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‘Little engine that could’: ABQ-based director’s indy film ‘Top Gunner’ competes with big studio releases

A scene from the film “Top Gunner,” which was directed by Albuquerque native Daniel Lusko. (Courtesy of Daniel Lusko)

Daniel Lusko’s hard work is paying off.

The Albuquerque native’s latest film, “Top Gunner,” is streaming on various digital platforms, including Apple TV+.

He says the pandemic has leveled the playing field for small independent films such as his to be seen by the masses.

“We’re pretty excited,” he says. “We’re the little engine that could. We’ve been at it and stayed with it. We had a great little team working on the film, and I’m so proud of it. We’re competing now with some big studio releases available to watch a home.”

“Top Gunner” follows recent graduates of a secluded U.S. Air Force base. The team must protect a gene-editing bioweapon from the Russian military, which is desperate to seize the deadly viral agent at any cost.

The film stars Eric Roberts.

As director of the film, Lusko is also bringing awareness to above-the-line jobs in the New Mexico film industry.

“I grew up here, and I was making movies here as a kid before all the incentives came,” Lusko says. “My perspective on everything with how the industry growing here is different than most people. These days, I get to be a person who brings jobs to make movies from LA to Albuquerque. I get to capitalize on the rebate as a native New Mexican filmmaker.”

Lusko is also a member of the Directors Guild of America.

“Being part of the DGA is really special for me,” he says. “It’s always been my dream to make movies.”

Lusko and Keystone Films LLC began production in February. They had only seven days to shoot, and the budget was just under $100,000.

It was also important that many of the above-the-line jobs would go to New Mexicans.

“From our director of photography to production designer and casting director,” he says. “Those are all New Mexicans.”

One of the biggest gets came when Roberts signed onto the film.

Lusko says Roberts has 500 credits to his name.

“In the time here, he pushed himself and we established a rapport,” Lusko says. “He brings this boyish enthusiasm for cinema, and I loved being on set with that. When you are making a film with a budget this low, we did have plenty of limitations. Everyone is expected to put their best foot forward, and they did.”

Albuquerque native Daniel Lusko (Courtesy of Daniel Lusko)

Lusko is also thankful to many other New Mexicans that kept the production running smoothly.

A snowstorm in February caused the crew to scramble, cutting off access to Sandia Airpark, near Edgewood. The location was where the production was going to film with a fighter jet.

“We called up two aviation companies, Bode and Cutter, and they both rallied to get FAA approval for us to get a jet this is equivalent to one that is being depicted,” he says, and production moved to the Santa Fe Airport. “Rick Metz and John Padilla at uPublic stepped in and helped us out. This is where the New Mexico attitude towards film shines.”

SEND ME YOUR TIPS: If you know of a movie filming in the state, or are curious about one, email film@ABQjournal.com. Follow me on Twitter @agomezART.

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