Set Life: The Mirage

Today I was up before dawn. Way before… In fact, my smarter-than-I phone tells me that sunrise occurred at precisely 5:42a.m. this morning, so I know that I was awake exactly three hours and seven minutes before the day could even be called a Day. It was still just a twisted little larva of a day, unconscious and unmoving, when my phone’s alarm played the same 10 seconds of the same irritating marimba that I have heard so many times over the years, shattering my sleep and dragging me from my bed and out into the cold, dark pre-dawn air. The marimba is the only one that works for me.

Once I’m up, I always follow the same formula; teeth, clothes, backpack, “PWK” and I’m out the door. Next, I make my way down a long and laughably dark pathway to my car, waving my hand in front of my face so as to catch any lurking spiders and/or webs with my fingers rather than in my mouth. I’m convinced that if the price of my dental floss ever gets too high, I’ll have the perfect low cost alternative… Sorry.

BTW, “PWK” is an acronym that stands for Phone-Wallet-Keys. To say it aloud before leaving the house is an indispensable ritual for me, as is the esoteric, dance-like series of gestures that accompanies each letter as it is spoken. Its cadence goes: slap, slap, grab. Left front pocket, right front pocket, left back pocket… “Pee, dubya, kay”. This serves to ensure that I do not forget any of these critical items when I leave. It also injects a little jazz into the otherwise bleak, web-infested morning.

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Usually, I’m in the car and on the seven-mile drive to the yard before the bitter taste of too-earliness and spider silk really begins to subside. That first moment of relief is due in part to the incredible sight of completely empty streets in the Heart of Hollywood. La Brea is so devoid of the usual crush of cars and people that one could easily pretend to be in the UK and drive the entire route on the left side of the avenue, though I’d never do that because it’s dangerous; plus, I’m left handed, so…

By the time I arrive at the yard, I am ready to rock! I’ve listened to the traffic reports, I know my route and, with any luck, I’m carrying a cup of coffee. After a pre-trip inspection, it’s out onto the highway behind the wheel of PV1. PV1 stands for Production Verde 1. It’s one of Quixote Studios’ new solar powered marvels- a 35ft long rolling office which uses all recycled materials for it’s interior, is styled in the same sleek design as the famous Verde Talent Motorhome, and is powered by that huge ball of burning gas visible at the center of the solar system! (Fun fact: our solar system doesn’t have a name) PV1 is a wonder of modern production technology, an inspired harbinger of the great things to come in the not too distant future. It also handles like a dream, which is very nice on long drives!

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Speaking of long drives, some mornings I have only a few miles to cover to get to a shoot location- maybe to Downtown L.A. or Marina Del Rey… Today was not one of those. No. Today I had a 6 o’clock call at El Mirage dry lake bed, which is located 33 miles due East of Lancaster, a total of 95.6 miles from where I start at the Quixote lot in Culver City. That means that I must be rolling by 4a.m. at the latest if I want to make it to set on time, which is why I must hear that cursed marimba at such an awful hour. Luckily, the freeway is usually as empty as the streets are at that time; otherwise I’d have to depart even earlier.

El Mirage is as close to an extra-terrestrial landscape as you’re likely to find on this planet, especially this close to Hollywood. It’s a six-mile stretch of hard packed clay, perfectly flat and cracked like an enormous ceramic plate that has been dropped and frozen on impact. The lake bed is surrounded by scorched mountains, which seem to amplify the heat radiating from the floor. It’s like a huge satellite dish focusing all of its energy to the center. This is especially true during the hot summer months. If there’s no merciful breeze to move the stifling air around and offer a modicum of relief from the heat, it can be a very uncomfortable workspace.

I find it ironic that it is that very heat, rising from the dry surface of the lake bed and reflecting the blue sky, which gives the appearance of water from far off, and gives El Mirage its name. The hotter the day, the larger and more refreshing the imagined lake appears to be. It shimmers so temptingly, but you can never get to it. It’s a haunting sight and makes me reach for my water bottle all the more frequently.

