I recently read Conquest of the Useless, the journals that Werner Herzog kept while making the film Fitzcarraldo. It's a great read about one of my favorite films. It made me want to watch Fitzcarraldo again. Watching the film again made me wonder why Herzog put his cast and crew through such hell to make this movie. He insisted they shoot in the Amazon. As a result, people crashed and burned in plane flights across the jungle, contracted malaria, and were impaled on the arrows of angry tribesmen. And in the end, most of the film could have been shot along any leafy river, if not in Herzog's backyard in L.A.
We started shooting our movie Go South for Animal Index in Cuba. That's Cuba, Missouri. Okay, it's not a distant malarial country with hostile pre-industrial natives. But it is a long drive for a volunteer cast and crew. The location there, a farm owned by friends of ours, is pretty rugged. It's a long drive up a rough road that requires four-wheel-drive, and there is a lot of real estate to cover on the farm between locations and home base, making it possible to lose an hour in simply relaying messages back and forth.
I love shooting there, but the director is always more invested in making a movie, better prepared to endure hardship and expense, than the cast and crew, even in a collective endeavor like Poetry Scores. I've felt compelled to find more convenient locations for as many shoots as I can. Reading Herzog's book about making Fitzacarraldo made me realize that less rugged and remote in location need not translate into less rugged and wild on screen.
So I was at Atomic Cowboy recently to produce a public event for a friend. Walking around the courtyard of this oh so conveniently situated venue, I realized I was looking at a leafy fenceline.
(When I shot these reference images my wife went along to add human scale, as requested by Laurent Torno III, our direct of photography.)
There are major storylines in our movie involving leafy fencelines. I have spent a lot of time in the wilds of Cuba looking for leafy fencelines. Here is one, I realized, that would probably work for the scene where the soldier wanders off the military base bomb factory, Lost Almost, and finds temporary comfort in the arms of a whore who lingers around the base. (My wife was not cast as the whore.)
There are tribal people living on the fringe of the base in our movie, just as there were at the historical Los Alamos. (My wife, in fact, plays a tribal person.) It's a little over the top, but Atomic Cowboy even has a tribal idol the soldier could wander past on his way to some action.
When I turned around from the fence at Atomic Cowboy, thiking about movie locations, I was looking at the outdoors bar at Atomic Cowboy. Given its mode of construction (Quonset hut), this could so easily be a military base comissary.
Our movie needs a military base commissary! Another soldier orders a hamburger there, which he then trades for moonshine with the tramp who lives in the woods.
The commissary has funky tile we'd need to mask, or accept in its spectacular weirdness -- all wrong for a military base, but maybe all right for a military base in a silent zombie movie based on a highly conceptual poem (by Stefene Russell).
This bike would have to come down, though it's arguably period.
Just today, when I was shooting these reference images, I noticed in the corner of the Quonset hut at Atomic Cowboy an old-fashioned wood-burning stove.
Our movie needs an old-fashioned wood-burning stove! At the actual Los Alamos, the base's executive secretary (aka the Atomic Lady) used the wood-burning stove in her office to burn secret documents, which was a daily occurrence at a place that, at the time, officially did not exist.
We are making a silent movie based on a long poem that should import no (or very little) language other than the poem into the movie. That means no intertitles to set the scene or move the narrative along. In a purely visual medium, burning by hand documents shown to be secret is a great way to suggest the secrecy of the environment, so I plan to rely a lot on this.
The stove will be behind the secretary's desk, which will be a focal point in the movie. During the intake scenes, the secretary is flanked the general who runs the military side of the base and the physicist who runs the nucleur bomb shot. The sightline away from the desk, shooting the recruits coming in, is not at all great. We'd want to line up soldiers back there, or some plywood painted grey, to mask the shot.
This is a crucial location in our movie, and I found a great candidate for it in St. Clair, Missouri, on property owned by Donny Blake and family. St. Clair is closer than Cuba, but not nearly as close as Atomic Cowboy on the near South Side.
I'll be tempted to try to make this interior work for the Los Alamos office. The exit of the intake office needs to lead to the exterior in St. Clair, which leads to a perfect walk down to the shed we are using as a bomb shop. The exit at Atomic Cowboy:
The exterior in St. Clair:
Lots more pictures of the St. Clair location for Lost Almost are over here. It is a fabulous location, though matching its exterior to the interior at Atomic Cowboy would require some work and luck. It helps that the Atomic Cowboy interior does not exit from this angle to a Quonset hut exterior!
Another problem. All three of these locations in the same tavern's courtyard -- whore's fence, commisary, and intake office -- would need to appear in the movie as three separate universes that are not this directly physically connected.
We can shoot tight on the fence and make this work for that scene. Though we'd need to shoot tight in between these two telephone poles, which can't appear. (None of the other junk would be in the courtyard for the shoot.)
Looking out from the commissary you see a similar leafy fence to what is in the soldier and whore shot.
I can live with that. It would be the same flora anyway, on the base and outside it. Also, we can stack up soldiers behin Pfc. Sack when he places his hamburger order.
Oh, and Buddha would have to go from the commissary, though he could pop back up in Opje's (Oppenheimer's) home, if we can borrow it for the day.
Some of this is supposed to happen, I would say, as fate looked down from the drink specials board as we left today.
I know, Atomic Cowboy, Manhattan Project -- it's not such a shocking coincidence. That's why we held our early meetings for the movie at Atomic Cowboy. Which is why it makes so damn much sense to shoot some of it here!
Happy Halloween! - T. Renner, "For Halloween," 2014, acrylic on corrugated cardboard, 10" x 24".