by Bob Fisher
The documentary Amargosa chronicles the spirit of Marta Becket, a successful ballerina and painter who created an oasis in a desolate ghost town. In 1967, when Becket and her husband had their trailer break down near Death Valley Junction, California, they found the remains of an adobe hotel and a few rotting buildings, including a theater, some 25 miles from the nearest town. The couple spent six years restoring the theater and 14-room hotel, and Marta painted the walls and ceiling of the theater with a life-size mural of a Renaissance audience. After she discovered the town had been called Amargosa before 1907, she gave that name to the Opera House. At first Becket danced in pursuit of her muse and was discovered accidentally by a few isolated travelers, but word soon spread about her mime and dance performances, and more and more people began making pilgrimages to Amargosa to see her.
Call it serendipity. In November of 1998, producer Sidney Sherman, cinematographer Curt Apduhan and director/writer Todd Robinson were desolate after a cherished project melted down after almost a year's hard work. "We were very discouraged," Robinson recalls, "when my sister, executive producer Traci Robinson called and told me about meeting Marta. "I felt right away Marta's story was our own story - and the story of all our friends who are artists, painters, dancers and writers. It had a transcendent, metaphoric quality that went way beyond her interesting biography."
Robinson, a former actor who segued into writing (White Squall, The Four Diamonds), and directing, says creating a film like Amargosa isn't a venture for the faint of heart - even though its subject was more than willing to participate. "It was easy to convince Marta," he says. "She was 76 and concerned about her mortality and what her legacy would be once she was gone. It was like she was waiting for someone to come along so she could tell her story."
Robinson first worked with Sherman on the documentary The Legend of Billy the Kid for the Disney Channel, which earned an Emmy in 1994, and worked with Kenneth A. Carlson on the award-winning Wild Bill Hollywood Maverick. The three formed Triple Play Pictures, and Apduhan shot one of their first projects, a documentary series called Stand and Be Counted, which will air on The Learning Channel later this year.
When they began planning Amargosa, Apduhan and Robinson chose to film it in Super 16; they felt the story required a wide screen, cinematic feel and decided they could live with the image quality of a 35mm optical blow-up. Apduhan used two Arriflex Super 16 SR3 cameras and Robinson's wind-up Bolex camera, and the latter "gave us some of our most magical film," says Robinson. "My friend Frank Dobbs [a technical advisor on Amargosa] lent his Bolex to a colleague in Vietnam and the guy won a Pulitzer Prize. The package provided by Keslow Camera included three Canon zooms, an 11.5-138mm for the A camera, a 150-600mm zoom for longer shots, and an 8-64mm that was primarily used on a Steadicam. A 6mm Century prime lens was used in tight spots.
During preproduction, Robinson learned there was going to be a reunion of dancers with whom Becket had worked during the past 40 years; he felt that event would provide the emotional spine of the story. The crew stationed a camera on the bus to record people on their way to the reunion, and a second camera on a Steadicam was waiting when the bus pulled up. The camera crew on the bus then hustled into the theater in time to catch the arrival of the audience. A third camera was used during the filming of performances. Apduhan notes it took a lot of choreography to keep the cameras loaded and avoid gaps in coverage; the crew was shooting on the fly, sometimes at different speeds. "Todd is a visual director," the cinematographer says. "Even his writing is filled with visual parables. He wanted to make sure we told the story in a
cinematic way, capturing unrepeatable moments as they happened."
The filmmakers made four more visits to Amargosa, each lasting about five days, and shot about 45 hours of film as they discovered more about the desert and Becket. "One of the shots I love the most is when we are filming some wild horses. The helicopter pulls away and they just disappear into the brush," Robinson says. Usually, the cameras were moving with Becket and the other characters either on a dolly or a Steadicam, but there were no unbendable rules. Sometimes, the crew would put the Bolex on sandbags and wait for the right light.
Robinson filmed several conversations with Becket that reveal the arc of her life, peeling away layer at a time, and peppers that footage with still images from her past life. (The stills were converted to film at Pacific Title & Art Studio.) "When we filmed Marta's performances, we realized we weren't just watching her dance," he says. Being in that theater was like being inside her head. We wanted to create a personal experience for the audience so they could discover Marta and the desert for themselves like we did."
Apduhan shot most of Amargosa on three Kodak Vision stocks, noting he was especially concerned about grain. "I knew we were going to make a blow-up for projection, and I picked film stocks that had the right texture for the emotions of each scene," he remarks. "I let the grain help tell our story. We also used the [Kodak EXR] 7245 [day light-balanced] film for the Bolex exteriors."
