Tuesday, September 18, 2012

DESERT 2.0: Bonanza Creek and beyond



One of the main reasons I wanted to go to Santa Fe was because it has been the main hub of western movie making for the past few decades.  In close proximity to the city, there are four significant historical ranches that have routinely opened their gates to Hollywood: Bonanza Creek Ranch, Cerro Pelon Ranch (formerly Cook Ranch), Eaves Movie Ranch and El Rancho de las Golondrinas.  

Bonanza Creek was the first to draw filmmakers, for the 1955 film THE MAN FROM LARAMIE, the final collaboration between director Anthony Mann and actor Jimmy Stewart.  I’m a huge fan of the 1950s revenge westerns and this one is as gritty as they come, so I love it.  Hollywood returned to Bonanza Creek a few years later, this time for COWBOY, a Delmer Daves / Jack Lemmon western (that’s right, I said “Jack Lemmon western”… He plays a tenderfoot, opposite Glenn Ford’s rugged trail boss).  I like this one too, though Daves made better.

A decade later, production of THE CHEYENNE SOCIAL CLUB (1970), starring Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda, extended beyond the boundaries of Bonanza Creek onto the nearby Eaves Movie Ranch.  A decade after that, Cook Ranch became the primary setting for SILVERADO (1985).  Soon after, portions of YOUNG GUNS (1988) were shot down the road, in The Sierra Village at El Rancho de la Golondrinas.  Coming full circle, Bonanza Creek recently hosted COWBOYS & ALIENS as well as the new Ed Harris western SWEETWATER. 

Bonanza owner Imogene Hughes and her side manager Chuck (two of the friendliest people you could ever hope to meet) were happy to show off the ranch to us, and to share some of its movie history.  When we arrived at the first set -- a western town that sprawls in four directions -- what struck me was how move-in-ready it was. Bonanza’s western town is not a fa├žade, but a fully-functioning set with electricity and running water!  It’s not set-dressed, of course, because filmmakers are like homebuyers… When they’re shopping for a new “home,” they want to imagine how their own furnishings will look in the place.


In short, I'm not the least bit surprised that Bonanza Creek has remained popular with western filmmakers… even at times when westerns is not especially popular with audiences.  Soon after John Wayne was symbolically murdered here in THE COWBOYS (1972), the genre went into commercial decline.  The statistics say it all: In 1972, western films represented 12% of Hollywood’s output.  In 1973, only four westerns were released.  In 1974, only two.  In the early 1980s, the stragglers came here: the juvenile LEGEND OF THE LONE RANGER (1981), the low-budget space western TIME RIDER (1983), and the drag queen farce LUST IN THE DUST (1985).   SILVERADO, YOUNG GUNS and LONESOME DOVE, portions of which were filmed here, signaled new hope for the genre, leading to a major renaissance in the early 1990s. 

Touring the ranch today, you can see remainders / reminders of more recent films: Steven Spielberg’s INTO THE WEST (2005), THE ASTRONAUT FARMER (2006) with Billy Bob Thornton, Ed Harris’s APPALOOSA (2008), and the remake of 3:10 TO YUMA (2007) -- the last of which filmed here at the same time as three other movies.  Ms. Hughes is clearly proud of the Bonanza Creek legacy and genuinely enthusiastic about its future as a filming location.  So I guess it’s time for me to start writing that western screenplay…

The Jeremy Irons ranch house from APPALOOSA
This house was featured in LONESOME DOVE, THE ASTRONAUT FARMER and SWEETWATER
THE ASTRONAUT FARMER barn
Inside the barn
Christian Bale's house in 3:10 TO YUMA
This is where Christian Bale's family had dinner with outlaw Russell Crowe
After our tour of the ranch, we rolled down the street to the sleepy town of Los Cerillos.  It was a Sunday morning and the only sign of life in this ghost town (population 229) was a couple of loud drunks sitting out in front of the bar.  It was the perfect setting for horror movie… which, of course, is why I wanted to check it out.  Over the door of the local hardware store is a wooden plaque commemorating the town’s involvement in the making of YOUNG GUNS.  Less celebrated -- but more interesting to me -- is the town’s connection to JOHN CARPENTER’S VAMPIRES (1997).  The finale of that film was shot on these dusty streets.


