The Last Right is an Irish comedy written and directed by Aoife Crehan, starring Michiel Huisman and Niamh Algar, as well as rising star Samuel Bottomley, as autistic teenager Louis.
Bradford-born Samuel Bottomley appeared in Paddy Considine’s film Tyrannosaur (2011), Private Peaceful (2012), TV show Jericho (2016), Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman’s Ghost Stories starring Martin Freeman (2017) and last year’s fun horror-comedy Get Duked! co-starring Eddie Izzard (2020). He has a role in the upcoming Everybody’s Talking about Jamie starring Richard E Grant (2021).
We spoke to Crehan and Bottomley about the inspiration, research and preparation that went into the film, especially with an autistic character involved, as well as working with Huisman and Algar, filming a road trip movie in Ireland and their current/upcoming projects.
A question for Aoife first of all – what was the inspiration for the film?
Aoife: The original inspiration was that I heard a Radio 4 documentary about this lovely man in Amsterdam who buried people who had no next-of-kin. He was really moved by people that had no one to bury them, he put a lot of thought and tenderness into creating funerals especially for them, that he just attended by himself and I thought that was really beautiful, his need to do that. And around the same time, I heard the story of my friend’s Dad who’s from Kerry in Ireland and he fell out with his brother, like thirty years before over some stupid fight that kind of grew and grew. My friend’s Dad’s brother had moved to New York and when his brother finally tried to get in touch with him, he discovered that he’d been dead for quite a few years and he’d been buried in an unmarked grave on Hart Island in New York. It’s a really sad place where people are buried off dump trucks basically into great big pits. So my friend’s Dad spent a lot of money to bring his brother’s body home, to exhume it and have him buried in Kerry. I thought that was really moving, his need to be with his brother in death and for his brother to be reunited with the family, I thought that was really beautiful. But then I wanted to create a positive film, I get very affected by films that are really dark or stressful or violent, so I wanted to turn it into something that was a positive experience.
Aoife, could you tell me about casting Michiel Huisman and Niamh Algar and Sam, what was it like working with them?
Aoife: With Niamh, it was similar to Sam, in that it was from her first audition tape – I thought “oh wow.” She’s become quite a big star recently, but none of that had come out yet, so the casting director sent me a video of her doing an audition tape back when she was in acting school and I thought she was amazing in that. And then with her first audition for Mary, I just thought “there she is.” We saw a lot of amazing actresses as well, but I guess you know when you know.
And then with Michiel, we were really lucky actually. The character had been English, but then we re-wrote it, it was a last-minute sequence of events basically. We were so lucky to land Michiel because he was how I had originally envisioned Daniel when I first wrote the script, I was picturing a Michiel-type as Daniel. Then it went through various changes, then it was like it came back home when we met and we interviewed him. Obviously I was aware of him and I was a fan of his stuff, I love Nashville (the TV show). So anyway, we Skyped and we got on really well on Skype and he was just lovely to work with. And he was really supportive, wasn’t he Sam?
Sam: Yeah, I was really nervous, the first few weeks, just about the whole shoot, really. Michiel, especially, was a really good person to have around to bring that anxiety down about it all, he’s such a calm character, such a nice relaxed guy.
Aoife: He’s really generous with the other actors.
Sam: Yeah, I think generous is the word.
Sam, can you tell me about the research you did to play an autistic character, I’m guessing that took quite a lot of preparation and rehearsal time?
Sam: Yeah, a lot of preparation, a lot of rehearsal. You’ve got to be very careful with it, haven’t you, because you don’t want to offend anyone. There were a lot of talks, with just me and Aoife at the start, just getting into the character and what sort of person he is and we saw a lot of people – Aoife’s friend – that was a really important time, talking to him on FaceTime.
Aoife: Yeah, a lovely fella called Chris Pike, who worked for the National Autistic Society in the UK and he’s autistic himself and he fed into the script, he gave amazing notes, he was involved from quite early on. So he was involved from the script stage but then was really helpful when it came to rehearsing. He was doing a gap year in China, so when it came to shooting, I would send him videos of Sam and then we would Skype.
With Sam, when I saw his first audition tape, I was really blown away because a lot of the actors auditioning for Louis were doing the stereotypical idea of autism. But I wanted to write Louis as Louis, because when I was doing research writing the script, I was really struck by a lot of parents who were frustrated by the Rain Man stereotype that was out there. When I was writing it, it was about six years ago, so that was the main representation. When I saw Sam’s audition tape, he had completely internalised Louis in such a beautiful way, he was doing so little and it was so instinctive. I think that’s Sam’s major talent as an actor, he internalises in such a lovely way.
