In a dusty corner of the Santa Fe University of Art and Design, a production team has just begun filming the third season of A&E’s hit crime drama Longmire. Driving past Garson Studios, you would never guess that the high-paced, lights-camera-action world of big-production television is unfolding right behind its inconspicuous, adobe-hued walls.
Based on the award-winning books by Craig Johnson, the TV show tells the story of Walt Longmire, a small-town sheriff—played by Robert Taylor of The Matrix and Vertical Limit fame—who battles crime in the rural communities and high-plain prairies of the fictional Durant, Wyo.
With a neo-western vibe, the title character embodies the classic, tight-jawed, American anti-hero who seeks revenge by killing his wife’s murderer.
While the series films most of its scenes on location, dispatching its arsenal of semi trucks and RVs to a variety of settings throughout the state, SFR was lucky enough to be granted backstage access to the show’s two filming stages.
Except for a guard pulling sentry duty at the parking lot’s entrance, Garson Studios could pass for any other building in Santa Fe’s semi-industrial St. Michael’s Drive. The same building houses The Screen—one of the city’s premier indie movie houses.
Upon first walking into the studios, you are hit by the bustling sights and sounds you’d expect from any big executive office. Producers and production assistants weave in and out of offices, answer phones, check computer screens, exchange printouts and discuss the day’s logistics.
Aside from movie posters that adorn the walls, nothing distinguishes this place from any run-of-the-mill, corporate bullpen. Except, of course, for red flashing bulbs above two soundproof doors that look like they lead to top-secret military bunkers. When the red light is flashing, it means filming is in progress and, to keep noise pollution to a minimum, no one besides actors and the production team involved in that scene are allowed to enter.
A group of staff and crewmembers gather around the door, whispering and checking the light for when it’s OK to go inside. The moment the light stops blinking, the door flings open and everyone scurries into the sound stage—and into a parallel universe.
"You've got this incredible landscape... No matter how many times you put it on film, it's still stunning"
Taylor, the sheriff himself, is spotted in cowboy boots and full makeup as he moves between several groups of office workers and disappears around a hallway maze.
Garson Studios is split into two areas, each a giant warehouse where crews have built elaborate sets. At first, the place looks like the post-apocalyptic ruins of an old Army base—a fitting visage, given the grounds’ prior incarnation as the Bruns General Hospital during the 1940s. The studio’s plywood corridors crisscrossed with power cables seem to veer off into darkness. Hi-tech fans and lighting contraptions—which look like they belong on a spaceship—lurk in every corner, not to mention the constant stream of crewmembers strapped with movie gadgetry and radios.
As chaotic as this place appears, it is, in fact, a highly functioning, organized work environment.
Each seemingly disheveled hallway leads to an immaculately constructed movie set, finished to be perfect replicas of the rooms of buildings featured in the show. From a multiple-room sheriff’s office complete with mounted deer heads to a full-scale, honky-tonk barroom—originally fashioned after Madrid’s Mine Shaft Tavern, which Longmire used for its pilot episode in 2012—no detail has been spared. Most noticeably, there is a monumental projection of the Plaza Hotel in Las Vegas, NM, blasted across one entire wall of the warehouse. Looking out from the windows in the fake sheriff’s office, it seems like you’re in a room that overlooks the real deal. There are even various lighting configurations to depict different times of day.
New Mexicans are no strangers to seeing shots of their home state lit up on screens big and small, since tax incentives have lured numerous big-time Hollywood hits to town—Cowboys & Aliens, True Grit and The Missing, to name a few.
Last year’s so-called “Breaking Bad bill,” which was passed by lawmakers in the 11th hour of the 2013 legislative session, upped the ante when it comes to luring Hollywood productions to New Mexico. The bill increased subsidies to television productions from 25 to 30 percent of producers’ qualified spending. On the film front, it promised 30 percent back on resident labor used.
Actor Lou Diamond Phillips, who has been making movies here since he co-starred in Young Guns back in 1988, tells SFR that New Mexico’s leaders “have been wise to realize that millions of dollars pour into your coffers when you make it attractive for film companies to come here.”
Phillips plays bar owner Henry Standing Bear in the show. He mentions that the state has relatively good infrastructure for filming, unlike the setting of his last project, The 33, a film about Chilean miners trapped after a mine collapse.
“The Atacama Desert in Chile makes Santa Fe look like Manhattan; there’s not a lot going on there,” Phillips says. “Are there trailers? Are there makeup trucks? Hotels for a 150-person crew?”
He adds all of that is available locally and has only gotten better since the Young Guns days. “You have everything you need here. It makes it incredibly easy for a production to come because they know that it’s one-stop shopping,” he says.
Phillips continues, “You only have to be on one bad set to know the value of a good electrician or a good driver or a good art department, you know, people who know what they’re doing.”
Jessica Dias—whose role as executive producer Greer Shephard’s assistant has given her insight into all the production’s ins and outs—echoes this: “It’s really great filming with the infrastructure in New Mexico. Filming in Wyoming, you’d be having to bring everything in from LA—equipment, crew,” she says. “There are not the same resources there on the ground.”
"We spend a lot of time together and that fosters friendships and romantic relationships..."
TV and film productions aren’t the only ones hitting the road. Adam Bartley, who plays Sheriff’s Deputy The Ferg in the show, says that “there are people from LA moving everyday—people who work on crews out in LA, who are out of work, are moving to New Mexico or to New Orleans or to Atlanta and places that are filming more stuff around the country…it’s not so coastal-centric anymore.”
One major advantage the Land of Enchantment has over other up and coming movie states is a seemingly endless supply of breathtaking natural backdrops.
