Highpointing: Mount Sunflower, Kansas
January 1, 2018
Mount Sunflower sits out in the high plains of Kansas just a few yards away from the Colorado border. It is austere but picturesque in it’s way. Production-wise this was the first highpoint episode shot for season 3. Back when I was originally planning the series I had this idea of doing all the Great Plains at one go. Start at North Dakota and head south. Shoot them all over six crazy days and do a season finale at Texas. With the clarity of hindsight and 18 months of shooting I now know that would have been a recipe for disaster. Fortunately other events happened that temporarily drove me away from that foolhardy plan.
I knew I would have a chance to grab a couple of highpoints due to having a training class in Denver during May. I planned to maximize my opportunities by going after Kansas on the Sunday I arrived and then Nebraska before I flew home but that changed to Oklahoma in the latter part of the week with the logic being to go for the further distant ones while I had the chance and grab Nebraska the next time I was in Colorado.
From a production standpoint the question was always how to make Kansas and Nebraska more appealing to people. Both highpoints have a reputation of being quick stops with their own charm but not much else. I wanted to prove that wasn’t the case, a sort of “don’t judge a book by its cover,” thing.
When I started the series I always knew there would be easy episodes to write and hard ones as well. When I first started hammering out the script Kansas was a challenge until I hit upon the idea of a more robust seasonal theme and expanded on something that started emerging late in Season 2. This was the genesis of the whole “hidden history” theme of the season. Once that was in place Kansas became a straightforward episode. The Dust Bowl provided plenty of material, to the point I had to narrow the focus.
This was Jessica Kyander Johnson’s first time behind the camera. She is does photography in her free time and it shows in how this episode was framed. The sun was fairly blazing that day and we both got a bit red before the end. We didn’t really do anything overly ambitious shooting-wise. It was a long drive and we didn’t start shooting till the afternoon so quick efficient filming was key, hence static shots through it all.
As for the location, there really isn’t much to Mount Sunflower; you can drive up that road all the way if you want though I preferred the walk. We did the old trick of turning the camera around in a few spots to make it look like we had more location than we actually did. Overall I enjoyed shooting this episode; it took me back to my agricultural roots, growing up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin.
The episode used two pieces of music, both by Kevin MacLeod of incompetech.com. The first, lighter piece is “When the Wind Blows,” rather fitting for this part of Kansas. The other, more oppressive piece, “Breath,” is one of a seven part series entitled Shadowlands. I wanted a piece that could reflect some of the seriousness and horror of the Dust Bowl and it helped create the mood I wanted.
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