Day 11: The Four Corners

In late July, the average temperate in Ouray, CO tends to be in the low 60s. Meanwhile, at Four Corners—the spot where Colorado meets Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico—it can easily get up to the mid 90s. That is a hell of an adjustment to make in the course of a morning, even when you’re not rushing around to shoot the climactic scene of a scrappy little independent film. But it was an adjustment we had to make. We didn't have time to complain.

Over the years, many films and TV shows have used Four Corners National Monument for metaphoric value. This is where you can stand on one spot and be in four places at once, an ideal location for feeling lost and indecisive—maybe the most emblematic example being the episode of Breaking Bad where Skylar drove out to Four Corners to make a crucial coin-toss.

I wrote this turning-point scene in West of Her with a similar metaphoric value in mind. It’s a bit on the nose, but it’s a striking, unique location that happened to fall right on the route of Dan and Jane’s trip, so I couldn’t help myself. In the script, I wrote that Dan and Jane stand directly on the convergence point, feet in all four states, as they have a long, emotional conversation. Early on, though, I realized that would be unfeasible. Four Corners is a huge tourist destination, with a full-fledged monument and vendors all around to hawking refreshments as people wait to take their novelty vacation photos. Dominating the spot for any length of time just wasn't an option.

We decided we’d roll up to the monument and make a game-time decision as to where we’d shoot this very long, very intense scene. We figured we’d have plenty of time, but there were two factors that made it tough to do leisurely consideration.

Factor one: that morning we had decided to shoot a driving scene. It was a brief conversation between Dan and Jane, just a couple of lines for each of them, a oner (a whole scene in one shot, no cutting between angles), but this had been the first time we’d used the window rig since South Dakota a week ago, and we hadn’t quite gotten it right back then, so this time there were adjustments to be made—and even under the best of circumstances, dangling a top-of-the-line camera out the window of a car while actors both drive and perform is going to take some time and maneuvering. So once we’d gotten that scene done and made it to Four Corners, we only had a few hours before closing.

Factor two: this was the most complicated dialogue sequence we’d shot. It wasn’t a matter of just a few setups, this scene needed to be handheld and intimate, and it needed to be shot from many different angles and distances to match the emotional intensity. That would mean a lot of movement for Cam, while holding a camera that wasn't exactly feather-light, while Ryan and Kelsey would have to harness an intense emotional pitch for a protracted length of time, not an easy task in heat that was flirting with triple digits.

So we needed to be fast, and we needed to be efficient. We chose a location a few hundred yards from the monument, out on the edge of a rocky slope, and we got down to business.

To this day, Cam doesn’t remember a thing about shooting the scene. It’s a blur to him. Usually, you’d want to shoot plenty of takes on the same angle before moving on; instead, we would shoot one take, move to another spot, do another take, and so on. Every shot in the scene is the first and only take of that angle. We got more than enough coverage, but the camerawork hovered on the edge of frantic, leaving Cam dazed and exhausted.

While I hadn’t necessarily written this scene to be semi-hallucinatory, that vibe works perfectly in the finished product. It’s another one of those happy accidents that you discover while shooting—though on that blistering afternoon, none of us found anything particularly happy about our circumstances.

From Four Corners, we pushed on to Kayenta, AZ, where we were setting up shop for two nights, the first time we’d shot multiple days in one location since the Corn Palace. We squeezed a little more shooting at the hotel, because we hadn’t had quite enough fun yet, and then we collapsed. It had been a big day, and there was a very, very big day to come.