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A Sense of Menace in the Desert

June 26, 2009

by Sam Hutchins

Outside Twentynine Palms, Mojave Desert, California

Outside Twentynine Palms, Mojave Desert, California

Continuing on, we passed through Twentynine Palms. Seeing signs for the Joshua Tree National Park, we briefly considered a detour, but it was already getting on into the afternoon so we skipped it. From the look of the map it looked like we were heading into the desert soon, and we did. Twentynine Palms is actually a decent size town, fueled largely by a massive Marine Corps base just outside city limits. It’s also one of those western towns that just ends. Never ceases to amaze me when I see that. You’re on the main drag, with seemingly countless gas stations, bars and gun stores. Turning onto a side road you travel a few similar blocks, pass some houses, and then the city just stops. You’re in the wilderness. Makes me wonder what it’s like to live in that last house on the edge of town. Don’t know that I could handle it. Sure, the view would be great, but how do you sleep at night knowing you’re the closest food source for any wildlife that requires such? Then again, whoever that guy living in the last house in town is he probably would think I was crazy for living in New York City.

Just a few miles out of town we saw an adobe roadhouse. I didn’t particularly like the looks of the joint but it was likely our last shot at lunch for quite some time. Unsurprisingly there were several meth-head types and other sorts of scary frontier types sucking down dollar-fifty beers at the bar. I gave my standard spiel about scouting and introduced myself around, playing the role of hail-fellow-well-met. Quite unusually no one really seemed to give a shit. We were free to shoot pictures as we pleased. The place was sort of interesting-looking but not great. Snooping around the place it appeared to be a pretty heavy biker bar and I was happy we had not stopped there in the evening. The place carried a tangible sense of menace.

The bartender was one of those women who look like they are 38 going on 60, definitely some rough living there. She seemed fairly annoyed that we wanted hamburgers and had to be talked into making us some. When she reluctantly agreed, she came out from behind the bar and walked out the door. We sat and watched as she crossed the yard to a nasty old trailer and banged on the side with her open hand. She did so until a gorgeous young blonde emerged, stretching and pretty clearly just rolling out of bed for the first time that day. They returned to the bar with the younger of them shuffling wordlessly into the kitchen to make us some lunch. It took a few moments to figure out but eventually the resemblance between the two women registered. They were mother and daughter. That lithe young thing was going to become the used-up bartender with the hacking cough now pouring us cokes and cracking dirty jokes in due time. I wanted to tell her to run, get out while she could, but I didn’t suspect the sentiment would be well-received.

At first, my road buddies Stephane and Darius seemed oblivious to the bad vibes I was getting but eventually it registered with them as well. For such sensitive guys they can be a little oblivious at times. By the time our food came we were all eager to finish fast and get on our way. I’m not sure if living in the extreme conditions of the desert warps people, or if previously warped people are drawn to live in harsh conditions like that but there is an unquestionable edge of strangeness to most people we met living out there. Until you’ve travelled in similar places the film “Near Dark” doesn’t make much sense. Once you have, it feels more like a documentary.

The old mine.

Deposits from the old mine.

Pressing on, we hit the gold mine. Literally and figuratively. We found a stretch of desert road running through land owned by a mining operation. The waste of the extraction process left what appeared to be a crust of salts and other minerals baked into the desert floor and piled along the roadside. It was quite striking visually and we spent a good deal of time shooting pictures. It would prove to be attractive to Kar Wai as well, and we revisited it with him later on. Certainly toxic to some degree, it nonetheless was such an odd-looking spot on the earth that it begged to be filmed. Between the wind farm in the morning and the mineral flats in the desert it was a productive day so far. If we could keep this pace, finding two good locations for Kar Wai each day, we would have an abundance of riches to return with. I took down the mining company’s information so I could contact them for permission to film there later and we moved on down the road.



Sam Hutchins has been working in film production for twenty years. He started as overnight security on the set of “Working Girl” while attending film school at NYU. Since 1995 he has been a location manager for some of the top names in the business. He’ll be blogging from a unique insider’s perspective on the filmmaking process, as well as speaking to his colleagues in the production community to share their experiences with you.

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