The original idea for How the West Was Lost came from Anthony Caveney, Open Mike's head of development, and Rich Hall, everybody's favourite American grouch. Both love cowboy films but felt that there was a lot more television could say about the genre than any kind of list show or arts programme had done so far. Rich was keen to explore why Westerns went from being the giants of Hollywood in the 1950s and 1960s to virtual extinction in the 1970s and 1980s. He also wanted to explain to us Brits why cowboy films are so important to understanding the American psyche.
Rich and Open Mike already had a great relationship with BBC4, having provided the channel with Rich Hall's Fishing Show in 2003, an American election special in 2004 and Rich Hall's Cattle Drive in 2006. This meant that commissioners Janice Hadlow and Elaine Bedell were happy to give Rich and Open Mike the creative freedom to move beyond traditional documentary formats and to play to Rich's strengths. It's his wickedly laconic wit that makes Rich's stand-up so watchable and we've built that into the structure of the film as much as possible. That's why you'll see Rich digress into a full-throttle rant about the evil of spaghetti westerns and why you may want to take cover when he fires off a few hot rounds about President Bush's cowboy presidency. The result is some pretty close to the bone assessments of America, American politics and of course westerns but then you'd expect nothing less from Rich Hall.
Because he had a major tour beginning on 1 February, filming with Rich had to be squeezed into just 14 days in January. With eight pages of drama, over 70 pieces to camera, six interviews and plenty of general views and landscapes to film, meticulous forward planning was essential. Production began last December and trying to organise filming permits and set up interviews as the holidays closed in became increasingly difficult. Fortunately, we had Karen Hall working tirelessly in the States, not only getting us great deals on travel and accommodation but also finding interesting and un-usual locations to film in.
When it came to finding a director, our first choice was Chris Cottam who had already worked with Rich on Rich Hall's Fishing Show. Making the craggy wilds of Arizona, Montana and Rich Hall's face look good on the small screen held no fear for him. Our DoP was Mark Regan, who from day one only ever put the camera down to eat and sleep. Soundman Dave Lindsay completed the boutique crew and he brought with him a huge range of experience and a great attention to detail. He also brought his banjo, which proved particularly useful at charming the locals in various Montana night spots.
Before we left the UK, Chris, Karen and I made sure we had a location planned for each of the links Rich would record to camera and wherever possible we tried to match the location to the film Rich wanted to talk about. An old deserted ghost town became the backdrop for The Magnificent Seven and an out-of-season tourist attraction became the mining village in McCabe and Mrs Miller. Of course, we didn't have to find a stand-in for Tombstone because that place still exists and filming there was definitely one of the surreal highlights of the shoot. Once one of the wildest towns of the West, it's now populated by grey-haired cowboys with gun belts and mustachios. There is something hugely compelling about the place and also slightly creepy; I hope we captured its two sides in the film.
I know it's a cliché but that's because it's also true; having people in your crew who don't mind mucking in when the going gets tough and who have a good sense of humour makes the difference between having a good time on location and a great one. I can't remember the last time I laughed as much as I did on this shoot, or worked as hard. Making sure that not too many goal posts were shifted while we were away was also very important in keeping everybody happy and motivated. At the end of two weeks we had 30 rolls of rushes and just eight weeks to pull it all together in the edit. The result is a film that not only captures the beauty of the American West but which has something fresh and meaningful to say about westerns and what they reveal about today's Americans.
How the West Was Lost is an Open Mike production for BBC4. It airs on Saturday 14 June at 9pm
Maggie Womersley: My tricks of the trade
Apple notebook - I don't know how people managed before laptops. I used mine daily, if not hourly, for script-rewrites, reviewing movie clips, storing photos, rejigging the schedule...
Forward-plan as much as possible before you leave but be prepared for the fact that once you're there everything that can change probably will.
Factor 40 sun cream - I've never met a cameraman who didn't have to be cajoled into wearing sunscreen but if you don't make them, they will burn and feel miserable later.
PG Tips - Take enough for everyone.
A sense of proportion is vital - when things do go wrong, don't panic; take a step back and assess all your options.