Day 5: Mount Rushmore and Lusk

I did not know the Mount Rushmore National Memorial was so big. I swear, I didn’t. I’m innocent.

I’d visited Mount Rushmore once years ago, and in my mind, the protected part began at the gate to the visitor center. The surrounding secluded area near Rapid City, SD, I figured, was public land. So for months I had planned to shoot an important scene, Dan and Jane consulting maps and making plans, on the side of the road with the granite presidents over their shoulders. I never imagined we’d need a permit.

We rolled up bright and early Friday morning, pulled over at a spot we thought would yield a nice shot, and got started. After our evening at 1880 Town the night before, we were feeling relaxed, having fun, taking pictures of each other in the cowboy hats that nearly everyone had picked up as we drove. It wasn’t a long scene, only a few camera setups, so we took our time.

But just as we got to our last couple of shots, an official-looking car pulled over and a park ranger stepped out. He asked to see our permit, and we had no good response. Dave and I talked to him in front of the RV, explaining the situation, apologizing profusely for my ignorance of the official boundaries, begging forgiveness. The ranger wasn’t exactly sympathetic as he listened to our tale of woe, but he did tell us we’d be able to get a retroactive permit. But I’m not kidding, he told us as he wrote the number we’d need to call, along with a formal violation. If I see this shot in that movie and we don’t have a permit, I’m coming for you. And he told us we needed to move on. Right now. No more shots, no ifs, ands, or buts.

Luckily, a hundred yards away, Cam and the rest of the crew had been grabbing the last shot we needed. We had already been at work when the ranger arrived, so they just kept on shooting this static shot of a static character, looking for all the world like they were just standing around. And since we did get that retroactive permit months later, that shot is in the finished film, with three out-of-focus figures conferring in the background. Our transgression is immortalized.

In the grand scheme of things, it was barely a hiccup, and we escaped unscathed, but it threw me for a loop. Was I so in love with the idea of being a filmmaker, I'd forgotten I didn't know how? Would my ignorance sink this ship? Was I just faking it out here, an overgrown kid playing pretend?

We were spending the night in Guernsey, WY, where we’d be shooting a big scene the next day. It was just a three hour drive, but in between, we needed to find a place for another long scene, one of the longest in the film. It wasn't a complex sequence, but it was an in-depth conversation that needed a good backdrop. I’d decided we should shoot at a gas station en route to Guernsey—stopping for gas and a coffee is a pretty essential element of any road trip, so we might as well immortalize it. And when we planned the shooting schedule, I had decided we’d just stop off at whatever town felt convenient and appropriate, hop out, and shoot pages upon pages of dialogue.

What I had failed to account for was just how little there is along Rt. 18 in eastern Wyoming. And as the day dragged on with no sign of an appropriate town, things started to look very dire. Finally, much later in the afternoon than anyone would have wanted, we found ourselves passing through the small town of Lusk, and we stopped at the first gas station we saw and got to work.

This gas station happened to have a great spot for a conversation, a little picnic table between the convenience store and the pumps. Despite the length of the scene, we decided we could shoot it with just a few setups—seat Kelsey on one side of the table, Ryan on the other, and just shoot over their shoulders. Not particularly visually exciting, but we didn’t really have the luxury of visual excitement today.

It was never going to work. This would end up as one of the few truly unsalvageable mistakes of the shoot. The scene was doomed by two factors: for one, long dialogue scenes take a long time to shoot, even without complex setups. You need time for lighting, for finding the right angle, for blown takes and pauses for adjustment. By the time we got Kelsey’s angle and then flipped around to get Ryan’s, the sun had fallen so far that it would be impossible to edit the conversation together and maintain the illusion that it was happening in real time. You can fool the audience on a lot of things, but it’s tough to miss that one person is talking in the afternoon, and the other is talking at dusk. For another thing, when you shoot people talking next to gas pumps, you’re gonna get engine noise. A lot of it. You’re gonna get motorcycles revving, trucks hissing air as they pull out. The definition of noise pollution, and very, very difficult to edit into a seamless sound track.

Looking back, it’s hard to believe we ever thought this was an idea that was worth pursuing, but what else were we supposed to do? There was no time in the schedule to pick up dropped scenes. We plowed ahead, the adrenaline and momentum of the shoot blinding me to these obvious eventualities. Plus, I'd already screwed up royally today. I wasn't about to admit defeat and define this as a day of humiliation.

But I couldn't help the creeping humiliation when we finished. As we packed up the RV and got ready to leave, I knew this had been a bust. And then, I noticed two blonde kids—a girl of about twelve and a boy of about nine—approaching Ryan and Kelsey with a pad and pen, asking for autographs. It wasn’t clear whether they figured these were two famous actors they’d never heard of, whether they wanted to bank these autographs in case these two actors became famous, or if this was just the most exciting thing that had happened to them in a while, but in any case, there are few things in the world more fun than being asked for an autograph, so Ryan and Kelsey obliged, and we chatted with these kids who were treating us like the coolest movie crew of the century.

So yeah, I felt like I was playing pretend. But that's exactly what making a movie is. Even beyond the costumes and storylines, when you decide to gather a few people together and rent a camera, you’re pretending you’re Spielberg, Scorsese, whatever great filmmaker you idolize. You have to tell yourself that you’ll be up there with them some day, just to have the guts to wake up every morning and keep asking for people's faith and money as you chase the dream. But it can he hard to keep the illusion alive when you’re making decisions as poor as the ones I made that day. So I’ll always be grateful to two blonde kids from Wyoming. They gave us the gift of saying, Hey, you guys are a making a movie, just like Steven Spielberg! They fueled up the dream for a few more days, and we needed it. We were tired already, and we were still just getting started.