Day 6: Guernsey, WY
It was a bright Saturday morning in July. The sky was very blue and very, very big. All around us were grasslands and dirt cliffs. And I was standing on the site of one of my favorite computer games.
I wish I could say it was historical significance or thematic resonance that inspired me to write a scene along the route of the Oregon Trail. It was both of those, of course, but plenty of other locations would have fit the bill. No, I chose the Oregon Trail as a tribute to those hours of indoor recess in fifth grade, parked in front of the computer hoping to make it to the promised land before dysentery struck.
The morning shoot along the trail in Guernsey, WY, was straightforward. We moved efficiently, got our shots without much trouble, with plenty of coverage and plenty of takes to choose from. We finished on time, then packed up and hit the road in a good mood. We’d spent the morning working in a beautiful spot, and today we were closing out our first week of shooting, heading on tonight to Estes Park, CO where we’d spend two days with nothing on the schedule.
In many ways, it was sort of the ideal West of Her morning. It wasn’t the most exciting day of the shoot, but it felt wonderfully ordinary, the kind of day you want to hold up as representative of how we were making this movie. And that’s why, when I look back on this nice, normal day, I feel a little bit sad. It would be really nice if you could see what it all felt like.
We had always talked about doing a behind-the-scenes documentary. We knew that making this movie was going to be an extraordinary endeavor, and a pretty unusual one in the world of DIY filmmaking. We wanted the experience recorded for posterity, so much so that we considered making it part of the job description for the production assistant. But once we actually got started, it was obvious that would be impossible. Devin was constantly in motion, busier than anyone, and neither he nor the rest of us had a moment to document anything. The ruthless efficiency required to pull off this movie meant everyone was busy at all times. Not having a proper behind-the-scenes documentary was just something we’d have to live with.
On the other hand, though, every one of us had a smartphone in his or her pocket. We could have been shooting little bits of behind-the-scenes footage all the time. If we’d had the presence of mind to make that a priority, it wouldn’t have been hard at all. But our focus on the task at hand made it easy to lose the forest for the trees. It’s one of my greatest regrets about making West of Her, and it’s all the more disappointing because it was achievable.
Still, it’s hard to look back with too much sorrow when that afternoon’s drive was one of the most thrilling of the whole shoot. Over the course of the two hundred miles to Estes Park, we watched the Rocky Mountains appear on the horizon like a mirage and then draw towards us as a thunderstorm gathered above. We had set out on this trip in search of adventure, and it really was starting to feel like one.
We stopped for dinner at a bar and grill in Cheyenne, and as we finished eating, Cam observed that the purple light over by the bar was pretty photogenic. He suggested we grab a shot, and after 1880 Town two nights earlier, I was starving to shoot unscripted material, so I was happy to agree. There was just one issue: this bar was packed, and not a single person in there had signed an appearance release granting us permission to put them in a movie.
"No problem," one of the more experienced crew members told me, before grabbing a piece of paper and writing in big letters: BY ENTERING THIS BAR, YOU CONSENT TO HAVE YOUR IMAGE USED IN AN INDEPENDENT FEATURE FILM. We made a similar announcement to the patrons, and since we weren’t asking anything else of anyone, we got underway. Kelsey and Ryan bellied up to the bar and started chatting while Cam moved around with the camera, grabbing intimate, handheld shots as the two stars chatted and laughed, talked to other patrons about the trip, and declined someone’s offer of a bite of Rocky Mountain Oysters (if you don’t know what those are, look it up at your own risk; they ain’t oysters). Ultimately, we didn’t use much of the footage in the movie—it didn’t really fit the tone of the story—but it was a valuable experience, and one of the joys of digital filmmaking is the fact that if you have enough data cards and hard drives, filming is free. Sure, I would have liked to commit my movie to celluloid like my heroes. But it would have ended up being a different movie (well, for a variety of logistical reasons, it would have been an impossible one) and I like the movie we did make a whole lot.
We arrived in Estes Park past dark, after climbing almost a mile under a sky full of brilliant stars. We shot two more quick scenes in the motel, but people were already unwinding, and the shoot felt halfway like a party. And moments after we wrapped, people were in the hot tub. We’d left everything on the field, pushing ourselves as hard as we’d always planned, and we had about a third of a road movie to show for it. Not half bad.