Photo by: James Tang Photography
Photo by: James Tang Photography

When I arrived today, however, I saw no mirage. Nor did I see the sun cracked ground, or even the mountain range surrounding the bowl. There was only a vast black void, the size of which I could feel, though my eyes could not sense it. I pulled up to the park’s entrance a little more than half-an-hour early, having driven the entire route to El Mirage in the dark, with the sun was still well below the mountain peaks. There was no light anywhere. I had left the yard in the dark of pre-dawn L.A., which is not really dark at all with all the streetlights, buildings and electric billboards; you could read a book in that darkness, though I wouldn’t, cause I’m a lefty (as I stated earlier). From there, I passed into the hills of Northern L.A. County, along the 14 freeway, which was definitely darker than L.A. proper, but still well lit enough by streetlights and signs to find my way easily enough. Then, I turned East into the desert landscape, to Palmdale and beyond. Out there, the light dimmed another several lumens and it got very dark indeed, but the road was still graced by the occasional streetlight or signal. However, the further I went, the darker it got- as if time were running backward and the sun were actually fleeing the horizon rather than preparing to rise from it- until finally there simply wasn’t any light left. And what, do you suppose, lives at the center of all this mounting blackness? What, but the Lakebed itself, which has no lights beyond the small station at the park’s entrance…

Looking into nothing, toward where the lake should be, one can almost feel the weight of it. It is so dark and so empty out there that the void almost manifests as a solid object. It’s as if the streetlamps, signs, and headlights are all still there, but something is standing in front of them… an immense dark form, ominous and threatening, obscuring one’s view.

I made my way carefully across the dead lake until I found the spot where our base camp was to be. The rest of the company soon joined me and our work began. The bustle of a working production crew setting up, and the faint pink glow visible just over the mountains to the east went a long way to dispel the incantation that the otherworldly landscape had cast over us. I went about setting up PV1 to its full Verde potential: Office, hair and make-up stations up and running; Wi-Fi signal flowing; music streaming through the air tunes (no noisy generator, of course, so you can hear every note); and finally, la piece de resistance, the Illy Espresso maker all warmed up and ready to brew that first, delicious shot. Just the thing to kick off another great shoot day!

During my years in this business, I have made the 100mi. journey to El Mirage many, many times. I must say that, despite the early morning calls, the long drive and the desert heat, I have really grown to love it out here. The climate may be severe, but the beauty of this place is undeniable and totally unique. When the sun finally came up today, sometime after 6a.m., the sight of it was breathtaking. Everything from the sky to the dusty floor came alive in color and warmth. No one was immune to the effect. There were so many vivid hues and currents swirling around that it dazzled the senses. The shadows that crossed the spectrum were so sharp and so stark in contrast to the nebulous clouds and warm earth, that they hardly looked real. It was like I had suddenly perceived the lush inner-life of an old ascetic poet, whose gaunt outer aspect of waste and deprivation concealed a veritable Eden of abstract thought, inspiration and creative potential. Perhaps this lake’s barren landscape intentionally denies itself the more common forms of life and atmosphere so that it can express itself in greater spiritual terms. The mirage, for which the lake is named and which is most visible at hottest part of the day, could be a metaphor for the lake’s true nature, a reminder that the apparent desolation here is the price of a higher level of consciousness and the key to a hidden oasis.

Clearly, many see the real beauty of this place. It’s value as a canvas for their creative work is what brings whole groups like us out here to toil in the hot sun. The dry ground and seemingly dead terrain are fertile soil for creative media of all kinds. Whether it’s high fashion, cosmetics, movies, T.V., music videos, or commercials- every branch of the entertainment family tree has at one time used this lake as the setting for a venture or a project. Its simplicity and emptiness allow the imagination to stretch out its wings and take flight.

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Today I’m working on a car commercial. As I type this, three newer-than-new sports cars are racing around the lake bed at crazy speeds! They are weaving in and out of a tight formation, ostensibly trying to braid the dust trails rising up behind them. A flat black Porsche with a crane arm and camera mounted to its roof is following them very closely. It tailgates the three cars; it circles them. It weaves in and out of their complex array with what looks like no effort at all, and only a millimeter or two to spare. One could imagine that the four of them are performing an intricate and dangerous dance. In a way, that’s exactly what they are doing. And, high above them, there’s a helicopter, chasing the cars across the desert floor. It repeatedly dives down toward the cars, descending so fast that it seems impossible for the pilot to pull up in time. But with every take, he performs another heart stopping dive and swoops back up into the sky, missing the cars (not to mention the ground) by what looks to be mere inches! The precision on display here is truly impressive.

It’s pretty exciting to watch, and just one of the many things I love about my job. All those early morning wake-ups? Totally worth it. In fact, I could even say that having to get up so early and drive so far in order to be part of this endeavor is what makes the experience special in the first place. It sets us apart from everyone who is still asleep. It’s like the comfort that the old poet trades for his rich inner world, and the price that the desert pays for its sunrises and sunsets. It only seems too high a price to those who haven’t seen what it can buy.

Until the next time I’m on set,

Sam