Tag Archives: mystery mesa

“Road Rage” Spielberg-style

I’m not sure if the term “road rage” had been coined in 1971, but I remember learning about it as a boy watching the psychological-thriller Duel, which was the first commercial film directed by a young Steven Spielberg.

Yesterday I wrote about Mystery Mesa, where the killer truck plunges off a cliff at the film’s conclusion. Today, we will take a look at some of the other sites used in the film around the Santa Clarita Valley.

Duel is a simple story about a traveling salesman, played by Dennis Weaver, who is stalked in his red 1971 Dodge Valiant by a huge rusty gasoline tanker truck. The driver of the truck is never seen, and the motive for the chase is never made clear.

Steven Spielberg was only twenty-five when he made the film, which was created as a made-for-television movie, but also had theatrical releases overseas and in a limited number of venues in America. It was based on a story written by science-fiction and fantasy author Richard Matheson, who got the idea when he experienced road rage from a truck driver on the day that JFK was assassinated.

Most of the film was shot over thirteen days around the Acton area of the Santa Clarita Valley, far from the urban encroachment of Los Angeles (at that time). Dennis Weaver was Spielberg’s choice for the role, but he only was able to sign the actor the night before filming began.

Since 1971, much of the open desert has been covered with tract housing, but a few of the locations still look much as they did back then. The tunnel used during the school bus scene is near Acton on Soledad Canyon Road. Nearby is Le Chien, a French restaurant on Sierra Highway north of Canyon Country, which was known as Chuck’s Café in the film. It was here that Weaver’s character confronts the man he believes to be the driver.

The gasoline truck used in the film was a rusty 1955 Peterbilt 281 which carried license plates from several states to subtly imply that the trucker had killed other drivers previously. It was destroyed at the film’s conclusion when it tumbled down the face of Box Canyon at Mystery Mesa in Canyon Country, which is visible from Vasquez Canyon Road. For the film’s theatrical release, additional scenes were shot which required the acquisition of additional trucks. At least one of the vehicles still exists in a private collection in North Carolina.

The roar that the truck makes when it tumbles over the cliff was later incorporated into Spielberg’s film Jaws, during the death of the shark. As the director later stated, it was “my way of thanking Duel for giving me a career.”

(THIS JUST IN: I found this great web site that has most of the filming locations of DUEL. Check it out here.)

“That Was Expensive”

The cliff face used in Conan O'Brien's recent promo, and also by Steven Spielberg at the conclusion of "Duel" in 1971.

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.”

Funny stuff.

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.