How does one follow up an award-winning, critically acclaimed, film festival darling like 2009’s Becoming Eduardo? If you’re the writer and director of that film, living on a ranch outside of Hillsboro and commuting to your job as a professor at New Mexico State University’s Creative Media Institute, you do what you do best. You gather your resources and you make another movie.
Rod McCall is effusive when he talks about filmmaking in southern New Mexico. He believes in it. As one of the founding fathers of CMI, he took a leap of faith less than a decade ago to help create a school where the fundamentals of fimmaking could be explored by fresh young minds. It now rates, alongside Doña Ana Community College’s Creative Media Technology department, as one of the top in the nation.
He regularly references works by fellow filmmakers Mark Medoff (Refuge), Rajeev Nirmalakhandan (Odd Way Home) and the team of David Spence and Stephen Griffin (Roswell FM) as examples of professional independent productions, made on shoestring budgets, right here in southern New Mexico. It helps him put things into perspective.
“It’s kind of astonishing,” he said. “We have a lot of film nuts here and we’re all having a good time. We’re a very small community, so we all know each other. It’s like a family. And we’re making little gems. We’re making movies, albeit small movies, and that is really telling. I think independent film production is going to be the survival of the film industry, because Hollywood is just making movies out of board games, video games and old TV shows. It’s become generic. The real artform is what we do, and what we’re trying to do, here in the Valley.”
McCall’s latest feature, “Jim,” produced through his company Blowing Hat Productions, follows in that growing tradition. Small, character-driven and story-based, “Jim” is, according to the director, “about a young stranger who falls from the sky into a small New Mexico border village in a cardboard box. We sort of take it from there.”
Realized from a script written 12 years ago, “Jim” is a story that almost didn’t find its way to film. As McCall relates it, he had been working on another project that was about three weeks from the start of production when it fell apart.
“Anybody who has worked in filmmaking knows what I’m talking about,” he said. “So, I said, ‘screw this, I’m going to do a movie this summer anyway.’ I took this old script, made a bunch of phone calls and within two weeks, we were in production on ‘Jim.’”
The resulting production was far from smooth, according to McCall, but he made the best of the situation, using students in key positions and calling in favors where he could.
“The students were wonderful and we got some wonderful performances,” he said. “I used mostly local actors; some of the best people working in New Mexico. I also had a wonderful cameraman; the same cameraman I had for Eduardo, Dale Sonnenberg. He’s incredible. He really knows how to capture these wonderful New Mexico landscapes we are all so in love with.”
The shoot took place primarily in the towns of La Mesa and San Miguel, with extensive use of one of our more famous landmarks.
“Chope’s was heavily involved,” McCall said. “Both the bar and the restaurant. There are some big sequences shot in the bar.”
Later, when the film ran into a financial snag, McCall made another call.
“I just called in a lot of favors,” he said. “For post production, a friend of mine who has backed a few of my other films, Dan Bennet from New York, came in with post production money and now we’re finishing it up. It’s been a long, arduous process, but I think it’s going to be a little gem when it’s done. It’s a very quiet, very small little film about this small community and how this stranger affects everyone.”
Expecting to lock the film down by late April or early May, McCall is eager to get the final product into sound design and mix, utilizing contacts he’s had in Los Angeles for more than 20 years, dating back to the time he spent creating award-winning television commercials in the land of smog and dreams.
“These people are like my family,” he said. “I trust them with my life, basically. This is very important, because even though Jim is a small movie, sound is a very serious storytelling element in the film, so it really has to work well.”
Local actor and first-time producer for the film, Dave Edwards, agrees.
“It’s a sweet little film, with a lot of local flavor,” he said. “Sound and music play a big, big part in it. I can’t really say how, but it’s going to surprise a lot of people. It’s just really clever.”
To that end, the producers of the film have plans to utilize music by New Mexico-based musicians and recording artists. The hunt is currently underway to fill those needs.
Once it’s completed, McCall intends to put the film directly onto the film festival circuit. Having been to Sundance twice, along with several festivals all over the world, he believes he has what organizers are looking for. Is Sundance one of them?
“Oh, definitely,” he says. “I think it really, sort of, reeks of that. Why do something unless it’s going to be your best work? I tell my students that all the time.”
Co-produced by CMI, “Jim” is a labor of love by some of the best and brightest that southern New Mexico has to offer. McCall acknowledges this without hesitation and waxes philosophic on what the future will bring for the local filmmaking industry.
“Jim could not have been made without a great deal of generosity from here in the community,” he said. “I owe a lot to a lot of people who worked their butts off, including the students. I do think the independent film community here is going to expand and start to get some notoriety around the country. ‘Eduardo’ has done very well that way, sort of planning the flag in various places, as has Mark’s film, and Raj’s film, and Stephen and David’s film. Those flags will get bigger as we get more recognition and the movies will get a little bigger. I think what we’re going to see is the growth of a very serious independent film community and I find that very exciting.”
This article was originally published (in its entirety for a change) in the March 21, 2014 issue of The Las Cruces Bulletin. No egos were harmed in the writing of this article. All rights reserved.