Deep Underground in Arkansas

Delving deep into the cave system underlying Cushman, Arkansas, my job was to capture video of unique stalactites still unbroken after generations of hillbillies marauded through the legendary Blowing Cave.

Four days spent underground in a forgotten corner of Arkansas in January had me feeling like I was stranded in the bowels of Earth while fueled by strange southern-fried foods.

“How do you feel about caves?” said my old friend Fritz, who booked me on the shoot. It was a phone call I’ll never forget.

The idea was to document modern-day mountain men and women who still made their living off the land. The goal was to film their triumphs and failures through an objective lens. The actual process would be a bit more complicated.

Little did I know it would involve historic, Japanese knife making, hillbilly real estate agents, and legendary quasi-religious creatures said to have built tunnels hundreds of miles into the Earth’s crust.

In short: it would be your average wacky reality TV shoot.

January in the South can be a fickle time. I was told the weather in the vicinity of Cushman, Arkansas was unpredictable. It could be 70 degrees or it could be snowing sideways. A true documentary camera operator always brings the right gear for the job, so into my suitcase went a t-shirt and shorts, but also a puffy down coat, warm socks and my hunting boots. Sadly, I had left my all-important headlamp at home. Not a great idea when spelunking on the job.

Touching down in Little Rock, I made the roughly two-hour drive to Batesville, AR (famous for its caskets!), and was greeted by a familiar crew of TV pirates. Soon, I found myself tucked into a steaming plate of catfish at the local family steakhouse. There is one dish that should never be discounted south of the Mason-Dixon line, and that’s fried catfish. Along with battered okra and hushpuppies, it forms what I can only surmise is the cornerstone of the modern confederate diet.

It was over a plate of this beloved mudfish that I learned about our mysterious shoot location known as Blowing Cave. Miles of twisting caverns and underground pools terminated in this nearly 100-foot wide, yawning mouth of limestone. So big, it seems that locals gathered in these depths back in prohibition days, hosting dances and dinner parties. Hemmed in by low ridgelines, and a dense grove of hickory trees, the entrance to the cave was nearly hidden.

Years later, paranormal researchers hosted what could be described as “investigations” into rumors of blue-tinged cave dwelling men, sasquatches, and other fantastic creatures here. Were these reports related to the booze-fueled southern revelry that no doubt graced these hallows over the years? Seems logical to me.

Whatever the case, Blowing Cave was now owned by a private party. More specifically, an Arkansas realtor named Jim whose business card announced that he specialized in “Hunting Properties, Caves, and other Hideouts.” Under good old Jim’s guidance, our film crew eased into the balmy depths and began documenting our main character’s search for iron ore.

Furry little bats and cave salamanders were among the signs of life we found deep underground in Arkansas.

Now a bit about non-disclosure contracts: I can’t reveal the name of this TV show, or say much about its main characters, but I can say all the folks I worked with were the real deal. In other words, they were legitimate, modern-day pioneers who had skills you just can’t learn on the internet or in a text book.

This particular character had expert blacksmithing skills, and was a master knife maker who studied Japanese steelmaking. His search for iron ore was one of necessity. To be able to gather your own base materials and manufacture a knife isn’t just resourceful, it’s pretty impressive. Like obedient little cave puppies, we followed his search through a network of massive rooms, up and down gloomy hills of broken stalagmites and other boulders, across subterranean creeks, and into cracks that smelled like bat doo-doo and mud.

Physical movement in the cave became a yogic exercise, footing skills became acrobatics, and sliding on bellies and butts through rocky hallways became our daily commute. Graffiti and garbage marked other expeditions by man into this Arkansas abyss.

There are few requests that strike fear in the heart of a documentary cameraman more than “Go make a movie in a cave.” I will list the reasons why.

First, most cameras simply don’t shoot well in low light. Here, various portable lights are your best friend, but also your worst enemy when it comes to battery consumption. Then there’s the fact that you simply can’t have a large crew in most caves. Moreover, every crew member should be armed with a primary and backup light source for safety. Getting lost or injured on the job is definitely a real possibility here. That’s because working underground is just plain dirty and dangerous, with the terrain in this particular cave covered in at least a quarter-inch of slick mud. Every step was a potential fall onto sharp rock, or a twisted ankle.

Now, I will list the reasons why shooting underground can also be an amazing experience. First, with the correct lighting and camera angles, you can compose shots that are both ethereal and beautiful. It can take patience and a variety of light sources to correctly light a huge cave, but the results can illuminate massive galleries of limestone formations while bringing out colors that you’d normally never see without lights. There’s also a good change you’ll find bats, salamanders, snakes and other strange little creatures that can add some much-need natural energy to these gloomy quarters.

In short: caves are what you make of them. They can be a recipe for camera crew discord and confusion, or a tabla rasa for a creative mind behind the lens.

Below: Slithering through muddy and jagged rock bands to search for iron ore was our objective.