Day 14: The Arizona Desert

Any road trip gets tough sooner or later. Even on a vacation with your oldest friends, you get tense and touchy from spending all that time together. And the West of Her shoot was no vacation; this was a work trip with brand new friends. So it was inevitable we’d hit our breaking point eventually. And, of course, we had been a shockingly lucky crew so far—nothing had really gone wrong. So it was probably inevitable, too, that we’d hit a huge problem eventually. But then, on our second break from production, both those things happened at once on a hot and empty patch of roadside in the middle of the Arizona desert.

There aren’t many options for an overnight stop between the Grand Canyon and Phoenix. But that was where I’d scheduled our first break since Colorado, so we didn’t have much choice after our big day at the Canyon except to drop everything at this roadside motel—while we’d taken three nights in Colorado, we decided we only needed one day off in Arizona, and given how inopportune a spot we chose, that ended up being a wise move. Of course, when I’d picked this stop I had envisioned this motel was in some kind of town. But no, when we arrived late at night in the middle of a rainstorm, we discovered nothing but our accommodations, an attached restaurant, and a whole lot of dust.

The first misfortune struck when we woke up in the morning. Booking the motel, we had made absolutely certain that we’d be allowed to leave the RV in the parking lot for the two nights, since there was no nowhere else to put it. But that morning, the owner of the motel came to us in a rage, demanding we get the enormous vehicle the hell out of his parking lot. We explained that we’d gotten permission, but he wasn’t having it. So Dave and Devin scrambled to find a campsite to park the RV that night, and what was meant to be their rest day became a dreary slog.

The second misfortune was an enormous one: I hadn’t been able to check email in the past two days—in the middle of the Arizona wasteland, options for wi-fi or data are few and far between—so when I finally got online that morning, I had an email that took my breath away and threatened to cripple the whole film.

We were scheduled to shoot a major scene the next night in Phoenix, one of the only substantial scenes featuring characters aside from Dan and Jane. We needed someone with a very specific body type, and a very specific acting style, to play a pretty major role. So I’d hired an actor to fly in from LA and stay in Phoenix overnight to shoot with us. His flights, cars, and accommodations were booked. I had no reason to think it wasn't happening, but when I opened my email, I found a note from him. He’d decided not to get on the plane. He was mad I hadn’t responded to an email a day earlier (a day I’d spent in a full online blackout), and since he hadn’t yet signed his contract, he was electing to drop out of the film basically out of spite.

I panicked. There were things we could cut—we’d lost the ice cream scene a few days earlier with no trouble—but this was not one. This was a lynchpin. And someone I trusted had casually pulled the rug out from under the entire production with a little over 24 hours until cameras rolled. The only thing that lifted my spirits was Ryan’s advice: “Write back and say, That’s for the best. I cast you because I was thinking it should be a really big, cartoonish performance, but we’re actually going for something more naturalistic. He’ll never get out of bed again.”

Desperate, I grasped at the only straw available. I emailed the other performer in the scene, a Phoenix local named Caitlin, and asked her if she knew anyone who could play a huge role with virtually no preparation.

“I bet I could get my boyfriend to do it,” she responded.

Intrigued but wary, I wrote back to ask, “Is he an actor?” She responded that he was indeed, and an experienced one. She sent along a couple of photos. And…he was perfect. The crisis was averted, but it was averted VERY narrowly, and I was shaken to my core.

Meanwhile, spending our one precious day off stuck in a motel that felt a lot like purgatory was wearing on people’s spirits. We only had the two cars, and pretty much everyone wanted those keys. Suddenly, people who’d been collaborating happily just a day earlier wanted nothing more than to be very far away from each other. It was only two nights, but when we were sweaty, tired, and all-around over it, it felt a lot longer. Bickering broke out, unhappy compromises were struck, and we trudged through what ended up being the worst day of the entire production.

But as we got ready to go to bed, I got another email: our IndieGogo campaign—which had been quietly running for months, creeping closer to covering the budget one small donation at a time—finally hit full funding. We weren’t losing money on this shoot after all. It was a very, very small gust of wind in our sails, but that night, we really needed it. We all sort of wished we were back home and done with this wild adventure, but that news sent us to bed with a tiny burst of energy. People wanted us to finish this movie. We couldn’t very well let them down, could we?