The cinematographer noticed during his first meeting with Becket that her eyes were youthful and alive, even though the shell around them had aged. "I decided to wrap light around her, keeping the source very soft and very close during interviews," he says. "I let her shadow side go. We didn't use any filtration because I didn't want to introduce any noise. In one sequence, when she is in front of her make-up mirror getting ready for her performance, her key came from a little, fluorescent-green make-up light (later color corrected to normal) reflected in the mirror."
Apduhan notes he tried to keep the interview subjects to the left or right of the frame, leading the audience into the void. "Todd is a big fan of negative space and allowing the frame to breathe," he observes. "That was important, because the environment plays such a major part in the story. In interviews with Marta, we want members of the audience to feel as though she's having a conversation with each of them."
Robinson affirms, "I like to go deep into negative space. We used light to create a sense of depth, separating the foreground and background. Sometimes Marta became aware of the camera and lights and we lost intimacy. So we'd make adjustments by moving back with the longer lens; we'd try to remove the distractions. She has told her story so many times to so many people that sometimes it sounded rote, so in order to make it feel spontaneous we'd have to work her into going to places she might not normally go."
Becket's performances in the theater were always very formal, and Apduhan chose the 200-speed 7274 stock for those shots because it renders more contrasty images. For exteriors, he used the 320-speed 7277, which he describes as pastel with a little more muted cast. He explains, "Sometimes I had to pull away from the eyepiece because I had tears in my eyes. We hope it affects the audience the same way."
Live performances were filmed with two cameras. Apduhan used a Chapman crane with a Lenny arm for some sweeping shots that put the audience right on the stage, "Todd had great ideas that usually came to him at 2 a.m.," says Apduhan. "One day he had an idea for a Steadicam shot that began in the lobby of the hotel and ran for about 400 feet. The character walked through the hotel lobby, outside to the street, then into the empty theater and down an aisle to open the theater doors and let the waiting audience inside. I had to let the practical lights [in the hotel], which were energy-efficient fluorescents, go green. We stepped outside into the darkness. The only source of light was some fluorescent practicals, where we were shooting between zero and five footcandles with the highlights reading 15. He walked right into the theater, which had tungsten sources. I decided to use the [Kodak] Vision 500T  film and pushed it one stop, knowing that grain wasn't a problem since it followed our artistic intent."
Shooting scenes and performances in the theater presented some challenges. "I thought about hanging space lights," Apduhan says, "but that wouldn't work because we needed shots of the ceiling. The paints that Marta used on the walls were very reflective, so it acted like a mirror. We came up with the idea of using small tungsten sources along the walls, casting the light straight up so that it reflected off the ceiling. It was a very theatrical look. We used Tweenies, 2Ks and 5Ks and tried to make them balance so the light seemed realistically even."
Apduhan used the 500-speed film pushed one stop for the performances, and one camera was always recording the audience's reaction. He over exposed a bit to get a little edge in exposure, keying at T4 with the lens set at T2.8. "The theater is Marta's space, so we made the lighting as formal and theatrical as possible," he notes. "It was kind of a 1940-ish style with vignetting. In formal interviews, we painted the light around her...but when she's in her world, we let the light play."
The filmmakers initially planned to convert the film to video for offline editing and conform the Super 16 negative to the edit-decision list. The edited negative would be used to make an optical blow-up for 35mm release printing. "Nancy Schreiber [ASC] told us about a digital intermediate process at Cinesite
[in Los Angeles]," says Robinson. "We found that we could use a laser recorder to convert a digital master to 35mm color intermediate film. It was still experimental, and no one had done it with a D1 master made from a Super 16 original, but it gave us a lot of flexibility. We were able to do secondary color-correction on
parts of frames. That's standard for television, but not when you're planning on making film prints."
One example of how Robinson used the medium to interpret reality is a scene in which Becket talks about her past; in post, Robinson desaturated all of the colors to make a visual transition to an earlier time, when images were black-and-white. The film tumbles back into the present by reverting to the original colors. FotoKem did the front-end lab work, and the colorist was P.J. Marsiglia at Company 3, which did the telecine transfers. They made a color-corrected master in digital Betacam format, and IVC digitally removed dirt; vertical scratches were removed using the Inferno at Encore Hollywood, and Cinesite recorded the D1 master onto film.
"Making a film like this is like running a 600-meter race," says Robinson. "You can't stop at 580 meters because you're out of time or money. You have to surround yourself with other people who feel the same aesthetic commitment." Amargosa premiered at the Slamdance 2000 Film Festival and was one of 12 finalists in the documentary category at this year's Academy Awards.