Today’s story of night and day desert filming comes to us courtesy of Hilary Barraford, who did the background casting for the movie and is also acts in the opening scene.
Hilary, our intrepid correspondent
Tales From the Trenches:
I know it’s sacrilegious to quote blockbusters on the John Sayles blog. But I’m still doing it.
There’s a moment in Armageddon (1998) when the characters Oscar and Truman (played by two actors who have yet to work with John Sayles, and so shall go unnamed) have the following exchange about an asteroid hurtling towards earth:
OSCAR: Okay, Mr. Truman, let’s say that we actually do land on this. What’s it gonna be like up there?
TRUMAN: 200 degrees in the sunlight, minus 200 in the shade, canyons of razor-sharp rock, unpredictable gravitational conditions, unexpected eruptions, things like that.
OSCAR: Okay, so the scariest environment imaginable. Thanks. That’s all you gotta say, scariest environment imaginable.
Every time we shot in the desert I had this conversation with myself. It won’t seem as ridiculous to you when you read the actual instructions that were emailed to the crew the night before our first day in the desert:
Please dress for desert conditions this week. Attached are a number of safety bulletins, which cover heat, critters, poisonous plants and animals. You should bring a warm coat for night work as the temperatures have been in the 50s at night, but can extend into the 100s during the day. We also anticipate monsoonal moisture that could lead to lightening strikes and flash floods. Drink water. When you are in desert conditions, you need close to a gallon of water an hour depending on your level of exertion.
As if deadly rattlesnakes and scorpions weren’t enough to fear, you also had to make sure to drink the water equivalent of a five-minute shower over the course of a standard 12-hour day.
Now imagine all of the same information—applied in the pitch dark! And that’s how we spent our final night in Los Angeles.
Our day in the desert was Tuesday, July 31. The location had to look like somewhere near the Mexican border, so we found ourselves literally in the middle of nowhere, where dirt roads vanished into the horizon.
Those dirt roads were responsible for splitting up the band. The front half of our honey wagon braved the desert, giving us approximately two air-conditioned bathrooms and one small star trailer on location (for four actors; you do the math). The other half, which couldn’t navigate the primitive roads, stayed behind, leaving everyone at base camp without A/C (or a baño). Add to that the fact that our “locations” were moving-target driving shots, and connecting the dots is suddenly not a very fun game for our ADs. (Do not try this at home.)
Liz Ryan, 1st AD with Key PA Yule
Oh, and did I mention that we had approximately 24 talented Asian men on set with us for the day as extras? That was three times the total number of background actors we had on any other day of our shoot.
Kat and background actors in the van
Even with all of these challenges, or perhaps because of them, our intrepid leader John and his team got the cast and crew through the difficult day with surprising ease (and, more importantly, sans casualty).
Great work, everyone!
One day in the desert just wasn’t enough for us. We (triumphantly?) returned that same week for our final L.A. shoot day, Friday, August 3 (more like shoot night, with a 6 P.M. call).
As soon as we arrived on location, we were warned that all those crazy desert creatures, to borrow from a Hall & Oates song, “only come out at night.” So familiarize yourself with your surroundings to get around in the dark and step lively—but don’t step on any rattlesnakes because they’ll attack, they added with no sense of self-irony. Oh, and beware of badgers. Badgers!
Director, Writer, Wilderness Guide
Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight? Neither have I, but I was convinced I might be sharing the first dance that night.
Actually, the full moon was our friend (and totally free to boot)! The condor we used to fly a giant 20K light to simulate a helicopter searchlight? Not so free, but every bit our friend.
Once again, we had survived the desert…
…At least until the info packet arrived for the Mexico part of our shoot, and included the following diagram of one of our next locations, Mexicali:
We’re turning up that indie heat in Mexico! Muy caliente!