Taos fest’s prize truly is ‘Off the Map’

First Person

Few prizes on the U.S. festival circuit are coveted by filmmakers as much as this one, in which one filmmaker among a mere five finalists goes home with the deed to five acres of land on a New Mexico mountain.

The prospect has developed a kind of mythical power among indie filmmakers — most of whom are city-bred, deeply in debt and own nothing larger than a Ford Fiesta. On the other hand, few of them know where the land really is, or have talked to anyone who does.

So in 2001, when a feature I had co-written was playing at the festival, I took it upon myself to find out.

Wild, wild west

After doing some talking, I landed a seat in Jeff Jackson’s mud-spattered Suburban on a trek to the land. Jackson, the developer who gives away the land from his extensive private holdings, looked resplendently Western in a broad-brimmed hat, barn coat and hiking boots as he drove. The guest of honor was Buzz Nutley, a Philadelphia writer and standup comic who had won his five acres from Jackon’s company in an associated screenwriting contest and was about to see it for the first time.

We left Taos and forged ahead for two hours, from rural asphalt to an old stagecoach road in rugged Wile E. Coyote country, to a dirt road that streaked across flat, endless table-lands, to a steep, extremely rutted dirt track.

“The good news is, we can host the next episode of ‘Survivor’ here,” cracked Nutley.

“This is nothing,” Jackson responded, supremely relaxed about inviting city softies to tackle a homestead in Ted Kaczynski country. “You should have seen what it was like here before we improved the roads.”

The Suburban came to an abrupt stop. “This is where we get out and walk,” Jackson said.

So we hoofed it half a mile up a hill, and there on a green plateau was the land — lonesome and windswept, stretching out above an empty valley. Free of water, electricity, cable and Internet, the only sign of human intrusion was a few surveyor’s strings fluttering from stakes. Since the land grants began in 1997, the winners had managed no building, only a few memorable camp-outs.

Green valley

I watched Nutley’s face, and he had a sense of humor, all right. As Jackson pointed down into the valley, where the prizewinner could see his own plot if he squinted, the Philly boy seemed amused but undaunted, listening to Jackson go on about his vision of a filmmaker’s colony, a spiritual and creative retreat free of Hollywood influence.

To me, this far-flung end of the rainbow seemed appropriate. Deferred dreams are nothing to indie filmmakers. An obstacle is merely another day’s work. As we climbed back into the Suburban, the writers in the car began cracking wise about screenplay ideas for the location, and I could imagine Nutley, with a wink and a smile, rhapsodizing about his amazing plot of land to another year’s winner.