We really showed Arizona in this film,” notes actor/screenwriter/ director Greg Sestero, perhaps understating things a bit. Miracle Valley, the horror movie he helmed from start to finish, features a virtual travelogue of locations in the Grand Canyon State.
“We covered a lot,” he observes of the shoot, which took place at the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020. “We did Tucson, Patagonia, Bisbee, Lake Powell and Horseshoe Bend.”
Sestero is known to film buffs far and wide for his memorable role as “Mark” in the cult-classic The Room, which he documented in his bestselling book The Disaster Artist, later made into a hit movie with James and Dave Franco. He has appeared in a number of other films, however, and wrote and directed Best F(r)iends, a two-part thriller that filmed in LA, and Arizona locations such as Dragoon. He was impressed with the wide variety of sights in Southern Arizona, and they influenced the project that was to become Miracle Valley.
“I’ve always been intrigued by cults, and then coming across that old abandoned church in Cochise County, Arizona, I thought, ‘This is so fascinating. What must have gone on here?’” he reflects. “I took inspiration from that, and later while I was researching many cults, I was sitting in a hotel in Iceland at two o’clock in the morning and there was a snow storm. I started reading about human trafficking and the weird reasons why that happens. This film is sort of a culmination of all these things I was fascinated by.”
The story, like many horror films, begins with a journey. “Living in Arizona while I was writing this, it struck me how bird watching is such a thing there. So the movie centers on this obsessive photographer and his girlfriend who’ve been invited to go to a ranch in search of this ultra-rare bird. If you were to get shot of it and sell it to National Geographic, it would change your life. This couple comes across a force of nature that challenges everything about them: who they are as people, their relationship, what all it means. It was really great being in the space and writing the script in Arizona and studying the history. Just being there and knowing where these scenes were going to take place was a lot of fun.”
Anyone who has gone to The Loft Cinema to hear Sestero speak during a screening of The Room knows that he’s a well-educated film aficionado, and has a lot of classic references to draw from as a filmmaker. “I would say Miracle Valley is really a throwback to 1970s horror. It’s got a little bit of The Hills Have Eyes. It’s got a little Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It starts off with kind of a Duel vibe, and you don’t really know where it’s going. That was one of the biggest things while creating it — keeping that unpredictability. I’m a big Hitchcock fan, and we took some inspiration from him as well.”
And the opening scene, which utilizes a drone to show our amazing Saguaro National Park and the film’s protagonists on their drive, references another very famous fright flick. “The opening shots are kind of an Arizona version of the beginning of The Shining,” he acknowledges.
Though this was a labor of love, there were many challenges, including the fact that there were so many locations in a limited time, along with weather you can’t always predict in the desert. “We filmed at this really cool abandoned haunted house up in the mountains above Patagonia,” he remarks. “It’s about an hour- and 20-minute drive up into the mountains. It’s a crazy shack with bats living in the roof. We filmed there in the dead of night and it was freezing cold.”
It was worth leaping the hurdles, however, to wind up with a film that has so many interesting real places in it. “We also shot at Tumacácori Mission, which is an incredible location at night. When we show footage to people they’re like, ‘Where are these places?’ There’s so much production value. When I was scouting I was thinking, ‘How have these places never really been utilized? They feel like they’re right out of a Quentin Tarantino or Sergio Leone movie.’”
One amazing “get” for the movie is actually not in Arizona, but about 90 minutes outside Pittsburgh. “We’re the very first feature film to shoot at Fallingwater. Frank Lloyd Wright is someone I’ve been interested in for years,” Sestero reveals. “I was in Gattaca, and Wright’s building in Marin was the space center in the movie. Fallingwater is an amazing masterpiece, and getting to film there and have it be a part of the movie was super cool. It’s a World Heritage Site, up there with the Taj Mahal.”
Sestero credits his team with making the movie come together, including crew from Monsoon Productions, who worked on the Arizona shoots, and producers Tom Franco (brother to James and Dave) and Iris Torres. “They worked on Rise of the Planet of the Apes, In Dubious Battle, so many projects, and they came onboard about 10 days into filming and really helped get these challenges met,” Sestero says. “The number of scenes we were shooting was such a big challenge. And there are nights where it got down to the 30s and we even had rain. But it all became part of the fabric of the movie. The cold breath … you can see it in the actors’ faces. Everything combined in a movie that when you watch it, the challenges, pain and suffering we went through to make it all work for the characters.”
Certain story parallels to the pandemic aside, Sestero barely made it in under the wire production-wise, and has had to do all the post on the film during a time of social distancing and quarantines. He is now eager to get the film out to the public in the manner he knows it was meant to be seen.
“I definitely want to do theatrical screenings. I would love to come to The Loft Cinema on tour,” he enthuses. “I think horror movies are much better seen in a theater. There’s a lot of craziness, and a lot of dynamic cinematography in this film, so I’m hoping we can do that.” For more information about Miracle Valley, go to Imdb.com/title/ tt14174586