By Jim Eckles
The recent appearance of Clint Eastwood in the Tularosa Basin is not his first here. In the early 80s he visited the missile range to look at Alkali Flats, where the Space Harbor is located, to see if it met his film company’s need for an artic site. The following is an edited excerpt from Pocketful of Rockets.
One day I received a query from someone responsible for photography at the Malpaso Company, Clint Eastwood’s movie production outfit. He explained they were planning a Clint Eastwood movie called Firefox where he would steal a super-secret Soviet fighter and fly it to the West. In that process he would need to land on an ice floe and have the jet refueled by a submarine.
The company had heard Alkali Flats, in the middle of the missile range’s old lakebed, were very white, maybe white enough to double as snow and ice. He wanted to know exactly how white the ground really was.
I explained the color was hard to describe, mainly because the color changes during different weather and lighting conditions. The flats are at their whitest when the lakebed is very dry and moisture can make them more of a camel color.
He asked for photos and I said we didn’t have much in stock and, besides, a print can be altered and might not show the true colors. He asked if White Sands could shoot a few new photos. I said yes and volunteered to shoot a role of Kodachrome slides.
By using Kodachrome we agreed he could see unaltered images of the lakebed.
So I went out and shot a series of photos around the space shuttle landing strips. I shot in all directions so they could see what the background would be like.
I mailed the roll of film to an address in California and got a call back in a week or two. They liked the look of the lakebed and Fritz Manes, the movie’s producer, wanted to actually visit the place.
We arranged a day and I did the paperwork to get Manes and a few others onto the missile range. I drove them out to the flats and we looked around. In the process Manes explained they wanted to shoot the ice flow scene some place easy to get to and with comfortable weather. He said through their special effects magic they could mask out the mountains in the background and make the flat expanse look like ice. This was before CGI in movies. Southern New Mexico seemed a far better location than the frozen North.
Before Manes left, he said Eastwood would need to visit to approve the site before they could go to the Department of Army with a formal request to use the lakebed for filming.
I said that would be fine and promptly lost control of the project. When the New Mexico Film Board, representing the company, called back to make arrangements for a spring 1981 visit, my office mate Debbie Bingham somehow intercepted the call. I was probably at some very, very important endless meeting.
She met Eastwood, his company reps and a couple of people from the New Mexico Film Board at the Small Missile Range and drove up to the flats. When they got out onto the lakebed, Debbie said she was surprised at how tall Eastwood wasn’t. She always pictured him as a large person reflecting his roles as an action hero.
The film board personnel were quite excited about having Eastwood in New Mexico. When they made arrangements with Debbie, they explained that everything should be low-key with no one there to take Eastwood’s photo. “Don’t bother him,” they said. Afterwards, Debbie explained each board member seemed to have two cameras and showed no restraint in using them around the actor.
In addition to his physical appearance, Debbie wasn’t much impressed by the star’s demeanor. She said he seemed kind of “dull” about the lighting. When he got out of the car he said it didn’t look so white to him. She advised him to take off his sunglasses. Then the glare was blinding and he admitted it was bright.
To be fair to Eastwood, Debbie did overhear them talking about all the margaritas in Santa Fe the night before. He may have been a bit sluggish from the late-night partying.
One real problem they discussed was time of year for the filming. The movie company’s schedule called for them to shoot in June. When Debbie explained that temperatures on those flats usually exceed 100 degrees in June it dawned on them that actors wearing winter parkas, heavy gloves and boots in such conditions might be difficult. It was something for them to address.
Eventually, the company decided the lakebed would meet their needs and went to the Department of Army to seek permission to film there.
There are offices, one for each military service, in Los Angeles that do nothing but deal with requests from film companies for military support in their projects with equipment, personnel, locations, etc.
If the staffers are positive about a project, they start coordinating to see if it is possible. In this case, it meant questioning White Sands to see if the range could and was willing to support.
The answer from White Sands, as it has been for most movie requests, is that it is possible but the filming has to be on a non-interference basis. That means the film company would have to work around the missile range’s schedule and not the other way round. If there was a missile firing in that area or a planned impact or space shuttle pilot training, the company might have to evacuate for several hours or maybe even all day.
To say the least, such a restriction is almost impossible for a movie company to live with. They burn money so fast, a day or two of delay can easily cost them something into six figures. Plus, an unplanned delay might ripple out and mess up equipment and personnel schedules on down the line.
In the end Malpaso withdrew their request to film at White Sands and went elsewhere. The movie was released in 1982, not long after the Space Shuttle Columbia landed on the nearby shuttle landing strip at White Sands.