Behind the scenes of Deadwood: The Movie with Location Manager Jesse Lorber
During its initial run, Deadwood, the western drama set in the lawless town of Deadwood, North Dakota during the 1870s was consistently lauded by critics and cultivated a loyal fan base. So when HBO decided to cancel the series after its third season in 2006, cast and fans alike were surprised. After a thirteen year hiatus, HBO has brought the town back to the smallscreen in the form of a movie. We spoke to Location Manager Jesse Lorber to peek behind the scenes of one of the most anticipated revivals of the year.
[Warning: may contain spoilers]
Where was the shoot based?
Most of the film takes place in the town of Deadwood which was filmed at a legendary movie ranch called Melody Film Ranch in Newhall, California. It's been the home to westerns for years going to back to the days of Gunsmoke. The last few big things to shoot there were Django Unchained and Westworld. Of course the series also used Melody Ranch as their home and most of their sets so to put the movie there was imperative for continuity. You might even say Melody Ranch is a player in both the series and movie on par with a principal actor. Not only does it have a Western town set, it also has sound stages, production offices, ample parking. It's a fantastic to place to base a show out of with all the right infrastructure and the Valuzet family, whom own and have run it for decades are wonderful people and great ranch managers.
Did you scout any new locations for the Deadwood: The Movie that were not used in the series?
Yes, we scouted many new locations up and down the California coast that had not been considered for the series. Director Dan Minahan, who directed several episodes during the series, selected locations, some of which had been used during the series, and some new ones. Executive Producer Gregg Fienberg, who had been with the show since the pilot had a memory like an elephant and kept very good records that I was able to implement into my research. Coming into the project it was my prerogative to try and bring a new look and vision to the movie from a location standpoint, after all the story takes place ten years after the series ends, and in real time the movie shot 12 years after the series wrapped.
For the intro where Calamity Jane returns to Deadwood on her horse, we shot for a day on Mount Pinos, which is located in the Los Padres National Forest, Santa Barbara Ranger District northwest of Santa Clarita, CA (pictured below). This was the same location the Deadwood pilot established the town of Deadwood, obviously with the help of VFX superimposing the town in. Executive Producer Gregg Fienberg dug up a GPS coordinate from 2004 and basically told me "Go get it".
The big location not filmed at Melody ranch was Charlie Utter's Gold Claim. We scouted all over the forests of Southern California to find the perfect location. Pre-production began in August of 2018 so the region was at the height of a drought. Finding a moving body of water under a canopy of trees for Utter's Claim that felt like South Dakota and satisfied our needs creatively, while also offering workable logistics for a large production was challenging and we looked at dozens of options in Ventura, Kern, Riverside, and Los Angeles County.
Many places were interesting, but simply too far out of the zone, or had impossible logistics which ruled them out from a practical and budgetary standpoint, or on the contrary, some options simply did not have enough water and tree cover to achieve the creative vision we had in mind. In the end, we selected an area in the Angeles National Forest at the San Gabriel River north of Azusa (pictured below). It was still very close to the studio 30-mile zone, had serviceable logistics and parking and looked amazing.
What the San Gabriel river lacked was a pastoral meadow to play as Charlie's Funeral location. For this scene, we filmed at the Golden Oaks Ranch (pictured below), a neighbouring filming ranch to Melody in Newhall that is owned by the Walt Disney Company. Like Melody, Golden Oaks is a great location as it has a variety of interesting sets and locations with great infrastructure and management. With the help of VFX and our outstanding art, construction, and greens department we made the San Gabriel River set in the Angeles National Forest, and the meadow of Golden Oaks Ranch seem like the same place.
What were the priorities for the director and producers from a location viewpoint?
