Day 9: The Mountains and Leadville

Early on the morning of July 16th, we stood twelve thousand feet above sea level, rolling green slopes and snow-capped peaks all around us. The air was so thin it was hard not to gasp as we filmed Ryan and Kelsey exchanging three brief lines: “Does it make you feel small?” “More than small.” “I was joking.” I still don’t quite know what those lines mean, but I know they’re essential to the arc of West of Her.

Those lines, and the gesture Jane makes after the exchange, have existed since the earliest, barest version of the story. They're a turning point for the characters’ relationship, but if you asked me to articulate exactly what Dan means, and exactly why it impacts Jane, I would struggle. There are some things about your work you can ramble on for hours, but there are other things you just have to feel, and hope that your wavelength can intersect enough with other people’s for them to feel it, too. Maybe some day someone will be able to explain to me the meaning that I know for sure is there.

The crew had split up that day. The camera crew—myself, Cam, Mario, Adam, and Tanner—had driven up the mountain with Ryan and Kelsey while the others drove ahead to the small town of Leadville to scout our locations for that evening and the next morning. Our mini-crew shot all morning on the mountaintop, grabbing shots we’d planned and shots we hadn’t, and they’re some of the most breathtaking images in the film. After a few hours, we took a break, got out the cooler, and made some sandwiches. We sat around eating, shooting the shit with some other travelers who passed by, and enjoying the view, and then we loaded back into the two cars and got on the road to Leadville.

I rode down the mountain with Cam and Mario, and as we drove, they started debating. Cam, it turns out, had eaten his lunch so quickly I hadn’t noticed—during a lull in shooting, he had slapped together a quick sandwich, eaten it in a few bites, and gotten back to work. That was how he thought we should be running things. From his perspective, our lunch break had been a luxury that came at the expense of getting shots that would have enhanced the film.

“Do I think we’ll have enough footage to make the film we planned?” he asked rhetorically. “Of course. But the more we have, the better the film will be.”

Mario, on the other hand, thought the lunch break represented a commitment to our quality of life, that if we didn’t take a breather at midday, the production would suffer. We kicked it back and forth for a long time, and I landed somewhere in between the two of them. I didn’t want us to drive ourselves to the point of exhaustion, but I also didn’t want to throw away opportunities to improve the film because of lunchtime inertia. As Cam reminded me, we had been as clear as possible to everyone we hired: this won’t be easy, it won’t always be comfortable, but it will be worth it. We needed to put our money where our mouths were. I don’t remember taking a particularly strong stand on relaxing lunchtimes after that day, but it is the last relaxing lunchtime I remember, so something must have stuck.

We arrived in Leadville as afternoon turned towards evening, just like I’d hoped for. It’s a small town, notable mainly for having the highest elevation of any town in America—almost two miles above sea level—but it was one of a few towns I’d written specifically into the script. I’d camped in the forest by the water once, and I’ve never forgotten it, so we shot a scene there, another fully improvised sequence, in which Ryan stumbled onto a discussion of mortality and the idea of forever. I liked it so much I asked him to keep repeating variations on it until he got too overwhelmed by the cosmic grandeur of it all and begged me to move on.

I’d always remembered Leadville’s main street, too, a long row of storefronts that looked like it had been frozen in time at the height of the gold rush. So we had Dan and Jane lay a tile there, one of a very few shots in the film that looks exactly like I pictured it, from the framing to the blocking to the lighting. That’s a pretty magical feeling. From the first shot of the day to the last, I had gotten to immortalize moments I had been holding in my mind for years. It was a hell of a privilege.

But I didn't insist on totally reproducing the moments I'd frozen in my head for years. For the tile-laying shot, I had Ryan and Kelsey start up a side street and run down to the main drag. When Ryan got to a low chain strung between two posts, he vaulted over it with a childlike giddiness that made it into the finished cut, one of those little unplanned moments that would never be quite so worth capturing if I’d asked him to do it. For as much as I valued and protected my long-held ideas and images, I was learning the value of letting the moment take us where it wanted, and that day, we synthesized the two about as well as we ever did. There’s a reason the sequence that came out of that day’s footage remains one of my favorite passages in the film.  

We got pizzas and ribs at High Mountain Pies, and then split up, some of us to a hotel on the outskirts of town, and a few of us driving the RV to a nearby campground. It had been a long day, and we needed to rest up. We had a seriously big scene to bite off in the morning.