Celluloid Dreams

It would appear, if one were to believe the media hype coming out of Santa Fe not three months ago, that the film industry in New Mexico was on life support. Now comes news that everything is looking up again, with more films scheduled to shoot in New Mexico now than did so in all of 2012. Meanwhile, here in southern New Mexico, indecisive politics do little to dim the allure of Las Cruces as a film locale. The following is a story which ran in a much abbreviated form in the March 1 issue of the Las Cruces Bulletin.

On Feb. 22, a contingent of Las Cruces filmmakers, led by Film Liaison Mark Wark and instructors representing New Mexico State University’s Creative Media Institute (CMI), Dona Ana Community College’s Creative Media Technology (CMT) and Alma de Arte’s Court Youth Center, descended on Santa Fe for Film & Media Day at the Roundhouse, to prove the theory that filmmaking has run its course in New Mexico dead wrong.

The truth of the matter is, though two recent bills aimed at rectifying the 2011 decision that slashed tax incentives in New Mexico were tabled in favor of a newer House bill calling for an economic analysis of the state’s tax credit system, there are few in southern New Mexico who are concerned. If anything, they see the political machinations of elected public officials as a curiosity that puts an unrealistic spin on what’s really taking place in the world of filmmaking.

Southern New Mexico filmmakers make an appearance at the State Legislature to discuss their craft. Photo by Mark Wark.
Southern New Mexico filmmakers make an appearance at the State Legislature to discuss their craft. Photo by Mark Wark.

CMI professor and filmmaker Phil Lewis was part of the ambassadorial contingent to the northlands. He sees what’s happening in southern New Mexico as a breath of fresh air compared to what’s going on in Santa Fe and Albuquerque.

“There are two sides to this industry,” he said. “There’s the local industry, which is kind of blossoming from the inside out, and there’s the way Albuquerque and Santa Fe do it, which is basically hanging their hats on California and spending other people’s money to fuel their industry.

As far as Lewis is concerned, we have everything we need here to create the perfect environment for a thriving film industry. He points out that CMI has over 400 students enrolled this semester. CMT has close to 300.

“Our goal is to graduate all of them,” he said. “So, that’s 700 filmmakers who will be living in the area, who were not here before. That is critical mass. It’s an industry being born in Las Cruces that has never been here before.”

Even more telling, according to Lewis, is the fact that these young filmmakers have the right attitude. Rather than wait for somebody to hire them or give them money, they’re out there, every single day, doing what they love: making movies.

“Las Cruces is very different than any other place in the nation,” he said. “Filmmakers here feed each other. We are all colleagues. We have all worked together. We’ve all donated money, or acted or were part of the crew with each other. So we are all supporting each other. These people are ambitious, they’re trained, they love the industry and they love helping each other. I think that’s key.”

One local filmmaker who exemplifies this vision is Kent Harkey, a former CMT student now working as producer/director of video production at Wilson Binkley Advertising. Harkey and a group of local filmmakers have banded together with the goal of filming a project a week for an entire year. Some may call it ambitious, but Harkey and his cohorts, Dustin Richardson and Rick Hretz, believe that it is entirely possible, owing in large part to the phenomenon voiced by Lewis.

“It’s only because of groups like SODA (Student Organization of Digital Artists, an offshoot of CMI) and Film Las Cruces, with big help from the Film Liaison that any of this is possible,” Harkey said. “It’s only because we’re all connected together by the same network of people that anything we do is possible. It’s always a group effort.”

The end goal, according to Harkey is 52 short films by the end of the year, hence the working title of the project: LC52.

“We have 23 separate people who have expressed interest to date and have worked in some fashion on a shoot,” he said. “We want to vet people who are just entering the field and really want to shoot stuff. We’re following the ten thousand hour rule, which says it’s only through experience that you get the basic skills you need to be able to do anything as a professional. That’s the number one tenet that this group was founded on, getting people out there to shoot projects.

“I really think that one of the positive things about this project is it really pushes us to make do with what we actually have to work with and inspires that kind of indie creativity that is so special.”

Another group, made up entirely of students, are the Something Fresh crew, made up of Julian Alexander, Keagan Karnes and Jon Foley. Their latest project, For Future Reference, was made with ingenuity, tenacity and a fundraising campaign through crowdfunding source IndieGoGo.

On the set of For Future Reference. Photo by Scott Corrigan.
On the set of For Future Reference. Photo by Scott Corrigan.

What started out as a student thesis has grown to become something more. In true indie fashion, the young filmmakers sought out and hired professional actors to play the principal roles, thus raising the stakes considerably. The rest of the roles, along with crew were made up of local talent.

“There’s a certain sense of professionalism that you want to have, even when you’re working with your friends,” said Alexander, producer for the film. “But when you have these people who work in the industry coming in, you kind of just do it automatically. You can always joke around with your friends, but it’s nice being able to feel like you’re doing something bigger than what you’re used to.

