Day 15: Phoenix

Phoenix, AZ is not the world’s most thrilling city. But it had been over two weeks since we left Chicago. After that much time in the wide open spaces, Phoenix was as exciting and overwhelming as Manhattan.

The day kicked off with another cut—I’d written a scene involving a mother and her very young son, and we tried to figure out a way to make it work even getting in touch with a local mother to appear onscreen, but when the day came, we couldn’t justify the time and effort it would take to capture a scene with no bearing on the story. As always, Assistant Director Mario wanted to keep the schedule intact, and he tried to convince me to shoot some form of the scene. But knowing the movie inside and out, I knew the brief scene could go without losing much impact, and I was keenly aware of the ragged nerves the crew was grappling with. So the mother and son scene bit the dust, and by now, it’s hard to even imagine it belonging in the film at all.

So we found an out-of-the-way street to shoot one quick but essential scene (which meant maneuvering the RV in a downtown metropolitan area, a task so stressful I probably owe Devin years of therapy bills), and then we got on to the main event: the diner scene.

I’ll avoid spoilers by simply saying: the diner scene is a big one. It’s unlike anything else in the movie, a moment that breaks the dreamy spell of the past hour, and I was excited. But I was nervous, too—in particular, this scene meant that for the first time, two strangers would be dropped into the middle of this two-week-old filmmaking family.

When we got to the location, we met Caitlin and Cord, our co-stars for the night. They were friendly and talented, but as we got to work, I got the distinct impression they didn’t know what to make of us. After fifteen days of forced bonding, the inside jokes ran thick with the West of Her crew, and it was hard not to constantly turn to Caitlin and Cord and say “Sorry, you sorta had to be there…”

In retrospect, that night of shooting feels sort of like a fever dream. I had envisioned this scene taking place at the most old-fashioned 50s diner possible—Cam had wanted his all-American dive bar, I wanted my all-American diner—and when I wrote the script two years earlier, I used Google maps to find my ideal spot. It perfectly matched my vision, and hell, even the name was beautiful—the 5 & Diner. So I wrote it into the script. And when it came time to schedule, we called the owners; it seemed like a real long shot to get the location you were dreaming of, but nothing ventured, nothing gained, right? And yet…they agreed. And so, as had happened a few times already, I got to take a scene from my mind and plant it directly into the film, a strange and magical experience.

And after days of shooting in pleasant, natural light, shooting in the pink buzzing neon glow of a diner will make anything feel slightly hallucinatory, so I was already a little dazed when the cops started driving by.

It was pretty late, so the diner’s proprietors had gone home for the night, leaving us with instructions for how to leave things when we were done. And when the police cruisers started doing slow laps around the area, I figured I knew what was up—we looked sketchy. So the third time they passed, I jogged over, and the cruiser slowed to a stop. I introduced myself, and explained: “Hi, we’re shooting a little independent film, we have the owners’ permission, I’d be happy to show you our shooting permit.”

But the officers in the car cut me off. “No, that’s fine. But listen – there’s an escaped mental patient in the area. We’re all keeping a look out, so – if you see him, would you give us a call?”

On a night that already felt like a lucid dream, it seemed pretty reasonable when I told the officers I would indeed call them if an escaped mental patient wandered on to our set. We were pretty close to finished anyway, so I decided to keep it to myself as we shot the rest of the scene. We’d cross the mental patient bridge if we came to it.

Fortunately, we never did. And when we finished the scene, I said a few words that felt profoundly strange:

“Guys, that’s a wrap on Kelsey Siepser.”

Everyone burst into applause because, yes, Kelsey had just finished her work on principal photography for West of Her. Though we’d mostly shot in order, a few out-of-order scenes earlier on meant that Phoenix was the end of the road for her. Our team of North American misfits was suddenly down one MVP.

I wrote checks for Caitlin and Cord, thanked them for wandering into the middle of this wild operation for a few hours, and we retired to the motel, where Kelsey handed us each a brown paper sack containing a postcard she’d bought at the Grand Canyon to thank us for the role we’d played in this adventure. We planned how to reimburse her for her trip to the airport, and then we said goodbye.

Losing Kelsey was a sea change in the trip, and anyone who’s undertaken a huge adventure knows how strange it feels to come to any ending. Movies have trained us to expect things to fade to black in a definitive finish, but life doesn’t work like that. We were all just grabbing a few hours’ rest and then getting back on with our work. What looks like a fade to black in a movie is really just a cross-fade in real life—the next morning, you get up and start the next chapter. So that’s what we did. A major player was walking away. But the show must go on.