Touch Down

William Shatner Boldly Goes To Bisbee To Shoot His Movie.

IN A TRAILER in front of the Bisbee Food Co-op, Tucsonan Lisa Bertuzzi daubs makeup on the face of Lynyrd Skynyrd guitarist Ricky Medlock. He's preparing for his first feature film, Groom Lake, a science fiction love story by William Shatner.

"Film is a better family than the rock and roll business, believe me," Medlock asserts. Bertuzzi later confides that Lynyrd Skynyrd's was the first concert she had ever sneaked out of the house to see.

Nearby, on-set costumer Amy Christie brushes lint off an FBI agent's trousers. She had been on location until 4 a.m., then had worked until 8 a.m. making a shirt, doing laundry and mending for the day's shooting. The scheduled start was 11 a.m., but after such a grueling night, cameras didn't get rolling until mid-afternoon.

Locals line the sidewalk--unpaid extras eager for a chance to see or interact with Shatner. The flurry of the technical crew creates a festive air.

Before I wander much deeper onto the set, young men with headsets direct me to someone who can determine whether or not I should be poking my camera into dressing trailers and asking people to spell their names. Soon co-producers J.R. Bookwalter and Chuck Williams are leading me on with such mirth that I suspect they are really pathological liars and not the producers at all.

Williams says he scouted the location with the help of the Tucson Film Office, and passed through Bisbee en route to Douglas.

"I had to pee, to be honest, and stopped at the Bisbee Food Co-op. As I walked around, it was like 'Hallelujah!'--I had found my street."

Bookwalter dodges being more specific than "under a million," but it's clear this is a low-budget film. No serious security is in place and extras work for pizza. One of the extras approaches, made up to look as if he may have been beaten up. "That's the only way we can get extras," Bookwalter jokes.

A man in a doctor's smock turns out to be Dwayne Whitaker, the infamous pawn-shop owner in Quentin Tarentino's Pulp Fiction. The association makes the doctor seem slightly sinister.

After long minutes of bustling about, "Action" is called. Medlock could be a local from the St. Elmo's Bar as he drives a dirty old truck onto the scene again and again.

Now Shatner has the megaphone, calling across to extras waiting on the sidewalk. "You--you two. You're in the movie."

"Who, us?" the two ask, flustered at the attention.

"Yes, you. Just walk down there and come up the street when I call 'action.'"

The two hadn't signed up to be extras, but still hustle to do as Shatner asks. Half an hour later, Shatner calls for them again, but they have already signed the release and gone home.

The filming goes fast--eight to 12 pages a day--although there is actually no film. The entire movie is being shot digitally. "It's coming more and more," photography director Mac Ahlberg explains. "I like learning everything about it. ... Much of the new George Lucas Star Wars sequel was shot with digital cameras--high-definition."

The loss of resolution is not that important, he says. "The sad truth is, if you have a good story and good actors, it doesn't matter how it looks. You could have the most beautiful film in the world, but without a good story and good acting, it will be no good."

Will this be a good movie? The story was written by Shatner, who enlisted the help of former Star Trek writer Maurice Hurley to create a script about a dying woman who seeks proof of extraterrestrials. She and her husband go to Groom Lake, Nev., where they discover a secret government complex that bears a striking resemblance to Biosphere II. Bookwalter won't say if they find an alien--only that "Chuck Williams does get to wear an alien suit."

Daylight fades and a mountain chill moves in. Extras and crew members dash about for their jackets. Artificial daylight streams believably into the window of an old boarding house. We all wish we could be inside where it's warm. Sugar levels drop after hours of continuous shooting and soon cast and crew are passing around trail mix, potato chips and crackers.

Rehearsing with Whitaker, actor Dan Gauthier says "Suzuki" softly, uncomfortable with a line that contains product placement. Stunt men David Sanders and Gary Kent stand nearby, dressed as FBI agents. Sanders explains: "They've got us here over a week. If there's no stunts, they use us as FBI guys. Our stunt coordinator, Bob Ivy, is in there playing a corpse."

"What was your motivation?" he jokes to Ivy after the scene is done.

I try to talk to Shatner. He munches a cheese cracker and tells me he's too busy right now. I formulate a plan to get five minutes of his time, and return the next day with a batch of my locally famous Killer Fudge. Shatner says he'll give me three minutes.

"But you haven't tasted my fudge," I protest.

He tastes--"This is worth six"--and grants a few more questions.

The story is about life and death concepts, Shatner explains. A woman who is dying seeks affirmation of life after death through proving there is life elsewhere in the universe. He compares the dynamics of film to that of music--the action scenes balanced against moments that are "slow and beautiful."

The cast and crew sit down to Chicken Cordon Bleu, catered at the co-op by produce manager Keith Parker, who came out of the closet about his chef's abilities to help feed the hungry gang. The co-op has been a hub of activity. I ask an employee if business has been good. In true contrarian Bisbee fashion, he responds, "I guess, but I hope it doesn't drive off our regular customers."

Nancy Weaver is a freelance writer in Bisbee. Visit her website:
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