It’s a dazzling southwestern day in March. High in the impossibly blue sky arching over a desert awash in the colors of spring, a hawk spins lazily on an updraft. One almost expects Clint Eastwood to ride in off the range, seeking vengeance or, at the very least, a place to hole up for the night. It’s the kind of New Mexico day that was made for the movies.
On a ranch ten miles north of Las Cruces, the cast and crew of the civil war drama Buffalo, are taking advantage of that fact. It’s been a grueling week for the producers, which has taken them all across the state, from the northern reaches of Cubero, situated between Grants and Albuquerque, down here to the borderlands, where the movie officially got its start.
It’s been the kind of production that just might make a veteran like Eastwood very proud.
Written and directed by Julian Alexander, a senior at the prestigious Creative Media Institute at New Mexico State University, the short film, Buffalo, will serve as his senior thesis. That fact alone may come as a surprise, considering the production values that have gone into the project. No stranger to filmmaking, with at least half a dozen of his own short films under his belt and several more that he either produced or acted in for friends, the young director knew going in that this experience was going to be special.
“Really, it came down to wanting to tell this story,” he says. “No matter how corny it sounds, I really wanted to make something important. I guess I could have made my senior project a story that I could have shot in my apartment, or down Main Street in Las Cruces, but I had an opportunity to really milk my resources and shoot something kind of ambitious.”
The story he chose to tell is that of the Buffalo Soldier, a nickname given by Native Americans to the cavalry of all Black soldiers after the Civil War and a little known chapter in the history of the African American experience in the Old West. Not an easy task, certainly, but a story rich with possibilities and one he spent hours researching.
“I researched quite a bit,” Alexander says. “I had books on the buffalo soldiers. Books on military life in New Mexico at the time. I spent a lot of time at Fort Selden. I was at Fort Stanton for a while. Did some online research, but once I found the Friends of Fort Selden, the reenactment group out of Las Cruces, it all took off. It’s incredible the amount of knowledge these guys have about history. Using them as a resource forced my authenticity. I was a pretty big stickler anyway, but once I gave it to them, they tore apart my script even more and made it real. I wanted that. Authenticity is key to making this work. I think we really captured the essence of the time and it’s been interesting having to do all that research and making it all come to life.”
Also helping Alexander on this journey was CMI professor and advisor for the project, Ilana Lapid. A world traveler with an MFA from USC and a film currently in development that was a finalist at the 2014 Sundance Screenwriting Lab, she teaches several film studies and production classes at CMI.
“Julian has been one of my students since 2011,” she says. “I’ve watched him grow and develop through the years. He’s extremely talented, driven and ambitious, but his heart is in the right place when it comes to storytelling and his commitment to telling those really great stories. He wrote his script in my class and I asked him to do a series of rewrites. His story was great, but he really needed to work on character development and he did. He worked and worked and worked and really got to know his two characters. The script, I think, is so compelling. That’s really the reason he was able to get so many people on board supporting him and willing to go the extra mile for him. That’s ultimately what led to his casting of Craig Tate, which is really remarkable.”
Tate, who was cast in the pivotal role of Sgt. Harrison Young – a former slave who joined the Union army soon after his emancipation at age fifteen – is a young up-and-comer whose recent work includes such prestigious films as Best Picture Academy Award-winner “12 Years A Slave” and Lee Daniel’s “The Butler.” His involvement brings an air of respectability to the production and further emphasizes the filmmakers’ desire to make something out of the ordinary.
Once again, it was Lapid who gave him the direction to take that big leap.
“I told them I thought they had a really strong script, with a really interesting story and maybe they might be able to interest somebody who has some name recognition,” Lapid explains. “The reason for doing that in the independent film world is because, if you do succeed in getting somebody, you have a better shot at getting into some of the bigger festivals and also getting your film into the hands of people in the industry that may help you make your next film. I told them it was just worth giving it a shot.”
It helps that Alexander also understands the importance of surrounding himself with passionate, qualified people. Most of the crew members on this shoot are old friends who have worked with him many times before. In fact, it’s his company, Something Fresh Productions – co-owned by the film’s producer Keagan Karnes, its Executive Producer Jon Foley and its Director of Photography Andrew Griego – that really sets this film apart from other senior thesis projects.
“We’re like a family,” he admits. “We’ve been through so much together and learned a lot of things the hard way, but the experience has been invaluable. I trust these guys completely. That takes away a lot of the doubt and fear. It doesn’t feel like a school project at all. It’s the real deal.”
“It’s a big step, there’s no doubt, but I think it’s come together amazingly well,” says Karnes, who has essentially been Alexander’s right hand man throughout the shoot, setting up everything from locations, horses and an Apache translator, to an actual herd of buffalo, including a rare white buffalo integral to the story. “The way that this looks, I feel like this is the start of something big for us. It’s like Julian said, we’re never going to take a step back.”
Ambitious though this film may be – one of the largest ever attempted by students of Creative Media Institute – it has been a labor of love for the Something Fresh crew. The result will be a short feature that everybody involved believes will set the bar for everything that comes after. With only one more day left to shoot, the filmmakers are confident they have done everything they can to make it exceptional.
“The story plays exactly how I imagined it,” Alexander says proudly. “Every cast member played their characters exactly the way I wrote them. It was really a fun, enlightening experience and everybody seemed to have a great time. I really think we’ve made something special. I think we have a very good chance to get it out there and play with the big boys.”
Are you listening, Mr. Eastwood?
An abridged version of this story appeared in the Las Cruces Bulletin on May 2, 2014. I am reprinting it here in its original form. All rights are still reserved. To my knowledge, no buffalo or student egos were harmed in the writing of this article. Support local filmmakers. They are the future of a changing industry.