November 30, 2014

You Can’t Run from God


Unless you’re one of those disaster tourists looking to get your kicks from poverty and abject human misery, there’s little reason to visit Cherokee, NC. It’s a gray, grim, desolate little smear of a town full of empty one-story motels, closed restaurants and bars, and 99-cent stores disguised as souvenir shops where you can buy AIDS testing kits, urine-be-gone products, and old Atari videogame cartridges. The population for the most part seems lost, angry, and stoned. Yes, there are a few Indian casinos in the area, but from the looks of it, they haven’t done anyone much good. But it does harbor a deep and sad strangeness, I’ll give it that.

            The small indie film crew working on a movie version of Noogie’s Time to Shine had their own reasons for stopping there. Werner Herzog shot some of the final scenes of his 1977 tragicomedy Stroszek (perhaps my favorite film of All Time) in Cherokee, and given there were some definite connections between Noogie and Stroszek, it only seemed fitting. Plus it was on the way.

            Well, after some looking (and a quick sequence outside one of the aforementioned “souvenir stands” where Noogie picked up some more wardrobe), we tracked down the very diner where Stroszek’s diner sequence had been filmed, only to discover it was long boarded up. That was a pisser. So we ate lunch at what appeared to be the only open restaurant in town, filmed some of the local color, and then Erik and Brad had an idea. The film needed a motel scene, but they didn’t exactly have the budget to go paying for locations. So Brad, persuasive devil that he is, went into the office of one of the apparently empty hotels along the town’s main commercial strip. The sign outside the hotel read “Only WINNERS Stay Here!,” which seemed more than apt. After a brief conversation with the manager, we were given the okay to shoot a scene in a room free of charge. Guess she thought the publicity might help, though I’m guessing Brad didn’t explain the full plot to her.

            An hour and a half later, after filming another of Noogie’s daring and desperate getaways without any interference from the law or the locals, and after Brandon drove the van in circles for awhile in the empty parking lot outside the abandoned diner (another Stroszek reference), we split town. I think we all felt a little better when we did.

            There was some talk about swinging off course to shoot another scene in another Stroszek location about forty miles to the north, but we already knew the dancing chicken was long gone and there were no guarantees the old ski lift was still there either. We were running late as it was (we had to be in New York by Thursday at the latest), so we skipped the ski lift and headed straight for Lynchburg.

            Now, sadly, this was not Lynchburg, Tennessee, home of the Jack Daniels distillery, but Lynchburg, VA, where the name really means something. Yes, this Lynchburg was home to Jerry Falwell, the Moral Majority, and Liberty University. There wasn’t anything specific they planned to film there; it was just a convenient stop on our way north.

            As usual we pulled up to the Airbnb house (sixty-five dollars for an entire impeccably tidy four-bedroom home) shortly before one a.m. Groggy and befuddled as we were, stepping through the front door it immediately became apparent things were a little off. Apart from the pleasant sign insisting we remove our shoes before entering any further, there was a little gift table set up offering pamphlets about, oh, you know, the whole “God” and “born again” and “the Jew is the lapdog of Satan,” rigmarole as well as a collection of CDs recorded by the couple who owned the house. (I didn’t learn any of this until later, and was pissed no one had grabbed it all).

            It was a nice and extremely genteel house, though we had to cower outside the back door to smoke, praying none of the neighbors called in the local authorities, and the only TV channel they received came straight from Liberty University, which meant all preaching all the time. And we thought being trapped in the mountains surrounded by Bigfeet was terrifying?

            While Gates and Erik backed up that day’s footage, the rest of us crashed. The next morning there were several reports of strange noises leaking down from the attic, but no one decided to investigate. Moreover the man of the house, Erik discovered, was lurking around the front yard pretending to fix a gate.

            “I’m just glad the van was parked the way it was and the side door opened away from him,” he said, figuring correctly that three bags of fake money, a couple of guns, and all those beer cans might not fly so well among the God-fearing. Yeah, maybe it was better to get the hell outta Dodge.

