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Home / Articles / News / Features /  The Radness of King George
George RR Martin illustration Santa Fe John Lang
John Lang

The Radness of King George

'Game of Thrones' mastermind George RR Martin talks childhood, popcorn and his latest acquisition

April 30, 2013, 12:00 am

lease, readers, fans, don’t get nuts,” George RR Martin posted on his blog on April 19.

News had gotten out that the man behind the colossal A Song of Ice and Fire series had recently purchased Santa Fe’s iconic Jean Cocteau Cinema, and the author feared a public outcry. 

Martin’s staunchest followers are a breed all their own. They have a history of taking issue with his engaging in some R&R before finishing the next tome in his fantasy series (there was a six-year gap between A Feast for Crows and his fifth, A Dance With Dragons, which came out in 2011).

Gods (old and new) forbid that along with watching the New York Jets on TV, Martin now become distracted by this. During the wait between installments, some fans have created websites with names like “Finish the book, George”; others worry he might “pull a Robert Jordan” on them, referring to The Wheel of Time author who died before completing his series.

“My job remains the same as before: editing anthologies, creating and producing television and writing the occasional script,” Martin wrote. “And...first, foremost, always...completing A Song of Ice and Fire. This does not change that.”

For the uninitiated, HBO’s hugely successful Game of Thrones is based on Martin’s work. The gripping melodrama—revolving around the struggle for the crown of the fictional Seven Kingdoms—takes place in Westeros, a land where fearsome direwolves roam, dragons breathe fire on cue and undead White Walkers…well, walk.

The cat—or in this case, the golden lion—was out of the bag, and Martin swiftly called a press conference to explain his motives for purchasing the single-screen, 123-seat theater off Santa Fe’s busy Guadalupe Street.

Surrounded by longtime friends, as well as his wife Parris, Martin started the gathering with a disclaimer: “Turn off your cell phones. No tweeting; no texting…you never used to have to say that.”

His words are laced with a high-pitched, contagious giggle and his white, billowy beard contrasts with his monochromatic attire—black jeans, black shirt, black suspenders and trademark Greek fisherman’s hat (black).

“We didn’t actually intend to go public until things were a little bit further advanced in terms of our plans, but word got out and suddenly, my phone began to ring,” he said.

The project is “still in the very earliest stages of planning,” Martin stressed repeatedly. “This process is just beginning.”
For a young Martin, becoming a world-renowned literary figure seemed like a fantasy worthy of one of his books.

The son of a longshoreman, Martin grew up in the projects of Bayonne, New Jersey. Were he from Westeros, he’d be considered a “lowborn.”

As a child, he remembers eagerly waiting for ships to sail by the Kill Van Kull channel. With the aid of an encyclopedia, he recalls identifying the vessels’ provenance by their countries’ flags, much like kids in his make-believe kingdom learn to identify noble families by their banners.

Martin says there’s “quite a bit” of him in all his characters.

“You create characters from a variety of sources; you look at characters from history, people in the news, friends of yours,” he says. “But ultimately, the best source you have for people is yourself, because that’s the only person you ever know completely.”

He continues, “I’ve never been an 8-year-old girl; I’ve never been a dwarf or an exiled princess; but there’s still some of me in all of those characters.”

Though it’s unclear if he engaged in any fist pumping, his early years were defined by living on the Jersey shore.

“I grew up, essentially, in a world that was five blocks large,” he says. To escape, he’d look across the water at the lights of Staten Island, which for him “were like Shangri-La.”

“Who the hell knows what strange creatures lived over there?” he remembers thinking.

That curiosity would mark him for life. He envisioned one day boarding those ships; from there, it was a stone’s throw to imagine commanding space ships. “Books and movies were the two things in my childhood that broadened my world beyond those five blocks,” he says.

According to his website bio, he began selling monster stories to neighborhood children for pennies, “dramatic readings included.” Almost echoing his fans’ distinct passion, Martin started writing opinionated letters to the editors of several silver-age comic books like Fantastic Four and Avengers.

