Cole Hauser (Yellowstone, Rogue) stars in The Last Champion, a film from director Glenn Withrow (Dirty Dozen, ALF) about a disgraced former Olympian wrestler returning to his hometown forced to face his past and create a better future.
Hauser plays John Wright, a Greco-roman wrestler who reached the sport’s pinnacle when he made it to the Olympics. As a sports celebrity, John’s life came with a lot of scandals that pushed him to the depths of disgrace. When his mother dies, John returns home to pick up the pieces of her life and his own. The journey home will either break John or become a new path toward redemption.
PopAxiom spoke with the film’s cinematographer Richard Schaefer about making The Last Champion and more.
Cinematographers take a lot of pictures for a living, but Richard’s road to filmmaking “started by playing drums in the fifth grade and getting into music and bands by high school.”
“At the same time,” he explains, “I would buy a lot of sound equipment. In high school, I joined the theatre department doing lighting, sound, and building sets. I spent a lot of my time through high school doing rock and roll and theatre.”
Near the end of high school, Richard “was accepted into Chapman University, a film school.” But between the end of high school and the start of film school, Richard spent a summer on the road. “I went out with the Monsters of Rock tour with bands like Metallica, Scorpion, and Van Halen. I toured the east coast. It was an introduction to professional rock and roll and traveling and that world. This helped me realize I didn’t want to do this full-time, I wanted to find another way to express my creativity.”
By the start of college, Richard “wasn’t sure if I wanted to go more into film or more theatre. I love them both.”
“It dawned on me that a career in theatre tech meant sitting in a black box night after night,” Richard says, “while in film, you can go on location.”
“I’m technically wired,” Richard admits, “I’m a gear head. As a musician, blending art and tech was my forte.” The musician-turned-DP “found cinematography to be something supernatural that drew me in.”
About The Last Champion
Richard spends a lot of time setting up shots for commercials, and it was through that world that The Last Champion came to him. “I know producer Brian Gork from the commercial world. He said he had a project I might be interested in and sent me the script.”
Richard liked the script, and “a few days later, I met John and Glenn. We chatted a bit about the movie. I wasn’t signed on to the project, so I was hesitant to give my opinion, but a few times during that meeting, they looked at me and wanted my instinct on it.” Richard’s instincts proved to be on point. “A couple of days later, they asked me to be on the project.”
“It’s very much pacific-northwest, winter, snowy,” he says about the moody but picturesque The Last Champion. “I love David Fincher and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth; those guys are some of my heroes. So, I thought Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl were blueprints, looks-wise.”
No matter the project, research, and inspiration lead to creating a language of references to share. “I studied the masters, pulled a lot of stills, and had discussions with Glenn, showing him references and the way they treated the snow and cold.”
“We didn’t quite have the same budget as those guys,” Richard jokes, “but we had enough to get it done.”
Director Glenn Withrow co-wrote the film with his daughter Ivy and wife Hallie, who also co-stars in the movie. “They had such depth to the character development. Cole Hauser put so much into it, too. He came in with so much backstory for who John is and where he’s been before the film.”
“I enjoyed working with him,” he says definitively about Cole Hauser. “There were times when it was just him and me driving around in a pickup truck with a camera on my shoulder. He’s a professional on set and a great off-set.”
“We shot about thirty days of principal photography,” Richard says of the film, which made the most of a modest budget. “Forty locations, and a cast of 50. Forty locations in 30 days, we were moving.”
The Last Champion revolves around the world of Greco-roman wrestling and features plenty of action in the ring. “I wrestled in high school for four years. We won the prep-school nationals three out of four years. Glenn was a wrestler. A lot of the actors wrestled. There were a lot of people making this movie that were very passionate about wrestling.”
“We were unforgiving about the quality of the wrestling,” he says with a bit of a laugh escaping. “These guys were rehearsing matches for two months prior to shooting. It was a lot of work. But there would be times where we’d be shooting, the day is long, and they do a take, but I just don’t believe it. They’re moving too slow.”
We’ve all seen sports movies where the actors aren’t truly competing, and there is a softness in the opposition. “If you were wrestling to win, you’d be chopping him in the neck harder; you’d be jerking him on the ground harder. We made the actors go 120 percent on everything because it was important to everyone that the wrestling look legitimate.”
Getting the wrestling right was one challenge, but so was shooting it for maximum effect. “I wanted to engage the viewer and put them in the match. So, I used a handheld with a wide lens, and I was in as close as I could without endangering the actors.” A key to getting it all right was preparation. “We’d do half-speed rehearsals to get the movements then picking up the speed while pushing in as close as we can.”
Between the wrestling action of The Last Champion, there is a lot of deep-diving into the characters powering this story. Richard contrasts shooting those scenes against the wrestling. “Dialogue scenes are very different. It’s a long lens; it’s pretty with a narrow depth of field and lots of BOCA focus. Soft lighting.”
How does Richard sell The Last Champion to a stranger? “John Wright, an Olympic wrestler from a small, Pacific Northwest town, was disgraced, lost his medals, and left town. It’s ten or fifteen years later, his mom’s passed, and he’s come back to sort out her business. In doing so, he has to reconcile with his past. The local high school finds itself in need of a wrestling coach. It’s a win-win situation where he can earn his dignity back, and the team can succeed.”
Richard mentioned David Fincher and Jeff Cronenweth as significant influences and added, “… Wes Anderson and definitely Roger Deakins.” Richard says another surprising influence “Even early Michael Bay stuff like the 1993 ‘Got Milk’ commercial. It blew my mind when I saw it and helped inspire me as a young filmmaker.”
“I’d love to do anything with Fincher,” he asserts, once again cementing how much he loves the legendary director. “I love his storytelling.”
The Last Champion is out on digital services. So, what’s next for Richard? “I’ve got a bunch of commercials brewing. There are a couple of film projects in early discussion, but nothing official yet.”
Is The Last Champion on your watch list?
Thanks to Richard Schaefer and Backlight PR
for making this interview possible.
Read more interviews from Ruben R. Diaz!