A new animated short film, The Last 40 Miles, follows a death row inmate on his final journey from the Polunsky Unit i n Livingston to the death chamber in Huntsville.
The short uses three different types of animation to tell the condemned inmate’s story, including hand-drawn lines when showing his unhappy childhood in the deep south and rotoscoped live-action shots when depicting the present day conversation he has with the veteran guard escorting him to his death.
The script was written by Alex Hannaford, an Austin-based freelance journalist who writes for GQ, Esquire, the Guardian, the Texas Observer, and others. It’s based loosely on the interviews he’s conducted with inmates over the years for various stories. The following trailer for the film will be screened publicly for the first time at a fundraiser for the short on Wednesday night.
Sonia Smith: How long have you been visiting death row?
Alex Hannaford: I first went to Livingston in 2003 and have been up there to interview inmates for feature stories more times than I’d like to admit. The first time I was fairly nervous, but the thing that struck me most was that it’s perhaps more palatable for people to think of these men as monsters. The truth is, I was sitting opposite someone I could have known on the outside. And every story I covered seemed to have a tragic element to it: the condemned inmate was clearly mentally ill; they had a good case for actual innocence; they had an unfair trial.
The Last 40 Miles is based on several men on death row who you’ve interviewed, correct?
Yes, it’s based on interviews and correspondence with a few different people, but one in particular. The guy who inspired me the most to write the script is still alive and no longer on death row, but he was there for 30 years and I met him around the time of my 30th birthday, so his story had a peculiar impact on me. I’d like to keep his name to myself to protect his privacy. But the other two men whose stories inspired the character in the film were Ronald Chambers, an inmate who spent almost 35 years on death row before dying of natural causes in his cell in 2010, and Bobby Lee Hines who had two execution dates before being given the lethal injection in October. I interviewed them both almost a decade ago.
The first person I mentioned told me the story of his childhood in a poor area of east Texas, being bullied at school, and feeling very alone, and I wanted to use this to show how inmates on death row had lives before the crime that put them there–and that these lives, often full of misery and tragedy, could perhaps in some way explain what happened to them.
How long, all together, have those men served on death row?
Bobby Hines was on the row 11 years, so in total the three men served a combined 78 years on death row before being executed, commuted, or dying of natural causes.
You’re a longtime print journalist. What inspired you write the script for your first film?
I can’t let an idea go. If I want to do a story on something but I haven’t been able to get it commissioned by one of the magazines I write for, it’ll crop up again several months or years later—there will inevitably be a new reason to resurrect it. I couldn’t get the stories of these men out of my head, or that final journey that most of the condemned inmates go on. I thought about writing The Last 40 Miles as a book, but then I decided it could make a film. It was my friend Jeff Roth, who works as an animation professor at the Art Institute of Austin, who persuaded me that it would work as an animated short. And to be completely honest, my job writing the script and directing the live action was the easy bit: The hard graft is the animation. We’re hoping the entire film will be finished by spring.
What struck you most about the drive from Livingston to Huntsville?
Although it’s a fairly poor part of Texas, with ramshackle trailer homes and wooden churches, it’s also very beautiful: forty miles of fields, trees and a beautiful lake (Livingston) that you cross by road bridge. It struck me a long time ago that this was the last thing these men see as they’re escorted from death row in Livingston to the death chamber at the Walls Unit in Huntsville. One of the last things they see is that big Texas sun rising over a vast lake. It’s quite breathtaking.
Could you tell me a little more about your collaborators?
Our company is Onalaska Films, after the town on Lake Livingston that you pass on the way to Huntsville from Livingston. All three actors are local—as is most of the production crew. And the film is narrated by the lead character, ‘Ray’, the inmate played by Victor Steele.
Jeff Roth is directing the animation and pulled the other filmmakers together to form our team. Our producer, Meg Mulloy, is a photography professor at the Art Institute of Austin. She also did the camera work on the film (half of the movie is live action that will eventually all be “rotoscoped”) and has been responsible for keeping us all to deadline and organizing the unorganizable. Our lead animator and production designer is Luc Dimick, also a professor at the Art Institute whose artistic skills (all of which will eventually come to life after they’ve been animated by Jeff Roth) are fantastic. A very talented guy called Brett Owens is painting Luc’s drawings, and an equally talented animator called Jeff Flanagan is doing the rotoscoping (ie. painstakingly tracing round the live action).