I think one of the first things we did…
Sam: We went to that big building in Ireland, didn’t we?
Aoife: Yeah, but even before that. The book The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida, an absolutely gorgeous book. It’s about a Japanese autistic teenager, he was thirteen when he wrote it. He’s non-verbal, but he’s describing through writing, what it feels like. I gave a copy of the book to all of the heads of department. It was a starting point for Sam and I, it breaks down the idea that autistic people are different, it’s “this is how it feels to be inside me” and there’s things that we can all identify with.
Sam: There were only a couple of chapters that you wanted me to read, wasn’t there?
Aoife: Yeah, I gave Sam specific chapters because Louis was Louis, Louis wasn’t Naoki. It wouldn’t make sense for Sam to be taking on Naoki’s personality, who is different to Louis. The thing we kept trying to keep in mind, from the Irish Society for Autism’s mantra is that it’s personality first, autism second.
Sam: That was a big thing, wasn’t it? Just getting over the fact that an autistic person’s life isn’t all about being autistic, it’s about what they enjoy and what they need to cope, to get through the day. When you think of an autistic person, you can feel sorry for them, but it’s not that at all or it shouldn’t be that at all. We kept emphasising happy Louis, he’s a happy boy.
Aoife: Do you remember ‘Red Seat Louis’? In rehearsal, Sam and I spent a lot of time on our own together, which was amazing. We were improvising, Sam was being Louis and he was telling me about a really nice day that he’d had. One of his favourite days that stuck out and it was going to a Red Sox game, with the red seats. Louis was full of life when he was talking about it. But there would be moments when Sam would take it too depressed, in a way that was reductive for Louis, doing the opposite of what we were trying to do. So if ever we were veering, on-set, it gave Sam and I a great shorthand. If ever Sam was veering into the too morose, we could say to each other and often it would be Sam himself who would say “it’s more Red Seat Louis, isn’t it?” So that was the value of rehearsal.
I think the Skyping with Chris gave Sam confidence, getting feedback from someone who is autistic. Chris was so amazing, how he talks about it. We were very conscious of being respectful. So for Chris getting to watch extracts of Sam’s performance – to feed in, yeah, you’re on the right track there.
Sam: It was trying not to impersonate someone, I think at first I was impersonating certain things that I’ve seen, but the idea was not impersonate but to take bits from what I’d seen from all that research and put it into one character.
Aoife: That was our main goal, I think there can be a tendency with portrayals of autism to impersonate the idea of it and I think that’s missing what autism is – it’s a fully-fledged human being and we trying to access that first, in the same way you would approach any other character.
Sam: I think Louis having a girlfriend is a really good example that he’s different to a lot of other autistic characters we’ve seen.
Aoife: Someone said to me “if you have one autistic child, you have one autistic child, you don’t have every autistic child under the sun, so you can’t possibly know what other people’s experiences are.” I think it’s down to Sam’s talent as an actor that he brought such a subtlety to it.
Also, Aoife, you managed to get legendary actors Colm Meaney and Brian Cox involved in smaller roles – how did you manage to cast them?
Aoife: Good question, I’m still amazed! I was watching loads of Succession, to relax during the whole casting process and then we got Logan Roy! What?! Terrifying! With him, we were just really lucky that his agent championed it to him, so thank you to his agent basically. And it was similar with Colm, I’m obviously a huge fan of both of them and I made sure that they knew that. We were definitely really lucky there.
As it’s largely a road-trip movie, could you tell me a bit about the practicalities of filming such long days trapped in a car together?
Aoife: Oh my God, Sam, you’ve probably blocked it all out.
Sam: It was not very practical.
Aoife: It was pretty nuts actually because I would have loved more time, we had a crazy short time. I think we had two days in the car and then two days in the van. And that was upped, I think the first schedule was half that! So, insane is kind of the only word. The car was on the back of a low loader. In terms of the whole film, we shot on location, so we went to West Cork and then we went to Rathlin Island, so physically the crew did the actual road trip.
Sam: Yeah, we were there.
Aoife: Yeah, for real. Those scenes we shot in Kildare, outside Dublin on a motorway, just going around in circles. Literally, there was a loop that we did but it meant we couldn’t stop. So I was in the boot, wrecking my back.
