Most agree that New Mexico film needs more New Mexico stories
A Look at New Mexico Through a Film Lens
There’s no denying New Mexico’s spot in the film industry.
With a long list of locally filmed major titles and no shortage of nominated productions – 10 in the 2017 Golden Globes alone – the state has certainly made its mark.
What is hotly debated, it seems, is how to tell New Mexico stories to a wider audience.
“The question is whether we should continue telling other people’s stories rather than our own,” said Jon Hendry, president of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 480 union.
While outside production companies decide what they want to shoot in New Mexico, there are great movies and great storytellers locally who are not getting the same level of recognition.
Hendry said one way to advance the film industry in New Mexico is by promoting people who work in wardrobe, hair and makeup, and special effects.
“The way to create more jobs in the film business is to move people up, creating more entry-level jobs,” he said.
Nani Rivera, executive director of ShootNM, said another way to strengthen the film industry in New Mexico would be by creating film communities around the state – making smaller cities and towns as popular for filming as Albuquerque or Santa Fe.
“‘Hell or High Water’ went through many rural towns in Southern New Mexico. The fact that it was nominated for an Academy Award is a big score for New Mexico and the small towns,” Rivera said.
Jeremy Shattuck, assistant editor and media manager of TV series “Behind Bars: Rookie of the Year,” is one local filmmaker trying to make his own feature-length film that properly represents New Mexico life. He’s writing a TV pilot about the Santa Fe art scene with co-writer Danger Varoz.
“As filmmakers, we often think that working on a big production is the only way to make ends meet. We end up working on films that misrepresent our culture,” Shattuck said.
He said the problem for independent filmmakers trying make a go at something comes down to a simple obstacle: insurance. Those fees are often more than a low-budget film can afford.
Shattuck said there are options to make independent filming more accessible to locals though.
“There might not be a perfect way to hand out funding to local filmmakers, but there are several options. It could even be something as simple as taking tax revenue from big-budget films and creating very small grants for insurance for needy filmmakers,” Shattuck said.
Locally, the only organization that offers consistent financial support for local independent films is the New Mexico Film Foundation, which offers a small variety of grants to local and aspiring filmmakers.
But as Hendry, Rivera and Shattuck each pointed out, there must be more support for New Mexican stories and storytellers.
A Story of a Legend
Al Cantu has worked in the New Mexico film industry for 48 of his 74 years.
With an IMDB page listing some two dozen credits, and a resume that lists close to 200, Cantu is something of a legend in the industry.
When he started in the industry, there were just 12 people in the local film workers union. Now, the IATSE Local 480 has 2,500 members. Cantu said he’s proud to have paved the way for next generation of local film workers.
“The young generation is taking over. A person I hired – he’s driving – is working more than I do now, which is great because he’s young,” he said.
Cantu has worked in transportation, performed stunts, worked in horse wrangling on sets, run a movie ranch (a western town built for movies) and, after a brief attempt at retirement, is back working as a transportation coordinator for “Get Shorty.”
Working on films in New Mexico has given Cantu more than a solid resume and respectable name, it’s also given him moments many could only dream of having.
He played dice with John Wayne in the 70s, taught Kevin Costner to throw a gun for “Silverado,” and got to hang out in a hotel room with Miss Piggy and company while working on “The Great Muppet Caper.”
“I used to play cowboys and Indians and I never thought, not in my wildest dreams, that I would be in the movies doing it,” he said. “It’s an exciting life, it doesn’t mean that I’m better than anyone else, but I meet people and I tell them my name and they say ‘you’re Al Cantu, you’re a legend’ and it makes you feel good.”
A Story of Triumph
Sometimes a little luck and a lot of hard work is really all you need to make your dreams come true – or at least that’s what it took for Colleen E. Moody.
The single mother of a 10-year-old daughter, Moody has worked a grueling schedule that included no days off for more than a month, 36-hour shifts and all manner of extreme conditions.
Now, though, Moody has worked her way up to script supervisor in the film industry, doing what she loves.
“I can pay my bills now, which is awesome,” Moody said. “It took me years to find a job that pays decently and that I enjoy doing.”
Moody’s story starts with random happenstance in 2013, when she and her local photography group decided to participate in the local 48 Hour Film Project, a competition to see who can make the best short film in only two days.
“After that very first grueling 48-hour film with my friends, I knew I wouldn’t be happy unless I was doing this,” she recalled.
She soon left her day job to begin working on local short films, where she jumped at every learning opportunity.
“It was difficult to live – financially it was a very stressful time,” she said. “Once I started meeting people and meeting more people and they started talking, it all just snowballed.”
Moody’s first paid feature as a script supervisor was on local indie feature “Cents,” and she now works on the television series “Midnight, Texas.”
“There was definitely some luck involved,” she said. “A lot of it was just hard work.”
