Six a.m., Day Two. ^ We pulled into the T&A Truck Stop in Kingman and started setting up the first shot. I had had about three hours of sleep and was feeling refreshed! As Producer/Co-Writer/Cook, my immediate duty was to get everyone fed, so Michæl (actor) helped me fire up the propane stove and we cranked out fifteen breakfast sandwiches while everyone else did their thing.
Several curious truck drivers ambled over to ask what we were up to, but no one interfered with us at the truck stop. We had not asked for permission at this location, mainly because we were afraid we wouldn’t get it. But the shot here required only that Katherine drive up and park the jeep among a gang of semis, so we managed to get that one done quickly and move on to our next location.
Up until now, we had had absolutely no friction among the cast and crew, and things were going swimmingly. However, I noticed as we set up for the second shot that our novice P.A. was not, as she promised, in the RV getting some sleep while we could spare her. So what, you ask? What did I care whether or not the P.A. got sleep?
I cared because the novice P.A. was driving the third vehicle in our convoy, an SUV that carried all the camera equipment. The P.A. – I’ll call her Tina – had informed me three hours before we were set to leave that she had rented the SUV on her friend’s credit card, and she was the only person allowed to drive it. My first response upon learning this was to tell her to forget it; she wasn’t going. But after extracting a promise that she would sleep at every stop until we got to Amarillo, and that if she became too sleepy she would let someone else take over, I reluctantly gave in.
Now, out in the middle of Arizona, she was gleefully running around snapping pictures. I banished her to the RV, but you can’t make someone sleep. By the time we were ready to leave Kingman, she had the giddy, red-eyed look of the sleep-deprived, and I was worried. I admonished her driving partner to watch her carefully, and we took off for Gallup, New Mexico.
Now, Gallup isn’t really that far from Kingman, unless you’ve already been awake for almost 30 hours straight. The shoot there went fine, except that I was beginning to notice a whiff of sewage from the RV’s tanks, even though the little red lights that are supposed to indicate when the tanks are full still had two little dashes left. I knew, however, that we were probably carrying about 20 gallons of extra, well, s**t along with us, and I needed to find a place to make my first sewage dump.
I found that place at a truck stop somewhere outside of Gallup. It was dark now, about eight at night, and we were all officially hammered, smelly, and in need of a shower. Tina was, of all of us, in by far the worst shape. Paradoxically, she was the only person who hadn’t slept at all. Sharon and I took her aside while the others were taking their eight-dollar showers; she either had to let someone else drive, or she had to check into a hotel and catch up with us later.
She refused. There was no reasoning with her. After wasting an hour of our extremely precious time arguing, we finally determined that we were out of our league. This girl was more stubborn than we were convincing, but there was no way I was going to let her drive one foot further with a truck full of equipment, much less her own life at risk. At about eleven p.m., much to my dismay and fury, Tina drove off in her newly emptied SUV, refusing even our offer to spend the night in a hotel at the production’s expense.
The cast and crew had soundlessly transferred all the equipment to the RV while we pleaded with Tina. Now, they were all hanging out in the RV waiting, fed and freshly-showered. As I climbed back into the RV, I noticed a strange hissing sound.
“Michæl, did you turn off the stove?” I asked, sniffing the air.
“Of course.” Michæl looked at me like I was crazy. I walked over to the RV’s little kitchenette and examined the knob.
“This is on upside down.” I pointed at it.
“Yeah, it fell off. But I fixed it.” Michæl was proud of his workmanship.
“OH MY GOD. The gas is on full blast! Everybody out, out, out!” I was waving my arms like a madwoman. Everybody stepped outside, and the smokers immediately took the opportunity to sneak another one before we got on the road.
“NO SMOKING, for God’s sake!” I yelled out the window that I was now frantically opening.
“I thought I was feeling a little queasy.” Chris, the 2nd AC, fanned the air with her jacket and then stepped a good fifteen feet away from the door to light up.
It took another 20 minutes to air out the RV so no one would die of propane inhalation. By the time we got back on the road, it was probably close to midnight. I can’t remember who drove, but it must have been Neil, because I do remember Sharon was driving when we made Amarillo at around eight a.m. the next day.
DAY THREE ^ It was bright and sunny in Amarillo, and unseasonably hot for the last week of September. We finally parked the van in front of Sharon’s father’s house and immediately started discussing what shots we could get off that day. It was our hope to have a light day, then get started with first light on Saturday and shoot all day. There was only one problem. Neil was so whipped he could barely stand up, and I wasn’t far behind him. Sharon was running on nervous energy, diet cokes and Marlboro Reds. There was no stopping her, and the rest of the gang had all gotten decent sleep. We finally decided to leave Neil at the house to sleep. Better to have one less grip than to have somebody in the hospital suffering from exhaustion.
After a bathroom break and some breakfast, we all piled back in the vehicles and headed the long 40 miles out to the cross. I happened to be driving the jeep with Matt Lackey, the Unit Production Manager, riding shotgun when we first saw the outline of that nineteen story cross from about eleven miles away.
“Oye vey Gevalt.” Matt stared as the cross came ever closer. He said nothing more until we were rattling down the gravel-topped road leading to the enormous parking lot built for visitors to the cross. Matt took a long look at all the cars and trucks – many of them semis – belonging to the visitors, and mumbled two very clear words. “Continuity. Nightmare.”
