Screenwriter Jerry Rapp just walked out of the desert. Again. This wasn’t the figurative Sahara of an intractable second act for this writer and producer, but literally the sandy wasteland that blows between the ersatz oases of Los Angeles and Las Vegas. The purpose of Rapp’s latest trek was the production of “Mojave Phone Booth,” the last of three independent films Rapp has written that form something of a series of desert-themed projects.
This latest sand-hued saga, co-written and directed by John Putch, plays Friday as one of over a hundred films featured in this year’s Napa Sonoma Wine Country Film Festival. The film has already garnered “best feature film” jury prizes from New York’s Story Brook Film Festival and Florida’s Del Rey Beach Film Festival.
“Mojave Phone Booth” intertwines downtrodden lives and loves at the fabled location of a lone pay-phone inside the Mojave National Preserve. The phone was fifteen miles from any visible civilization and became something of a Mecca to fans of telephony, inspiring journeys to the location, dozens of websites and phone calls to the booth itself. Pacific Bell removed the phone six years ago at the request of the National Park Service (it was dutifully recreated for the film, which stars Annabeth Gish, Steve Guttenberg, Missi Pyle and David Deluise, among others).
Though Rapp’s unabashed love for esoterica initially attracted him to the project, the lure of the desert had piqued his creative sensibility long ago and for a good reason.
“It’s cheap,” Rapp deadpanned as he took a sip of his “Azhouli’s Revenge,” an admixture of chai and mocha with a dash of cayenne pepper and topped with whipped cream. He discovered the concoction in a popular cafe in San Francisco’s Mission District and, although the item it was removed from the menu months ago, Rapp still requests it from the wizened barista.
Now a full-time resident of San Francisco, Rapp keeps a writing studio in unincorporated rural Sonoma County. He first acquainted himself with the Bay Area when his feature “Sand Trap” played an earlier incarnation of the Napa Sonoma Wine Country Film Festival. The “desert noir” tale centering about a nebbish who battles for his life after his wife and best friend botch his murder, aired on HBO in the late 90s and has since seen a worldwide theatrical and video release. Rapp’s Moving Alan, a dark comedy starring Marley Shelton and Mark Pelligrino, finds feuding sisters reuniting to dispose of the body of an abusive husband in the Joshua Tree National Park.
Though Rapp has sold scripts to such studios as Imagine, Paramount and Universal, it has chiefly been his independent endeavors that have made it to the screen.
“I wrote several scripts before I started to realize that many of them involved a desert landscape, in some form or another. Perhaps not too surprisingly, these were the majority of the scripts that ended up getting made,” he said. “Everyone from the financier to the producer, to the director to the cinematographer, to the grip to the star, has a different reaction to reading the scene heading, ‘EXT. DESERT – DAY.’ One thing they share is that they are all going to be, at one point or another, extremely hot, or extremely cold.”
Rapp first encountered his de facto location as child when his family moved briefly to the Camelback Mountain region of Arizona. He has vivid recollections of chasing lizards, building rock forts and perhaps most telling, getting lost.
“I had no water. No food. I envisioned a whole scenario where my family never found me and I became part of a post-apocalyptic desert community, run entirely by talking dogs,” Rapp recalled. “When I heard my mom calling my name it was back to reality. A couple of years later, thinking it was a wholesome family film, my mom took me to see “A Boy and His Dog” where I had a transformative experience. I was taken back to the whole lost in the desert odyssey and the dots connected somehow. The makers of that film and I were sharing a zeitgeist, even though I didn’t have any idea what the word meant, and still, admittedly, have difficulty with it.”
He paused for a moment, then added, “Probably because it’s in German.”
Rapp is the first to point out that setting films in the desert is not a novel notion but says interest in it as a location persists, in large part, for its “natural art direction.”
“It’s a great place to get creative in real time. You’re chasing the light here and finding spontaneous shadow-play everywhere. A beetle crawls along a dune and suddenly you’ve got atmosphere,” he said. “The desert is often – but not always – the perfect soundstage. And visually, a spindly Joshua Tree against the twilight horizon of a desert is much more interesting to me than a crowded street in New York.”
Likewise, Rapp suggests the interiority of a character can often be explored and represented with the arid locale.
“For me, and please pardon my French, the desert is a metaphor of the human landscape. When I think of what the interior of a tormented soul looks like, I envision a desert. Depending on how malnourished that soul is, the less vegetation, the less water – the less beauty,” said Rapp. “Deserts are a place of mystery and weirdness. Deserts are where UFOs abduct people, where bodies are buried, where nukes are tested, where Native Americans live, where gambling epicenters spring up overnight. It’s where things can be out of place and in perfect, harmonious at the same time – depending on your grasp of the absurd.”
This includes, of course, phone booths. The inspiration for the famous phone’s screenplay was borne from several conversations between Rapp and its director. Both wanted to experiment with new forms of storytelling and as well as concentrate on character-driven material.
“Putch initially said something to the equivalent of, ‘Let’s take my favorite actors and a couple of hi-definition cameras to Vegas and shoot what happens,’” explained Rapp. “I envisioned a whole Cassavetes-style journey where we would workshop scenes and relationships on camera, day and night, in a whiskey and cigar fueled haze, using only available light and stolen sets. Then came those dreaded words, which I am ultimately grateful for – ‘We’ll need a great script.’”
Rapp and Putch agreed that they wanted to follow the lives of characters seldom seen on screen – ordinary people beset by their individual weaknesses. Faults that are in high relief in Las Vegas, Rapp notes, are put into serious perspective in the desert. However, the team had yet to find a unifying theme to connect the vignettes they were shaping in a way that was both meaningful and had yet to be seen on film.
“In our research of Vegas and outlying areas, John happened across the Mojave phone booth phenomenon. This forgotten facility was truly unique and I have since become fully enamored with its legend. We considered it as a setting for one of the vignettes, until I realized this was the framework we had been seeking. The common link between all our characters is how their lives intersect with this booth. Also, conveniently, the use of phone conversations as a narrative device proved a great way to convey inner thought, drive the exposition and play against image,” said Rapp.
Whenever Rapp and Putch found themselves facing story difficulties while shaping their script, Rapp invoked a technique he refers to as a “subtext pass,” wherein one writes dialogue purely from the inner motivations of characters, “without decoration, without judgment.”
“Essentially it’s writing from the id – all the characters are saying exactly what’s on their minds. You end up laughing a lot while doing this. In the subsequent drafts, of course, you strive to make dialogue economical and finesse the intent, and adapt as many moments as possible to play out visually.”
Rapp remained with the project during production, often rewriting scenes on the fly (when not on set performing his cameo role as the Flower Guy).
“I think I was made an actor so I could fall under John’s rule of actors never making suggestions,” Rapp quipped. “The truth is, that casting me meant one less person we had to shuttle out to the desert and put up. It was cheaper.”
When asked if Rapp plans to return to the desert, at least creatively, the screenwriter appears to choke up – but then, this could be the cayenne in his drink. He composed himself and answered, brightly:
“Actually, there are several more desert scripts and notions in the wings, including the ‘Mojave Phone Booth’ pilot, which I’m very excited about. So, I guess I have no choice. It’s not such a terrible fate, though. I’ve experienced moments on this film which were totally sublime and out of this world. Like walking out into the pitch black Mojave at 3 a.m., into this twisted, parched terrain, and looking back upon the booth, emblazoned in our few lights. And hearing it ringing. I’ll never forget how eerie and mysterious that was.”
Rapp polished off the last of his beverage and mused, “I mean, who in the world would be calling at that hour?”