“My name is Tom Van Allen. Or Danny Parker. I honesty don’t know anymore. You can decide. Yeah, maybe you can help me, friend. As you can see I don’t have a hell of a lot of time left.” So says the voice of Tom/Danny (Val Kilmer), wailing on a trumpet as flames engulf the room he’s trapped in. Taking us into the subterranean world of methedrine (speed) and speed freaks (tweakers), Danny braves daylight with his loyal fellow tweaker Jimmy the Finn (Peter Sarsgaard) to score more dope. A run-in with a dealer (Glenn Plummer) who keeps a live woman under his mattress and a speargun by his bed bleeds into “the land of the perpetual night party,” until Danny meets with the narcs (Anthony LaPaglia, Doug Hutchison) he works for as an informant.
Notified that one of the dealers he’s ratted on is coming after him, Danny’s benefactors advise him to get out of Los Angeles. He returns to his apartment instead, removing his jewelry and washing the dye out of hair. Changing into a suit, he plays his horn. Danny’s memory takes him back to when he was still musician Tom Van Allen and visited the Salton Sea of California with his wife (Chandra West). Before leaving L.A., Danny attempts to string together a quarter of a million dollar meth deal between a Chinese cowboy (B.D. Wong) and a sadistic, wheezing meth cook in Palmdale named Pooh Bear (Vincent D’Onofrio), so named because he stuck his nose in so much speed that it had to be amputated.
After taking pity on a neighbor (Deborah Kara Unger) with an abusive boyfriend (Luis Guzman), Danny hits rock bottom when the narcs are tipped off to his deal. They threaten him with prison time unless he agrees to set up Pooh Bear for them. Danny gains the cook’s trust after being forced to strip and endure a close encounter with a caged badger Pooh Bear keeps for amusement. Moving back in time again, we learn that Tom’s wife was killed when the couple crossed paths with two meth cowboys in the Salton Sea. Rather than tell the police what he knew, the musician uses a strand of hair and a ring to launch his own investigation, masquerading as a tweaker who’s pretending to be a snitch.
Tony Gayton was a USC Film School grad who in the mid-1980s was an assistant for John Milius, producer of a movie Gayton’s older brother Joe had written titled Uncommon Valor. In between writing jobs, Tony Gayton shot a “kamikaze style” documentary titled Athens, Georgia: Inside/Out – which featured R.E.M. and The B-52s – but took him out of the Hollywood loop for a year and drained his bank account. Gayton spent a few months teaching high school phys ed in Compton and considered dropping out of the film industry for good. He decided to write something for himself, something that might make a good writing sample and maybe lead to an assignment. The result was The Salton Sea.
Producer Ken Aguado – a principal of Humble Journey Films with actor Eriq LaSalle – became a champion of Gayton’s script. “Character revelations and plot twists are introduced throughout the entire piece, which is one of the reasons it’s such a fascinating movie. A lot of scripts are boring after the thirteenth page because everything has been revealed. This film is not about the immediate moment. It’s about the future, the past, and it requires two hours to figure out.” Aguado passed the script to D.J. Caruso, who had also started his career as an assistant – to director John Badham – before directing second unit on Point Of No Return and Another Stakeout. Caruso had recently directed a highly rated B-movie airing on HBO in 1998 titled Black Cat Run.
Urged by Aguardo to read The Salton Sea immediately, Caruso recalls, “I loved it. I flipped out because I had been waiting for the right opportunity to direct my first feature film. I’ve had a couple of opportunities before, but I really wanted my first film to be something that meant something to me. I’m obsessed with character journeys, whether that growth is a positive or negative growth. I was really compelled by the dilemma the lead character Danny Parker experiences.” Ken Aguado knew that Frank Darabont – who had written and produced Black Cat Run – was eager to work with Caruso again. He sent Darabont a copy of The Salton Sea as well.
Darabont said, “What I loved about the script was that it took me into a world that I was quite unfamiliar with, but did so in a way that made it tremendously accessible to me as a reader and to me as a viewer. The story delves into a real underbelly kind of existence. It has an absurdist kind of reality where anything can happen and at the same time the script has its other foot in this very intense, real crime drama that you can take seriously.” Directing The Green Mile for Castle Rock Entertainment, Darabont suggested setting up The Salton Sea there. Caruso recalls, “Frank said to me that Castle Rock would never make this movie because it was way too dark for the studio that made Miss Congeniality. Not to dismiss those types of films but The Salton Sea was not typical Castle Rock stuff. But, Rob Reiner was looking for something that was a little dirtier to make the company a little more diverse.”
