That One Time I Was Filming and Almost Got Arrested by the Federal Government for Espionage

This is one of my favorite production stories and several people can verify its accuracy. That said, I don’t know if they want to be associated with this publicly so names have been changed.

So, this is the story of the one time I was almost arrested by the Federal government for trespassing and espionage while filming a short pitch trailer. It was 2014 and I had teamed up with my buddy Steve to direct and shoot a pitch trailer for a feature idea he had developed. The idea for the trailer was to cross cut between an interview with a major CEO (fictionalized) and action shots of our main characters. Those actions shots were supposed to take place in Africa where most of the feature story takes place.

So, I started searching around for something that could double as an African desert. It didn’t have to be perfect, just enough to help sell the pitch. I knew my best bet would be up in the Antelope Valley area, north of Palmdale. Thanks to the satellite feature on Google maps I was able to scout ahead and found a sizable dry lake bed in what looked to be a quiet area along a lone dusty road. Perfect. We weren’t planning on getting permits and the more in the middle of nowhere we were the better.

We spent the first half of the day shooting in a location closer to LA and everything went off fine. There were six of us in total: Steve, two actors, a costume designer, a PA and myself. So after this first scene we headed North, stopping for lunch and then eventually we got to the second location.

Much to my chagrin, the location wasn’t on some “quiet area on some lone dusty road” but what looked to be a highly trafficked two lane highway cutting through the desert. We didn’t have other options however and honestly, didn’t think anyone would bother us anyway. We were just stopped on the side of the road minding our own business, stealing shots. No big deal and I had done it before.

Now, some of you may know but for those that don’t, you’re really not supposed to be shooting on dry lake beds, at least in the area we were in. For some reason that others can explain, its a big deal and not really kosher. That said, I didn’t think anyone would stop us and the furthest out we would go was 20 feet. Seek forgiveness, not permission, right?

So, we started shooting. I grabbed shots of our characters walking along the lake bed, and it looked like a huge amount of nothingness behind them. The footage looked amazing and I couldn’t have been happier with it. It looked like we were in the middle of nowhere, despite the cars roaring by off camera. We finished up everything we needed with the main camera. Steve had a drone so we brought that out and got some “satellite” type shots of our heroes walking through the desert. Once those were done, we still had great light and decided to push our luck and keep shooting. I had rented a 600mm Canon lens (the previous scene featured a sniper scope shot) and even though I hadn’t planned on it, I though it would be cool to get some long lens shots of our heroes walking, with the heat of the desert distorting the image and so on. So we grabbed the lens and I started setting up the shot. Here’s a pic of me and the camera set up:

So, as I was setting this up, I heard a police car, sirens blaring, drive by on the road. He was obviously pulling someone over and as the siren receded I turned back to the shot. I had our actors walk a couple hundred feet out (totally destroying the 20 foot rule I thought we’d abide by) on the lake bed and then turn around. We didn’t have radios so communication was somewhat difficult and I was trying to make sure they stayed close together — yelling at them and motioning with my arms.

Then, I heard the siren again. I turned and looked towards the road and I saw a white police car pull over near our cars. Steve headed over to them to see what was up and I quickly turned towards the actors and yelled at them to started walking. As they did, I rolled on the camera, shooting some video and getting a couple of stills.

As the actors got close I heard Steve coming up behind me. “Everyone stop what you’re doing,” I heard him say. I turned around and saw two men with him: one dressed all in black and the other in green. I was confused. They didn’t look like cops.

“Everyone just stay where you are.” We did as we were told. They introduced themselves and said they were Air Force police.


What were Air Force police doing way out here?

“Are you aware you’re on government property?”

“Uh, no.”

“You’re on Edwards Air Force base. You didn’t see the big ass sign as you came down the road?”

We hadn’t. And this whole thing was so bizarre to me because when I research this location on Google Maps, I specifically chose it because according to Google it was NOT on Edwards Air Force base (they very clearly laid out the property lines, or so I thought). In fact, it wasn’t even close. Here’s a pic from Google maps today and you can clearly see the outline of Edwards Air Force Base in red.

