Day 12: Monument Valley and More

There were some jam-packed days on the West of Her shoot. There were some long nights. But July 19th put the rest of them to shame.

There were three items on the to-do list when we woke up in Kayenta, AZ, a small desert town about a half hour’s drive from Monument Valley, and even then, we had a lazy morning with nothing on the schedule before noon. The first item was a restaurant scene, which we would shoot at our motel. I’d had some anxiety approaching the owners about using their motel extensively over our two-night stay, but I was shocked by how amenable they were. It turned out they were transplants from Los Angeles, they’d previously worked in the film industry, and they were delighted to have their new business immortalized onscreen. They made their restaurant available to us right after lunch, and even hung around to watch us shoot this simple across-the-table scene.

This scene is one of Cam & co.’s greatest achievements. In the film, Dan and Jane sit at a table bathed in beautiful sunset light, so rich you can just imagine the blazing desert out the windows. And when I tell people that we actually shot the scene at midday, their minds are always blown. Yes, with just one lamp, an orange gel, and a few bounces, Cam, Anneliese, and Devin executed a borderline-magical transformation from plain noontime light to gorgeous sunset.

And then it was on to my most anticipated sequence, the sequence that had practically justified making the movie all on its own: we were shooting at Monument Valley.

Even if you don’t know the name, you know the location. Made famous by John Ford’s westerns in the first half of the 20th century, this small patch of Arizona has become synonymous with the American west for its unique, breathtaking rock formations. It’s been featured in movies from The Searchers, to 2001: A Space Odyssey (where it stands in for an alien planet), to National Lampoon’s Vacation (where it serves as the backdrop for the Griswolds to wreck their car). Even Pixar’s Cars features a CGI landscape modeled after Monument Valley. And now we got to add ourselves to the long list of films that shot there.

When I wrote the script, I imagined we might just grab a few shots of Dan and Jane driving through the park, but when we began doing more improv, I knew right away that we’d be doing at Monument Valley what we’d done at 1880 Town: we would turn Ryan and Kelsey loose to explore, get to know each other, and blur the line between fact and fiction. So far, we’d shot almost entirely in sequence and in real time, so they’d known each other as long as the characters had, and the line between actor and role was becoming thinner every day.

And so we wandered, and they talked, and horsed around, and at first I policed them: Kelsey would drop a personal detail about her past, and I would correct her, “You don’t talk that much about your past.” But soon enough, this was making them self-conscious and hamstrung, and the moments were sagging when they should have been taut. At one point, Ryan and Kelsey were a few hundred yards away, but since they were wearing wireless microphones, Tanner could hear them on his headphones, and he told me, “They don’t know what to talk about.”

So when we got closer again, I started firing prompts at them: “Jane, ask Dan when he first really felt like an adult. Dan, ask Jane what’d the cruelest thing someone can say to someone else. Jane, ask Dan what other era he would have wanted to be born in.” That latter one made it into the film, and it’s one of my favorite moments—I realized then that semi-structured improvisation is really the best kind. Anything else can easily fall slack.

We spent hours in Monument Valley, but as it got towards evening, I started getting anxious. We still had one very, very big item on the to-do list. Once it got dark, back at the motel, we were going to shoot an enormous scene, a long, emotionally exhausting monologue from Jane that I insisted we do as one unbroken shot. It was going to be a massive undertaking, and we were losing time. As the sun set and the sky bloomed purple, I asked Cam, “When do you think you’ll be ready to move on?” He looked at me, shocked, and said, “When the light stops being so cool!” And he was right, this was once-in-a-lifetime stuff we were getting, stuff you sell a movie on, so we rolled another twenty minutes, but I was keenly aware that we were risking our ability to get the most important scene of the film.

Finally, we got back to the motel and had dinner (where we irritated the staff with our order—the previous night, someone had asked to substitute grilled chicken for some other protein in a specific sandwich, and the restaurant had made an exception, but it tasted so good that now everyone wanted it for every meal, and the staff was getting less and less amused with us; we should have offered to sponsor it somehow and gotten naming rights). And then, as everyone else headed back to their rooms to get ready for the task ahead, Cam and I sat at the end of the long table, looked at each other, and said, “How the hell are we going to shoot a monologue that could last fifteen minutes, in a cramped motel room, in one shot?” We had no idea. We’d been envisioning this shoot for almost a year, we’d driven 1,500 miles, and still we had no plan.

And then we got to talking about our very first short film, back at the Maine Media Workshops, written and directed by me and shot by Cam. We’d used a lot of long takes in that, too, and we’d been inspired by Nostalghia a film by the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. Tarkovsky loved his long, smooth, dreamlike takes, and he’d move the actors around the space in a way that plays with an audience’s expectations of film grammar, creating a jarring, eerie effect, like a character has leapt across the room. Perfect, we agreed. We’re doing that. Let’s go!

We got set up in the room we’d be using as the set, and put the camera in the center of the room on the big tripod. Because Ryan and Kelsey would be using the entire space, there was no room for anybody but Cam and Adam, who’d be squeezing behind the camera, spinning it slowly to follow the actors’ movements. So most of the crew went off to relax in their own rooms, while Tanner, Mario, and I huddled in the bathroom, door shut and lights off, Tanner running audio on his headset, Mario and myself watching the take on a wireless monitor.

It was pushing midnight by the time we finally rolled. It had been a twelve-hour workday. A less enthusiastic crew might have declared a strike, but mine was all-in. We did this complex, emotionally draining shot three times, each one lasting well over twenty-minutes (“I just did a shot that’s longer than an episode of How I Met Your Mother!” Cam exclaimed at one point). Jane’s speech, which has virtually no input from Dan, is sort of a spiritual exorcism, and Kelsey had left everything on the field by the time we’d finished the third shot. I was more than satisfied with what we’d pulled off, and Kelsey just said, in a small, tired voice “If Ethan’s happy, I’m happy.” We called it a night.

We had run ourselves ragged. It was time for a little rest. Tomorrow, we were doing it all again.