In August 2016, some heavy hitters filmed in New Mexico.
Morgan Freeman, Tommy Lee Jones and Rene Russo began filming the project, “Villa Capri.”
And then most people heard nothing.
Flash forward to Friday, Dec. 8, and moviegoers will get to see what the trio of actors were up to when “Just Getting Started” opens in theaters nationwide.
Of course, the name change could have thrown people off, but New Mexicans will get to see many local locations stand in for Palm Springs, Calif.
The film follows Freeman as Duke Diver, the freewheeling manager of the luxury Palm Springs resort, the Villa Capri. Diver has a mysterious past, but he’s a pro at making sure that life for the high-spirited residents is one big, non-stop party. But the status quo is challenged when ex-military charmer Leo, played by Jones, checks in, triggering a competition between Duke and Leo for the top spot of Alpha male, as well as for the affections of the newly-arrived Suzie, played by Russo.
When Diver’s past suddenly catches up with him, the rivals put aside their differences to save Villa Capri.
“I always thought it would be a fun idea to stage a film set during Christmas in a very un-Christmas-like atmosphere,” says Ron Shelton, director and writer. “One holiday, I was driving through Palm Springs, Dinah Shore Drive and Bob Hope Drive, and plastic icicles were bobbing in the wind. Dust storms were coming through, an inflatable snowman was blowing down the street and Dean Martin was being piped in, singing ‘Let It Snow.’ That always stuck in my mind as a delicious background for a story.”
Filming in the California desert was out of the question due to the heat.
According to the New Mexico Film Office, production employed approximately 120 New Mexico crew members, 12 New Mexico principal actors and 650 background talent.
Filmmakers opted for the more temperate high deserts of New Mexico, where they were lucky to find the perfect place for their Villa Capri.
The Four Seasons Resort Rancho Encantado in Santa Fe cooperated fully with production and, as it was also the hotel of choice for most of the cast, actors could stroll down an air-conditioned hallway to work.
“When you think about creating a fictional place like Villa Capri, the idea that a Four Seasons Resort could double for it was perfect,” says producer Steve Richards in a release. “It matched the level of sophistication and luxury that we wanted. They were amazing in allowing us full access, and worked beautifully with us to schedule scenes all around the resort.”
Shelton continues, “It was bizarre that we could actually shut down a Four Seasons. But it turned out there was one week at the end of summer where it was their slow week, so if we moved in, in late August, put up Christmas decorations and brought in camels, we could actually use it for Palm Springs. We were very fortunate and they were very accommodating. During the filming of the nativity sequence, where the animals all break loose and make a run for it, we had camel wranglers steering them away from the high-paying guests. In the end, I think it all worked out.”
Initially envisioned for 40 days of shooting, under Shelton’s organization “Just Getting Started” wound up in the can with 28 days of principal photography.
To mimic the open California vistas, production chose locations in and around Albuquerque, with director of photography Barry Peterson and Shelton “carefully choosing frames,” which were later augmented with drop-in exterior shots from Palm Springs.
For the golfing scenes, production filmed at the University of New Mexico golf course, which was constructed in 1967.
Despite his appearance on film, Jones had never swung a club prior to being cast.
“I never played golf in my life,” Jones says. “So, to get ready for this movie, I bought some clubs and started taking lessons. It’s a sport that never had any appeal for me, but I’m getting to learn some things about it, and it’s been very enjoyable, highly enjoyable. I can hit the ball a long way, but I don’t always know where it’s going to come down.”
In addition to unfamiliar sports and new accents, some cast members also had to deal with dangerous wildlife.
“There are two sequences with real rattlesnakes — we hired a venomous snake handler, who actually runs the rattlesnake museum,” Shelton says. “Around here, we didn’t have any trouble actually finding snakes. When we were shooting in the desert, we sent the handlers out ahead to track any down, so we wouldn’t step on them — they would just go out, retrieve them and put them in a bucket. It’s just a feature of shooting in New Mexico.”