On the outback lot

Special to The Times

No matter how tough it got, they always had the karaoke. For the desert crew of Quentin Tarantino’s forthcoming martial arts epic “Kill Bill,” the rigors of work in the dry heart of the Mojave Desert were frequently soothed by the balm of a good old sing-along. Without Ruby’s nightclub in Barstow, the desert heat and dust could have gotten the better of them.

“On our last night of filming, 40 crew were in Ruby’s. We all went up to the stage and karaoked to ‘Kung Fu Fighting,’ ” recalls location manager Doug Dresser. “After spending 14 hours a day, every day, out there for probably two months, we were bitter, we were salty, we were gritty. But we were also having a great time.”

Salt, grit, heat -- welcome to the distinctive world of movie shooting in the Mojave, which has long been a kind of second home for film crews. From early shoots like “Hell’s Crater” (1918) and “Wanderer of the Wasteland” (1924) -- the first western shot in Technicolor -- through blockbusters (“Star Wars,” 1977), epics (“Spartacus,” 1960) and monster melodramas (“Them!,” 1954), Hollywood’s favorite wilderness has consistently supplied the film industry with big sky, unearthly landscapes, great light and potential disaster.


The Mojave’s boundaries take in Death Valley at the northern limit, Joshua Tree to the south, and the sloping Nevada border to the east. A section of Interstate 5 in the Antelope Valley roughly marks the westernmost edge. “Kill Bill’s” Dresser knows the terrain well. He arranged Barstow’s dry lake as the site of the Twister bar in Robert Rodriguez’s “From Dusk Till Dawn” (1996) and has 10 years’ experience scouting out the area’s driest and most photogenic corners.

“You always have challenges when you film in a desert environment because it is raw and it is real,” Dresser says. “Quentin always looks for authentic desert environments. He likes to find what’s actually there and make it work.” Dresser notes that in the script for “Kill Bill,” Michael Madsen’s character originally resided in Texas, but when Tarantino saw the location he rewrote the setting so it became the city of Barstow.

Dresser is accustomed to expecting the unexpected in the Mojave. The aftermath of a heavy rain, for example. “We had a near miss with Daryl Hannah,” he says, recalling a scene in “Kill Bill” where she pulls off a highway onto a dirt road in a 1970s Trans-Am T-top. “One of the hazards you have in the area is that some of the dirt roads get washed out by floodwater. She was driving about 40 to 50 mph, and she came dangerously close to putting the Trans-Am into a ditch. Only due to her quick reflexes and expert driving did she narrowly avoid a 4-foot plunge into the river wash.”

Then there’s the heat. “It is quite unique,” says desert location coordinator Mike Dougherty, who has supplied Mojave expertise to movies as diverse as 1998’s “The Horse Whisperer” and “The Siege,” both partly shot at Dumont Dunes near Baker. “There’s no humidity. Therefore any moisture that’s about goes through a process called sublimation; when you sweat it goes immediately to vapor, it doesn’t form on your skin. Your body gives up moisture very fast. I’m not a very tender, caring guy, but it’s terribly embarrassing when the lady who signs your checks passes out.”

Dougherty’s career in desert services began in spring 1987 when an Englishman, hired to direct a spark plug commercial, needed someone to get him in and out of the sand without getting stuck. Dougherty volunteered his services. “Basically I’m the guy that has the knowledge of the desert, and I have these big, specially built dune buggies.”

Desert turf battles

Not all the buggies at Dumont belong to Dougherty. Laura Sode-Matteson, location manager on Ang Lee’s “Hulk” (2003) and the forthcoming Disney feature “Hidalgo,” discovered that buggy drivers would occasionally, and inadvertently, disrupt shooting. “Sometimes they’d come in the middle of the night, park right in the middle of our set,” she says. “That was a little tricky, but they were all very pleasant, very polite, and they worked with us.”

Most territorial conflicts between the public and filmmakers are resolved through tact. Sometimes hard cash is the only effective solution. “There’s a couple of squirrelly guys in Randsburg,” says Ridgecrest film commissioner Ray Arthur, referring to the community that provided the backdrop for “The Brave” (1997), starring Johnny Depp. “When assistant directors say, ‘Quiet on the set!’ there’s going to be a guy gonna torque up his lawn mower or walk into the scene. They’re just waiting for somebody to give them money so they’ll leave. I tell anybody that films in Randsburg that 99% of the businesses and people are very cooperative, but there are a couple of wingnuts up there, so be prepared to have a handful of 20s.”

Many desert shoots are so isolated and self-contained that invasion by unwanted aliens is unlikely unless they come from the sky. For seven weeks, Trona Pinnacles (near Ridgecrest) became an encampment for the small army of cast and crew on Tim Burton’s “Planet of the Apes” (2001).

“We had China Lake weapons facility adjacent to the Pinnacles,” says the movie’s location manager, Robin Citrin. “It meant a lot of F-16 [fighter aircraft] flying over our set to see what we were doing. You don’t really know they’re coming until they’re right on top of you. The crew loved it, but the director was getting a little sick of it.”

A common misconception about potential danger in the Mojave concerns the wildlife, in particular rattlesnakes, whose very mention tends to strike fear in the uninformed. The lack of natural cover in exposed areas like the Dumont sand dunes makes for poor snake habitat; they tend to favor the margins of sagebrush and creosote bushes. “They’re not at all aggressive,” Arthur says. “The reason rattlesnakes shake their rattlers is to warn you that they’re there. The exception to the rule is the Mojave green [Crotalus scutulatus scutulatus], who will tend to go after you.”

Especially if you go after them. “Last summer they filmed the Disney feature ‘Holes’ at Cuddeback Dry Lake bed,” Arthur continues. “While they were shooting a scene with Jon Voight and Sigourney Weaver, the kids picked up sticks and went rattlesnake hunting. The first time they heard rattlers they ran the other way. They got a stern talking to by the director, Andy Davis. Andy then brought the Bureau of Land Management monitor over to put the fear of God into them. After that, nobody went out into the bushes.”

The perils of venturing into Mojave shrubbery are not always as real as they appear. In 1939, a story ran on the entertainment pages of newspapers the world over, detailing a terrible misfortune that had befallen James Cagney in Death Valley during the filming of “The Bride Came C.O.D.”

Co-star Bette Davis, it was reported, had argued with Cagney and dumped him in a patch of cactus plants. The film crew removed an alleged “275 needles” that had taken the actor to within an inch of irreparable humiliation. And there were pictures to prove it: Cagney atop the cactuses, his face a near-death mask of distress.

The story, it turned out, was phony, the work of the studio’s publicity department and photographer Gene Lester. The cactuses were pure Hollywood: rubber imitations.