Often iconic films that are so familiar to movie fans now were once under-funded, given little chance to succeed and challenged by filming locations. Star Wars, directed by George Lucas faced much skepticism even when he screened rough cuts to his movie business friends. The complexity of his "fantasy film" vision required new art direction creativity, technological invention and luck to bring it to the local screens.
The director was leading the second unit doing the shots in Death Valley when he had called in Mark Hamill to be on set. Unfortunately, on the January, 1977 Friday night on his way out to Death Valley, Hamill had a bad car accident. He was transferred from the first hospital where he had been taken to Mt. Sinai because of the severity of his injuries. Gary Kurtz reported, "They operated from about nine o'clock in the morning to four in the afternoon. I saw him at four-thirty and Mark said, 'Oh, I'm sorry I got delayed. As soon as I get out of here this morning, we can go.' He evidently had no idea what he looked like." (The Making of Star Wars by J.W. Rinzler).
They would have to continue without Hamill, which was quite a loss for Lucas' plans, but he had to go ahead in Death Valley. "There were a lot of things I wanted to shoot with Mark that we had to do without -- bits and pieces and at least ten close-ups -- but that was just fate," stated George Lucas. "We ended up using a double in the landspeeder shot."
Dressing the elephant in its three hundred pound costume to become a Bantha was another worry. Lucas says that they all fell in love with Mardji but it was the first time she had been out in the real world.
Lucas says, "They led her down to a creek in Death Valley and she just loved to play around in that creek." Death Valley Ranger Charlie Callagan told me they still have pictures of the elephant in the parking lot at the Furnace Creek Ranch getting dressed.
Artist Leon Erickson had created the Bantha costume using yak fur among many materials. Mardji was a trained African elephant trucked in from the theme park Marine World Africa U.S.A., located in Vallejo in Northern California. She had been trained to tuck her trunk into her mouth and when dressed, she became a Bantha. Ron Whitfield, director of general theater at Mardji's amusement park home, remembers it took six men working for more than a month to build up the costume. He remembers the base was a "howdah" or elephant saddle. The curving horns were made from flexible home ventilation tubing, her shaggy coat from palm fronds and the head from chicken wire sprayed with foam. "Although she was able to water-ski for spectators at the park, the Bantha tail made of wood and covered with thick bristles gave Mardji problems, but her trainer gave her apples which compensated for the costume."
The Tusken Raiders were added and the filming went perfectly. Bantha Canyon was actually Desolation Canyon in Death Valley.
Another challenge was filming the landspeeder scene. The way they had tried to do it before simply had not been believable and did not work. Lucas states, "We finally tried using a mirror, and came close, but it didn't work either. So when we went out to Death Valley, we redid the mirror and made it sturdier and made it longer, and raised the car a little higher, and found a lake bed that had topography that was easier to work with. Then we shot it again, but that didn't work because not enough care was taken to make the mirror and get the landspeeder going fast enough. Finally, Bob Dalva came back with a crew and made it work. But he only got one shot and we needed three. So then we sent another cameraman to get the final two shots using the same method." Many avid fans searching for the exact location speculate some of these scenes were made on the Owens Lake bed near Lone Pine.
R2D2's sand dune was found by the filmmakers at the Stovepipe Wells Dunes. It is possible to locate the area approximately by using the mountains in the background as markers, but because the parking area has just been altered and the sand dunes are always changing, it is difficult to find the exact area the way fans want. Still, out there it is easy to feel like you are on the deserts of the planet Tatooine.
The best story about the making of Star Wars: A New Hope in the Death Valley area is the work some of the students from Death Valley Unified Elementary School did playing Jawas, those little fellows with beady eyes and dark cloaks.
There was a husband/wife team of teachers controlling the black boards and playgrounds at the time. Nancy and Mike Prather laughed as they told me about the experience of using some of the kids to complete George Lucas' filmic vision.
For many years, movies had resorted to casting kids in small roles, or asking a principal to empty a classroom for an afternoon to help fill out crowd scenes.
Now there are many regulations controlling the use of children on a set because of historic abuses. A credentialed teacher must be on set to work with the students so their studies do not suffer.
For Star Wars, the major scenes using the intergalactic scavengers had been shot using little people in Tunisia. The shots in Death Valley were primarily to show the Jawas carrying the R2D2 (Artoo) robot back to the sandcrawler. Nancy Prather remembers that the student leading the group carrying the R2D2 had trouble with the hem of his Jawa robe. Each step he took pulled the robe down so it seemed he was walking up the inside of his robe. "Cut! Let's try that again."