I believe that the director and producers were trying to stay true to David Milch's vision of what it must have been like to live in Deadwood in the late 1800s. The movie takes place ten years after the series left off so the west is beginning to look and feel tamer but still under that facade, it's the wild west. The town of Deadwood is expanding, technology has reached the Deadwood, with telephone polls going up, and trains are becoming a bigger factor in the expansion of the west and South Dakota is now a State, not a Territory. But the townsfolk still like to drink, they still visit houses of ill repute. The villain George Hurst with his now Senator title and three piece suit is just as murderous and villainous as he ever was, even as his telephone polls go up next to Charlie Utter's claim, he doesn't think twice about murdering Charlie to get his land. So I think the locations, like the set design, costumes, props, and set pieces, were aiding the story point of the modernization of the west, but it's still the wild west.
What was the biggest logistical challenge to meet on the shoot?
Overall the shoot went very smoothly, but like any big production, there were challenges. With remote locations, we had to contend with environmental factors. This fall in Southern California was the worst ever in terms of wildfires, followed by one of the wettest winters in terms of rainfall in years.
Filming took place during the Woolsey fires – which burnt down Paramount Ranch. Did the fires impact the production on Deadwood: The Movie
It was a constant concern and as a location manager, the safety of the crew is more important than anything else. 2018 was a deadly year for wildfires all over the state and I had to stay in constant communication with various local and state fire and forestry sources to be aware of any risk and dangers the Deadwood crew could face.
During pre-production while we were scouting for Charlie Utter's claim river options a fire broke out in the Angeles Forest about a mile from the set we eventually selected (pictured below) and we couldn't re-scout it for weeks throughout pre-production as California Department for Transport closed San Gabriel Canyon Road for repairs caused by the fire. Eventually, it re-opened right before the tech scout, and wisely we elected to move that location up in our schedule to protect against future fire dangers. That was a good call because a week after we filmed Charlie Utter's Claim a car crash caused another brush fire which would have caused us to potentially lose the location.
When the Woolsey Fires broke out we were filming at Melody Ranch and our day at Golden Oaks and while that area was for the most spared, the smoke and haze of the Woolsey fires many miles south of us could be smelled in Newhall. In terms of precautions, we had an evacuation plan if Newhall had been affected and we worked closely with the LA County Fire departments personnel assigned to the shoot to ensure that everything we did on the set was safe and compliant. I think a big credit goes to the U.S Forest Service in terms of helping us navigate those challenges, and keeping both the crew safe as well as the whole region's general population.
Deadwood is known for being historically accurate and the series won several awards for its production design led by Maria Caso, who returned for the movie. Set ten years on from the end of the series, what vision did she have for the return?
I think for Maria Caso, her vision was to take the already amazing design of Deadwood and elevate it to the next level and enhance it. She also had to implement the story point of "modernization" into her design. I think sets on the movie look even better than the series. Much of the credit of the success of Deadwood as a franchise must go to Maria and that Emmy she won was well deserved. Her and her team, whom I had worked with many times over the years on television series such as Kingdom, and Shooter are nothing short of geniuses, and worked tirelessly to craft the look of Deadwood and improve it for the movie.
It is inspiring to watch Maria work and every project I have been involved in, that she has designed has some of the best sets I have ever seen. On Deadwood, she really poured her heart and soul into taking concepts that had been established from the series to a whole new awesome level. She is in my mind the best Production Designer I have ever had the pleasure of working with. She works harder and is more passionate than anyone I know in her field. Her Art, Set Decoration, Construction, Greens, and Props departments are also some of the best at their crafts. Maria and her team are also great crew members and co-workers. I consider them my friends. As a fan of the series, I was really excited when she asked me if I might be available for the movie and the opportunity to continue being a part of her team.
Deadwood was a much-loved series, and anticipation for the film was high. Was there a pressure to meet audience expectations, and how did this translate during pre-production or on set?
I think for both the cast and crew Deadwood was a genuine love affair for the story and the characters that David Milch created. To me, it seemed like every day on set was embraced by both the cast and crew as an opportunity to create this glorious finale to a much-loved story after a 13-year hiatus. During the last few days of filming, cast and crew were hugging each other and crying knowing that their journey was coming to an end and that they had created something really special.
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