Friday, July 2, 2010

Starship Troopers remembrances

Former South Dakota Film Commissioner Gary Keller has provided another guest blog post. This time we learn some great stuff about the filming of "Starship Troopers."

A couple of key things that made Starship Troopers work in South Dakota were these: when I was showing the Barry Barber ranch to the production designer and location manager, the production designer Alan Cameron (who has a vast resume, including the DaVinci Code) thought it was an interesting place but that some of the small badlands buttes kind of got in the way of his idea for another planet. I turned to Barry with this big "this is IT" look in my eyes that the Hollywood guys could not see, and said, "Well, they could bulldoze a few small mounds if they needed to, couldn't they Barry?" to which he replied in his great, quiet South Dakota cowboy understated way "Well, I guess so, as long as they put it back the way they found it." That really sealed the deal...the fact that the landowner was willing to work with them to get it done. And credit must be given to the Kadoka people who pointed the production in that direction in the first place.

The second key thing that sticks out for me on that movie is the explosion they set off, which they said was the largest explosion in movie history to that point. Which I assume it was...Hollywood people don't brag about something like that if it would make them look stupid. So the morning that it was supposed to happen, all I had was my own personal 35mm Nikon camera without a motor wind or anything. I was going to have to rely on my thumb to forward the film frame by frame as fast as I could. About 5 minutes before they were to set off the explosion (which was going to be matched with digital computer animation of spaceships flying in shooting the missiles which this real physical explosion was to be the end result of), I realized that we were within only about 50 miles of Ellsworth Air Force Base, which is the second largest B 1B bomber base in the country. And there were constant training missions by B1 pilots and other jets in this area. I explained the situation to good friend and location manager Bill Bowling, who agreed it would be a really good idea to let Ellsworth know, and he loaned me his cell phone. I called my co-workers back at the Tourism office in Pierre to look through my Rolodex to find her card, then quickly dialed Major Wetherill at Ellsworth, explained that in about 5 minutes there would be an 800 foot high fireball about 50 miles east-southeast of Ellsworth, so that if there were pilots on training runs for combat flying around the ranch, or satellite surveillance, or God knows what kind of aerial reconnaissance, they would know what was going on. The last thing I needed for a strategic command airbase to think was that some terrorist had just set off a real explosion so close to their base. Major Wetherill thanked me, alerted pilots and the command center, and the on-set explosion went off without a hitch. Although Bowling and I were at least a half mile away from the explosion, when it went off, a wave of heat from the combustion blasted us as we stood on the rim of the Badlands looking down into the valley where they set it off. I was able to capture 3 or 4 decent frames of the explosion at beginning, middle, peak and end. Of course, it was not an "explosion" at all, because no Hollywood explosion was a "fast burn" which means that the concoction of whatever combustibles they use to build film explosions burns quickly, like kerosene, but doesn't actually explode, because an explosion would not be visible as a fireball onscreen. It was a magnificent fireball like you see in the old documentaries about the first nuclear bomb tests...and probably was at least 800' high. It was a one-time shot and had to be perfect...and the high tech folks on the Starship crew did it perfectly. They got it in one take, which was what they were hoping for.

That same morning, I shot a picture of Bill Bowling on that same Badlands rim, which he used in his postcards for his location manager business, a tremendous honor. I still remain in contact with Bill and enjoy the camaraderie we had on both "Thunderheart" (1991-he was the original location scout) and Starship Troopers (1996). Bill remains one of Hollywood's top location managers to this day, and for a very good reason...he is extremely good at what he does. And South Dakota has been the beneficiary of his work.

Here's a photo of the rubber prop gun signed by many of the cast and crew of "Starship Troopers" from Gary's private collection.

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