Day 10: Leadville and Ouray

As a cinematographer, Cam didn’t have a long wish list when we started planning West of Her. For the most part, he was happy to follow the script I’d written and try to make it look as good as possible onscreen. But during preproduction, an issue cropped up. I’d written several very long dialogue scenes, and I’d set them all in the car as Dan and Jane drove. The way I figured it, you spend the majority of a road trip driving, and shooting the shit. It made sense to accurately reflect that. But in practice, both from a shooting and a viewing perspective, it was a nightmare, and once I stepped back just a bit, I realized that I would never want to watch ten minutes of two seated characters watching the road. And as we started brainstorming new locations to set these conversations, Cam revealed one deep desire: he wanted a bar.

Yes, for this Canadian director of photography, nothing felt more all-American than a dive bar. He loved the way they felt onscreen, the light, the décor. More than anything in the world, he wanted to shoot a scene in a bar. I balked initially—this was a story about people who lived like ghosts, keeping as low a profile as possible. Dan and Jane would never sit in a bar.

Unless, of course, they would be completely unobserved. If they could sit in an empty bar in the middle of the day, it might be able to fit with the story. And that solved the eternal problem of bar scenes: extras to sit around, never leaving their chairs and stools during hours of shooting.

And so we picked a dialogue scene towards the end of the first half of the script, one in which Dan and Jane debate the meaning of their work and Jane drops some tough truths on Dan, and picked a day to shoot it. As it happened, our visit to Leadville would easily allow for us to spend a morning filming in a bar, which we figured would all be closed for business at that time anyway.

But we didn’t know much about Leadville, and it’s hard to scope out a good shooting location from thousands of miles away. So the day before the planned bar scene, as the camera crew shot on a mountaintop, the rest of the crew had gone ahead to Leadville to visit bars and ask if the owners if they wanted their business immortalized onscreen the next morning. And when the rest of us arrived that evening, Dave told us that they had found the perfect place.

The Scarlet really was the bar of Cam’s dreams—a little too pleasant to qualify as a dive, but certainly no upscale cocktail lounge. The space was big enough to accommodate the equipment, and most importantly, the owners were thrilled with the idea. Lee and Chuck, a married couple who’d transplanted to Leadville to run the Scarlet, could not have been happier to have their bar onscreen, and they hung around during shooting chatting and enjoying the hubbub. They even provided us a cast member in the form of Ma Jones, a bartender who didn’t mind having fifteen minutes of out-of-focus fame, though she didn’t seem to care much about it one way or the other.

Again and again throughout the production of West of Her, we got very, very lucky, and this is a prime example. We were taking a real risk by not securing a location until twelve hours before we wanted to shoot. But, as they say, sometimes you make your own luck, and I do believe that if you go out into the world with a good attitude and ask enough people the right way, you can often get what you need. But it was a risk, there’s no denying, and we didn’t have a Plan B. There was a fine line between success and disaster on this shoot, and sometimes looking back I can almost get seasick thinking about what could have gone wrong. Making a few phone calls a week or two ahead to ensure this wasn’t a wild goose chase would certainly not have been a bad idea…

Once we wrapped the scene, it was time to load up and head on to Ouray, yet another small town in Colorado, this one selected for the vertiginous mountain roads with panoramic views of the town below. This was where we’d capture the one image that had appeared to me at the very beginning of the writing process, the one that had formed a cornerstone of the entire story: Dan and Jane laying a tile on a ridge late at night, the lights of the city laid out below.

And somehow, miraculously, we once again brought to life an image exactly as it had looked in my head. In fact, it even came out better: we got some free production value when lightning started to strike in the distance, providing an extra thrill to an already energetic scene.

And with that, we were finished with the mountains, and about halfway through shooting. In the morning, it would be time for a long downhill drive into the desert, where we’d spend almost the entire second half of the shoot. Things had been cool so far. Now they were going to heat up.