David Clair was shooting a video on gold miners in the Mojave Desert when he stumbled on a run-down town that gave him the chills.
Surrounded by salt flats, the town of Trona, off California 178 in the Searles Valley, was once a thriving Borax mining community that had been devastated after decades of layoffs. Stores were boarded up, windows smashed in and empty houses were littered with garbage.
“It was truly a scary and disturbing place with a post-apocalyptic feel to it,’’ recalled Clair, who was so inspired by the bleak town he decided to make it the setting for his first feature film, the ultra-low-budget horror flick “Lost Lake." The film debuts on cable and Internet video-on-demand sites Oct. 26.
Clair, who created and produced the Bravo series “The It Factor,” shot nearly the entire film over 11 days in Trona with a cast and crew of just eleven people.
The town’s buildings and bleak landscape were ready-made sets for the movie, about a young couple that heads into the desert in search of a missing ghost-hunter, only to find ghosts that are real and very deadly.
“Trona had its own story going, its own tragedy in place. We just had to absorb it,’’ said Clair, who also wrote the script with his filmmaking partner and director Marcus Nash. He financed most of the film’s $50,000 budget with his own savings.
“When our production designer Mark Ilvedson read the screenplay, he asked if we were crazy,” said Clair. “‘There’s no way we can do all this on such a low budget.’ Then he saw Trona and exclaimed, ‘I get it. All the props and sets are already there.’’’
With its moon-like landscape and rocky outcroppings, Searles Valley — near the entrance to Death Valley National Park — has been featured in several films and TV shows, including the 1960s TV series “Lost in Space.”
The Trona Pinnacles, spires that rise out of a dry desert lake, represented an alien planet in “Star Trek V: “The Final Frontier” and became a battleground in Tim Burton’s “Planet of the Apes,” according to the book “Hollywood Escapes.”
But aside from occasional music videos, commercials and a recent adult film, the town of Trona doesn’t get much film business. “We’re so small and out of the way, we don’t get a lot of interest,’’ said Andy Ledesma, an 83-year-old resident who owns the local coffee shop.
The last big film to shoot in town was the 2008 romantic comedy “Just Add Water” starring Danny DeVito, Jonah Hill and Dylan Walsh. Some locals are still unhappy with how they were portrayed in the movie, which depicts Trona as a dead-end town overrun with meth addicts.
Other nearby towns get more film action, especially “living” ghost towns such as Randsburg, featured in such movies as “Chopper Chicks in Zombie Town” starring Billy Bob Thorton.
On an initial scouting trip to the area, Clair said the owner of the general store in Randsburg gave him the cold shoulder, saying, “We don’t like independent filmmakers. Only big movies are welcome here.”
But Clair got a much more receptive response from the residents in Trona, which had been a thriving town in the 1950s but was nearly wiped out by decades of layoffs at the local mine. Since the 1970s the population has fallen to fewer than 2,000.
Locals offered advice on where to shoot. The town’s unofficial mayor suggested they use Trona’s ghostly airport for a dramatic “Lost Lake” chase scene in which a woman runs between airport hangars to evade a man chasing her in a giant pickup truck.
Clair and his crew also filmed scenes at an old toy store, a former pizzeria, a small grocery store whose shelves were mostly empty, several abandoned houses and shacks, and at a local Elks Lodge, which was lined with photos of the town during happier times.
“They were happy to help us in any way they could,’’ said Clair, adding that the only difficulty was the furnace-like temperature, which climbed to 115 degrees during filming in April 2011.
Gordon Steffek, who serves on the local airport board and has rented out cars to film crews, welcomes the film business, which is typically referred by the Kern County Film Commission or the Ridgecrest Area Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“It’s a great place to film because the surrounding area is not well known,’’ Steffek said. “It’s rugged and remote and it looks like you’re on Mars.”