Kansas City – This past weekend I made the 600 mile (9 hour) drive with three friends,
Jacob, Mitch, and Mikey, to Denver. Our mad scheme was to go up to a cave in Pike National Forest and shoot a live action film version of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. I say mad because the more I thought about it, the more I realised just how bonkers it all was. I mean, we’re four young adults, aged 22 to 19, with little income, travelling over 1200 miles in a period of about 60 hours, just to shoot about 10 minutes of film for a picture that probably won’t make much money.
Arapaho camp, c. 1870. Courtesy of the National Archives.
And yet, we did just that. We left my parents’ house in Kansas City bright and early at 6.45 on the morning of 26 July, heading west on I70 across the breadth of the Great Plains to our lodging for the weekend, a friend’s house in the south suburbs of Denver. This region of the United States truly is still a frontier of sorts. Colorado and the Rocky Mountain West were only settled by Euro-Americans a little over 150 years ago, so in a sense the region’s society, culture, and even dialect, is much where we could see some of the ancient city states of Eurasia standing a good 5,000 years ago. As someone whose passion not only lies with history, film, and music, but also in linguistics, I find it quite interesting to look into the dialects of Western American English, and see how they stand compared to the diversity of dialect and accent found back East.
However young American society is in Colorado, the native cultures and peoples of the region certainly have been there much longer. It saddens me to think that in the many trips I’ve taken out into the Rockies of Central Colorado, I don’t think I’ve even once seen any references to the native peoples of that region, such as the Arapaho, at all beyond toponymy. It is interesting to me how ignorant we can be about our predecessors, the ones whose homes and lives we, the Americans, stole with our expansion and colonisation of this continent. And yet, if we had listened and paid more heed, like the earliest settlers at Plymouth, we might have learnt something about the land, how to grow on it, how to survive in the sometimes brutal climates of the Plains and Mountains, and most importantly, how to keep the land from eroding away.
Anyhow, we went out to Colorado to shoot a major scene for the film Plato: The Cave. Our filming destination was one of my favourite places on Earth as a child, Lost Valley Ranch. My parents and I first went there for Thanksgiving of 1997, when my former babysitter had moved out there after finishing her degree at Wheaton College in my hometown of Wheaton, Illinois. We loved our time at Lost Valley, and decided to come back the following summer of 1998 for a week at the end of July and beginning of August, a tradition that we continued until Summer 2005.
Not only did my time as a child at Lost Valley impact my life through many blissful memories of going out and getting to experience life in the mountains on a working cattle ranch, but it also forged my love for horses and riding, which ultimately led to my family’s move in June of 1999 from our small suburban Chicagoland house to a 34 acre farm in western Kansas City, Kansas, where we not only lived for 13 years, but owned 4 horses of our own, plus a few goats and ponies at one point, along with dogs and cats. If it hadn’t been for Lost Valley, I doubt I would have ended up growing up out on that farm, or gone to the high school I went to, or met the friends at that high school who got me into filmmaking.
At my high school, St James Academy, I made many good friends, among whom was a guy named Alex Brisson, who like me, had an interest in making films. We began working together in October 2008, along with another friend named Stephen Smeltzer, on a comedy series called The Awesome Alliance, which we posted onto Brisson’s original YouTube channel AlbinoPlatypus913. After about a year of doing just The Awesome Alliance, I decided to start making short films of my own. My first channel Telefís Cluain Shaorise, was an attempt at modelling my work after one of my all time favourite media outlets, the BBC. However, as time went on, and Brisson & I both graduated from St James in 2011, we went our separate ways, he to KU (the University of Kansas) to study film, and I to Rockhurst to study History. Albino Platypus gave way to his current channel Zombie Sandwich Productions, and I stopped using the TCS channel, starting a new one from scratch that lacked the copyright violations that were common in my high school work. This new studio, the one under which name I’m currently working, the Amergin Film Company has been much more mature and well organised than its predecessor.
Since Brisson transferred out to the Colorado Film School in Denver, we haven’t had nearly as many opportunities to work together, but every chance we had, whether it be a new episode of the now concluding Awesome Alliance, or my first AFC film The Artist’s Vision, we took that opportunity. So, when I began planning out Sisyphus, the larger film which Plato: The Cave is a part of, I knew that I wanted to go out to Colorado to shoot it, as firstly it meant I could work again with Brisson, and get to utilise the equipment he had access to, and that I might be able to get back up into the beautiful scenery of the Rocky Mountains.
The view from the cave.
Then it was just a matter of finding the right cave to shoot the scene in. I remembered a really neat cave, or rather a covering caused by number of large volcanic rocks being thrown atop each other millions of years ago, that would fit the bill. In May I received permission from Lost Valley Ranch to shoot the scene on their property, and then it was just a matter of waiting a few months, a good deal of which was spent in London, for the last weekend in July when we’d head west back to the Ranch.
