Monument Valley: More Than A Cowboy’s Playground

By Elizabeth Latenser

This is part of an ongoing series featuring iconic projects filmed in Utah.  Projects and artists mentioned in the series filmed here for inspiration, a strong sense of place or to recreate otherworldly experiences.

“Harry, you and I both owe these monuments a lot.”
– Director John Ford to rancher Harry Goulding

Seeing a cowboy ride to the edge of a red rock butte overlooking a vast desert lowland can evoke a sense of nostalgia in every film lover. That rustic scene is one filmed over and over in Monument Valley for many iconic Westerns. Film critic Keith Phipps, described the area as “a stunning pocket of sandstone formations” and “five square miles [that] have defined what decades of moviegoers think of when they imagine the American West.”

An unconventional rancher named Harry Goulding who settled in Monument Valley in 1921 is credited with bringing Hollywood to the area. Goulding was not someone familiar with the glitz and glamour of show business.  He ran a trading post and sheep farm in the remote area.  He and his wife originally lived in a tent on the land and slowly added more permanent structures. But according to Vanity Fair, Goulding “knew beauty and he knew opportunity and he knew there was a way to combine the two in Monument Valley.”

After a rough drought and economic uncertainty, Harry Goulding ventured to Los Angeles to share breathtaking images of the area to Hollywood executives at United Artists.  With a little grit and a steadfast belief in the vision he was selling, Goulding was able to meet the location manager scouting for Stagecoach as well as the director John Ford.  By making that connection, Goulding became “one of the most unlikely contributors to American cinema there ever was.”  After that initial meeting, Ford agreed to film Stagecoach in Monument Valley.  Over the next 25 years Ford filmed seven other films there and brought with him a wide variety of rising stars like John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck and Jimmy Stewart.

According to crew members and other observers, Ford could be tough on set.  Mood swings and outbursts were par for the course when someone questioned his judgement or gave unwanted opinions.  So many believed that part of the reason he loved filming in Monument Valley so much was that “it was hard for film executives to get to.”

Goulding helped Ford navigate the complicated landscape and also helped forge a beneficial relationship with the Navajo living nearby. Often, the local Navajo acted in the films or were paid as extras on set.  One special Navajo medicine man was paid to “give Ford whatever weather he desired for shooting Stagecoach.” Ford and the medicine man would share one drink then Ford would tell him what type of weather he wanted for the following day’s shoot. For the most part it seemed to work because the medicine man stayed on Ford’s payroll for several projects.

Over the years as more business came through Monument Valley, the Gouldings we able to add to their minimal infrastructure. Ford filmed My Darling Clementine, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon The Searchers and How the West Was Won on their land.  The growth happened slowly but eventually, small cabins and a motel were added to accommodate artists, crew members and the increasing number of visitors flocking to the area. 

In 1963, after 45 years of living on their ranch, the Gouldings sold their slice of paradise and moved to Arizona.  It is now owned by the LaFont brothers who run a variety of tourist operations in the area that celebrate its rich cinematic, Native American and environmental history. The Goulding’s Lodge is open for visitors, as is the trading post which has been converted into a museum.

Today artists and creators across all sectors were come to capture footage for their television show, video game, music video or advertisements. And thousands of visitors trek to Monument Valley annually to catch a glimpse of the rugged wild West. Trip Advisor named mile marker 163 Forrest Gump Point right at the spot where the loveable runner ended his epic three year jaunt. Adventurers come to mimic the famous Thelma and Louise movie poster with their best friends.  People marvel at the landscape that hosted Back to the Future III, Mission Impossible II, Doctor Who: The Impossible Astronaut, 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Legend of the Lone Ranger.

Monument Valley will forever be the face of the great American West. And we owe it all to a brave rancher with a vision.

Contributing writer Elizabeth Latenser is a film fan, mountain momma, dog lover and tree hugger.

It’s Always Christmas in Utah

By Elizabeth Latenser

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!

Skiers and snowboarders are not the only people praying for snow this time of year.  For many directors, the winter in Utah is prime for framing the perfect holiday shot. (Though thanks to the talents of set designers, editors and special effects, it can be Christmas year round.)

Utah has welcomed more than 20 films home for the holidays over the last 20 years with themes ranging from classically heartwarming to mischievously grinchy.  Directors spread out all over the state to find the coziest cabins, best mountain vistas, nostalgic city-scapes and enchanting Christmas towns.

The latest holiday movie filmed in Utah titled My Christmas Love is airing on December 17 on the Hallmark Channel.  Tune in to watch the story of a hopeless romantic who begins to receive the 12 Days of Christmas gifts from an anonymous person. As she tries to figure out who is sending the gifts, she begins to believe that the mystery suitor could finally live up to her expectations.

