Day 13: The Grand Canyon

Yesterday, we shot at Monument Valley. Today, we were shooting at the Grand goddamn Canyon. If you’re gonna make a sweeping, cross-country road trip epic, you might as well go all-out, right? But first, there was a tough choice to be made.

Back when I was writing West of Her, I had gone through several drafts, and the Arizona section always felt like it was missing something. Late in the rewriting process, I hit on an idea: Dan and Jane should go on a hunt for ice cream. My girlfriend and I had visited this area a few years earlier, and we’d gone out looking for ice cream only to find that every fast food place was sold-out, and something had struck us as indescribably funny about being denied ice cream in the middle of the desert, with every obstacle just making us want it more. I wrote it into the script, and it felt like the perfect moment of lightness in an otherwise-heavy passage of the film.

But, of course, I had overscheduled the shoot, and no day was as ridiculously overscheduled as this one. I’d put the ice cream sequence in the morning before planning for the Grand Canyon (a nearly three-hour drive from Kayenta) in the afternoon. The ice cream sequence would mean moving all over town. It was more complex than the Corn Palace sequence, and that had taken two days. There was no doubt about it; we didn’t have time.

But that ice cream scene did serve a load-bearing function: during the ice cream hunt, Jane had to suggest they go to the Grand Canyon. I couldn’t exactly have them jump from Kayenta to one of the world’s most recognizable landmarks without acknowledgment, so I did a quick reimagining of the sequence, and we shot something in the motel room that served the same function. Mario convinced me to shoot Kelsey saying “I want ice cream,” just in case we found time to shoot the ice cream sequence later, but I knew in my heart the sequence was gone. Shoots as overscheduled as West of Her don’t offer sudden opportunities to grab abandoned sequences.

I wasn’t particularly heartbroken about it. The version of the movie we were shooting wasn’t the same as the one I’d written, and there was more lightness in this version than I’d imagined when writing the script. The ice cream scene could drop away without sacrificing much. And anyway, who cares about ice cream? We’re going to the Grand goddamn Canyon!

When we arrived, we met up with the park ranger assigned to us, a young woman named Emily. Her supervision was a requirement of our filming permit, but it ended up being one of the best things that happened to us in the whole shoot—it should come as no surprise that the Grand Canyon was crawling with tourists, ones who either wanted to ask questions, or unwittingly obstruct the shoot (with a setup as small as ours, it was surprisingly easy to mistake this feature film shoot for something like a really fancy vacation video). Emily ran interference for us, and we could work virtually independent of the crowds. And in the finished film, you wouldn’t even know there were crowds all around us. We made sure of it—not only would it break the mood, but the last thing we needed was to chase down every tourist for an appearance release.

One element of the day, though, was an initially unpleasant surprise: there was a thunderstorm brewing. Naturally, I had envisioned an idyllic, crystal clear day, and a breathtaking sunset the cap it all off. So far, the weather had cooperated every step of the way. I never bothered imagining that would change now.

But soon after we arrived, the storm clouds started gathering across the canyon. I was distressed at first, but Devin pointed out something that changed my perspective: we’d gotten beautiful sunsets at 1880 Town and Monument Valley. A little variety in our sweeping vistas was actually pretty interesting, and on top of that, the Grand Canyon sequence comes at the end of an idyllic stretch of the film, as things are about to take a turn for the emotionally stormy. What could be better than having the weather provide us with a metaphorical foreshadowing?

So I was feeling pleased enough, and then nature provided something even better: lightning started to strike. As Kelsey and Ryan did their now-customary loose improvisation by the rim of the canyon, bolts of neon light started flashing in the sky, the type of crystal-clear bolts you hardly ever see. “That’s some free production value!” Adam crowed.

But the best was still to come. We’d been shooting a few hours of relaxed, romantic improv when Kelsey and Ryan leaned in for a kiss. And then, just over their shoulder, the clearest, most dramatic lightning bolt of all time shot from the heavens to the earth, and Ryan leaned back, cutting off the kiss prematurely. Cam had to cut there. He put the camera down, shaking with excitement. “Did you see that?” he asked everyone, his energy so high is was almost panic. “Did I really just get that?”

We all ran to the monitor, and he played the scene back. Yup, he got it. He got a once-in-a-lifetime shot—hell, he got a shot you’d be lucky to capture in ten lifetimes. We were freaking out so dramatically that tourists started to ask to take a look, too. It became a communal event, and after almost two weeks of interacting with virtually nobody but each other, it felt great to share this moment with a crowd. And we knew this was a shot we’d be sharing with a LOT of people for a long time to come.

We shot past dark, until we’d gotten everything we could out of our time at the Grand Canyon, and then we headed on. It had been a long day at the end of a long week, and we were beyond hungry, so making our way out of the park in the dark took a toll on us—realizing you made a catastrophic wrong turn and need to reverse an RV a for hundreds of yards through the woods will stress you out—and our best option for dinner, a strange gaudy barn of a restaurant outside the park with lousy food and poor service, did nothing to pick up our spirits. The rain hit us hard as we got back on the road for the last stretch of driving to our motel, though things were delayed even further when we realized we’d left Hillary back at the restaurant—with that many people and that many vehicles, it’s a wonder it only happened the once, but, understandably, she was pretty upset about it.

We finally arrived at our motel, wet and wrung out, and hunkered down for our second weekend off. We were two thirds of the way through production, which meant we’d all been crammed into tight spaces, working long, hard hours with a bunch of strangers for two full weeks now. And what better place to decompress than stuck in a roadside motel in the middle of the desert with nothing to do and nowhere to go?