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  • Writer's pictureHeather Quinn

“Calipatria” And the Cinematic Imperial Valley

When I checked into the Niland Inn, Leon, the owner, told me was that he was putting me in his nicest room, the same room where just a few weeks prior a big crew out of Hollywood did some shooting for a short film, Calipatria. He summarized the plot, as well as he knew it: a couple is on a roadtrip through the southwest, they stop in a small desert town, and someone dies – a murder filmed, Leon said, in my room. (It’s more than likely that he got some elements of the plot wrong, so read the actual synopsis here and here) I thought about that during my one-month stay in the Niland Inn in the arid southeastern edge of California. Picture a setting for someone to die, the perfect location for a cinematic death, I would think as I lay alone on top of my unzipped sleeping bag on the lumpy mattress, trying to ignore the chirping of the cricket burrowed behind the mini-fridge at 1 a.m. It’s this town, this motel, this exact room.

I recently came across the website for the film Calipatria, which includes a trailer. The déjà vu was pretty intense, the cinematic Niland Inn and surrounding area was exactly what I saw in my month there. In the short trailer, there wasn’t one location that I didn’t recognize. Here is the trailer, from Number 7 Films. It looks fantastic, doesn’t it?

And here are some pictures I shot around Niland, some are of places that appear in the trailer.

I recently spoke with Heika Burnison, the director, writer, and co-producer of Calipatria. We spoke about what it is about the landscape that continues to attract people, especially artists, filmmakers, writers and photographers. Heika grew up in Los Angeles, and first visited the Imperial Valley a few years ago, when she made a documentary about the Salton Sea. She sees the landscape itself as a central character in the film, a manifestation of qualities of freedom, danger and lawlessness that still exist in some parts of the west – this is the idea behind the tagline for the film, “The West is Still Wild.” Heika expects to complete Calipatria sometime this spring. I’ll update this post with information regarding where to see it as soon as that becomes available.

Here are a few highlights from my conversation with Heika:

Heather Quinn: Where is this going to be shown and when do you expect this to be released?

Heika Burnison: We are in the final stages of post production right now. We’ve been in the process of submitting it to film festivals since Halloween. So it’ll definitely be shown at certain festivals both locally and internationally. In terms of releasing – we’re really aiming to have the video shown on iTunes and/or maybe Netflix. Since it’s a short it’ll be predominately online on one of those services. HQ: How did you become interested in the area, and how did you get this place in mind for a film? What’s your history or background with the Imperial Valley?

HB: I grew up in Los Angeles. And I’ve been out to the Salton Sea and the Imperial Valley in 2009 to shoot a documentary, because I was really interested in the sea and the community that surrounded it. Places like Bombay Beach, where in the 50s there was this thriving vacation community for suburban families. Then the ecology of the place made it deteriorate and the vacation allure diminished rather quickly and for the most part it’s kind of been abandoned. And yet there are still people who live out there and make a living and raise families in the aftermath or aftershock of this place. I just found the landscape and the aura of the place incredibly beautiful, very haunting and interesting from this kind of decaying, sick beauty.

I think the idea of the west and manifest destiny and this concept of land is really something that’s special and uniquely American. We’ve developed cities and all of the western states and area to such an extent that I don’t see a lot of films that are real westerns anymore. I think when people make them now they’re either period pieces or they take place in new kinds of frontier landscapes, like outer space or future utopian or dystopian locations. But when I drove out there for the first time, and every time since then, I’ve always been kind of struck by how it’s only a couple hours outside of Los Angeles, which is a huge metropolitan city. There really is all of this expanse and all of this land near the Mexican border. You can still kind of drive out in one direction and park your car and there’s absolutely no one around.

HQ: Can you tell me a little bit more than the synopsis tells about what the movie? What are some of the themes in the movie?

HB: So there’s a young couple, and they’re driving in this vintage Ford truck through the Southwest, and the concept is that they’re on a kind of road trip or destination journey, to where we don’t exactly know. They stop in this motel for the night, as they’ve done many times before on the trip. Celia, the main character, wakes up the next morning and her boyfriend is gone. The car is gone and his stuff is gone, so there’s this question of what happened to him. She doesn’t know if he left on purpose or something happened to him but she waits around because she has nothing else to do and no other way to leave. She doesn’t really want to panic or jump to conclusions immediately. Then this local townie Steven, who had seen them come in the night before, spots her. She’s like this new jewel in this kind of old dusty place where he is stuck. So he goes after her and tries to make friends.

In terms of themes, it’s definitely about the west. It’s about this idea that you can be safe one minute and not the next. That there’s still this kind of wild west frontier mentality that goes on in places like this, and in other desert places around North America. There are policemen and there are neighbors and there are laws but there are also a lot of communities and nooks where that stuff doesn’t matter. Steven represents that for the film, and this sense of kind of alluring, sexy danger that I think the entire location offers. Cecelia is very drawn to him and kind of intrigued and also a little bit scared, like your description of the place. And the I think the film’s also just about surprises, and how places can still surprise you and people can surprise you. And there’s a twist at the end that I hope is unexpected when people see it and you kind of – the idea of what’s going on and who these people are is turned on it’s head.

HQ: When I heard from Leon about Calipatria, his framing of your filming was, like, “these big Hollywood types” basically. And there is a lot of excitement about filming in the area, there have been some documentaries shot recently. The locals are so proud of being in the limelight. I think it’s sweet, that kind of excitement. But then there’s also another group that are really fatigued by how much the media’s been looking at the Salton Sea and the Slab City area. I see this sort of fetishized look at poverty. With the documentary look on things, it’s looking at the abandoned buildings, showcasing the post apocalyptic feel, but not getting deep into the stories of the people living there. Do you feel like you have a sense of responsibility for sort of showing a balanced look at this place?

HB: Well, I think, that fatigue and kind of frustration that you’re talking about was not my personal experience because we weren’t really there to prod and document the people. I think that’s fair and I think that goes on. It wouldn’t necessarily be my approach if I were making a documentary, but because this was a fictional narrative film, we were really just excited about using the place as a character. The desert and Calipatria and the Imperial Valley were really like a fourth character in the film, so our intent was to document it as faithfully as we could and take into account all the different people and events that were going on. I think the way that the film shows the place is pretty true. We also filmed in the diner next door. The Buckshot Deli and Diner. And Ed, the owner of the diner, was super welcoming and happy to have us there. So it was really a tremendous gift that they gave us, to kind of take over their whole campus for a week.

HQ: I had a couple meals over at the Buckshot, and it’s just a straight-out-of-the-50s or 60s roadside diner type of thing.

HB: Yeah, that was the other thing that we wanted to do with the film. We wanted to make it feel out of time. It’s definitely contemporary, and there are markers and objects in the movie that ensure you it’s very much happening now, but we wanted to nurture that sense of not really understanding when exactly it took place. There’s this kind of dreamlike quality to the story that things – like the vintage truck or the way that that diner looked very from a different decade –helped.

HQ: I got that feeling from the trailer, that it could be any time. And it really could, because there is that quality in that area of being stuck in time. The buildings are old and they probably looked pretty similar 50 years ago, except they were probably nicer.

HB: Yeah, and I think that relates to what you were saying earlier about being stuck there and I’m sure some people are born there and they go to school there. They wake up and it’s 20 years later and they’re still in exactly the same place. That’s definitely not a bad thing, I’m not passing judgment in any way, but it’s a very strange phenomenon to have this kind of lack of evolution and progress. And places like Bombay Beach and the Sea too, it’s very much a time capsule, and everyone’s just kind of stuck.

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