The next day the students were very excited in class about being actors in a movie. Remember that no one had heard of a movie called Star Wars yet. The teachers assured the kids that it was exciting but that a lot of films are made that you never really hear of again. "So if you never hear again about a movie called Star Wars, don't be surprised or disappointed." Whenever they think of that day, or run into any of the students, some of whom still live locally, they have to smile at their little lesson in life.
Many science fiction films of the last sixty years have apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic elements. Natural or man-made catastrophes threaten or destroy the earth in these films. Or the plot focuses on life and human nature of survivors after the great disaster has fallen.
For these films and directors, urban barrens in our cities, or our own vast deserts make for great and inexpensive locations to tell these apocalyptic stories. Death Valley demands to be starred as a stark landscape, stripped of life by atomic warfare. Still the land is beautiful in its cinematic reduction to soil, salt and the sweat of the human stragglers as basic stories of survival are told.
Six-String Samurai (1999) is one low budget feature that managed to capture a very original and satirical vision of humanity after the bomb. It parodies our fixations and addictions of today in a reflective style. Rock and roll, violence and power all play a part, as does cynical, yet amused light heartedness. In the face of impending disaster, we are adept at smiling and mocking our denial, "playing the fiddle while Rome burns," if you will. Samurai's visual style as well as content reflects the message the filmmakers mean to carry.
Six-String Samurai was made on a micro-budget in Death Valley over an extended, frequently interrupted period. It grew up to be adopted by a film company, supported with two million dollars; it found a distributor and achieved that ambiguous honor of becoming a cult film.
The film begins with a gorgeous thermonuclear explosion, lit and colored with the pinks of dawn, just like they did in the 1950's films. This stock footage greets the viewer and sets expectation, which the film quickly tweaks. Through a scroll that rolls on the screen we learn the set-up. Here it is quoted from the synopsis that was part of the press packet that accompanied the original release. "In 1957 the bombs dropped, and the Russians took over what was America. The last bastion of freedom became a place called Lost Vegas, and Elvis was crowned King. After forty rockin' years, the King has died and word has spread -- attracting the attention of every guitar picking, sword-swinging opportunist, including Death himself. As skilled with his guitar as with his samurai sword, Buddy's a hero who's all too willing to fill the King's blue suede shoes."
Buddy has saved the life of an orphan. They form a team as Buddy makes his way towards Lost Vegas, although Buddy does try to shake the kid loose several times. "Along the way they encounter bounty hunting bowlers, a cannibalistic Cleaver family, a Windmill God, and even the Russian Army. They arrive at the gates of the city where he must confront Death."
"Buddy finds himself in an epic battle with Death over the child's soul and comes to realize just what it means to be King. He may be able to kill 200 Russians and play a mean six-string at the same time, but to turn an eight year old kid's tears to laughter, is a skill harder to master."
The film project was the brainchild of Lance Mungia, who had recently graduated from film school at Loyola and Jeffrey Falcon, who had returned to the States after achieving note in the Asian martial arts as well as working in several Chinese martial arts films. They co-wrote the script. Mungia directed while Falcon played Buddy. But as with many micro budgeted films, the two men filled many other positions as needed.
Six String Samurai and its young, creative cast and crew succeeded because passion for filmmaking, their startling vision of the future of our culture, and plain chutzpah. When they chose to film in Death Valley, they had a palette of stark and beautiful desolation to work with, until they broke some basic rules of the park and were caught where they didn't belong.
Director and Writer Lance Mungia has written of his experiences in getting "Six-String" made. "The Head Ranger God, with lightning bolts in hand, came flying out a few minutes later, in his impressive Hum-Vee. He ran the whole lot of us, UHaul and all, in to the station. The first thing The Ranger said to me when he got me in his office was 'So...who is Ricky?' [It was a password they had used to say the Ranger was nearby.] I shrugged and smiled."
"With a decent fine, we were cast out of Death Valley. All Rangers were instructed to shoot if they saw our UHaul stopped anywhere on the way out. Refusing to waste the rest of the weekend, we stopped at Palm Springs to shoot this scene with Buddy and the kid finding the motorbike amidst all these windmills.... If we hadn't been thrown out of Death Valley, we'd never been able to get the scene, which is one of my favorites."
