Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer, stars of Disney’s The Lone Ranger debuting July 3, join a long list of formidable Hollywood greats, including Jennifer Lawrence, Brad Pitt, Elizabeth Taylor and John Wayne, who have acted on the nation’s outdoor soundstage – a national forest.
Last year during 10 days of filming on the Santa Fe National Forest in New Mexico, the Gilman Tunnels served as the backdrop for a scene in The Lone Ranger where a train passes through the tunnels.
The tunnels, originally blasted out of rock in the 1920s for a railroad, are now used for cars. That meant the filmmakers had to put a railroad engine and rails cars onto separate flatbed trucks, which were driven at moderate speeds through the tunnels during filming. While moving, the actors shot a gunfight scene that also shows them ducking to avoid the roof of the tunnel. Part of the action (enhanced in the editing room) can be seen in the movie’s trailers. The explosion near the entrance of a tunnel was not shot at the Gilman Tunnels.
Jeff Harris, a natural resource specialist on the Santa Fe, had a front row seat on the 10-day shoot in the tunnels. Prior to joining the Forest Service in 2010, he gained experience working on the set of a few shows, including Grizzly Adams, a 1970s television series.
“You go in not really understanding what you are getting into, but you need to be there because there are conditions in the special-use authorization that they have to live by,” he said. “For this particular movie, they were filming in a pretty narrow gorge with a stream cascading down on one side and some old railroad tunnels that were historic but converted to a narrow paved road to get to the boxed canyon.
“But it was pretty easy, really. When they wanted to bolt some of their blue screens into the walk you just say, ‘Well, is there any other way to do it?’ And there are always ways.”
The Lone Ranger is a modern remake of the classic adventure series of the same name, which aired on radio for 21 years beginning in 1933 and on television for 10 years starting in 1949. All were based on scripts created by Fran Striker, who also created The Green Hornet and Sgt. Preston of the Yukon. Hammer plays the Lone Ranger, played by Clayton Moore on most of the television episodes, and Depp is Tonto, played by Jay Silverheels throughout the televised series.
The 2013 Jerry Bruckheimer version of The Lone Ranger included outdoor scenes shot in Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico and Texas, including at the Canyon de Chelly National Monument. But it’s the magnificently high tunnels on the Santa Fe National Forest that helped to add the drama to that one scene that also featured Rebecca Reid as Ruth Wilson.
Requests to film on national forests and grasslands are somewhat routine. However, producers are required to apply for a special-use permit and follow strict guidelines to ensure that film production and related activities – feeding the crew, dressing rooms, etc. – do not hurt the natural environment. Visitor safety is also a concern. If any part of the proposed filming would cause harm to forest resources, those activities are not allowed. During filming, Forest Service employees are on hand to monitor the activity.
“Ultimately, it is our job to make sure that the forest and all of its wonderful resources are made available to future generations,” said Maria Garcia, forest supervisor on the Santa Fe.