“That was my first published work,” he quips.

Immersion in the fanzine world during high school cemented his path. Soon, the future Northwestern University journalism grad would head west for what he calls his “Hollywood years.”

After a run in the rebooted The Twilight Zone, Martin and a few of his colleagues ventured over to ABC’s Max Headroom, a show he says “was ahead of its time.”

Somewhere in the network’s vaults lies a treasure comparable to that of Forrest Fenn’s—Martin’s two scripts for the show, which never made it to air.

The suits nixed one of them, deeming it “too disturbing”; the other, a special Christmas episode, was in preproduction when the show got cancelled.

“It was really cutting-edge science fiction for today,” he says. “But it was being shown in 1987, and the world wasn’t ready for it.”
“My show is about castles and medieval cities, and there aren’t many castles in New Mexico, sad to say,” Martin says about not filming locally. The next best thing? Acquiring a local theater. -Enrique Limón

Though he’s currently at the top of his game, a pre-Thrones Martin saw his share of “dismal commercial failures.”

“Like all writers, you hope you’ll be successful,” he modestly confesses. “You write a book, and you put it out there and you don’t know if anyone’s gonna buy it or not.”

A couple of decades later and some 20 million copies of Ice and Fire sold, the going rate for the fiction phenom’s words is noticeably improved. He’s come a long way since staging the first Hugo Awards “Losers Party” and, his trophy mantle running over, Martin calls the current chapter of his life “thrilling.”

“One thing I try to tell myself is that there’s no guarantee that’ll continue to happen,” Martin says. “You can’t start thinking you’re king of the world or anything like that…next year you may be in the ‘Where are they now?’ section of the newspaper.”

But Martin is far from drifting into obscurity. Securing his legacy, he purchased the whole “terrific, old building,” which along with the theater, includes three vacant retail spaces, upstairs offices and a basement. Currently, the lone tenant at 418 Montezuma Avenue is Wild Hare, a beauty salon.

“We hope to have all these places filled again, to make this building come back to life,” Martin enthused. “The theater is in pretty good shape for something that’s been dark for seven years.” He’s shooting for a summer opening.

Despite his lifelong affair with film, Martin takes his newest role with caution.

“I’m a writer...not a real estate magnate or a theater owner,” he says, “but I’ve always loved movies.”

“GRRM,” as he is known in literary circles, moved to Santa Fe in 1979. He remembers religiously attending the Cocteau’s earliest incarnation, Collective Fantasy—back when it was “owned by four hippies”—along with other long-gone movie houses like the City Lights Cinema, the Coronado Twin and the Capitol, where he would walk from his nearby Declovina Street home.

“I was living alone. I didn’t really know anybody in town,” Martin says. “I went to a lot of movies. It was a good way to fill out the nights,” he reminisces. “There was something wonderful about the old, single-screen theaters and the old duplexes; they each had a unique personality.”

The decision to purchase the Cocteau came to Martin during a barbeque run to the neighboring Whole Hog Café.

“I came out the back way,” Martin says. He stumbled upon the derelict theater head-on, noticing its “for sale or lease” sign.

“[I thought,] ‘How long has it been since that theater’s been closed? It’s a shame; why doesn’t somebody just reopen that…why don’t I reopen that?’”

The aha moment realized, some googling was in order.

“The first thing that came up is ‘Santa Fe’s most beloved theater,’ and that name, beloved, kept on being associated with it.”

Martin purchased the structure under the umbrella of an LLC he dubbed “Faceless Man”—a reference to a secret society within the Thrones ethos, the faceless men of Braavos.

“I’ve had other real-estate dealings in recent years,” Martin says. “Because I’ve become fairly well-known—a celebrity or something like that—those dealings didn’t go very well because people wouldn’t negotiate…I may be doing well, but I don’t care to be taken advantage of.”

The LLC specifically in charge of the movie theater is called “Highgarden,” another nod to his fantasy world.

