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THE ASTRONAUT FARMER

On Location In New Mexico
Principal photography began in September 2005, with locations just outside Santa Fe representing the Farmer home and prospective launchpad, and Las Vegas, New Mexico, depicting the Farmers' fictional hometown of Story, Texas. 

On their previous films, the Polish Brothers supervised the production design themselves. "The Astronaut Farmer” marks their first collaboration with a production designer, Clark Hunter, whose credits include four films with Billy Bob Thornton, beginning with Thornton's striking 1996 directorial debut, "Sling Blade.” 

Working with Michael and Mark Polish proved to be one of the designer's most energizing professional experiences, which he attributes to their level of involvement. "It's a joy to work with them because they're not only creative but they really understand where you're coming from artistically when you're trying to shape environments for these characters.”

For the Farmer homestead, Hunter returned to The Hughes Ranch, a spacious and beautiful site just outside Santa Fe. He and Thornton used the ranch for "All the Pretty Horses,” and it has been featured in a number of other films over the years because of its perfect combination of easy accessibility and middle-of-nowhere atmosphere. There was a farmhouse and barn already on the property, but both, says Hunter, "were empty hulls, built for another movie but only as exteriors. It was pretty much a wreck when we got there, with nothing inside.” He created all the interiors for the house and raised a brand new barn big enough to accommodate a 50-foot rocket, with roof panels that could be folded open in preparation for launch. 

It was imperative that the rocket be built as nearly to scale as possible, "based on research and drawings of the Atlas-Mercury rockets and capsules, which are still very recognizable to many people,” says Hunter. "For the skin, we used a company that makes skins for 747s. We built it in sections, then stacked them up and fastened them together.”

Not only is the vintage design appropriate for the story's timeline, it has become an iconic image. As Michael Polish explains, "That was the era when everyone was getting interested in the space program for the first time, and that was its primary image. Plus, from Farmer's point of view, it's easier to build a rocket like this than to build the Space Shuttle. If someone wanted to build a car for the first time he would go back to a simpler way of doing it, back to the original Ford design and the combustion engine.

"For Farmer, this is more than a fantasy. It's a reality. He goes to great lengths to build a replica, based on the Atlas-Mercury model,” Michael continues, noting that Farmer is dedicated to, quite literally, the nuts-and-bolts of his dream. Given his engineering skill and assuming the availability of key parts, it seems…well…almost possible. 

The companion piece to the rocket and barn was Farmer's so-called Mission Control, the room containing all the computer and technical apparatus that his son Shepard would use to help launch and then monitor the craft's orbit. "It was an old Air Stream trailer,” says Hunter. "Inside we packed in a lot of vintage gadgetry and 1960s technology intermixed with modern computer equipment in a kind of Rube Goldberg design, which is what it might realistically look like if he had collected and integrated everything in bits and pieces over the years.” 

"When I first saw the rocket in the barn, finished and assembled, I was very impressed,” says Thornton. Asked if he would consider taking a trip into space himself, given the opportunity, he does not hesitate. "Absolutely. I'd love to go up in a rocket.”

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