This is a man who eats, sleeps and breathes New Mexico film.
BY JEFF BERG
Dirk Norris is a longtime advocate and supporter of the New Mexico film industry. His low-key demeanor belies his essential role in the sort of behind-the-scenes work that often goes unheralded. In 2014, he created the New Mexico Film Foundation, a support system for local independent filmmakers, where he serves as executive director.
Norris stopped moving for a second, and I quickly corralled him for an interview with ABQ Free Press. This is a man who eats, sleeps and breathes New Mexico film. Born in Madison, Wis., Norris reveals a formative experience with the medium at age 10. “I was Batman, my brother was Robin and the kid across the street was Mr. Moneybags. His father had an 8mm camera and filmed our little neighborhood play.”
When their father bought a Super 8 camera, he and his brother made a stop-motion animation involving Hot Wheels, Play Dough and transformation. Norris scored his first “deal” in 8th grade, convincing the science club to bring him along as a videographer on their annual trip. It was an auspicious beginning for young Norris.
Later, during college, he signed up for a Feature Film Production class. Norris recalls that the course was led by LA screenwriter Billy Fields, who was building a studio and making videos. Fields also gave him his first freelance gig. “My first job was dry-walling his office. After that, he told me he had run out of money,” says Norris.
Norris graduated UNM and relocated to the Southern New Mexico town of Oscuro, near Carrizozo. He managed the Oscuro High Desert Hostel for 9 years. In 2004, the building burned to the ground, and Norris found himself searching. A former guest of the hostel, whose script featured it as a location, had called Norris one year prior to discuss bringing a crew in to film. She and the producer arrived in Oscuro to scout locations the night after the hostel burned.
“They spent a few weeks in Carrizozo, rewriting and filming,” says Norris. “I became the Unit Production Manager and had a small, [on camera] role as a police officer.” The film was titled “Déjà Vu: Hera’s Odyssey.” Edited at Santa Fe’s Lightningwood Studios, the movie screened in Europe but was never distributed stateside. “If I recall correctly, ‘Déjà Vu’ was one of the first films to take advantage of the state film incentives.”
Norris was president of the Carrizozo Chamber of Commerce when the cast and crew of “The Book of Eli” arrived in town. Fresh from that success, Norris went on to convince mayors of the five municipalities within Lincoln County to create a film commission to encourage industry interest. Norris gained valuable experience. When the Outreach Manager position for the state film office opened up, he was hired. He worked there for 18 months before leaving to start the Foundation.
His tenure at the film office came at a busy time because of state film incentives. “The film incentives were never meant to be long-term,” says Norris. “But other states quickly saw the advantage and started implementing their own. I would be in favor of eliminating the film incentives if all states eliminated them.” He lists other selling points of our state, including well-trained crews, infrastructure and a variety of locations.
As long as other states continue to offer incentives – as 35 currently do – New Mexico has to remain competitive,” he concludes. “I don’t think there needs to be an increase in incentives, but the issue of a cap must be addressed. Either the cap should be increased or removed. The cap allows the state to budget for the tax credit refund, so it has a purpose.” Norris offers the figure of $150 million, since that figure would likely never be reached.
The seed of the idea for the New Mexico Film Foundation came to Norris while working at the state film office. “One of my jobs while working there was to investigate the possibility of creating a foundation that would work directly with the film office similarly to what the Museum Foundation does with the Department of Cultural Affairs.” When that entity failed to manifest, he saw a real need for an organization focused on supporting New Mexico filmmakers. The Foundation’s mission is to grow the independent film industry in our state while offering financial assistance and educational opportunities to local independent filmmakers.
January 2016 marks the Foundation’s second year, and it has awarded $20,000 in grants, hosted a number of workshops and initiated a fiscal sponsor program, a post-production grant and a travel stipend so filmmakers can get to festivals. Another interesting Foundation presence is Santa Fean “Game of Thrones” author George R.R. Martin, who has sponsored a $5000 screenwriting grant since the foundation’s inception.
Jeff Berg is our state’s foremost film historian, and he reports on film and industry happenings for ABQ Free Press.