“American Desert” is the story of Army Infantry veteran Matt Benning and his attempt to make sense of his life after returning from two deployments in Afghanistan. In the film written and directed by Adrian Bartol, the title refers both to Benning's metaphorical emotional journey post-deployment and literally to, well, the American desert. Fittingly, the production just wrapped up a four-day shoot in the Red Mountain area.


The film is a small production, currently being produced by RBW International Inc., along with leading actor Will Brandt. Brandt, who is known for his work in “Animal Kingdom,” “Lost Girls,” and “Jane the Virgin” also assisted Bartol in crafting the story--although he gives Bartol credit for being the wordsmith. The two are longtime friends and former roommates who hung around towns near military installations to find inspiration to develop the characters and the story.


Several scenes were shot in the desert Saturday night, involving a desert “hippie party” that is pivotal in the plot. But before shooting began, key actors in the film sat down in their “base camp” in Red Mountain to fill the Daily Independent in on their characters, the film and how the desert setting informs the work.


Brandt, who plays Benning, described his character as “just a normal grunt infantryman, private first class who has been on two tours to Afghanistan and is back and is trying to assimilate back into civilian society. He went in when he was 18 and thought he was going to do some good for his country.”


The character of Benning has been through a lot. He has seen people killed, killed people himself. And although he doesn't regret his service, Brandt said, Benning somehow he expected things to be different when he got back.


“He figured he had garnered the skill set that he needed to better his life situation and that people would value that and accept him and that he wouldn't have a hard time finding a job,” Brandt said. Unfortunately for Benning, the story takes place during 2010 and jobs are scarce. Adding to the difficulty is that no one else seems to understand what he has been through.


Brandt said Benning is in a type of disconnect, made worse by “a smorgasbord of prescription drugs” he has been prescribed.


“I don't personally think he really knows how he feels, but he feels like he doesn't fit and he's shut down because he's on all these [prescription] drugs,” Brandt said.


“I don't think he regrets it [his service] at all,” Brandt said of his character, “but at the point where we meet him in the story, I don't think life makes a lot of sense to him.”


Fortunately, Benning meets Jason, a former Navy Seal played by veteran actor Tim Abell. Abell describes his character as a “sort of Yoda in the middle of the desert” who advises and mentors Benning after they meet by chance.  


“I play a guy whose older than him, who has been through a lot of stuff and who has dealt with some of the same demons that he is going through and has now come out the other side a happy man,” Abell said. “[My character] basically educates him a bit about what life is about and what he should and shouldn't be doing.”


Abell is an actor with a lengthy resume. In addition, he brings his own military background as a former US Army Ranger to the role, as well as an understanding of post-traumatic stress. For the past 10 years, he has hosted the series “Grateful Nation” on the Outdoor Channel. The premise of the show is taking combat-wounded veterans on adventures around the world.


Abell said he wanted to do “American Desert” because it is telling a similar sort of post-combat story.


“This is kind of the same thing. The script is a very visceral look at a young man's life and him trying to get his life back on track.”


Along the way, Benning has good and bad romantic encounters. Eventually, he meets a nurse named Katya (Amber Coney). The two meet at the desert party filmed Saturday night.


“I don't lead him wrong. I am the real deal,” Coney said of Katya. Coney, who has been seen in “Dead of Summer,” gave some insight into her character. “Basically I have been in this town my whole life. No one new really comes in and out.” Thus Katya finds the new guy Matt intriguing.


Coney said she relies a lot on her imagination to create the characters she plays.


“I try to go into my imagination. I don't really think of like it as like conceptual and 'she' as apart from myself. It's like its happening to me. It's all going to come through me, so there's not really a separation. I don't really use my personal life. I just try to go deep into the story and imagine what it would be like to be in that situation.”


She said after many years of acting she can get into and out of the zone quickly, regardless of the part.


“You learn after a while that you don't have to be a masochist to be an actor,” she explained with a laugh.


Chloe Hurst plays the crucial role of small-town cool girl Kimberly who hops on Matt's motorcycle and leads him to the party where he meets Katya.


Hurst is known for her work in “The Nice Guys,” “Andi Mack” and the new Amy Schumer film “I Feel Pretty.”


“I tempt him to go to a local party to meet some cool people in town. I guess I am kind of the drawing card. I am like the cool chick that knows everybody and knows everything that is going on,” Hurst said of her character.


Kimberly as written doesn't really have a dark side, but Hurst said she added complexity in exploring the character from an acting standpoint.


“I think she wants to get out of here, but there's an idea that she's addicted to this small town and that she is happy there even though she wouldn't admit it,” Hurst said of her character.


“That's my context and backstory. I try to do that on all my characters that I work on. Just to try to make some layers.”


The film also features actor Jimmy LeBlanc, who was in the Oscar-winning film “Spotlight.”


The production shot several scenes in the desert Saturday night (see Jessica Weston's column for more on the behind the scenes action). Local actors from Ridgecrest and the surrounding area were on hand providing background action.


Although the film has a small budget, many of those taking part said they are doing so because they believe in the importance of the story being told and the themes it addresses.


Brandt told the Daily Independent he has done an extensive amount of research, feeling a responsibility to real veterans to portray his character accurately.


“I watched a lot of docs, YouTube videos. Talked to a lot of guys,” he said.


Brandt said the desert itself also helps him with the character.


“Obviously the desert, this environment, informs a lot. Really putting on the clothes and being here, it really puts me there after all the research that I have done.”


Although the film deals with PTSD, according to Brandt this is not its only theme. It also talks about relationships, life and even sincere patriotism – without denying the reality of the post-combat experience for many.


“I wouldn't say its pro-military or anti-military. I would say its a very American film. It kind of discusses the more human side of war and what is it to be a man and human in modern American society,” Brandt said. “There's this code of masculinity in which you don't show [emotions] and I think that doesn't help to move through trauma.”


He said awareness of veterans issues has improved since 2010, the period the movie was set in, but still more needs to be done. “I know that it has gotten a lot better since this time period, because of all the guys and everything they have been through. There's a lot of money for bombs and bullets but not a lot of money for hearts and minds.”