The result is a 15 minute short film that is being prepped for the film festival curcuit, something that writer/director Karnes said was the point all along.

“It was something I wrote specifically to be a festival film entry,” he said. “Something with a simple concept and with a good log line and a good title that we could try and market ourselves to get some notoriety in the film industry.”

Calling it the smoothest production they have ever been involved in, the filmmakers behind For Future Reference are yet another example of what Lewis refers to as “the key.”

“This is what I want to do for the rest of my life. There’s no doubt about it. I love it, so much,” said Karnes. “Jon and I, when we were in sixth grade, went into the media magnet and that’s when we decided that we wanted to be filmmakers and it’s been non-stop. We’ve never wanted to do anything else, and I don’t think we ever will.”

But what of the local professionals who didn’t start out as CMI or CMT students? People like Brad Littlefield, Melissa Chambers and Tony Hernandez, film professionals who see the value of their surroundings and are making filmmaking a business, right here in Las Cruces.

Littlefield, the founder and driving force behind Open Range Pictures, makes his office at the Arrowhead Center business incubator on the NMSU Campus. His dream is to create a cohesive film industry in Las Cruces, pulling together all of the diverse resources available here into one powerful entity.

“You know, my social contract with the community is to create jobs and economic development here, so that we can grow and expand in terms of our crew base and our ability to attract bigger productions,” he said.

To do that, the producer of Becoming Eduardo, another film produced locally, has joined forces with Chambers and Hernandez and brought in his friend and collaborator Samir Banerjee to work on a feature film with the working title The Runaway.

Brad Littlefield and Samir Banerjee scout locations for The Runaway. Photo by Melissa Chambers.
Brad Littlefield and Samir Banerjee scout locations for The Runaway. Photo by Melissa Chambers.

“I like to pitch the Runaway as sort of the archetypal homage to the American road movie,” he said. “It’s in the vein of Thelma Louise meets Wild At Heart, with a great tongue in cheek twist to it. This is a small production with no studio backing, but I am working on distribution and we are planning a modest theatrical release, as well as concurrent dvd release.”

As for Banerjee, a native of India who has made his career doing music videos and feature films in London and India, the concept of this film is a dream come true.

“Las Cruces has got a flavor of a lot of different elements that work for a road movie,” he said. “Since I’ve known Brad he’s talked about New Mexico. I’ve never traveled to the southwest, but it has always been in my head that I want to do a road movie. So, I wrote a script that will fit the state and the area surrounding it, based on pictures I had seen. Now I’m here and it is even better than I imagined. It’s brilliant.”

“I think what’s really cool is that this is shaping up to be a really international production,” Littlefield said. “ We have a director of Indian heritage, our cinematographer is of Japanese heritage, our AD is coming in from Moscow. Our lead is Phillipino American. We’ve got a truly international mix coming here. I’ve been joking with people that this film is Bollywood meets Tamalewood. The intention is to hire from within the community and work with the community, as much as possible.”

With news of a major feature film, Enemy Way starring Forest Whitaker, shooting in Deming this April and several more expressing interest in the area, all the hard work appears to be paying off. Las Cruces Film Liaison Mark Wark sees all of this as a natural progression. It’s why he made the trek to Santa Fe and lobbied alongside his fellow filmmakers on Feb. 22.

“It’s not a secret anymore,” he said. “Las Cruces has a talented and capable filmmaking workforce. The Las Cruces film community is emerging and coming into their own. While it is true a part of that success is borne out of that fact Las Cruces has the ideal weather for year round filming with unobstructed desert scenes to wide dramatic panoramas of majestic mountains, it could be argued that a larger part of this new success is due to our ever present and growing independent film community. Nowhere in the New Mexico is it stronger and more alive then in Las Cruces.”

City of Las Cruces Public Information Officer, and occasional film actor Udell Vigil agrees completely. He believes all that’s missing is community support.

“We’re turning out talented filmmakers,” he said. “The community as a whole needs to recognize that and see what a valuable resource we have here. Having that resource is only going to increase our opportunities overall. The film industry in general is a wonderful revenue stream. I just wish that the community would get together and support it. I know that it does in large measure, but we just need to do a better job, so we can watch it grow and reap the benefits.”

By all accounts, the filmmaking industry in Las Cruces and southern New Mexico is growing as a whole. Could it benefit from a decision to raise the tax credit or revise the cap? Everybody agrees that it would be a boon, but in the end Phil Lewis sums it up best.

“If people are reading the newspaper and waiting for the Legislature to flip the switch on the industry down here, they’re completely out of touch,” he said. “The lights are already on. The cameras are already rolling. They’re rolling here in Las Cruces, they’re rolling in Roswell and Deming and Portales and Silver City. It’s happening all around us and it’s happening our way. It has nothing to do with Santa Fe.”

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