Content Warning: This article explicitly deals with suicide. If you or someone you know is feeling suicidal, please call the toll-free 24-hour suicide hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
In recent years, there have been numerous films and television shows explicitly dealing with suicide, from the nakedly exploitative where the topic is placed front and center like Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why to the incidental where suicide is used to complete character arcs like Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born (2018). Few among the recent spate of suicide media are as immediate and powerful as Gavin Michael Booth’s Last Call, premiering this week at the West Hollywood-based independent film festival, Dances With Films. Consisting entirely of two simultaneous split-screen single takes shot in real-time in different parts of Los Angeles, the film sees two strangers thrown into a life-changing situation when Scott (Daved Wilkins), a depressed alcoholic reeling from his recent divorce and the death of his son, tries to call a suicide hotline but accidentally dials a community employment college in the dead of night. The only employee there is Beth (Sarah Booth), an overworked single mother working the graveyard shift, who answers the call assuming Scott is a student. From there, initial confusion leads to a harrowing portrait of compassion in the face of crisis as an increasingly frantic Beth tries to keep Scott on the phone long enough so she can identify him, locate him, and get an ambulance to him before he kills himself.
The film could’ve easily been shot and edited like a traditional drama, but Booth’s Aristotelian conundrum of unified time and action but disunified space gives it a distinctly cinematic character that’s devastating in effect, beckoning audiences to partake in a shared humanity quite uncommon in mainstream cinema. Key to this are Wilkins and Booth’s performances as, respectively, a downward-spiraling suicidal man and a desperate average Jane thrust into a situation beyond her worst nightmares. Neither seem like characters in a movie, but as real humans—a rare feat for a subject matter usually sensationalized for cheap drama. To explore what made these roles—and the film itself—so real to life, we sat down with Booth for an interview.
The Young Folks: What inspired you to make Last Call?
Gavin Michael Booth: First off, Daved had the original idea. We’d wanted to make a film together, and he came to me with the idea for a suicidal man calling a helpline. Having worked together on the music video for SYML’s “Body”, he knew my history of long take scenes and single-take music videos and films. Originally the idea was a man calling a helpline, but as we researched the proper way helplines are run, we realized that their crisis protocols were different than we’d imagined.
TYF: How so? Don’t they try to talk callers down and give them info on nearby healthcare providers?
GMB: No, they have a system that gets people off the phone after agreeing to not hurt themselves. If they can’t, they contact the police to check on them and then try to keep the caller on the line long enough for them to arrive. That’s me over-simplifying how it works, but what it meant for us was we would have had to jump through leaps and bounds of audience believability to keep the man on the phone in real-time for over an hour. That’s when the idea of changing the person on the other end to a random stranger entered our conversations.
TYF: How did this decision influence your decision to shot the film in two simultaneous long takes?
GMB: Not cutting away from the action forces the audience to experience the tension that the random stranger on the other end of the phone—in this case Sarah Booth’s Beth—was feeling. When we doubled down with the idea of split-screen, as a director, the challenge was too good to pass up. I had to make this film.
TYF: How did you two go about creating Scott’s character?
GMB: We wanted to make sure that there were many levels to Scott’s state of mind, that the emotional pain he was in was not just on the surface or had come on very quickly. There are layers to his onion of heartbreak and despair. We wanted to have a way that no matter what Beth brings up or how she approaches trying to help him, without any professional training, she is opening more cans of worms. We also wanted Scott’s character and past to be revealed as the film continues. Daved and I are fans of characters in films that you don’t know everything about them up front. It was an interesting way to keep the audience engaged when there are no scene breaks or passage of time.
TYF: Did you two do any research on how suicidal people actually act when they’re in serious crisis?
GMB: We did a lot of research about mental health. Although we made a film that is for audience enjoyment and suspense, we wanted to treat the subject matter as respectfully and honestly as possible. To this end, we had a friend who’s an actual volunteer at a crisis hotline who came in and helped us, telling us about the many types of people and situations she’d encountered on the job.
TYF: One of the things many people don’t realize about suicidal situations is that the potentially suicidal don’t remain depressed the entire time but can abruptly, even violently, cycle emotions at a moment’s notice. Scott himself seems to veer from sad to defensive to petulant and even angry. Did your research with your friend who worked as a volunteer at a crisis hotline help you identify these mood swings and did you have any difficulty integrating them into the story?
GMB: Actually, that part of Scott’s mood swings didn’t come from discussions with our crisis worker friend. We wanted everything Scott has been bottling up for years, things he’s given up on, things he didn’t expect a crisis worker to ask or prod him about, to break through into the open. With Beth, a character that doesn’t know the protocol for handing a sensitive call, it left all sorts of room for her to make mistakes and potentially push his mood in a bad direction.
TYF: So was everything, including Scott’s capricious mood swings, rigidly scripted?
GMB: Well no, some of the dialogue and story points shifted during our rehearsal process. That was always our plan. Because we are unable to edit the film, given the single-take nature, we needed the ability to rehearse and rewrite at the same time so we could see how things flowed and how the characters arcs worked on their own as well as together intertwined on either side of the screen.
Last Call premiered at the Dances With Films festival on June 18, 2019.
If you or someone you know is feeling suicidal, please call the toll-free 24-hour suicide hotline at 1-800-273-8255.