New Mexico can now add Sundance cred to its filmmaker-friendly resume. The state is backing a workshop-style program for Native American and Hispanic helmers, initiated by Gov. Bill Richardson and Sundance Institute founder Robert Redford, to encourage new talent and develop media projects as well as provide technical training.
Despite the success of the state’s film incentive program (125 features shot in six years), a key element was under-realized.
“We still lack above-the-line personnel, such as producers and writers,” Richardson contends, “and there is a scarcity of upper-echelon Hispanic and Native American filmmakers.” Citing the state’s population demographics — 43% Hispanic and 12% Native American — he adds, “Everybody in the state realizes film initiatives have created a new industry, and a lot of our Native American and Hispanic population want to be part of it; it’s our obligation to include them.”
Richardson initially pitched Redford the idea of a Sundance Institute-type satellite five years ago. In May, the pair announced a public and private partnership, unofficially called “Sundance in New Mexico,” that will meld Redford’s long support and interest in indigenous storytelling and state economic stimulus funds.
Redford considers the initiative an effort to provide creative resources and training to currently underserved populations, one that intertwines his personal and professional interests. “I want to make a difference on a personal level, and feel I’m uniquely qualified for this one on a professional level,” he says. “I like that it’s something new that hasn’t been done before in this particular way: state involvement from the start, at this particular time with such major socioeconomic challenges in New Mexico and across the country.”
Through the Dept. of Cultural Affairs, New Mexico purchased Los Luceros, a scenic and historic 148-acre ranch property and hacienda on the Rio Grande, intending to cultivate a creative colony that could draw inspiration from the singular landscape.
With its unique spin on the Sundance brand, New Mexico isn’t trying to lure away the Sundance Film Festival or Institute from Utah. Even the vibe is different. “The Sundance Resort is so beautiful, but it’s kind of high-end,” says New Mexico Film Office director Lisa Strout. “We’ve got all these little bungalows in a retreat-style setting. There’s no room service. It has more of a camp or writers’ colony kind of feel, where everyone cooks together.”
In the short term, funds will be used to expand lodging. Film production is a definite economic engine for New Mexico with more than $2 billion in gross receipts generated and close to $3 billion in economic activity. As a result of that bounty, funding is also available for artistic, technical and environmental programs that will begin with a creative retreat planned for August.
Redford’s appreciation of New Mexico started during production of “The Milagro Beanfield War.” “I love the dance of cultures in New Mexico,” Redford says. “Los Luceros has a rich history and spirit that will certainly inspire ‘something’ as creative people gather.”
Though program specifics are still evolving, Strout predicts, “We will bring more of the community together, and we’re hoping filmmakers will help create the vision. We’re moving in the direction toward a sustainable film industry, and we wanted to focus on underrepresented cultures.”
For his part, IATSE Local 480 business agent Jon Hendry wants to get the word out that the union welcomes diversity. “We look like New Mexico,” Hendry says of the 1,400 members, “but we also want people to understand the opportunities are there.” To that end, Hendry sent 10 Native American and Hispanic union members driving around the state, going to pueblos and barrios, to talk about how they got into the movie business. “The Sundance program is great, but it sounds like it’s going to be big and challenging. We want people to see it’s people like them,” he says.
Actor, short-film helmer and aspiring producer Pierre Barrera studied at the Institute of American Indian Arts and has experienced New Mexico’s film boom firsthand. His two shorts were made in Santa Fe, which he credits to the increased availability of equipment and crew. And he has a third short in pre-production. He sees the Sundance model as a genuine opportunity. “Native communities are realizing their stories can be told by their own people,” Barrera says. “There are so many incredible stories that have not been tapped into.”
Since 1981, the Sundance Institute has fostered a generation of indie projects via its various producing, screenwriting and directing labs and has a rich legacy of supporting Native American and indigenous filmmakers. Redford hopes to import the best qualities of the Sundance labs, including risk-taking, continual reassessment of programs and focus on the artist.
Chris Eyre (“Smoke Signals”), a 1995 Sundance Lab fellow, moves between commercial assignments (such as helming “Friday Night Lights”) and his own projects. He sees many artistic benefits to Sundance in New Mexico, maintaining that the program will allow the native community to create contemporary stories apart from the “leather, feathers and loincloths” of Hollywood films. “As a native person, you want to see native storylines and see that grow,” he says.
That’s Redford’s goal, too. “The Los Luceros effort bases resources where a large number of Native American and Hispanic artists live and work,” he says. “A community already exists, but this will elevate the resources available and strengthen and build on the community in ways that wouldn’t happen otherwise.”