Road trip to Vegas ended in Wendover stands in for Vegas casinos

All roads lead to Vegas.

That may be true in real life. But reel life’s another story — at least in the new movie "Bonneville."

After all, when the title vehicle, a 1966 Pontiac Bonneville, rolls down the Strip and pulls up to the Riviera, you expect to see some Las Vegas casino action.

There’s casino action, all right. But it wasn’t filmed in Las Vegas.

Instead, the northeast Nevada town of West Wendover — located just west of the Utah border, off Interstate 80 — provided "Bonneville’s" casino interiors.

"Wendover — now there’s an interesting town," chuckles Jessica Lange, who stars in the road-trip comedy-drama alongside fellow Oscar-winner Kathy Bates and Tony-winner Joan Allen. "We were in Wendover several days — that was long enough for me."

In the movie, Lange plays newly widowed Arvilla, who’s en route from Pocatello, Idaho, to Santa Barbara, Calif., behind the wheel of the title convertible. Best friends Margene (Bates) and Carol (Allen) are along for the ride — along with the cremated remains of her late husband.

Together, they share an odyssey that takes them from the desert’s scenic splendors to the neon-lit wilds of Las Vegas.

And yes, that really is the Riviera — but only the exterior.

"Any kind of street shots" in Las Vegas were filmed in Las Vegas, explains director Christopher N. Rowley. But the Las Vegas exteriors feature the stand-ins, not the stars, because "we didn’t need them there."

And while "it might have been nice to actually go to Las Vegas," Allen acknowledges, "it was more budget-friendly" to shoot in Wendover — in part, because it’s just down the interstate from Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats, site of a key "Bonneville" sequence.

Utah served as "Bonneville’s" production base, with most of the shoot taking place in Salt Lake City.

"The only time we left was for three days in Wendover" — two days shooting at the salt flats, one filming inside the casino — and a location trek to Bryce Canyon National Park and Lake Powell, according to Rowley.

All that traveling proved a definite draw for Lange, who always had wanted to do a road-trip movie.

"It’s one of my favorite genres," she says during a telephone interview, citing such ’70s favorites as "Badlands" and "Five Easy Pieces," which "looked like so much fun to do."

Allen, the third member of the starring trio to commit to "Bonneville," discussed the project with Lange before signing on and shared her interest in the movie’s road-trip premise.

She even rented a car and drove herself from location to location during the "Bonneville" shoot. (Audience members can do the same thing, following a "Bonneville" itinerary AAA developed in conjunction with the movie; you can find it at www.

"There’s a romanticism to just getting in the car — it’s very American, too, just getting in the car and going somewhere," Allen notes. To say nothing of the underlying questions of "what are you going to find when you get there?"

In Allen’s case, that turned out to be an introduction to the Mormon church, in preparation for her role as a devoted Mormon wife and mother.

"It was a tremendous learning experience," she says. "It’s a very complex religion — and it’s wonderful to have the opportunity to learn something new."

Before meeting Mormon families and attending church services and other gatherings, "I had an impression that I would be wearing a faded-out cotton dress and no makeup," Allen admits. At least she did until she discovered that "these women are beautiful, done up (to please) their husbands. I thought, ‘Oh, wow, I’ve got to have mascara!’ "

In addition to "Bonneville’s" road-movie status, Lange responded to its focus on the bond between the three central characters.

"I liked the idea that it was just a story about friendship," she explains. "It tracks these three women at a leisurely pace."

The movie’s focus on friendship is hardly accidental, acknowledges screenwriter Daniel Davis, who makes his big-screen debut with "Bonneville."

Fittingly, it grew out of a friendship with Rowley, Davis’ film school classmate, who wanted to make "Bonneville" his feature directorial debut.

Davis based Lange’s character on his grandmother, Arvilla — who "lost her purpose in life" when her husband died, Davis says. His desire to find a happier ending than the one his grandmother found in real life inspired the script.

And while the women-on-a-road-trip premise "was probably not to the most commercial thing," Davis acknowledges, he and Rowley persisted nonetheless.

Originally, "Bonneville" was written for actresses "about 10 years older" than Lange, Allen and Bates. Not that anyone objected to "Bonneville’s" eventual cast.

Lange, the first to sign on, had trepidations about working with a new director, because "you don’t have anything to base your decision on. It’s just a crap shoot. Talk about gambling."

Indeed, Rowley says, when he met with his prospective leading ladies, "They basically were interviewing me," he admits, "asking, ‘Who are you?’ "

Of course, it helped that his starring trio, all stage veterans, bonded off-screen as well as on.

"We really didn’t know each other, but we became very comfortable with each other," Lange says, in part because "we all come from a very similar place. It was easy. We just show up and do our work."

Watching the trio do just that proved an "amazing and very inspiring" experience for Davis, who recalls the first time he heard those performers speaking his lines.

"It was a magical day," he recalls.

As for "Bonneville’s" fate now that it’s hit the cinematic road, Allen hopes audiences beyond the movie’s target demographic of 50-something females will sign on for the journey.

"You hope that the film is universal enough that it transcends a too-specific demographic," she says. "My daughter is 14, and I think she’ll like it. If it’s a good story well told, I’m there."

Contact reporter Carol Cling at or (702) 383-0272.

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