In the book John Carpenter: Prince of Darkness, the filmmaker told interviewer Gilles Boulenger: “The main street we were working on ran north / south.  There was buildings on the east, and the prison set was on the west.  This meant that sunlight only hit the street for about three to four hours a day - the old movie backlots were usually built along an east / west axis so the streets would be in constant sunlight.  So it was another shooting nightmare.”  Nightmare or no, Carpenter made the most out of his shooting location, featuring the autumnal light of Santa Fe to his advantage.  That blood-red sunset appears many times in VAMPIRES (augmented by color filters), and it is always effectively haunting.

Allegedly, part of VAMPIRES was also filmed at the nearby Rancho de las Golondrinas (“Ranch of the Swallows”)… but I’m not sure which scenes.  My best guess is that some of the mission interiors may have been shot at the Penitente Meeting House on Cavalry Hill.  There IS, in fact, a black cross on the hill behind this building.  I assume this is a coincidence, having nothing to do with Carpenter’s storyline, but it certainly makes me wonder how much the filmmaker know about the Penitentes.  If someone wants to help me get a definitive answer about the filming location, El Rancho de la Golondrinas offers movie-themed tours on Saturdays.  Regardless of its connection to Carpenter's work, the ranch is certainly worth.  Unlike other ranches in the area, this one has a rich, well-preserved history that dates back to the 18th century.  (For details, you can download a comprehensive historical narrative from the ranch’s official website.)

Sierra Village (used in YOUNG GUNS)

The morada on Cavalry Hill

Carpenter liked New Mexico enough to return a few years later to make GHOSTS OF MARS (2001) just north of Albuquerque, in the Zia Pueblo.  Carpenter told the Santa Fean Magazine, “Because the movie supposedly takes place on colonized Mars in the future, we needed a town and we filmed on a gypsum mine atop a mountain.  Being a gypsum mine, it was endless acres of all white, so we used biodegradable food dye to dye it red and we built our town there.  Not only were the Pueblo Indians kind enough to let us do that, but they gave us an opening ceremony calling upon their deities to protect and get us through the shooting.  And it worked!” 

Mind you, that doesn’t mean there weren’t a few problems along the way.   The biggest obstacle was the weather. Carpenter says, simply and bluntly, “[W]e shot GHOSTS OF MARS during a monsoon!”  (You can more read about the trials and tribulations of the production here, in an article by cameraman Bill Stephens.)  I can’t help thinking that this production must have taken a major psychological toll on the director, since he has rarely talked about it… and since didn’t get behind the camera again until the first season of MASTERS OF HORROR in 2005.   A lot of people (including the director himself) thought GHOSTS OF MARS would be his swan song.  While I’m thrilled that it isn't, I happen to think it’s an apt culmination of the themes that have defined his career.

Like ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA and VAMPIRES, it is a hidden western.  Gilles Boulinger hinted at this in his 2001 interview with Carpenter when he asked if there was any kind of intentional connection between the storyline and the shooting location (“Indian soil,” with “a colonized nation still fighting for their freedom and culture”).  Carpenter sensibly avoided the political land mine of talking about “cowboys and Indians" within a historical context.  This is a sensitive subject for a genre filmmaker to discuss, because the popular western myths often glom onto only the most sensational and provocative elements of history, without making any attempt at telling a fair and balanced history -- and Carpenter is of course a mythmaker, not a historian or a politician.  Still, I can’t help thinking that many aspects of GHOSTS OF MARS (and VAMPIRES, as well) seem to be deeply rooted in the history and culture of this particular region of New Mexico.  Would Carpenter be more reflective about this aspect of these films today?   

I admit I didn’t visit the Zia Pueblo, or try to gain access to their gypsum mine. I found plenty of photos online (check out this page on the New Mexico Film Office website), along with a rumor it that the ghost train from Carpenter’s film is still there... I don't know if that's really true, but that's the note I'm going to end on.  You know what they say: Print the legend.

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