Moab and movies: Area famous for years of famous films
Red rock deserts have more in common with red carpets than one might think.
Although southeastern Utah seems like a better place to pitch a tent than a director’s chair, rural areas from Moab to Monument Valley have hosted some of the biggest names in motion picture history through the years.
And two of those big names recently left town.
For the past several months, Disney Studios and Fox Searchlight Pictures filmed in southeastern Utah’s landscape on two very different projects.
The 100-person crew for Fox Searchlight Pictures’ “127 Hours” was significantly smaller than the estimated 400-person crew for Disney’s “John Carter of Mars,” but both movies will showcase southeastern Utah in the months and years ahead, said Bette Stanton, area film historian and Moab to Monument Valley Film Commission director from 1984–96.
The movie “127 Hours” is based on the true story of climber Aron Ralston, who cut off his arm below the elbow after it was pinned by a boulder in a canyon miles outside of Moab in 2003. The film is slated to be released later this year.
“John Carter of Mars,” a live action, digital animation $350 million Disney blockbuster, isn’t scheduled for release until summer 2012.
The red rocks, canyons, rivers or mountain landscapes that will appear in both movies are the same landscapes that have lured producers to southeastern Utah for decades, said Larry Campbell, locations scout and longtime Moab resident who worked with both Disney and Fox Searchlight Pictures at varying stages during the filming process this year.
Locals and outsiders alike might be surprised how involved southeastern Utah has been in Hollywood history, considering that 95 percent of all films, television shows, print advertisements, music videos and commercial shoots that happen in the area occur with little publicity, said Tara Penner, director of the Moab to Monument Valley Film Commission.
In fact, on July 12 four projects — a print ad, a small independent film and two TV shows — were using the Moab area for production, and there was no indication that anyone other than Penner knew they were around.
A young woman working at Moab Coffee Roasters that day thought Disney was still filming in the area even though Disney crews left several weeks ago.
Unless productions hire local talent, information about filming is kept hushed. Even Penner must keep quiet about what is happening. Directors don’t want people hovering and they don’t want other studios stealing their ideas, Penner said.
During filming for the Disney and Fox Searchlight Pictures movies, several hundred Utah residents were hired to work on sets and had to remain secretive about the movies’ plots and protocol.
Penner said people who work in the industry are accustomed to movie studios’ demands in terms of hours, getting to locations and confidentiality.
And not many people living in Moab understand industry expectations better than Campbell.
He quit his job as a safety engineer in the uranium industry nearly 30 years ago to get involved in films. He has no regrets.
Only a few people in the area can make a living wage while relying on film, commercial or TV industry work, he said.
“You love it or you don’t make it,” Campbell said, remembering days when he used to drive more than 100 miles from Moab to Grand Junction to send photographs to movie studios via Federal Express because Moab didn’t have a Federal Express office and cameras weren’t yet digital.
“It’s not an easy industry. You don’t have to worry about anyone having an ego because they all do,” Campbell said.
In his 27 years in the movie business, Campbell distinctly remembers some highlights.
One of his best experiences was nearly 30 years ago during the making of “Thelma & Louise,” which includes a final scene at Dead Horse Point State Park.
Campbell worked closely with director Ridley Scott to help him find his way around southeastern Utah.
“Ridley Scott and I just clicked from the moment we met,” Campbell said.
Campbell also built the vehicles used in the movie, including the 1966 teal Thunderbird driven by Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis.
Campbell credited “Thelma & Louise” (1990) and “Geronimo: An American Legend” (1993) for increasing Moab’s visual exposure, which in turn boosted the area economy that was ailing from the mining busts of the 1980s.
Fellow location scout Joe Kiffmeyer agreed with Campbell.
Although most of Kiffmeyer’s 20 years in the industry were spent working on commercials, he credited “Thelma & Louise” with bringing a whirlwind of automobile commercial shots in the 1990s.
“Right after that (movie released), European and Asian directors called and said they wanted those ‘Thelma & Louise’ skies,” Kiffmeyer said.
A few years later, he was working on 23 projects at one time, Kiffmeyer said.
Although “Thelma & Louise” may have increased Moab’s exposure, film historian Stanton credits the birth of southeastern Utah’s film industry to the Western genre, according to her book “Where God Put the West.”
The 1925 movie “The Vanishing American” was the first film shot in southeastern Utah, but it wasn’t until 1949 with director John Ford’s “Wagon Master” that the industry made its way to Moab.
Ford fell in love with Professor Valley off Utah Highway 128 and came back less than a year later with John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara to film the 1950 movie “Rio Grande.”
Ford’s fondness for the region prompted some locals to call it “John Ford Country,” Stanton said.
“Geronimo” was the final large-scale American Western filmed in the Moab area.
Riding along Highway 128, with the Colorado River canyons on one side and the La Sal mountains on the other, Stanton wished Westerns would again become a popular genre.
No matter what area movie Moab residents list among their favorites, they should feel a “sense of pride” about seeing their backyard in commercials, films, TV shows, print advertisements and music videos, Penner said.
However, there is a segment of residents who wish Moab was not of interest to the film industry or tourists in general, Penner and Stanton said.
But movie production generates millions of dollars through permit fees and crew expenses, and is a boon to the area, they said.
For example, the recent Disney and Fox Searchlight Pictures filming resulted in $23.5 million being generated for the southeastern and northern Utah economies, Penner said.
While the money trail and the big screen shows where film crews have been, the actual ground might not.
At the base of Fisher Towers east of Moab, the location of one of the recent Disney’s sets, the sagebrush looks untouched and no paper remnants or leftover sets remain.
That is by design, Penner said.
Typically, a monitor oversees daily production to ensure vegetation, land and animals are not disrupted by any outside project.
And sometimes actors or crew members would rather spend nights outdoors instead of in, Campbell said.
During filming of “127 Hours,” Campbell camped out with director Danny Boyle, who won an Academy Award for “Slumdog Millionaire.”
Although “127 Hours” required such remote sets that equipment was flown in by a helicopter, Boyle spent several nights camping on location. He wanted to experience the vastness of the desert at night, Campbell said.
“I’ve scouted all the red rock areas of this country because people are convinced there must be other places like this,” Campbell said. “There aren’t.”
Penner and others hope directors, producers and actors will continue to show interest in Moab and spend their money in rural southeastern Utah.
Penner, with a smile, of course, couldn’t divulge details of any future projects, though.