Filmmakers drawn to stages, scenic locations

Val Kilmer is having a surreal day on the set. That’s because the location is none other than the “Conspiracy” star’s New Mexico ranch, a 6,000-acre sprawl about half an hour northeast of Santa Fe.

“We keep going up and down my driveway. I’m trying to concentrate, but I just keep looking out the window thinking, ‘Oh, I’ve gotta fix that fence,’” says Kilmer, who has shot five films in the state, but never one this close to home.

In 2002, Kilmer teamed with Shirley MacLaine and then-Gov. Gary Johnson to pass the state’s film incentive program. Since then, the “Land of Enchantment” has become something of an unofficial adjunct to Hollywood, a versatile backlot less than two hours away by plane.

With five working union crews, streamlined permitting and access from “pro-film industry” local government and a 25% rebate on all direct production expenses, the state has seen film-related revenue jump from $8 million to $428 million in 2006.

“Before the governor (Bill Richardson) came in, there were no films shooting here,” says Lisa Strout, director of the New Mexico Film Office. “If Westerns were up, we were up. If they were down, that was it.”

But the incentives encouraged filmmakers to explore New Mexico’s distinctive topography, which supports everything from the Old West to the Middle East, from Mars to the Moon — all with more than 300 days of sunshine a year. And with the addition of Albuquerque Studios’ new 26-acre soundstage facility, the state can now deliver interior possibilities as well.

“We have everything but the big city and the beach,” says Albuquerque film liaison Ann Lerner. “And we’ve been scouting for Iraq and Afghanistan a lot lately,” adds Strout.

On “Transformers,” helmer Michael Bay needed a location that could pass for a Middle East army base. Easy enough. But considering the level of devastation Bay had in mind, only New Mexico would do. At the White Sands Missile Range and neighboring Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo, the dunes could double for Qatar, while the military supervised the pyrotechnics.

“The landscape there is surprisingly diverse,” notes “Transformers” location manager Ilt Jones. “The desert up around Santa Fe and Taos looks different from where we were, which is fairly bleak and barren. It’s much more sculpted and picturesque in the north.”

Lured by the incentives, “Wild Hogs” director Walt Becker shot all but the film’s beach finale in New Mexico, doubling the state as Missouri, Ohio and Texas.

“Trying to make Albuquerque look like Cincinnati wasn’t the easiest thing in the world, but we did it,” he says. “What’s great about New Mexico is that within about 60 miles, you can have a prairieland look, you can have forest, and you can have desert.”

But other states have wisened up and started offering competitive incentives as well, leading Becker to take his next film, “Old Dogs,” to Connecticut, where a 30% rebate applies. New Mexico is more convenient to Hollywood, he says, but East Coast shoots can draw from New York’s deep crew base.

And though it continues to evolve, New Mexico’s system is not without wrinkles and controversies. Some local filmmakers feel the state is more focused on luring Hollywood than supporting small homegrown pics. And Hollywood views runaway production as the biggest threat to its film industry, according to a report by the California Film Commission that specifically identified New Mexico.

The state isn’t trying to steal Los Angeles’ business, Albuquerque Studios chief operating officer Nick Smerigan insists. But it is trying to intercept productions already headed for Canada and abroad.

“We’re looking for this to be the Vancouver call,” Smerigan says, “so an American picks up the phone and calls another American and says, ‘I’m giving you a shot before I go anyplace else.’”

Director Paul Haggis shot “Crash” in Los Angeles, but rewrote his latest film, “In the Valley of Elah,” to take place in New Mexico after falling in love with the locations.

“I’m a Canadian, but I was very pleased that we didn’t have to consider going to Canada to get the tax incentive,” says Haggis, who was further encouraged by the quality of the crew he found there. “A few of the folks who did ‘Crash’ had moved there, so I worked with them, too. It’s a big exodus for some folks, they just like the quality of life in New Mexico.”

“At the end of every movie, it seems like at least one or two decide to make a lifestyle change and move out here,” says Strout. The peace and quiet, clean air and cost of living are big draws for over-stressed Angelenos, she says.

New Mexico-based crew who once commuted to Los Angeles now find enough steady work to keep them busy at home. At first, out-of-state productions complained that the local crew and acting pools weren’t deep enough to cover multiple shoots, but that’s changed thanks to statewide training programs (the crew base is up from 100 in 2002 to almost 1,500 today).

“Not only did we find extras, but we actually cast several of the larger roles in Albuquerque,” notes Haggis.

“I think there were seven movies shooting when we were there,” says producer Peter Saraf, who still managed to hire 80% local crew for Albuquerque-based “Sunshine Bakery.”

“I’m really impressed with the (training) program they have down there. They’re not just saying, ‘Come here because we’re giving you a tax break.’ They’re actively trying to build up a film industry.”

A number of top Hollywood companies are taking note. Now a New Mexico regular, Lionsgate tapped the state’s zero-interest production loans to shoot TV series (“Wildfire”) and features (“3:10 to Yuma”) and is weighing long-term plans to build a production facility in Rio Rancho.

Sony Pictures Imageworks broke ground Monday on a building at Albuquerque Studios that will mirror its Culver City operations. NBC Universal is already on site, operating Albuquerque Studios’ lighting and grip shop.

But there’s still room to grow: Adding a much-needed processing lab would allow filmmakers to develop and color-correct footage locally, while applying the incentive to post-production costs.

“You’re missing out on 40% of the cash flow if you don’t have post,” says Eric Witt, director of Gov. Richardson’s media arts development initiative.

Still, as Universal Media Studios’ “In Plain Sight” moves in to become the first production at Albuquerque Studios, the state’s program seems to be at a tipping point, and early champions are proud to have played their part.

“I tell you, there is nothing like testifying in front of the highly democratic New Mexican Legislature about how they should vote for tax incentives and money for creative artists,” MacLaine laughs. “You haven’t lived until you’ve done that.”

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