“What’s the movie about?” a very solemn man in a cowboy hat asks us.
I hesitate. One of the first things I learned when traveling to West Texas to shoot our low budget indie BEST FRIENDS FOREVER was how to pitch to strangers in order to convince them to let us shoot in their gas station/taco stand/state highway. My producer, Stacey Storey, usually used “we’re just a bunch of Texas gals coming home to make a movie” whereas I generally went with the “it’s such a small production” casual route.
But by the time we talked to the gentleman who ran The Cowboy Church (not a joke), I was exhausted from trying to find several new locations at the last minute. Noticing this, my first AD jumps in, eloquently telling the cowboy the plot of our project. At some point, he tears up as he says, “The movie is about the world falling apart around you. It makes you ask yourself what’s most important to you.”
I hold my breath and look at the tall Christian cowboy standing in front of me.
“That sounds great. Y’all can use the church for your little movie.”
It was the day before the first day of shooting and we had now officially secured The Cowboy Church as our base camp. Sure, it was four miles from the location, but we were shooting in the middle of nowhere, outside of Alpine, Texas, and we felt fortunate to even find a building with running water.
When talking about shooting our apocalyptic road trip movie, my goal was to stay as authentic as possible. In the film, the two main characters drive through West Texas and, due to the lack of people, radio signals and general absence of life, have no idea that a nuclear bomb has detonated in the United States. I thought it was a genius plan to shoot it like a road trip – everyone could drive to West Texas and we could shoot on the empty highways there. Then, we could caravan to Austin for the remainder of the film.
When I say, “film,” I mean film. Against all odds and perhaps this is one of those instances where ignorance is bliss meets my stubbornness, we decided to shoot our movie on Super 16 mm. The gritty texture of Super 16 seemed like the perfect medium for capturing the beautiful West Texas landscapes.
Most independent, shoestring budget features don’t shoot on film because it’s too expensive. Stacey judiciously figured out that we could afford between 1200 and 1500 feet per day of shooting. Anyone who has ever shot on film just gasped.
The first day’s location was where three highways intersected but was surprisingly light on traffic. The mountains were on one side, the desert on the other and endless highway on the last, creating a perfect triangle.
We had switched to the “triangle” after taking my sound team (one very brave woman) to my original choice for the location. She shook her head.
“It’s like a wind tunnel.”
While the “triangle” wasn’t a complete sound nightmare, it did have another drawback we discovered about West Texas – no cell phone service. The first day began and everyone was late but they couldn’t call to let us know. If they got lost, they couldn’t Google where they were or look at the map in their inbox.
In spite of all of this, as the sun rose over the desert and I watched my DP set up her first shot, I thought that we were in the most beautiful and perfect place in the world for this film.
Somehow we successfully completed our first day even though we had to shuttle people back and forth from the Cowboy Church (we later got an RV to be on set all the time which at one point spilled the entire contents of its waste system onto a Texas highway). I quickly learned how little film 1200 feet actually is and how to divide a scene up so that we didn’t shoot the entire thing from an angle I wouldn’t use (sorry to my editor). I also learned to prep my actors on being ready for only shooting one or two takes (sorry to the actors).
And even though we didn’t get to see the labor of our work until a full week after it was shot because we had to ship off our film to be developed and wait for it to return (in the cheapest ground shipping possible), when we saw the expansive landscapes on the grainy film stock, I knew dragging everyone out to the middle of nowhere had been the right choice.
Brea Grant is the director of Best Friends Forever, a post-apocalyptic road trip movie premieres tonight at the 2013 Slamdance Film Festival. Brea has acted in several films and television shows including Heroes, Dexter and Friday Night Lights.