Q and A: ‘The Last Descent’ with special guest Chadwick Hopson

BY: Hope Murphy

‘The Last Descent’ starring Chadwick Hopson, 2010 Daemen graduate, featured in the RIC on November 2 and was moderated by Daniel Shanahan, Nancy Haberman Gacioch Professor of Creative Entrepreneurism.

The film premiered in 2016 and is based on a true story about John Jones who was trapped and ultimately perished in a Utah cave.


Hopson graduated Daemen in 2010 with a degree in business and a minor in Theatre Arts. Since then he has moved to Los Angeles and has appeared in several TV shows, movies, commercials; in addition to producing, writing and creates with the production company The Knights Young.


Following the films screening, Hopson engaged in a Q&A session lead by Shanahan:


DS: How did you prepare for that sense of claustrophobia which just permeates the whole film? How did you go about getting yourself in that mental space because the film never leaves you or leaves that space; how did you go about doing that?


CH: Research, I think mainly was kind of studying what happens to an individual upside down for that long period of time. I was never really worried about what that tight space would do. I would kind of take over and let go and be an actor in that moment. Its just however your body reacts when you’re in such a closed space as a human being. Really the physicality came into research when it had to do exactly what period of time I was upside down and what [John Jones] was going through at that certain stage. So that’s where the research came in. There is no way to prep for that and it was funny because in the research, when I was doing so, I was talking to a lot of my friends who are medical professionals and [they said] there was no research for that. It’s never been surveyed before for being upside and how long exactly you should actually be because it’s an immoral study that would be prohibited. So, that was all guessing about what was happening to [John]. From the news accounts and rescue accounts that I had access to, how he was acting at a certain period of time at 8 hours, 16 hours, 24 hours. So, the physicality of that, the research and kind of letting me be terrified to be him in a closed space.


DS: Another thing that just struck me about your reacting approach, which I thought was so fantastic, with any actor they look at a script and they know what the ending is going to be but you have to play the emotions of the scene, I guess, how did you take yourself through those points where first you get stuck in the hole and he’s like “oh my God, this is ridiculous” surely this is going to be a simple thing to get out of, to total paranoia fear, to yes there is some hope, to maybe hope is gone. How did you sort of take yourself through those highs and lows?


CH: Fortunately for me a lot of that dialogue that you see in the film was done in one day. All the close ups of my dialogue were done on the very last day of production in chronological order. It was horrible, but also kind of a gift when it came to it; being able to kind of stay in it for 14 hours. There were a lot of different camera angles that happened where I had to act a certain way for the other actors that were in the scene whether it be Landon [Henneman] who played Aaron or Jyllian [Petrie]. Those were the instances where, it was similar I call it, to like putting because there was no way to rehearse in that position because I could not simulate a cave in my apartment. So, I had to wait and kind of figure out what that felt like and work through that. As it comes to where the character was in the ins and outs, I was feeling kind of like exploring it when I was doing it for the other actors which was really, really nice because I could help them and do whatever they could and whatever helped them I took notes on of what I wanted to do with my close [up] on the last day. So it was really nice, it was very much like putting.


DS: Last night I was doing some research on the film and it brought me to watching live video of the actual event. What you’re also struck by is how interesting the family is, but just the way in which they were responding to this event and I was curious if the family saw this film and if there was any kind of communication with them and what that experience was like?


CH: Yeah, they actually were. They were an integral reason to how I got the part. I mean the audition process was very long and arduous, but they had final say on who they wanted to play John and luckily they chose me. When that happened I was able to in the story, the research, his wife Emily was very prevalent and then two of his brothers, his sister and his father were there and his entire family showed up two the premieres. I couldn’t have been able to do it without them to be honest with you because John wasn’t this iconic figure where there were tons of research on the internet you could look at and kind of go ‘no, he did this’. All I had was a blog that Emily had written about their love story and then any information that Emily and his family were able to give, which is hard to approach because you’re asking someone, he passed away in 2009 in a very traumatic fashion, obviously when we asked them about their family its hard because they’re reopening that wound again and it was like is appropriate for me to do and how much are they willing to give. So, they were.  Whenever they offered information I very much took it, but a part of the process was them-they wanted someone that also through themselves and create an organic character for John. So it was never my goal to imitate [John] it was always to use all the influences and create an organic character in order for it to feel more authentic. Therefore, I wouldn’t have to match little traits when I’m trying to be as natural as possible when being upside down.


Open to the audience:


Q: I was assuming, perhaps I’m wrong, that during the actual shooting you were not actual upside down. Were you?


CH Yeah. Well there were certain coverages depending on where; they built a cave. If you remember in the film going into the cave, that crawl in and the brother talking, that was in an actual cave that we were on location for and the moment where you see the shot down a long circular hallway with me kind of going into the light. That’s the set, so as the transition came and depending on the scene we were shooting. The set they created was unbelievable, I mean, it was like Legos like you could plug different pieces depending on where the camera needed to go and so for certain coverage I was horizontal and some upside down and some coverage I wasn’t even there I was just standing reading with the character who was in the cave with me.


Q: So, follow up question, the make up for John was incredible. Tell me about that because what kept happening to your face, with your eyelid swelling, that was stunning.


CH Depending on where we were in shooting. In the end, the last scene, that was 2 drops of red eye in each eye which does not feel good and on top of that you had to do 4 drops of lemon juice 4 drops of salt water and then mustard was one of them.


Q: So this wasn’t a makeup job on the eye.