            There was nothing terribly unique about Lynchburg apart from the overwhelming sense of uptight menace. Although we were staying on a quiet, tree-lined residential street of neatly-kept two-story homes, two days before Halloween it was clear there would be no trick or treating afoot. Not unless those wicked youngsters and their devil worshipping parents were looking to get burned at the stake.

            We didn't have time to stand around and ponder such inevitabilities, especially given the way we were dressed. We had a long drive to New York that day, and a major scene to shoot between here and there, so once again we piled in and headed out.

            It was overcast and rainy, and though Erik was hoping to shoot the scene in question at sundown, by two or three it wasn’t clear there would be any sundown to shoot, so we just started looking for a proper location.

            What we were looking for was a quiet stretch of road off any beaten path, one where we wouldn’t have to worry about traffic, and one with a long straightaway.

            After a couple of hours of frustration and sleep-deprived tension, some meandering and a few wrong turns, they finally found what they were looking for: a seemingly endless stretch of straight rural north Virginia road cutting between two flat, barren fields, with a small clump of trees, a decaying farmhouse, and a white picket fence to one side.

            As these things are bound to happen, of course the minute they got the cameras and mikes set up and ready to roll, the cars started coming by. Dozens of them.

            “We’re in the middle of fucking nowhere! Where the hell are these people coming from?” Gates wondered aloud more than once.

            “Scarier still, where are they going?”

            “Probably to the big rally.”

            To top it all off, the clouds broke and the sun began dropping toward the horizon. It was the most glorious sunset any of them had ever seen (I took their word for it), but it wouldn’t be there for long and they couldn’t shoot with all the traffic.

            Finally there was a break, no cars in any direction. All Brandon needed to do was drive for a short stretch, hit the brakes hard, then jump from the van. Simple as pie. But when Brad called “action,” he hit the gas, the van sped forward, and he hit the brakes. It was all perfect, right up to the part where the van skidded off the side of the road into a shallow ditch and the wheels sank into the mud.

            Yes well, all the magic that had been with us at the Murder Cabin had fled. No amount of pushing or rocking or spinning the tires accomplished anything more than spattering the rest of us with flying mud. The van was tilted at a dangerous angle, and there was a distinct possibility that if we tried to push it any harder or kept spinning those tires deeper into the soft mud, it would tip over. The sun was still setting, they still had the second half of the scene to shoot (ending with his, um, driving away), and no one had any cell phone service wherever the hell we were to call a tow truck.

            There was some fretting and nail biting, though not nearly as much as I might have expected. There was more a sense of resignation. Brandon felt mighty bad about the whole thing, it was clear (given how much he was apologizing), so I tapped over and put a hand on his shoulder. “You know,” I offered. “The trip just wouldn’t have been complete without it.” I don’t know if that helped or not.

            Then those demons, who’d apparently been in the bathroom or something, returned, and a tow truck appeared out of nowhere like a ghost or Large Marge and rolled to a stop next to us. The license plates read “RPBLCAN,” and the driver, a burly man in his forties with his son in the passenger seat, leaned out his window and asked, “You guys need a little help, there?”

            Five minutes later the van was back on pavement. The driver, in proper heroic style, refused both money and beer (though for a second I was afraid he was gonna ask for Brad), and drove away.

            “If you get stuck in a ditch,” Brad said as the man drove off and vanished once more “you don’t want to call a Democrat.”

            Quietly I had the sneaking suspicion that if the man had given us his card and we called the number, we’d learn he’d been killed in a tragic accident along that same stretch twelve years earlier to the night.

            The sun was still there, still sinking, and they finished the scene before it was gone. It was only the latest of the small miracles that seemed to be hanging around the low-budget production. But the delay had thrown us way off schedule. We still had at least seven or eight hours ahead of us before we hit New York. Hell, we hadn’t even gotten as far north as DC yet. There had been some talk about swinging west to the town where The Blob had been filmed after we heard that the movie theater from the Steve McQueen picture was still there and still operational, but it seemed that was another location we’d have to skip. So we took a vote and decided to crash at the first motel we found on the other side of the Pennsylvania border.


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