Southwest High graduate James Slocum may live in California now, but he's still a Minnesotan at heart. In the opening scene of his film The Last Place on Earth, Phyllis Diller, in a surprising, fright-wigless appearance as a dying woman, complains about not being able to watch the Twins on her hospital TV set--and manages to slight the Dodgers in the process. "I've never forgiven the Dodgers for beating the Twins in 1965," laughs Slocum on the phone from Pasadena.
After attending the University of Southern California, where he wrote and directed short films (and met Carleton College alum Barrie M. Osborne, executive producer of Last Place and the Lord of the Rings trilogy), Slocum went on to fashion a career in television, movies, and music videos. Last Place, his second film (after a TV movie), has garnered awards at festivals over the past two years; this weekend he'll return to his hometown to introduce the Friday and Saturday evening shows at Lagoon Cinema.
A road movie about love and mortality, The Last Place on Earth stars Dana Ashcroft as Rob Baskin, a stuffy banker who, en route to scattering his mother's ashes in the High Sierras, meets Ann Field (Tisha Campbell-Martin). Despite having been diagnosed with leukemia, Ann lives life to the fullest, and her attitude ultimately transforms Rob into a more sensitive guy. The cast also includes Diller, whose agent was persistent that his client could play against type as Rob's ailing mother, and Brock Peters, most famous for his role as the wrongly accused rapist in To Kill a Mockingbird.
"So much of the film is based on real things in my life," explains Slocum. "It was inspired by the death of my best friend, but I turned it into a love story to make it more universal. It's a story about how one person can really make a difference in another's life."
Slocum's film combines several ideas to varying degrees of success. The cast, including the leads (and Slocum's one-eared dog Boomer), generates a warm chemistry, but the story seems too pat in its attempts to reach particular outcomes. Rob and Ann are such polar opposites that it seems unlikely they'd move beyond physical attraction in the few days they spend together before getting married. The two do continue to fight, however, lending credibility to the relationship, and, as Ann grows weaker, the bond between them becomes particularly strong. Still, the film requires more than a few leaps of faith to embrace its messages--a result that's consistent with its attempts to capture all the facets of its broad themes.
The movie's title derives from one of its locations, the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in the Eastern Sierra Nevada mountains. "The pine forest is where the oldest living things on the planet exist," says Slocum. "It's ultimately the last place on earth. There's no water, no facilities. But the blue sky is spectacular. I wanted to take people to places that are largely unknown."