CH Oh no, that was them torturing me ha ha. I mean it is the only way to do it and you don’t want it to look fake. Cynthia Shelley won an award for this too and she deserved it, she did an incredible job.


Q: What were you trying to tell us about John-his courage?


CH It was hard as an actor to kind of prep for that cause all of my other films I never had to do [research]. I mean the point of acting, which makes it easy I mean not easy, is to take a character with conflict and approach off it and show you a character that overcomes something, but the problem with John, which I ran into, was trying to find a character flaw. Everybody he talked to and everything he did was like for other people and he was always just a good guy across the board. So, the number one goal I wanted to try and showcase was him doing so and really letting in for other people is anxiety ridden in the sense that you feel like you’re never really doing enough. The point that I wanted to show for John especially for his family and to other people was by the end the motivation in every scene was to make someone feel comfortable or fight for someone and him not being rescued at the very end was a sense of release. Like finally he could let go of the expectation and just kind of breathe it out and be okay with the situation at hand and not feel like he has to do anything for anyone anymore and so the ending with his son was kind of like this beautiful thing. Instead of feeling that he has to be a father again and he has to embark information, he has to do all these things, he was able to have that release and feel like he could just not to think of anyone’s expectation and instead of that scene coming from a place of sadness that he has to say good bye to his son, he gets two minutes to be a father that he never would have had. It was coming from a place of happiness instead of sadness. My goal is to showcase that he is happy and he was okay and felt good and he was able to release instead of hold on. Which all his loved ones would have told him to do a thousand times over.


Q: But you had filmed that scene before you had actually done the final scenes in the cave hadn’t you?


CH That one, yeah. Usually you take a day for a scene like that unfortunately it rained a lot and we had to squeeze that into a 14-hour day. We only did it twice, the wide and the close up; I was only able to do that twice. The funny thing about that last scene was the close up whenever I’m in it, it’s a little soft which means it’s a little out-of-focus, but Isaac [Halasima]’s friend was like his mentor and was there for that scene and that scene alone because she could only come for five minutes. She saw it and she gave him a kiss and then cried immensely and then left. She passed away two weeks after that. It was great though because she got to see him on his big feature debut directing a film and that was the one shot that she saw so Isaac [Halasima] kept that in the film as his homage to her regardless of focus and I was like ‘absolutely please’. Her name was Roxy and she got to see that one scene so that was sentimental in so many different ways.


Q: Was the footage of the news real?


CH Yeah, that was all real.


Q: There was a point in which the wife was telling him its okay. Was that real?


CH Yeah they had a com, yup, that really happened. Which by that point he was really delirious and kind of going in and out [of consciousness]. But that was pretty much her goal at the end if you noticed that her dialogue was never like good bye or anything like that it was just to try and calm him down and tell him that its okay.


DS: For the actual event after it came to an end and they like postmortem on the event. In your research was there anything they could have tried that wasn’t? Was there any chance in hindsight they could have done?


CH No. Pretty much the moment the rescuers saw him they knew it was over. The only way they could have gotten him out was to shatter his legs. It was true there was no chance they could get anything that had the strength to do that in those walls, he knew pretty much what was going to happen kind of hoping for a miracle, but it just wasn’t there.


DS: And you get that with the first female she has a sense of humor but you see her face change.

I’m just trying to figure out how he got into that position, so he is going or he just took a wrong turn?


CH It’s not in the film and it should be because it would’ve made the most sense, but it had to do with timing and independent film producing is really tough to get everything that you want, but what happened when [John and his brother] split up was the idea that it is a very tight squeeze into another big opening in a big earth canal. When he went and stuck through which is when you look at the will of this man to do so in that tiny, tiny space; there was a little water in a basin and in the water was a reflection of a head light which he assumed was his brother. [John], thinking it was an opening, he went straight down to only realize that it was a dead end so that’s kind of how that happened.


Q: What’s it like for you to this research, go to the site, what is that like emotionally to know what has happened?


CH It’s a lot. That exterior of me popping out of the cave and going back down, that was the actual opening [of Nutty Putty], its closed now, but I was actually standing and waiting where the actual plaque of John Jones was while I’m waiting for them to yell action. And Isaac [Halasima] DP’d it and in that scene there was no dialogue, it was just me, him and the camera so that was an extremely personal shot. The goal which was kind of the end of some crescendo that its so easy to tap into like how important this one moment is and how important the story this is when you’re kneeling next to his plaque where this all happened, but I had to not cry I had to stay composed and focus on something else because the character’s job was to do it and that was the end of the emotional crescendo. That was the moment in the film where I felt like it impacted me the most even though it was the smallest scene and there were no words I had to keep it entirely composed, its not the time yet, you know.


Last Question:


DS: The character who played opposite of you for the duration of the film, the real life person, did he know it was also futile and was his main intention just to make these last 20 hours manageable or did he feel as though there was a chance he could rescue you?


CH: He felt like there was a chance. He was actually the one individual who did not want to be contacted, he supported the film and was nice, but he did not want to revisit it. He quit the business after this happened, he is doing something else now, but he felt like there was a little bit of hope that could have potentially have happened. The injury that he sustained at the end was true. It did happen; Its worse than what you see in the film. One of the carabineers popped out and ripped off half of his tongue. Yeah, pretty bad. He was kind of conscious and unconscious as they were taking him up. A lot of John’s family thought they were taking up John only to realize that it was him and that is when they all knew it was done.

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