Where you can clearly see how Google delineates the boundary of Edwards Air Force Base.

That said, I wisely kept my mouth shut.

The Air Force cops asked for our IDs and it seems pretty much everyone had left them back in the cars. They waited for a third guy to show up and then escorted us back to the car. Steve took point and explained to them why we were out here, what we were filming and that, obviously, had we known this was government property we never would have come to this location (we’re not THAT stupid, after all).

“You know you’re now supposed to be walking around on dry lake beds?” they asked us.

“Nope. We had no idea. Why is that?”

They didn’t explain. Instead, they took down all of our information and called in our IDs. They didn’t seem to know what to with us and it kind of felt like this was the most action they had seen in a while. One of our actors hadn’t brought his ID or anything on the shoot. They asked him why he wasn’t carrying an ID. “I didn’t know I would need one.” (To be fair, you’re not required to carry around a government ID at all times. When they pointed out that you did when you were on an Air Force Base we again, reiterated, that we weren’t aware we would be on one.)

Finally, we heard over the radio that their immediate supervisor was out to lunch. It was then that two of them called Steve and myself over to the car.

“Okay,” one of them said. “Here’s whats gonna happen. We’re going to escort you off the base and if you come back here and do this again you’re going to be arrested on federal trespassing charges, okay? It doesn’t look good when we find people on an Air Force base with a big ass lens and camera.”

All I could think of was thank God they hadn’t seen us with the drone.

“And,” he continued, “you’re going to show us what you shot and delete it from the camera.”

Steve’s heart sank. All that footage. Gone. Some really great stuff as well.

I grabbed the camera and showed the officer what we had shot and then proceeded to delete the footage. I could tell the guy had absolutely no way of knowing whether I deleted the pics or not but I decided not to chance it. When I showed him that the card was empty, he seemed satisfied and said we could go.

As we walked back to the group, we told them to get in the car and we’d explain later.

So, we’re in the car, driving off the base and of course we see the huge ass sign that says “Edwards Air Force Base.” Now, to be clear, this wasn’t the base proper. This was just the extended property so there weren’t any fences or check points or anything to indicate you were on a base. Even the sign wasn’t clear. I assumed when you entered Air Force base property you would know it.

As we’re driving, everyone asks what happened. I told them they made me delete the footage. Everyone’s heart sank. “All of it?” I nodded. “I wiped the card. Let’s just get of here.” Finally, the cops turned around on the road, satisfied we were off the property.

We all sat for a moment, driving as we did. Then, I spoked up.

“I switched the cards.” Everyone looked at me.

And this is the point in the movie where we flashback to the scene where I’m using the 600mm lens.

Then, I heard the siren again. I turned and looked towards the road and I saw a white police car pull over near our cars. Steve headed over to them to see what was up. As he did I very quickly took the card with all of the days footage on it and slipped it into my sock. I then loaded a fresh card into the camera, turned towards the actors and yelled at them to started walking. As they did, I rolled on the camera, shooting some video and getting a couple of stills. I got enough to show that we had shot something but it could all be deleted (as I assumed they would ask us to do this).

Back to Present:

No one could believe it. Thankfully, we never got to the place of being searched. Who knows what would have happened if we had. So the only thing we lost were shots we had never planned on getting (and didn’t need) in the first place. (Which is too bad cause it was some great footage.)

We had everything else — all the beautiful, gorgeous desert stuff we had spent hours shooting before the cops came.

Then we drove off into the sunset, a smile on all our faces.

And that’s the story of how I was almost arrested by the Federal government.

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Joshua Caldwell is a director, writer, producer, and MTV Movie Award Winner. His debut feature film LAYOVER was made for $6000 and had its World Premiere to sold out crowds at the 2014 Seattle International Film Festival where it was nominated for the prestigious FIPRESCI New American Cinema Award. In 2015, he directed the first season of Hulu’s SOUTH BEACH and the Paramount Pictures feature film BE SOMEBODY. In 2017 his latest film, the action-thriller NEGATIVE, had its World Premiere at the Newport Beach Film Festival and will be released in the fall.

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