In July 1999, Castle Rock not only paid $750,000 for the “spec comedy thriller,” but asked Tony Gayton for only minor changes – “I rewrote maybe 10 pages,” he recalled – while also hiring the scribe to write an idea of Reiner’s that became Murder By Numbers. Echoing several of the actor’s key performances, Caruso wanted Val Kilmer for the lead role. Kilmer recalled, “I had played a couple of alcoholics before – Doc Holliday and Jim Morrison – and other similar characters in theater, so I had a pretty good idea about addiction and those arenas of characters who become suicidal.” On a budget of $18 million, shooting commenced April 2000. Interiors were filmed at Center Stage Studios in Los Angeles, with additional photography taking place around L.A. and in the Antelope Valley.
Arriving in theaters April 2002, The Salton Sea received two thumbs up from At The Movies – Richard Roeper commented, “A lot of people have tried to do Pulp Fiction type movies and Tarantinoesque things and they usually fall far short. This is equal to the task” – but most critics were dismissive. Kenneth Turan wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Taking issue with efforts like The Salton Sea, cold and unemotional films that couldn’t be more pleased at the opportunity to enthusiastically drag audiences through unhappy material, is as futile as getting mad at the wind.” Never expanding beyond 30 screens, the film grossed just $760,000 in the U.S. Tony Gayton mused, “It’s not an easy film for a studio, not the kind of product you can bottle and sell. I mean, how many movies do you have to actually see to figure out what’s going to happen? The TV spots usually tell you everything.”
Of all the recent down and dirty movies to explore drug culture – from Trainspotting (heroin) to Blow (cocaine) to Homegrown (marijuana) – The Salton Sea (meth) is the boss for several reasons. The manic compulsions of the tweaker make them by far the most entertaining drug addict to watch stoned in a movie. Tony Gayton’s script is a beautifully structured piece of screenwriting – full of sharp dialogue and rich characters – that actually possesses a story, as opposed to sketches on a lost weekend. The material attracted one of the finest casts of actors and in his feature film debut, D.J. Caruso keeps a cool breeze of mystery flowing through the proceedings, so instead of being ahead of the score at all times, you’re in a constant state of trying to figure it out.
Far from taking itself seriously as an art movie, The Salton Sea is a throwback to the two-fisted fare that used to play on the bottom of the bill, pulp fiction featuring stars reminding you how good they could be, and new faces trying to prove it. Tom Van Allen is the last major role anyone offered Val Kilmer, and his jazz lounge narration in particular is savory. Peter Sarsgaard provides an immensely likable moral center, Adam Goldberg and Deborah Kara Unger give memorable performances as characters off on a bender, while Vincent D’Onofrio is the chief reason to see the movie. As a deformed dirt farmer with a trick up each sleeve, D’Onofrio’s Pooh Bear ranks as one of the best big screen bad guys of recent memory. Thomas Newman composed the coolly efficient score.
Michael W. Phillips Jr. at goatdog’s movies writes, “The Salton Sea is a highly original and entertaining look at the lives of crystal meth addicts that can’t quite free itself from the run-of-the-mill revenge tale it’s trapped in. For every completely new character or scene, there’s one taken from Cop Film 101. It’s a sort of rollercoaster ride through the salvaged wreckage of a hundred similar movies. At the center are two very good but completely different performances: Val Kilmer as the main character, Danny/Tony, who is an addict with a plan; and Vincent D’Onofrio as Pooh-Bear, one of the most original characters I’ve seen in a long time.”
Derek Smith at Apollo Movie Guide writes, “It is the mystery of the film that makes it enjoyable and it’s important to note that this is not truly a “drug film” such as Trainspotting or Requiem for a Dream, but rather an exploration of a man’s identity and how tragedy forces him to extreme measures. The sharp script always keeps us on edge and makes it nearly impossible to predict what will happen next. While it’s not always original, this film holds its mystery until the very end – a feat not often accomplished by a Hollywood movie.”