For those near and far who want some holiday shows in the queue, check out a list of Christmas films with connections to Utah with some tips on how to watch them:

Contributing writer Elizabeth Latenser is a film fan, mountain momma, dog lover and tree hugger.

Building and Filming in ‘the Loneliest Place in the World’

By Elizabeth Latenser

This is part of an ongoing series featuring iconic projects filmed in Utah.  Projects and artists mentioned in the series filmed here for inspiration, a strong sense of place or to recreate otherworldly experiences.  

 “This is a feature film that proves the cliché that no man is an island,” 127 Hours Director Danny Boyle says. “And that even in—especially in—the loneliest place in the world, it begins and ends with people.”

The incredible and cringeworthy survival story of Aron Ralston, a hiker who cut off his own arm in Blue John Canyon, by now has been played and replayed for audiences all over the world in the film 127 Hours.  In case you need a refresher on the story, check out the official synopsis from Fox Searchlight and a clip of 127 Hours in 127 Minutes.

The severed arm is often touted as the most memorable part of the story and it’s hard not to replay the agony you see on James Franco’s as he struggles to carry out the task. But many would agree once you get past the grimace and blood that there is another star in the show: Utah’s enchanting and other-worldly Canyonlands National Park.  The adventure and thrill of exploring Blue John Canyon called to Aron Ralston and it’s easy to see why.  The steep red rock, cavernous channels, teetering ledges, mystical plateaus and dancing shadows make this desert playground a dream for many outdoor explorers.

127 Hours Director Danny Boyle upon seeing the extreme conditions of the canyon said “The first thing we thought was, ‘My God, what were you thinking coming out here on your own?'”

According to an interview with Popular Mechanics, filming in the actual spot where the accident occurred would have been too dangerous so Danny Boyle decided to have production and costume designer Suttirat Larlarb recreate a set to the exact specifications of the canyon.  The set was built in an old Furniture Warehouse in Salt Lake City.   Reporter, Amy Raphael from The Guardian, who visited the set described it as “tall, narrow and terrifyingly claustrophobic.”

Larlarb pieced together the exact boulder and placement through a series of photos taken by the National Parks Service rescue crew assigned to retrieve Ralston’s arm after he was airlifted out.

The film’s art director, Christopher DeMuri told the Salt Lake Tribune he knew they got the boulder right when Ralston visited the Sugar House set. He looked at the boulder and was surprised that it was a copy. “He said, ‘You see these indentations right here? This is what I chipped away with my multitool.’ Danny looked at me and winked. I knew we got it right.”

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Director Danny Boyle (L) talks with actor James Franco (R) on the set of 127 Hours.

Director Danny Boyle talked more about the set:

“We didn’t make it flexible,” he says. “It’s solid like the canyon is.” There were only two ways in—either through the top, or walking all the way around the back and then in—and it wasn’t at all convenient for the equipment necessary for filming a movie, like cameras and lights. “I told everyone to embrace it,” Boyle says. “I know sometimes they looked at me and thought, ‘What is the point of building a set when we can’t move it?’”

Many of the crew members quickly forgot the hassle of working with a tough set because they just enjoyed working with Danny so much. Dennis Light, a Utah-based location manager remarked that the most memorable part of the process was director Danny Boyle because he is “a true class act.”  

“Danny was great to work with and watch.  He worked 7 days a week but the crew had 2 teams so he could keep working while giving part of the crew a day or two off,” said Dennis. “When we finished at a location Danny was always right by my side personally thanking the people who helped.  He would remember their names and be the first to greet them if we returned.”

Danny Boyle stated that the experience of shooting the film reinforced a valuable life lesson.  There is no substitute for human connection:  

“They’re what sustained Aron, and they’re who he speaks to on his camera. When he starts hallucinating, they help him get out of there because he wants to get back to them so much.”

Boyle pauses. “This is a story about all of us, really,” he says. “We’re all capable of it. We probably won’t have to do it, but we will face our own boulders, if you like. And we will need other people to get through.”

And to this day, Ralston takes that message to heart.  According to The Guardian, he always tells or take a friend with him on his adventures.  And yes, he still visits the boulder in Blue John Canyon.  That proves just how tough he really is and just how enchanting the Canyonlands National Park is.  Ralston told The Guardian:

“I touch it and go back to that place, remembering when I thought about what’s important in life, relationships, and this quest to want to get out of there and return to love and relationships,” he says, “to return to freedom instead of entrapment.”

Contributing writer Elizabeth Latenser is a film fan, mountain momma, dog lover and tree hugger.