The Making of a Micro Budget Western, Desert Angel

by Jana Segal

While I was working on my Tombstone comedy script, I started to get the itch to make another short. I was doing a lot research on Tombstone in the 1880s trying to get into the mind set of that time period (the language, the customs, etc.) So I read a collection stories of the old West and found Charlotte Hall's 1880's story, "The Fruit of the Yucca Tree" about a pioneer couple lost in the desert on Christmas Eve. I thought this would be the perfect second project because I could keep my head in the same general time period that I was already researching. Also, it could be shot all on one set much like a play - so I could concentrate on adapting script and working with the actors. (It also didn't hurt that it was in the public domain.) Heidi Brozek, the actress I worked with at the directing workshop, had suggested that I write another short that we could produce together and that became, "Desert Angel." We decided to have the pioneer wife be of Polish descent so the wife could share one last Polish Christmas with her dying husband. We incorporated Heidi's Polish heritage by using Polish costumes and customs including paper cutout tree ornaments and the tradition of hiding hay under the place mat.  I think the Polish customs really make the film. We screened it for a Tucson Polish club. They were so moved by seeing their customs on film, that they passed a hat to help pay for the expenses.  

The thing I love best about filmmaking is working with talented artists of different disciplines - actors, costumers, cinematographers, photographers, set designers, writers, musicians, etc. I reconnected with my old Brandeis classmate Paul Sedgwick after finding him on his didgeridoo website.  Paul, who played the crusty banjo picking prospector, researched the music of the time and performs it on a vintage banjo accompanied by the West River Band.  Richard Tompkins wrote the touching song, "If I Could Only Fly" especially for the short.

DESERT ANGEL had it's premier screening at Scheffalin Hall in Tombstone, Arizona to an enthusiastic audience. Here is my post-screening speech. 

Once, I read in a low budget filmmaking book that the micro budget filmmaker should make a list of all the things he has free access to such as locations, vehicles, props, etc. I thought how easy it will be to put a wagon out in the desert and shoot it all on one set. We live in the desert and I see wagons all over town. It turned out to be REALLY hard. First, you need to find a wagon and get it to the desert. It is actually pretty hard to move those antique wagons. Then you need electricity for the lighting equipment. In our story, the pioneers are lost in the desert, so there probably wouldn't be any loud generators out there. And then you have to be able to legally have a camp fire. I researched different state parks and they required special licenses. That was more trouble than it was worth, so we ended up shooting in Old Tucson Studios where they had electricity and they let us have our fire. We paid a discounted rate of $500 to shoot for two days. (Their usual price is $1,600. a day.) And we also had to have $500 insurance. But that price included three costumes, moving the wagon, security guards and a horse. And everyone at Old Tucson was just so helpful. It was definitely worth it. (The entire cost the 17 minute video was $3000 which included an airline ticket for our banjo player, the props, costumes, a wig, an additional light set to supplement our free Access Tucson equipment, a propane tank to keep the campfire consistent, and yummy craft services.)

Unfortunately, there were record winds on the day we shot. So we had to shoot between gusts of winds. (And around the Park's stunt show schedule -- which we happily agreed to because they gave us such a swimming deal.) When the wind finally died down at 2 a.m. we heard AIRPLANES overhead! And cars -- in the middle of  the night! We shot for thirteen hours getting burned by the sun in the day and shivering at night. Despite wearing a protective hat and constantly reapplying the strongest sunscreen, my face was puffed up from being out there in the extreme elements so long. We pulled off a minor miracle shooting a 17 minute Western in 18 hours!  Needless to say, we didn't get up for our 4 a.m. sunrise shoot. But we were there when the park opened and heard the train ride conductor announce that we were shooting a movie on the High Chaparral set! (If you listen real carefully you can hear a train whistle in the last scene of our film. This is funny when you consider that our characters where supposed to be lost in the desert and they were within hearing distance of that train the whole time! Makes me chuckle anyway...) Still, what a thrill to shoot on the High Chaparral set and at the same studio where John Wayne shot many of his Westerns!