A new animated short film, The Last 40 Miles, follows a death row inmate on his final journey from the Polunsky Unit in 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).
All three actors are local. We found Victor Steele, who plays the condemned inmate Ray, via the website www.austinactors.net and he is so compelling. You can’t help but sympathize with his character. I’d met Gary Warner Kent (who plays Guard No. 1) when I wrote a story about B-movie horror flicks a few years ago. He’s a local legend and has worked in the movie industry as an actor, director and stuntman (he was once Jack Nicholson’s double) for more than 50 years. We brought Gary out of retirement for The Last 40 Miles and he plays this gentle old guard who is approaching the end of his career. I think his compassion toward Ray really comes through in his delivery. Very melancholic. And finally, there’s Al Dinneen, an actor and a good friend of mine from California who now calls Austin home. He plays the second guard—the one driving the prison van to Huntsville.
Our editor, Simon Cruise, is a friend from London who has cut movie trailers for more than 15 years and is just brilliant. And the film score is being composed by Ben Onono, an extremely talented, Ivor Novello-nominated musician friend, also from London, who trained as a concert pianist and has written for artists like Fatboy Slim and Natalie Imbruglia.
I’ve come to realize that making a film is all about pulling in favors from friends. Our poster, which is incredible, (a hand, with a handcuff attached to the wrist, and a lifeline that is actually the road from Livingston to Huntsville) was drawn by my neighbor, Luke Miller, a graphic designer for Ptarmak here in Austin. And two other Austinites working on the film are Julie Schlembach, our very brilliant sound designer, and Mayet Andreassen, our CG artist.
How did using animation help enable you to make this particular sort of film?
This was a collaboration between Luc Dimick and Jeff Roth but they decided that we should use three different types of animation in the film: flashbacks—where the main character Ray recalls his childhood—are told using hand-drawn animation. It’s beautifully sketched by Luc Dimick and colored by Brett Owens. Then there’s Ray’s overactive, childlike imagination which is conveyed using simple line drawings by Luc. And finally, the present-time action—the actual journey from Livingston to Huntsville—which uses real actors who have been traced around. This is known as rotoscoping. It was used in the Keanu Reeves movie A Scanner Darkly and Richard Linklater’s Waking Life. So the characters actually look like the actors who play them.
What are your plans for the short’s release?
We want to enter it into as many film festivals as we can in 2013 – 14. There are obviously fees to enter these festivals, and our production costs are mounting, so we’re throwing a fundraiser in Austin on 12.12.12 at the Palm Door events center downtown. The full details are on our website. Two local bands, Hello Wheels and These Mad Dogs of Glory, have kindly agreed to play, and we’re having a silent auction and selling screen-printed posters and t-shirts. There’s also an opportunity for businesses to sponsor the movie. Most of all, though, we want it to become a catalyst for dialog about the death penalty, particularly in Texas where we execute more people than any other state.
More details about this fundraiser, where the trailer will publicly premiere, available here.