Just Desert: Harris Done Talks Sand Trap (1997)

Dave basks in the sunlight of the Mohave Desert for a neo-noir that’s among the best of its decade, and its writer-director is on hand to tell the story of its creation.

“Let’s face it”, asserts filmmaker Harris Done, “You’re not likely to get a second feature if you’re first one doesn’t succeed. That’s how Sand Trap came about; from my desire to make a first feature that would have all the elements needed to make its money back through home video.”

And what a debut SAND TRAP (1997) is.

A sweat-stained, noir-tinged, Mohave desert-set doozy of a thriller.

Done had started out as a cinematographer in the early ‘90s, lensing Schlock Pit favourites like Edward Holzman’s Forbidden Games (1995) and Phillip J. Roth’s Digital Man (1995) – although his desire to develop his own picture was becoming hard to resist.   

“I just really wanted to get a film of my own made,” he explains. “I knew I could shoot action and I knew I could make things look good, but I couldn’t afford the normal locations around Los Angeles and didn’t want it to look low-budget. So I thought about something that could be done with a lot of day exteriors. I was shooting a short film called Yokels for Martin Schenk, a USC classmate, in the Mojave Desert and was really taken by the vast expanse and variety of epic looks that were available for the taking. We shot in abandoned mines, small ghost towns, dry lake beds – amazing locations that didn’t look cheap. I felt if you could use the vacuum of the desert as a story point, they would be an asset.”

It’s not just an asset. The sweltering backdrop of the Mohave is very much the core of Sand Trap, despite a brief suburban beginning which introduces us to Nelson Yeagher (David John James). He’s an odd cat who, though successful and affluent, is a tad sexually unappealing – which is all too apparent from the look on his wife Margo’s (Elizabeth Morehead) face during an intimate opening sequence. Much to her relief, their sexual shenanigans are interrupted by a home invader who almost leaves her husband for dead. It’s an unexpected and violent event that poses several questions, yet it’s one that’s quickly moved on from, as a bruised Nelson heads to the desert with Margo in tow. Joining them is his best friend, Jack (Brad Koepenick), who wants him to check out a potential investment property. Once in the blistering sunshine, it’s clear that something is afoot, as a petrified Nelson is left dangling from a cliff with the sneering stare of his passenger towering over him. Another attempt on his life – but one that with have a cataclysmic effect on the lives of the three people involved…

It’s noir-ish overtones are hard to ignore, and you could say it’s a little reminiscent of Roy Ward Baker’s Inferno (1953), which also found its lead (Robert Ryan) out in the desert with his scheming wife (Rhonda Fleming) and her loyal lover (William Lundigan). As far as Done is concerned, he’s been obsessed with the form since college:

“I had been a fan of film noir since seeing Double Indemnity (1944) in film school. I thought a sexy, noir-style thriller but set in the desert would satisfy all the factors that the home video market needed.”

“I wrote the original draft with locations in mind that I knew I could get for free. I sprinkled in some of my family history and some desert delusions which made for a wacky mix, but the characters did the talking and I would just try to keep up while typing. A USC classmate, Jerry Rapp, liked it and pitched doing a rewrite together. He felt like it could be a festival darling along the lines of Blood Simple (1983), and this new draft was a bit more twisted and edgy in all honesty.”

He’s right too, which is what makes Sand Trap even more unique. It has the dexterity to flip between jet black comedy and stunning savagery with consummate ease. Both Keopenick and Morehead are excellent, but, hands down, it’s James that’s a revelation – and it’s a role that Done found virtually impossible to cast.

“We cast some really good people, but had a tough time finding our lead, Nelson. Nobody seemed to get him. It was depressing to see actors do his scenes, and I began to worry about the movie working.  Then David James came in and absolutely nailed the audition. He brought a lot of heart and humanity and made the comedic moments work.”

“Looking back, we actually had the script optioned a few times, and it was nearly made for $2.5million with Peter Riegert as Nelson, John C. McGinley – who I always loved from Oliver Stone’s films, and I wrote Jack with him in mind – and a new actress named Julianne Moore as Margo. Sadly, it fell apart. In the end I convinced the investors I could do a good version for $60k, shooting on 35mm, on an eighteen day shoot, including film processing, telecine, a high fall, a helicopter day, and a police car blowing up!”  

“We were such small crew. Everyone worked for a small per diem and deferred pay.  We delivered an offline edit to our investors, and we were able to get another $50K to do post sound, and make a release print and video master for sales markets. In the end it won a couple festival awards and sold to home video all over the world. The entire crew was paid, and our money men all made a profit which meant I was hired to make some more movies.”

Premiering at the Newport Beach in April 1997, Sand Trap was unleashed into video stores by the hallowed distro PM Entertainment. It made the leap to DVD a decade later thanks to Echo Bridge, but it’s currently languishing in OOP hell, having never made it to a number of other territories like the U.K.

Most of the films on this site deserve some kind of reappraisal, but Done’s feature sits resplendent in the top tier.

It’s that good.

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