Have you seen the latest promo for Conan O’Brien’s new show? The one where he fills a Dodge Dart with explosives, illegal fireworks, and un-popped popcorn, and then drives off a 900-foot cliff. At the bottom he emerges from the exploding wreckage in flames, looks into the camera and says, “That was expensive.”
The setting for the commercial looks like the surface of Mars, and appears to be miles from civilization. But it’s actually right here in the Santa Clarita Valley, just off Vasquez Canyon Road, on the doorstep of a city of 165,000.
Mystery Mesa is the name of the spot, and Kimi and I were lucky enough to get a tour of it recently. It’s not very well known outside of the ranks of Hollywood’s location managers, but in fact, it’s one of the most used filming sites in the entire Santa Clarita Valley.
The Mesa was once the site of Christian tent revivals in the 1920s. It later became a filming spot for the likes of William S. Hart in the silent Western days and has literally been seen hundreds of times over the years on screen.
It was here that Steven Spielberg filmed the conclusion of his memorable thriller Duel in 1971, where the killer truck drives off the same cliff as in the O’Brien clip (the cliff is only 120-feet tall, by the way). Spielberg came back here in 2005 to film several scenes from War of the Worlds. It was later used as the desert airport in The Aviator, and around the same time it doubled for ancient Egypt in The Scorpion King. More recently, the mesa became the island of Iwo Jima in the South Pacific for Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima. Next year, the Mesa will show up on the big screen again in Kenneth Branagh’s fantasy Thor, which stars Natalie Portman.
The site has been used in countless ads, often for Japanese car companies, and was recently seen in an expensive 100th anniversary promo for troubled oil company British Petroleum.
Mystery Mesa lies within the thirty-mile-zone, where producers get special breaks in union rules designed to keep filming costs down. The site was once nearly lost to development, but the owners have agreed to leave it as is to help keep filming in California.
So, the next time you are at the movies and you see the desert, or ancient Egypt, or even the South Pacific, don’t be fooled, you may in fact be looking at the Santa Clarita Valley.