“I gave all of my friends the opportunity to talk me out of it,” he says of the acquisition. “Several of them tried, but somehow the more I looked into it, the more I loved the idea.”
Getting the theater’s “ducks in shape” is first on the agenda. This includes a remodel of the concession stand and an upgrade of the old-school 35 mm film projector to a digital one.

Martin is also “bound and determined” to once again have the best popcorn in town.

The locale’s legendary snack and its fabled toppings, like real butter, yeast and chile powder, had a cult following all their own. “This is the theater where I became addicted to putting Parmesan cheese on my popcorn,” Martin says. “I still do that to this day because of the Jean Cocteau.”

“It really saddened me when this theater closed in April 2006,” he says. He waited patiently for the New Mexico Film Museum to open there, but “it seemed to be a museum that had no exhibits, no funding and was never opened.” (A victim of the state’s cost-cutting measures, curtains drew on the short-lived project in June 2010. At the time, a spokesperson for then-Gov. Bill Richardson said the closure represented an annual savings of $177,000.)

For someone who tends to fly under the radar, the theater purchase is sure to give Martin added attention.

He’ll address this, he says, by ditching his signature hat when needed.

“I can take it off and be completely incognito,” he says, removing it from his head and belting out his hallmark laugh. “You probably don’t know who I am right now.”

Heightened visibility or not, Martin’s mission is clear: “I want this theater to be what it was once, a ‘beloved’ theater.”

He also wouldn’t mind picking up some SFR love along the way.

“The Jean Cocteau, for seven years in a row, won Best of Santa Fe; I would like to start winning that award again,” he says.

Still, Martin admits that running and booking a theater is not his bailiwick—“nor do I have the time to learn.”

For that, he sought out his old friend Jon Bowman, the former executive director of the Santa Fe Film Festival, to act as the cinema’s manager. The pair met at a Stephen W Terrell concert at the now-defunct Forge—where, according to Martin, they bonded by “drinking beer and howling to the tune of ‘Wolfboy.’”

“The programming will be eclectic, and it will be in the spirit of the Cocteau,” Bowman says. “Obviously, times have changed. It’s not totally a nostalgic trip, and it’s a different era than it was in 1976.”

Bowman says that under its new ownership, the spirit of the movie house will remain: “Love and passion for film—not necessarily the commerce side, but the artistic side.”

That formula will be tested when Violet Crown, an arthouse multiplex cinema based in Austin, Texas, opens a 16,000-square-foot, 600-seat location just across the Railyard.

News of the Violet Crown deal came after Martin secured the Cocteau. He says it “was kind of a shock.” (Bill Banowsky, owner of the Violet Crown’s parent company, Carolina Cinemas, and CEO of Magnolia Pictures, did not respond to SFR’s request for comment.)

“I’ve lived in Santa Fe a long time,” Martin says. “I’ve seen these Railyard theaters announced four times before.”

And even though single-screen theaters have been closing around the country in recent years, the author isn’t worried.

“Theaters are in competition, yes; but there’s a lot of movies out there,” he says. “If they have 11 screens and are showing 11 different movies, there’s a twelfth movie that we can show.”
At Martin’s revived Cocteau, don’t expect fancy sushi and other gourmet Violet Crown offerings (the Austin locale’s menu lists “ginger pork tapas,” a “pear apple poppyseed” salad and an army of craft cocktails). He says he’s been “kicking around” ideas with Bowman on how to rebrand the theater—ideas like making it a mixed-use space that’ll feature “live stuff” like musical performances, stand-up comedy acts and author readings.

“I happen to be an author,” he says with a twinkle in his eye. “I enjoy doing readings, and I know many other authors who would come in and do readings, entertainments, panel discussions, all of this stuff.” Martin also hopes to broker a deal with HBO to allow for projections of Game of Thrones, on which he shares the executive producer title. 

Theater manager Jon Bowman promises an “eclectic” selection of films at the revamped Cocteau. -Enrique Limón

All of this is welcome news for Shannon Murphy. The head of the After Hours Alliance, which oversees the Railyard’s yearly AHA Fest, has been yearning for such a space.