By eight a.m. it was ninety degrees, by nine-thirty at least 104. "It was 116 degrees at noon and we had gotten two shots off. Two shots was a miracle, since we'd only recovered bits of our equipment, and couldn't find half the crew because every time you sent someone to get something, it took them an hour to find it, and then another hour to find their way back."
"The shoot was gonna be a lot harder than when I had eight friends with one dinky camera if I wasn't dead by silver bullet after the first week, that is."
Mungia had an epiphany about filmmaking that day. It sums up how he finally got the film finished. "The soles of my cheapie army boots melted off that day. I reflected back, as I was feeling hot sand squish my duct-taped toes, which were too near the scorpions that lived just under the sand...Screw it! I'm making my movie, I don't care if I die trying. Let the scorpions come! Everyone else thought I had sunstroke, but I was just having my moment in the sun."
The film was finished, and became what many call a cult hit. Viewed today it is unique, visually stunning and enigmatic.
The ever-bigger budgets of today's films often become creative straightjackets on movie ) producers, directors and writers. The bigger the financial risk, often the less daring the money people will let the filmmakers be. That does not avoid very big movies, in the sense of money, being real stinkers. Still, real stinkers sometimes can make a bucket of money.
On the other hand, low budget, micro budget and no budget films can lack polish and slick special effects, but make up for it with no holds barred stuff that flickers on the screen. Making these films can be fun too. Bleak Future (1995), another post apocalyptic movie, made partially in Death Valley and at the Dumont Dunes in 1995 is one of those movies.
Again it is what is commonly called a "cult" film. All that indicates is that it found an audience but not necessarily the Saturday night crowd in the local suburban Cineplex. Cult films share little in common except not to expect what you usually see in Hollywood films. This may be slickness, lack of the latest recording equipment and cameras and professional actors. What you can expect is a vivid vision (not necessarily critically clear or focused) and not always what you might categorize as good.
Bleak Future is crazy, brilliant, energized and hilarious, if you are drawn to the kind of humor typified by mainstream Monty Python works. It makes fun of the post-apocalyptic artistic sensibility, proving it can take itself too seriously. As we take apocalyptic films seriously, this is an important message. After all, if the world is going to hell in a hand basket, do as Nero did with his fiddle, let's party!
Brian S. O'Malley, producer, co-writer and director, sets the record somewhat straight in the extras, of which there are a lot on the DVD disk. After debating with two other voices, about if they knew each other in grade school, he establishes the film was
developed over several years through more than a dozen rewrites. The actors, he acknowledges, were friends, and did not consider themselves serious career performers. They were unpaid. The film was shot in super 8, the original sound "tinny," although he explained they did rerecord much of it. Of course, there are the stories
of being undone by location (and weather,) remarking it rains in the desert as well as being over one hundred degrees.
The plot line illustrates part of the film's intent. History is forgotten, the world is a vast desert, and humans have lost technology entirely. The DVD cover says it best. "Slangman, a traveling salesman of words and relics from the 21st century (like soda cans and Twinkies) teams up with a tongueless Scottish warrior (the actor hated saying lines), a stupid blonde actress, and a hippie, to battle madmen and savage mutants as they cross the post-nuclear wastelands in search of a legendary place called 'The Source,' an oracle of ancient wisdom rumored to hold the power to enlighten the world...or destroy what's left of it."
The blurb references "in the independence and spirit of 'Mad Max' and 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail'.... Pack your sand and some batteries and watch out for mutants! The end of the world is now!"
In a true post-modern spirit, the disk contains more material in extent if not quality than the actual film. So watching is much more about the context of making the film than what the film is about. That is fitting. The disk claims, and mostly has: "A brand new Digitally Restored and Color-Corrected Film Print* All new Stereo Sound Mix* Subtitles in English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, Portuguese, Arabic and Pig Latin* Over 55 minutes of Bonus Video, including 7 Behind-The-Scenes Featurettes* Full-featured motion menus* Several new soundtrack cues* Scene Source* Deleted Scenes and Shots* Out Takes* Over 500 Never-released photos in 6 galleries* Director, Co-Producer and Make-up FX Creator Commentary* Cast Commentary* Comprehensive Technical & Production details Scrapbook and production sketches* Trailer* Cast and Crew biographies*Interactive Map of the Bleak Future World * Original Shooting Script (DVDROM)* Bleak Future Wallpapers (DVDROM)* Complete Bleak FutureMP3 Soundtrack (DVDROM)* Secret Hidden Bonus Features, including Femme's Drinking Game." I challenge you to find a movie DVD with more.