Two volunteers, Bonnie and Jim Bible, met us at the entrance to the cross. No, I did not make that up. Bonnie and Jim were fanatics – uh, devotees – of the Cross, and they were less than pleased to see us with our cameras and stands and freaky California people. But Sharon and I were armed with a written letter of permission from Steve Thomas, builder and owner of the Cross. Reluctantly, the Bibles let us proceed.
To be honest, I remember very little about that day. The vastness of the North Texas plains is really amazingly beautiful in a stark, endless way, and the wind was busily blowing over reflector boards and other equipment, so much so that we had to press Sharon’s brother and 70 year-old father into service as grips. They were great, and so were the people who stopped by the cross to gawk. One thing about shooting outside of L.A. and New York; people are not jaded. They think the whole thing is fascinating, and if you ask for some help, nicely, generally they will give it to you. God bless all the truckers who good-naturedly re-parked their 18-wheelers they had unknowingly moved into the frame.
That night Sharon’s dad cooked us a great dinner of homemade pizza, and everybody had a beer and sat on the front porch of his Amarillo house. That was probably our last peaceful moment.
DAY FOUR ^ We arrived at the cross at about six a.m. Michæl and I shuttled breakfast out to the crew, and smiled at the disapproving faces of Jim and Barbara Bible. I could not for the life of me figure out what we had done to incur such disfavor. It wasn’t until that afternoon that I learned, from another volunteer, that MTV (they said it was MTV, although it probably wasn’t) had come to the cross to shoot a music video and proceeded to put about 30 almost naked dancers under the cross, scandalizing the volunteers and sending them scurrying to the phones to warn Steve Thomas that his location was being defiled. I tend to side with the volunteers here; I doubt the makers of the video came clean up front about their plans for the location. Saturday was pretty smooth, mainly because we still felt like we had one more day to get all the shots we needed, and the blind faith that we would get through our set ups was still intact. The only complication was the weather; it was unmercifully, unseasonably hot. By the time we wrapped on Sunday, the 12 of us had gone through 30 cases of water: that’s 12 bottles of water per person per day.
Thank god for Wal-Mart.
>b>DAY FIVE ^ By the time we started the first shot on Sunday, we were feeling a bit desperate. We had 26 set ups to get through, and we only had until the sun went down. Bettye Fitzpatrick, the revered theatre actress who plays the mother, had a six o’clock flight to Houston, which I was desperately trying to push back.
In the middle of all of this controlled panic, literally right in the middle of a shot, a tall, lanky man in his seventies stormed up to me (I guess it was the clipboard), and pointed a bony finger in my face.
“Are you in charge here?” he demanded. He had no less than twenty Catholic medallions pinned to his western shirt.
“Uh, yes. I am.” Mystified, I could only stare at him. He took one step closer and pointed his finger even closer to my nose.
“Is this a cult?” he almost whispered.
“A cult?” I parroted back to him. I was lost.
“There are one thousand, six hundred and twenty-three known cults in the United States of America, and I think this is one of them!” he thundered. “And if you are a cult, I can have fifty lawmen here in 20 minutes, and you are all going to jail!” He stepped back and crossed his arms, satisfied that he had suitably terrified me. I was not terrified, although perhaps I should have been. In fact I was confused.
“We are not a cult.” An obvious response, perhaps, but an honest one.
“Are you folks Catholic?” he peered around at the cast and crew.
“I am.” John, the DP, volunteered, trying to be helpful.
“Uh, no sir, I was raised Southern Baptist.” I answered, relieved. In this part of the world, that answer was bound to please (besides, it was true).
“The Baptists are nothing but a cult!” He spun around and took all of us in in one sweeping gesture. “The Catholic Church is the one and only true church!”
I have to admit, on my list of things that could go wrong, this little item had never turned up. Fortunately, moments later we were rescued by Vince, another, calmer volunteer, more inclusive in his religious views. He explained to us that the old man was a large financial contributor to the Cross, and that he “hung around” quite a bit in a most unofficial capacity. The Cross itself, I was assured, was non-denominational. The old guy was placated by a plate of hot food brought in from the only restaurant (the Café) in Groom, Texas, but he took several other opportunities to lecture me on the holy mission of the Catholic Church.
Despite the strange interruptions of the day, we did in fact finish, got Bettye Fitz to her plane, and set out to start the long drive back to Los Angeles at nine o’clock that night. Somehow, the trip home was easier, maybe from the elation of having finished the job at hand. It was still dark, we still got no sleep, and we still had to empty the sewage tanks, but we got back to L.A. safe, sound, and all in one piece.
Reflecting back on that trip, I think it was completely crazy of us to load up 12 people who barely knew each other and venture in a rented RV half way across the country to the capital of nowhere.
And I would do it again in a heartbeat.
The film referred to in the article above is aptly titled: “A Thousand Miles.” It has screened at numerous festivals, including the 2000 Palm Springs International Short Film Festival, the 2000 Winfemme Los Angeles Film Festival, the 2001 Immaginaria Festival in Bologna, Italy, and the 2001 Mardi Gras Festival in Sydney, Australia. It was acquired by the Gay Television Network for satellite TV broadcast in December of 2000. For more info, check out the official web site.
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