Day 3: Mitchell, SD
The full weight of this huge, risky enterprise hit me square in the chest during the empty day we spent in Mitchell, SD. We didn’t have much on the agenda before our second night of shooting at the Corn Palace, so we had plenty of time to sit around and realize, oh, we really are hours away from anything resembling a city. And we’re just getting started.
The previous night had been a long one, so we got a slow start to the day. We kicked around the hotel, we sat on the grass out back, we read books, we called home. And as I sat at a picnic table, calling my girlfriend in Boston, I looked at the crew across the parking lot and I was slammed by the realization that if something went wrong, if we failed in some massive way, not only would it be a heartbreaking end to my dream, but figuring out how to repair some theoretical disaster would be really, really hard out in the middle of nowhere. What if someone got sick or hurt? What if one of the cars caught fire in the middle of Utah? What if...something I couldn't even anticipate happened? I was flying without a net, which is one thing to imagine from the comfort of home, and another when you're high in the air and happen to glance down.
But that sort of worrying is a luxury, and there was work to do, even in our downtime. Devin, our intrepid production assistant, took the RV over to Wal-Mart to stock up on food for the road, the cereal and sandwich materials we’d be living off two meals a day as we traveled. And then, late in the afternoon, we had to get ourselves set up for our first risky camera move: the driving rig.
Cam's gear rental list had included a black metal panel that we could attach to the open window of a car and secure the camera onto with heavy straps and clips, allowing us to film the actors’ faces as they drove. Even with the camera strapped in so tight we couldn't budge it if we tried, it felt more than a little ridiculous to be driving around with a top of the line piece of equipment dangling off the edge of the car. But hey, that’s what that crazy complicated insurance policy was for, right?
We learned a few lessons that day about shooting driving scenes. To begin with, you can’t fit a whole camera crew into the back of a sedan. To get the shots, we would need Cam and his assistant Adam on the camera, me to direct and approve takes, and Tanner to record sound. And as friendly as we’d all gotten the past few days, we still weren’t going to squeeze four big men into that backseat. So Tanner hooked Ryan and Kelsey up with wireless microphones, and our shoot became a caravan. The “picture car,” driven by Kelsey with the camera focused on Ryan in the passenger seat, drove up and down a quiet road, while Tanner sat in the “follow car,” listening and recording. We only needed one shot, but between takes, Tanner admitted the sound was very, very patchy. That was too bad, but it would have to wait for post-production. We'd done all we could do.
After dark, we returned to the Corn Palace. Once again, the night's work moved much more slowly than my naive imaginings had allowed for. We had knocked out the relatively easy shots the night before, and now we were stuck with everything else, including a lot of dialogue. So now the panic set in. No matter what, tomorrow morning we were getting back on the road. West of Her did not have the luxury of falling behind schedule. If we didn’t get what we needed, there was no recourse.
So it was impossible for me to enjoy our work. The scene was too complex, took too many angles, and all I could do was barrel ahead, making quick time management decisions, excising any non-essential shots that I knew we wanted if we were going to tell the story effectively, but figured we’d have to live without.
“This is how it works,” Adam chided me at one point. “You’re up late. It takes time.” And he was right, movies take time, but I couldn’t let my own poor planning put the crew’s health and energy at risk, especially when we were just at the start of many days of yet more travel, yet more shooting. All things considered, today had been an easy one. My anxiety was so bad, I could hardly see straight, and it was only made worse by my utter conviction that everyone around me was silently critical of my every decision and indecision.
But that panic robbed me of the ability to find any joy that night, and I wish I could go back and tell myself to relax. It was going to be a long three weeks, and I was going to need to learn how to manage the fear of not getting everything done. Anxiety leads to indecision and inefficiency, two qualities you don’t have time for on a film set.
Fortunately, I managed to keep putting one foot in front of the other, make the calls, keep us moving. I even got to shoot my director’s cameo—I’d decided to fill incidental roles with crew members rather than seek local talent, meaning no matter the age of the minor characters I’d envisioned, West of Her would take place in a world disproportionately populated with twentysomethings—saddling myself with the unsayable line, “Well look at this. You in trouble, friend?” At least I took that one for the team. It would have been cruel to inflict that mouthful on anybody else.