each telling the same story.
During prep, we explored potential backstories, motivations, genre influences, etc. Once we had a meeting of the minds, the actors took ownership of their respective characters.
Then, for me, it became a process of discovery. On set, my role was to create an environment of trust, where the cast could follow their instincts and take risks — and we discovered moments together. I’m privileged to have had such great collaborators.
AB: The film can be best described as a thriller. Do you think that a film with such high intensity action and fast moving scenes is difficult to pull off? What were the challenges, if any?
NC: As discussed previously, to achieve the integrity of your vision within the “low budget” framework and limited days available to film – in this case, 19 days — was an incredible challenge.
Action sequences require adequate support and time – both luxuries we could not afford. In addition, filming in the brutal winter in the harsh Canadian wilderness pushed us all to the edge and tested our grit.
There were days we were outside twelve hours when the temperature dropped eight below, and the nearest heater was in a tent a hundred yards away. Thankfully, I had a fantastic cast and crew who believed in the vision, persevered through the hardships, and kept it intact.
AB: As an Indian American director did you face any preconceived notions. Did you feel that the industry may have bracketed you or expected a certain genre from you?
NC: Not at all. It was the opposite. Since I have been working in the industry for a number of years, producing traditional genre films such as ‘Cash’ (starring Sean Bean and Chris Hemsworth), there were no such issues or any preconceived notions.
I was also fortunate to have friends and long-time industry collaborators, who all went out of their way to back my vision. I was overwhelmed by the support I received from everyone, including the actors, producers, crew, and teammates.
AB: Naveen, this is your first film as a director. It must have been a long cherished dream. Would you say you were able to execute what you set to do? Tell us about all the emotions of a first time director seeing his project to fruition.
NC: Unquestionably. I could not be more pleased, happier, or thankful for the process and the product. There were numerous challenges, but each one only helped improve the outcome. I’m delighted to report that, in my directorial debut, I achieved everything I set out to do and more.
Look, the feeling is inexplicable. It’s a combination of emotions — sometimes it feels surreal, other times you stay in the moment, taking it all in, and yet there are times, you have to rise to the occasion.