Sam: Oh my God, for the entire film, whenever you see us lot in the car, Aoife was in the boot, squished up trying to hide her knees and her head, with the monitor, saying cut.
Aoife: It was the only way to give notes, because we couldn’t stop on the route and because we had such little time, it was don’t be in the boot and talk to them via radio and that would have been harder.
Sam: It was the most efficient way of doing it, unfortunately for you.
Aoife: It broke my back. The actors were amazing, but it was pretty tough, probably one of the toughest, patience-wise.
Sam: It wasn’t a lot of time though, was it? It didn’t feel like it was all crumbling down on me too much at any point.
I really like the use of music in the film. Sam – did you have any say in what Louis’ Songs of the Day would be? And Aoife – can you tell me about some of the other music that’s used in the film?
Sam: No I didn’t get any say in what music was in the film but I definitely had to do a lot of research on the music that he puts on for Song of the Day and stuff to keep him relaxed. That was interesting, Boston is my Home I didn’t know about before and that Asshole song (by Denis Leary).
Aoife: That song, my older brother used to play that song and I was young enough to find it the most hilarious song I’d ever heard in my entire life.
Sam: I found myself last week just going; “A-S-S-H-O-L-E” so it’s still in my brain.
Aoife: That’s where it came from and then through the writing, it found it’s way back and it emerged that that is what Louis would do, of course Louis would do that.
The rest of the music, Gary Lightbody (from Snow Patrol) – that came about because he wrote the closing song A Long Way to Go Back, which I absolutely loved. While we were in the edit, we used the temp music in the edit and I had asked him for some lead-in music, so he really generously gave us five different 90-second versions without lyrics. So me and the editor started to use that and started to place it around all over the place, so I asked for more and it organically grew. Then it was like, if we were to use anyone else, we wouldn’t have been able to use that theme music, so eventually I said “will you please do all of the music.” So we were very lucky basically and it all stemmed from loving how in the closing song he’d captured a kind of poignancy, which I really loved. But I wanted the film to feel joyful and hopeful, ultimately, so that’s what I was going for.
Sam: I remember whilst we were rehearsing, you might have had a little bit on your phone of what he’d sent you. I remember hearing it and thinking it was perfect, just knowing that it sounded perfect.
Aoife: Yeah I played you the song and we thought he’d nailed the tone of it, which is hard to do.
What kind of journey have you been on in the last 18 months or so, since you made the film and how are you feeling now it’s coming out in the US? And is there anything you’re working on now or that you’ve got coming up that you want to mention?
Sam: It’s always a big release of happy energy when a film comes out, I don’t know if there’s any other way to describe that. When a film comes out and you’re really proud of it, which I can say we both are.
I’ve just come back from a Channel 5 programme called The Teacher and I’m about to shoot a BBC thing called Ladhood, but we’re here for The Last Right – so go watch that!
Aoife: It must have been nice to have had a break during the first lockdown, when you couldn’t film?
Sam: Yeah it’s nice to get a break, but then you want to go to work. Then when you’re working, towards the end, you want to come home, do you know what I mean? But yeah I’ve had like a year break over lockdown, I didn’t work for 9-10 months, so I was itching to get back into it. I hate not working, too many bad habits form, getting up at 11, it’s not good.
Aoife: And I’ve mainly been writing. The life of a writer is pretty similar during lockdown and out of lockdown. It’s been in development for a while and it’s how I met Gary actually, he did the music, I’ve been writing a TV show that’s set in Dublin about a band. Inspired, obviously, by The Commitments but different. It’s been commissioned by AMC, which I’m so excited and chuffed about, that’s gonna be cool I think. I love TV because you have so much room to really explore characters and their journeys. And I’m working on an animation about a little mouse as well.
Sam: What do you find that you prefer, writing for film or writing for TV?
Aoife: I don’t know, it’s interesting, they’re so different. With writing for TV, it’s so exciting, the possibilities are endless, it’s like you’re charting out a whole life, the ups and downs the characters can have. I think the next film I write, I will have learned a lot about the difference between film and TV. So the next film will be much simpler and more about a moment in time, film kind of is a moment…
Sam:…whereas TV could be extended moments in time.
Aoife: Yeah, you’re really tracing a journey, more of a life journey than a momentary journey. And I love music, so it’s going to be full of music.
The Last Right is now available on VOD in the US (from April 9 2021) – click here for full review.