She said working in the industry takes up a lot of time, but it pays off when she is between jobs and can spend time with her daughter. She was also able to save money and had all of last summer off while her daughter was on school break.
“I was able to reconnect with my family, do all the things we’ve been wanting to do,” she said. “We took vacations, went to the Grand Canyon, and went out to watch movies – all the things we couldn’t do before because of finances.”
Moody is working the long hours associated with the industry; leaving work at 4 a.m. and returning at 7 a.m. the next day, but she says she wouldn’t trade it for the world.
“It takes a toll on you physically, but I just love it so much,” she said. “I’m so much happier now. I truly love my job. I love going to work every day.”
Stories may make a film, but they also often make for memorable experiences. Here are some favorite stories from local crew members.
Ivan Wiener, owner of celebrity concierge service Reel Solutions, said he had to talk airport security out of interrogating actor Micky Rourke when he came to Albuquerque to film “Passion Play.” Rourke accidentally brought a prop knife through security.
Ray Martinez, co-founder of Santa Fe’s film union, walked a ceiling beam at Albuquerque Studios, secured with a rope and harness, to hang 40-foot walls on the set of “Terminator Salvation.” Martinez is an old-school rigger who’s been hoisting and lifting backstage since the 80s.
Film electrician Garret Dawson said “True Grit” boasted the largest lighting setup in the industry, with 88 18-kilowatt lights and 24 12-kilowatt lights.
Prop master Andrea Cantrell said actor Chris Pine’s scenes for “Hell or High Water” had to be shot in the first three weeks of filming so he could shoot “Star Trek” in Vancouver. A week after he left the set, he sent his co-star, Ben Foster, a text saying, “Space Sucks!”
Elissa Kannon produced an Entertainment Weekly cover shoot of Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul from “Breaking Bad.” The concept of the shoot was supposed to be high-class fanciness juxtaposed with the New Mexico desert. Trucks transporting tuxedos, martini glasses, and enriched relics were already on their way to the location when the team was notified of a wind storm. The shoot was almost canceled, but they decided to shoot at Albuquerque Studios and the cover turned out even better than they imagined.
Joshua R. Aragon was working in the props department of “Magnificent Seven,” when Denzel Washington needed something to hold during a scene. No props were listed though, and Aragon said he had to come up with something on the fly. He ran to the nearest tree, cut off a small branch and shaved it down. “In the scene where Denzel is sitting in front of a fire, poking it with a stick, that’s the stick I made for him,” Aragon said.
Stories of Rebellion
Not all of New Mexico’s stories are sunshine and roses. The local film industry has had its share of delinquent moments too. There’s something to be learned from these transgressive New Mexico flicks that never made it to mainstream audiences during their time.
“Salt of the Earth,” about a mine worker strike against harsh working conditions, was produced in Silver City in 1954. The film was blacklisted by Hollywood for its political content.
“It was filmed during the communist witch-hunt days,” film historian, Jeff Berg, said.
The film’s leading lady, Rosaura Revueltas was even arrested during the filming for being in the country illegally.
Subversive for the times, “The Golden God” was filmed in Las Vegas, N.M. in 1914. The film was written and produced by Romaine Fielding and has never been seen except by those who censored it. The National Board of Censorship condemned the film for depicting capital and labor in a socialist tone. The only print of “The Golden God” was destroyed by spontaneous combustion in a film vault the same year it was produced.
“The Outlaw,” filmed in Socorro in 1943, was banned nationally because of director Howard Hughes’ emphasis on star, Jane Russell’s feminine features.
“He developed special underwear to enhance her breasts,” Berg said, agreeing that Hughes basically invented the push-up bra.
The film turned Russell into a Hollywood sex symbol. “The Outlaw” is one of over 65 films about the legend of Billy the Kid.
Hollywood-blacklisted author Dalton Trumbo wrote the screenplay for the Western drama “Lonely are the Brave,” based on an Edward Abbey novel. The film was shot in the Sandia Mountains, Manzano Mountains, Tijeras Canyon and Kirtland Air Force Base in 1962.
“The star is a modern cowboy who won’t conform or bend to the rules,” University of New Mexico history professor, Paul Hutton, said.
Low-budget film “Teenage Seductress,” filmed in Taos, N.M. in 1975, wasn’t banned but it definitely got some backlash. A teenager seduces her own father as revenge for abandoning her and her overzealous mother. The cheesy movie on the verge of soft-core porn wasn’t welcome in mainstream theaters and was only released in drive-ins.
“Lust in the Dust” was filmed in 1985 by independent filmmaker John Water’s protege, Paul Bartel. The film was shot in Santa Fe and starred Divine and Tab Hunter. John Waters was asked to direct the movie, but declined as he didn’t write the script. A Rotten Tomatoes synopsis calls the movie “a controversial spoof on the spaghetti western.”