The morning of 27 July came quite early, 5.15 MDT in fact, as we were scheduled to leave for the rendez-vous point with Brisson and his friend Jenna, who would be operating the camera, a McDonald’s just off of CO-470. I briefed the group on what we’d be doing, and how to get to the Ranch, before setting off towards the US-285 pass into the mountains southwest of Denver.
We stopped off once on the way to the Ranch, at Pine Junction, as Jacob, who’s family owned the car we took, was too tired to drive. I took on the last 20 miles along Jefferson County Road 126, going a bit too far and passing the entrance to the shelf road that led to the Ranch. As a result, I had to make a 5 point turn on the edge of a rather high cliff, but all went well otherwise on the way down. The last 9 miles of the road are not paved, and are in much the same condition as they had been a century ago, just 50 years after the valleys around what is now the Cheeseman Reservoir had been settled by the Americans. The first two or three miles are a shelf road, that isn’t much wider than a lane and a half, thus making it quite fun to drive down when there’s traffic coming the other way. Luckily for me, we met no other people for that portion of the road, and it was only once we were crossing the less perilous parts of the road that we did pass the three cars, a cow, and its calf, that made up traffic that morning. At long last after about 30 minutes we passed over the cattle guard and went down the last hill into Lost Valley.
The place hadn’t changed all that much since I was last there at Halloween 2006. Even the damage to the forest from the Hayman Fire of 2002 was still quite visible, and sadly will be for many years to come. We were greeted by Caroline Guth, an employee of Lost Valley Ranch, and our contact with the Ranch staff. She and one of the maintenance guys, Jeff by name, led us up to the two caves on the northern end of their property. The first one, which was much harder to get to, wasn’t the one that I remembered. We crossed another couple slopes, the two Ranch workers far in the lead, Jacob, Mikey, and Mitch close behind, and I far behind due to exhaustion from the sudden climb in altitude (we walked up a good 1000 feet in 10 minutes). After a bit, we made it to the second cave, which was the one I remembered, and which we used. Mikey, Mitch, and I waited at the cave, whilst Jacob, Jeff, and Caroline went back down to the Ranch to collect the gear and wait for Brisson and Jenna to arrive. It took me a good 15 minutes of lying against a slanted cave wall to recover, and another 45 minutes for the rest of the group to return.
Of all the places that I have filmed at, I must say that this is the first one that was so remote, and so high up. Not only was the cave a good mile walk to the nearest settlement, but 8,000 feet above sea level. I made sure I only had to go up it once and down it once. We shot everything we needed of the cave interior within about 3 hours, despite the constant trouble of the camera running out of batteries. After that, I sent Jacob and Mitch back to the Ranch to rest, and Mikey, Brisson, Jenna, and I remained up at the cave shooting the exterior shots. After about an hour, we finished those first few ones, and descended, Sheep Rock, the mountain on whose slopes the cave in question is located, and made our way back to the Ranch for lunch.
A preview of the “Cave Scene”. From left to right, Erotomos (Mikey Mullen), Tuphlos (Mitch Hecht), and Phobas (Jacob Thomas). Camera operated by Jenna Gold.
After lunching on delicious sandwiches made by our very own Jacob Thomas, we headed towards the southern end of the Ranch to shoot the last few outdoor shots for Plato: The Cave. This was certainly more accessible, as we stayed fairly close to the main road that runs down the valley, making it easier for Jacob to drive back and forth to the Ranch lodge to charge and collect camera batteries. We shot some exciting scenes in the meadows, along Goose Creek, and on the slopes of another mountain south of Sheep Rock, thus finishing the work we had set out for.
Sheep Rock, the mountain on whose slopes we shot “the Cave”.
I really did feel like I was going back in time in a way, not only because Lost Valley Ranch is 20 miles from any mobile phone signal or 3G, but because the place simply hasn’t changed since the summer weeks that I spent there in the late 90s and early 2000s. On the drive back out, I kept looking back at Sheep Rock, thinking about the past, and wondering if the future holds any further visits to Lost Valley.
We had a bit of a celebratory stop at an overlook on US-285 north of Pine Junction, where we got some cast & crew photos, and chatted about what to do that evening. In the end Jacob went to hang out at Brisson’s, and I went with Mikey and Mitch back to our hosts, the family of one of my Rockhurst housemates Frank Kane, house for dinner and an early bed.
L-R: Mitch Hecht, Mikey Mullen, Jacob Thomas
L-R: Mitch Hecht (Sound Editor), Seán Kane (Director), Jenna Gold (Dir. of Photography), Alex Brisson (Assistant Director), & Jacob Thomas (Visual Editor).
Not only was this an opportunity for me to go back to the places that I frequented as a child, but it was a chance to make cinematic history. Never before, from what I’ve read, has a live action film been made of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Not only have we made it, but I’d say we’ve done a very good job of it. So, keep your eyes out for some behind the scenes footage that I shot during filming, which should be up on YouTube this week, and for the release of the film itself in October.