'Letters' crew mines Southern Cal locales

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While most of the battle scenes in "Flags of Our Fathers" were shot in Iceland, Clint Eastwood's companion piece, "Letters From Iwo Jima," was strictly a Southern California operation. There is some irony that Eastwood's account of the American side of the battle of Iwo Jima was filmed abroad, while the film that offers the Japanese perspective was filmed on American soil. But it also shows how creative filmmakers have to be when working under budget constraints.

"I did ('Letters') while I was waiting for postproduction to be prepared for 'Flags of Our Fathers," Eastwood said at Monday night's Golden Globe Awards, where "Letters" was named best foreign film. Shot in just 32 days, its "budget wasn't exactly overwhelming," he added. In fact, sources say it was more like $15 million, a stark contrast to the $70 million "Flags."

Another factor driving "Letters' " production was its story. As opposed to the big beach battles in "Flags," "Letters" focuses on soldiers dug into bunkers in tunnels and caves. But Eastwood also needed to shoot scenes that re-created Iwo Jima's famous black sand beaches.

The filmmakers struck gold when location manager Steve Beimler found Pisgah Crater, east of Barstow in the Mojave Desert. It had huge expanses of black cinder, and the crater could double as Iwo Jima's Mount Surabachi. That black cinder was later trucked to Leo Carrillo Beach for the scenes that needed the ocean as a backdrop. The production built a huge sandbox, measuring more than 30-by-50 feet, into which it poured the black sand; a massive plastic sheet was used so the black sand wouldn't mix with the regular beach sand. "It's a state beach, so everything had to be left in a pristine state," Beimler says.

The filmmakers also used the Calico Ghost Town and its mine in the Calico Mountains. The area almost was like one-stop shopping. As opposed to being one straight tunnel like most mines, this one was honeycombed, making it very much like the tunnels dug by the Japanese on Iwo Jima. Inside, the tunnels provided a 360-degree view of caves and more caves as well as canyons and more canyons on the outside. And being a silver mine, the rocks were steady and safe.

"Mines are very dangerous, but here there were no safety concerns," Beimler says. "We even had a mine safety expert check it out."

Because the mines are on public land and are environmentally sensitive, Beimler and his assistant Linda Kai had to negotiate with the Bureau of Land Management to acquire the permission to shoot battle scenes with real explosions.

More caves were later built on the Warner Bros. lot. According to Beimler, "Clint said, 'Hell, I could have shot the whole movie in Barstow,' but the sets were already under construction. I think he might have just stayed and done everything in the real tunnels."

The production also spread to areas in and around Los Angeles. Iwo Jima's airfield and Japanese village were built in Canyon Country's Mystery Messa, while the clubhouse at Griffith Park's golf course was used for a ballroom scene.

"You basically had to look for locations that were in different places, that had a slightly different environment but still gave you the sense it was the same place," Beimler says. "It was tricky." With cinematographer's Tom Stern colorization scheme, production design from the late Henry Bumstead and James Murakami as well as the use of stock footage from "Flags," the "Letters" team was able to pull a movie that is now on its way to eclipsing its bigger brother.
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