Day 2: Mitchell, SD
I bit off more than anyone could chew when I planned the second day of production for West of Her. To begin with, we needed to cover more than 550 miles of travel, from Rockford, IL to Mitchell, SD, which would be a long day by any measure. But all those miles were just getting us to the main event: a night of shooting at the Corn Palace. The Corn Palace scene is long, the closest West of Her has to a thrilling set piece (Cam described it as the “James Bond opening” of the film), but even then, it was just a few minutes. How long could that take to shoot? Hell, at first I figured we could shoot the whole thing in one night, but Cam cautioned me to build in more time. Sure, I figured, can’t hurt, but it doesn’t seem necessary. That was before we arrived at the Corn Palace, and Adam casually said, “We’ll probably be here until sunrise.”
Yes, I had forgotten something in the seven years since my short stint as a film student: setups take a long time. In Chicago the day before, we’d been able to move quickly since we were only getting a couple of angles, and even then we spent hours on each very brief sequence. Now we were moving between locations in downtown Mitchell, dealing with a car, moving from a tripod to handheld and back. And not only that, Cam had this absurd belief the shots needed to look GOOD, to be framed and lit well. As I tried to rush him through, he kindly but firmly reminded me that if we wanted to end up with a movie worth watching, I should give him the time to actually do quality work. But as I watched the hours creep by and the shot list stay the same length, I imagined the crew’s goodwill slipping away after only two days. Nobody wants to commute nine hours to work and then stay up all night.
Luckily, I was surrounded by friendly technicians excited about their jobs and game for this gonzo adventure. And it was adventure already. Something that hadn’t occurred to me until that day: this scene required a totally empty street. But the Corn Palace is a fairly famous tourist attraction, and if there were traffic and pedestrians, this thing wouldn’t work, leaving us with no plan B. Mitchell is a pretty small town, but still, I had no reason to assume we’d have the place to ourselves.
And yet we did. Fate smiled on us, and we were able to shoot the scene exactly as I pictured it. It was hard work, requiring a lot of decisions and adjustments, but as I watched the shots come together, I felt a thrill greater than I’d imagined: this wasn’t just the movie I’d imagined. It looked better than I ever could have envisioned. But even as my images came to life, there was at least one holdup: the street wasn’t TOTALLY empty.
When we got to town earlier that evening, we had stopped for dinner at a big chain restaurant, the best option available for the vegetarian and gluten-free diets we needed to consider (Toto, I don’t think we’re in Chicago anymore). Our waitress, who was roughly the age of our young crew, was very pleased to hear we were in town to shoot a movie, and wished us luck.
Four hours later, as we shot a long take of Kelsey walking outside the Corn Palace, a shot of dreamy contemplation, the quiet night was broken by the catcalls of several less-than-sober locals, including our friendly waitress. They’d parked themselves on a bench a block or so away, outside the camera’s sight, and they weren’t exactly bullying or heckling us, but they were making damn sure we knew they were there. You’d never know it in the finished product, and it made us laugh more than anything else, but in the unedited take of that scene, you can hear them as clear as day, hollering at us for reasons I still can’t quite fathom.
It was our first taste of what it would be like to shoot an indie feature in out-of-the-way corners of America. And these weren’t the only curious onlookers in Mitchell, SD. Late that night (though long before sunrise, thank goodness), a local man took an interest in what we were doing and started hanging around the camera setup asking questions. It was the last setup of the night, no sound or actors, so the few of us grabbing the quick shot didn’t mind the company. And in the end, it was nice to have him around; he didn’t mind carrying some of the equipment back to the RV for us.
We didn’t exactly feel like superstars, but knowing the citizens of Mitchell were intrigued by our presence was a fun boost to get us through that long first night. We retired to our hotel, ready to come back and finish the sequence tomorrow. It had been a long, grueling night, but I figured we were just finding our sea legs. Tomorrow night couldn’t possibly be this long. Right?