For every story of pioneers braving the wilds to successfully traverse the vast expanses of the Oregon Trail, there are countless others whose disappearance into the mists of obscurity obfuscates the terrible hardships and horrors endured by the emigrants who never made it to their journeys’ end. This is the horrific ground Director Maegan Houang makes so fertile in her gruesome and meticulously observed music video for Chastity Belt’s ‘Black Sail’. DN invited Houang to share the experience of how she and her team bested the daunting challenges of their period desert shoot and got the production wagon rolling.
I heard through some friends that Gretchen Grimm, who I knew from high school, was the drummer in an all-girl band called Chastity Belt. I listened to No Regerts and immediately fell for their music – especially Black Sail and Julia Shapiro’s voice – and I asked them if I could direct a video for them. I was really struck by the melancholy of the song and to me, the song was all about going against the grain; a refusal to conform. It reminded me of The Oregon Trail, which I loved playing as a kid, and I’ve always been fascinated by “group think” and how easy it is for people to accept an idea or practice despite its moral ambiguity, especially in desperate circumstances. If you and your whole family were starving to death, could you resist cannibalism if it was possibly the only way to survive?
With only four minutes to tell the story and no dialogue, I decided that zombies would be an immediate visual the audience could understand. We didn’t have time to explore the characters’ thought processes or the moral dilemma of a Donner Party-esque situation. Basically, it made the story easier to tell and also more cinematic.
From the beginning, we knew that in order to achieve the period aesthetic I wanted, we needed on point costumes and production design, i.e. a covered wagon. It was daunting – we had less than $3000 and we were shooting at our friend Cain’s place 2 hours away in the desert. The producers, Penelope Essoyan and Carina Sposato, and I called every lead we could think of from covered wagon tours to covered wagon makers to random people on Craigslist. I saw a posting for a farm wagon for sale for $2600, basically our entire budget, and decided to call anyways. A man, Bill Belt, answered and I said, “Hi, I’m not trying to offend you, but I’m wondering if you would sell me this farm wagon for $200. I could even give it back afterwards.” He laughed and said “funny you should say that, I’m actually a Westerns prop master.” He did not have email, but directed me to his website which featured at least 20 covered wagons and told me to mail him the treatment and list of the props I wanted and he would help me out. Along with the covered wagon, he offered a ripped canvas cover for the wagon, authentic chairs, cooking supplies and blankets among other things. Without him, this video would not have been possible.
In addition to production design, the costume design, SFX and cinematography were also crucial. I met costume designer Anne Valliant when she was working as a wardrobe PA on the Get Better Boss music video I produced for Henry Kaplan. She showed us some pictures of Game of Thrones costumes she made for her friends and we immediately knew she was up for the task. She made, by hand, all the costumes for less than $200. As a former history teacher, her knowledge and commitment to historical accuracy was also an incredible asset on set. Penelope found the SFX and make-up artist Lauren Keyes who did a great job working with a very low budget. She did all the wound marks and created the guts that all the zombies devour out of cherry pie filling mixed with other goodies.
The DP, Stephen Tringali, and I did a location scout and decided that due to the low budget and fast shooting pace that we would shoot hand held. We had minimal equipment – just a few lights for the night shoot, a magic gadget and a few large 8’ x 8’ silks. We shot on a Red Scarlet with Zeiss CP.2 lenses and smoque filters. Stephen did a great job camera operating, especially since we had to work at such a fast pace.
Casting was a long process aided by the great Schooner Sonntag, who I met while working at Media Rights Capital. We spent our lunch breaks and weekends with the producers sorting through headshots and sitting in rehearsals. We knew Katharina Magdalena was the right choice the moment she walked in the room. When two of our actors had to drop out due to rescheduling, Schooner immediately found amazing replacements. We held numerous rehearsals and went through character bios for each actor. I’m very lucky they put up with all I asked of them – from coming out to the desert to eating a prosthetic leg stuffed with cherry pie filling for hours. Robert Brettenaugh told me he still can’t stand the taste of cherries.
The day before shooting Stephen, our fantastic PA Will Martin and I went to receive the wagon and prep on location. After waiting on the side of the road for a good 3 hours, I started to panic that the wagon wasn’t coming. I had no idea that the wagon arriving would be the least of our worries. Once the wagon arrived, we quickly realized we had no way to actually bring it into the ravine where we were shooting. The only way in was along a narrow, dirt road, and Bill’s truck couldn’t do it. We hooked it up to a very outdated Ford Focus and pulled it about 200 feet in before we hit another snafu – we had to get it over a 4 foot incline, but the car we were using didn’t have four wheel drive. We couldn’t leave the wagon in the road so we were stuck. All I could think about were the 20 people arriving the next day, for little to no pay, to work on this music video for me and I panicked. We tried tying the rope around our waists and pulling it manually. We tried everything, until Cain came to the rescue. He said that his friend left his pickup truck with four wheel drive for the weekend and that he would help us pull the wagon over the ledge. It was the most stressful day of the shoot and perhaps also the most stressful day of my professional career.
We shot over the course of 2.5 days over the first weekend of April. Shooting in the desert is a hard experience and to make things harder, many of the crew members volunteered to camp or sleep in their cars to keep costs low. Huddled around in a village of tents in the middle of the desert also made the experience more “method” and definitely helped get everyone in the mindset. Others stayed in hotel rooms that Henry Kaplan and I purchased with Marriot rewards points. During the day, it’s blazing hot, with the sun in your eyes. At night, it’s freezing cold and after shooting Stephen and the AC, Vito Huizar, had to spend hours cleaning dirt and dust out of the camera. Penelope cooked most of the food for the crew with help from Anne and myself. We’re definitely chilli experts now.
While I directed this video I was working a full time job therefore I knew I would need help editing to finish in a timely manner. Penelope found a great editor, Tim Johnson and we worked closely together over the course of four weeks. Tim and I spent a long time going back and forth as to whether or not to include a gunshot at the end insinuating that she kills herself and ultimately decided it was better to leave it open ended. For the zombie eyes, I worked with my dear friend Pete Binswanger, who is also a music video director and a VFX savant. We found a nice blue eye and used After Effects to matte it in and then animated it to make it look more realistic. Stephen did all the color correction and I asked him to especially focus on de-saturating the green color to make the landscape look more barren and less alive.
The video was done in early-May and Chastity Belt’s former label, Help Yourself Records, released it on Stereogum. I had very low expectations for the video – I just wanted to make something I believed in. It was shocking when it made it on a few “Best of” lists and I couldn’t be happier that everyone’s hard work paid off. This experience really showed me that you’re only as good as the people you work with and I was lucky enough to work with the best.