“It’s exactly what we’re missing,” she says. “I think everyone in the local music scene has been talking about how badly we need a venue like this in the wake of Corazón closing. It’s smaller than Corazón, but because it’ll have more cultural offerings, it’s more likely to survive.”

Martin mentions plans for thematic film series, such as a whole week’s worth of musicals (at his better half’s suggestion), sci-fi and more shown on the Cocteau’s big—“well, sort of big”—screen.

Per his goddaughter’s recommendation, he’s also contemplating midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. “There’s nothing to do in Santa Fe after 9-o’clock at night,” he points out.

“Believe it or not, I’m still a young person at heart despite this aged, decrepit body,” the 64-year-old says. “Inside, I’m still 18.”

Sitting in one of the theater’s seats, Parris often intervenes, completing her husband’s thoughts.

She’s rocking a “semi-vintage” heather gray T-shirt emblazoned with the Stark sigil—the icon of one of Game of Thrones’ central families—and the words “Winter is coming.” It was designed by local artist Moria Peters in the pre-HBO days. “HBO does their own line,” Parris says, “but these are the originals.”

Martin advances that the sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet could be the revamped screen’s first showing (his better half calls it “the most favorite movie of his entire life”). Still, he won’t rule out launching Cocteau 2.0 with the 1946 version of Beauty and the Beast, as an homage to the theater’s namesake.

Coincidentally, and in another one of these happy accidents that bring Martin’s journey full circle, he wrote and produced for the CBS series based on the fairytale during the late ’80s.

“There’s a certain irony here to the way things fit together and how things come around,” he muses.

Whether this latest endeavor proves to be a continuation of his recent streak or garners a losers party of its own remains to be seen.

“Might be that I will lose my shirt...but, hey, I’ve been very lucky. I have other shirts,” Martin concluded on the same LiveJournal blog post where he announced the theater purchase.

In the end, Martin, the boy who never grew up, thinks of purchasing the Cocteau as a love letter. He felt indebted to Santa Fe—and like his famed Lannisters, it turns out, Martin always pays his debts.

“Bringing this beloved theater back to life is my small gesture at giving something back to Santa Fe,” he says. 


Illustration by John Lang.


WILD, WILD WESTEROS
Your [not quite] complete guide to Martin’s world from A to Zed


 
is for the Age of Heroes, where it all began.



is for Beheadings. Lots and lots of them.


is for the Children of the Forest, the purportedly extinct non-human race that first inhabited the land.


is for Dothraki, a brutal (and sexy) tribe across the Narrow Sea.



is for Eunuch. Ouchie.



is for the First Men, Westeros’ original human inhabitants.



is for gods (the old and the new).



is for Hodor—a word that, like a gauzy little black dress, goes with everything.



is for the Iron Throne, mythical seat of the Seven Kingdoms.



is for Joffrey, aka King D-bag, who sits on said throne.



is for Khaleesi, the most badass of ‘em all. It is known.




is for Lore, heaps of it.



is for Milk of the poppy—a Four Loko precursor.



is for the Night’s Watch, who vigil Westeros’ safety at “the Wall.”



is for O’Brien, a lady’s maid in another show I’m obsessed with, Downton Abbey. Not sure why I thought of her just now.



is for Parris, moon of GRRM’s life.



is for Queen Regent, aka brotherfucker.



is for Ravens, the original Twitter.



is for Sky cells, something the SFPD might consider looking into.



is for Three eyes. As in, “Seven hells, that raven has three eyes!”



is for Usurper. Bring it!



is for Valyrian steel, a magical alloy from which the best weapons are made.



is for Winter. It’s coming.



is for S-E-X, honey! Loads of it. Is it hot in here or is it just the natural hot springs under the Great Keep?


is for Ygritte, who taught us never to judge a wildling by its cover.



is for Zorse, the preferred means of transportation for some Essos tribes. The “fierce” striped equines—distant cousins to the Tijuana zonkey, perhaps—are yet to make an appearance on the HBO show. (EL)

 

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