“You’ve got this incredible landscape that’s never going to change. No matter how many times you put it on film, it’s still stunning,” Phillips points out.
Bartley agrees. “First and foremost, one of the great things about New Mexico is the landscape and the colors and the way the light hits the atmosphere and the way the light hits the mountains,” he says. “It’s a beautiful place. There’s no place like it in the country.”
Phillips remarks that shooting in New Mexico “obviously makes sense” for the series, which requires wide open spaces and “that man-versus-the-universe feel that you will get here because of the incredible landscape.”
While New Mexico provides plenty of the lush mountainscapes and High Plains terrain one would associate with the Cowboy State, Dias says that location scouts have had to work double time to find settings with believable architecture so the state can be an adequate stand-in for Wyoming.
“It’s a big challenge for our location manager, to have to go and find new locations for us to use.” She says the show requires “that Wyoming look, so we can’t have any adobe…there are all these little details they have to be careful about, like making sure there aren’t any of the kiva stoves in the shot.”
“Actually we had a little break,” Dias says with a short laugh, “for this current episode because we had something that was [set] in supposed Arizona, so we were allowed to not have to dodge adobe for once.”
Despite sporadic dodging, New Mexico’s unique cultural heritage lends itself to the show’s storyline. Longmire leans heavily on racial tensions between Anglo and Cheyenne populations.
“I think we’re very fortunate that there is a talent pool here, that there are actors; not only Native American actors but Latino actors who can pass, so to speak,” Phillips jokes as he discusses the impact of New Mexico’s Native American culture on the show.
“I’m obviously not Cheyenne and here I am, playing it,” he says. “I’m not even Latino. Fortunately, for me, I’m generic brown.”
On a more serious note, he explains that Longmire’s Native characters are “not one-note characters; their motivations and their reasons for doing what they do are not only clear, but they’re respectful and they have integrity and dignity about it,” he says. “There’s a level of comfort on this set where a Native actor knows they’re not going to come on and be treated stereotypically, that their character is going to be treated with respect and that they’re among friends and family.”
With so much movie traffic in town, including WGN America’s upcoming Manhattan—also filming on SFUAD’s campus—New Mexico’s increasing popularity as a shooting destination has resulted in some interesting mix-ups.
“We’ve had problems with extras and people showing up for casting sessions here when they were trying to get to Manhattan, and we’ve had actors dropped off on the wrong set,” Dias says.
The hustle and bustle provides for interesting fodder.
Dias recalls a recent case of mistaken identity. “We were filming very near where [they were filming] Jane Got a Gun with Natalie Portman; the whole morning, all these burly guys on motorcycles were rolling up going, ‘Where do I check in?’ and I was like, ‘I think you’re on the wrong set.’’’
Ewan McGregor and Rodrigo Santoro join Portman in the outlaw gang tale scheduled for release next year.
While life on a working set demands grueling hours and high stress deadlines, that doesn’t stop cast and crewmembers from cutting loose. “It’s a lot of fun; it’s like a little village,” Dias says of their surroundings.
Whether it’s singing karaoke at Tiny’s, horseback riding or checking out the local live music scene, everyone interviewed for this piece stressed how Santa Fe’s laid-back, friendly vibe and variety of fun activities made for a great time when not filming.
“We spend a lot of time together and that fosters friendships and romantic relationships and just a close family feeling,” says Emily Thomas, the show’s script coordinator. “Lou frequently hosts dinners at his house, because he’s an amazing cook, so he’ll host huge family-style feasts.”
And we’re not just talking nightlife. Bartley explains, “I’m a huge movie buff and there’s so many great places to see independent film here. It’s really unique to Santa Fe…I see three to four movies a week,” he says. “It’s a great place for me.”
Bailey Chase, who plays heartthrob Sheriff’s Deputy Branch Connally, was prone to hitting the slopes on his downtime.
He’s leaning against a refreshments table between takes while the crew adjusts the set lighting as he shows off a newly acquired battle scar.
“I cracked my face on a rock,” he says, as he gestures to where a heavy coat of makeup is covering a small welt on his forehead. Chase further says that he takes full advantage of all outdoor activities in and around Santa Fe, including whitewater rafting and fly fishing, “Plus I have a truck, so I get to off-road a little bit on the way to set…I guess my inner redneck gets to come out a little bit when I come to New Mexico.”
Hanging out on set for a couple of hours, the camaraderie and comfort among the cast and crewmembers is palpable. Before a take, the din of conversation flows from every direction. Chase teases Katee Sackhoff—Longmire’s Deputy Vic Moretti and Battlestar Galactica’s Starbuck—as she removes her sheriff’s shirt to reconfigure her microphone.
Everyone is friendly and relaxed until a voice calls over the buzz, “Rolling!” and then it’s all business.
Actors man their positions; director J Michael Muro settles himself behind two monitors where he can see what the cameraman is capturing. The famed film slate, which displays the scene and take numbers, snaps across the screen. When all the noise stops and everyone is watching with anticipation, the director calls out in a deliberate voice, “And, action.”
The shot is quick; only a few lines pass between the characters. Sackhoff hands an urgent fax to Robert Taylor who, keeping with Walt Longmire’s stern affect, mutters a few words and gives a look of resignation. The director yells, “Cut,” and then he turns around to say, “Sweet, that one gave me chills.”
Longmire will spend the summer shooting all around Northern New Mexico, from Vegas to Valles Caldera, so don’t be surprised if your summer adventures cross paths with mobile production crews and TV stars. Who knows? You might be lucky enough to encounter them on a day they’re short an extra.