What I Learned Thanks to Show Me 66

13, December 2016

After a year of researching, conducting interviews, collecting archival footage, and taking nearly a dozen road trips, the Missouri History Museum released its first feature-length documentary, Show Me 66: Main Street Through Missouri. The film is a wide-angle look at the Missouri people, places, moments, and events that helped make Route 66 the most famous highway in the world—no small task when dealing with 90 years of history and 300 miles of road. Although my co-director, Eric Wilkinson, has worked extensively in film, this was my first foray into filmmaking, and I learned quite a bit throughout the process.

Filming a documentary takes time—lots of it

Photo of the boom arm in use during "Show Me 66" filmingThe infamous boom arm in use.

For our first road trip, I had an enormous list of roadside places I thought we'd get filmed that day. It looked like a wishful child’s Christmas list—it filled a whole page and had anything and everything on it. When only five spots had been crossed off by that evening, I was just as stunned as that child who didn’t get all 75 things he’d requested from Santa.

Because Route 66 is the “slow road,” which is exactly what road enthusiasts love about it, just getting from place to place ate up quite a bit of our time. Some of these places are on disused stretches of road or hidden in Missouri’s dense vegetation, so finding them can be a challenge. We also had to maximize our road trips, sometimes filming until nearly midnight to get shots of neon signs.

Reassembling Eric's eight-foot-long boom arm every time we stopped took time too. We had to hook up the power supply, set up the tripod, attach the monitor, load the counterbalance weights . . . essentially we became a two-man NASCAR crew. (Fun fact: The arm needed about 50 pounds of dumbbell weights to balance it, and wow, did they feel heavy by the eighth or tenth time unloading them from the van!)

Crafting a movie script is all about editing

Photo of filming the World's Largest RockerCo-director Eric hard at work filming the World's Largest Rocker.

How many rewrites does it take to craft a film? Three? Five? Try 30, for me anyway. Compared to the final film, the first version of the Show Me 66 script is nearly unrecognizable—and would have made for a six-hour long film!

In museum exhibits, we often try to paint a picture by using descriptive, sensory writing. In a film, the careful placement of footage and imagery does most of the heavy lifting. The narration is there simply to guide the transitions and steer the ship. So the hard part isn’t filling 90 minutes but cutting down to 90 minutes.

The MHM van does NOT double as an off-road vehicle

Photo of the interior and exterior of MHM van during filmingThe MHM van during filming: Unassuming on the outside, hot mess on the inside.

What’s the quintessential Route 66 car? A loaded-down Model T from the Grapes of Wrath years? A road-trip-ready 1950s station wagon? A 1963 Corvette Stingray, just like Tod and Buz drove on the Route 66 TV show?

How about an enormous white cargo van? That’s what we cruised the Mother Road in. Its size made for some interesting challenges on a road known for being winding and small. When driving on some of the original 18-foot-wide stretches, like those found in Spencer and just west of Carthage, the van barely stayed out of the oncoming traffic’s lane.

Route 66 people are proud, enthusiastic, and some of the friendliest folks I’ve ever met

Photo of interview filming for "Show Me 66" documentary Co-director Eric films neon restoration consultant David Hutson.

The common thread throughout all of our encounters was excitement. The idea that Route 66 is a 2,400-mile “linear village” that connects people across states, time zones, and lifestyles was made real in the treatment we received. Eric and I were welcomed in, shown the way, and talked up everywhere we went. We’d pull into a new town only to be met by a tourism representative or business owner who’d heard about our coming from someone we’d talked to an hour earlier.

One of our interview subjects and his wife insisted that we weren’t going back to St. Louis with empty stomachs and proceeded to offer us a full homemade lunch, complete with blackberry cobbler. Homemade cobbler, a porch overlooking the Mark Twain National Forest, and plenty of history isn’t a bad way to spend a workday.

—Andrew Wanko, Public Historian

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