Day 4: From Mitchell to Rapid City

I scheduled the West of Her shoot to within an inch of our lives. There was no time for leisure and indecision. We had too many miles to drive, too many pages to shoot, and movies burn money faster than you’d ever imagine possible. But when I planned that schedule, I figured hey, it's a tightly scripted film, there's no need to leave room for experimentation. I knew what we needed.

That tight schedule was tested the morning we left Mitchell. It became clear as we drove that something was not quite right with our “picture car” (the rental that played Dan and Jane’s car in the film). Kelsey noticed it as we filmed a car interior: a sound in the front left tire, and a concerning sensation in the car's handling. We pulled over and discovered that her suspicion was right: one of the lug nuts was cracked. The Corn Palace scene involved a character (played by yours truly) changing the car’s tire, which we’d accomplished by loosening the lug nuts, and then allowing me to re-tighten them on camera. It would seem I had done so with a bit too much verve, resulting in some severe tire damage.

This posed a massive problem. We had an appointment to film in a campground that afternoon, and beyond that, any bump in the road would throw things off for weeks down the line, possibly irreparably. But in the age of smartphones, miracles are possible, and when we arrived at the campground, Devin whisked the car off to a local mechanic to have the damage assessed. We shot our scene, and we were efficient enough that we had time for a swim in the Missouri river while we waited for Devin to return.

When he did return, he had good news and bad. The car was safe to drive, but the damage was real, and would need to be dealt with at our earliest convenience. That earliest convenience being days away, we pushed on. We were ahead of schedule, and we wanted to bank that wiggle room to use when we needed it.

We got back on the road, but an hour and a half from Rapid City, where we'd be spending the night before shooting at Mount Rushmore in the morning, people started to agitate for a bathroom break. Western South Dakota doesn’t offer many opportunities for relief, so we were getting desperate when we finally saw a visitor’s center, dropped in the middle of the grassy plains.

We disembarked and went inside to browse knickknacks and take turns using the facilities. But as I wandered the store, I happened upon a door in the back, and that door opened out onto a bizarre and incongruous sight: a fully reconstructed Civil War-era small town.

It turned out we’d stopped at 1880 Town, a tourist destination that was the site of filming for movies like Dances with Wolves. Ordinarily bustling, they were in the process of closing for the night, but I ran over to the owners, told them we were a film crew, and begged them to let us film out there for a few minutes. This was not part of the plan, but we had sunset and a ghost town for a playground, and my mind reeled at the shots we could get.

The friendly older couple who ran the place told us to go ahead, take our time. And we had plenty of time, so we unloaded the gear, and went out into what looked for all the world like we’d stepped into the late 19th century. So, I wondered…what do we shoot?

Well, Ryan and Kelsey had met three days earlier in Chicago, exactly like their characters had. Fact and fiction were able to blend pretty seamlessly in that moment. “Just walk around and get to know each other,” I told them. “Explore. Talk about whatever.”

And for the next two hours, that’s what we did. Our crew explored this beautiful, eerie location, and the movie came to life before me. Suddenly, we were shooting something like a documentary, watching these two strangers grow closer, but it was something like a dream, too, as they explored this otherworldly space. I didn't know how it would fit into the story, but I didn't care. This movie that had been locked down in my mind was becoming a living, breathing thing. And with that relaxation, filming this movie became something it hadn’t been yet: a true, uncomplicated joy. We were living in that space filmmakers call the magic hour, and it felt like nothing less.

As it got dark, we remembered we did have a couple more hours of driving before bed, so we loaded back up, but we were dazed and giddy. I'd promised the crew an adventure, but this was the first day it had really felt like one.

“I think I just got some of the best shots of my career,” Cam told me as we got back on the road.

“Yeah,” I replied. “We’ve got to do a LOT more of that.” In allowing myself and the movie room to experiment, something had happened that would change the course of the whole project, and it never would have happened if I’d stayed as rigid as I was when I woke up that morning.

We parked the RV for the night in a Walmart parking lot in Rapid City—Walmart has this amazing policy that you can sleep in their parking lots, no questions asked, and our rotation had me sleeping in the fold-out bed in the back. Everyone else decided to have a  beer in the hotel, but I packed it in. I wasn’t quite relaxed enough to join in revelry just yet. Something did feel special that night, though. Some kind of chemical reaction was starting to happen. We might not have just a good movie coming together. We might have a pretty special one.