It’s a cold, calm day in Chicago – the kind that Connor Del Rio lives for.
Del Rio is spending most of the day on interviews to help promote his latest film, “Half Brothers.”
The movie, which was filmed in New Mexico, will be released in theaters Friday, Dec. 4. Because theaters haven’t been open in New Mexico since March, it will be available on demand by the end of December.
“Half Brothers” tells the story of Renato, played by Luis Gerardo Méndez, a successful Mexican aviation executive, who is shocked to discover he has an American half-brother he never knew about, the free-spirited Asher, played by Del Rio.
The two very different half-brothers are forced on a road journey together masterminded by their ailing father, tracing the path their father took as an immigrant from Mexico to the United States.
Production began in July 2019. According to the New Mexico Film Office, the production filmed in five communities in the state – Albuquerque, Cedar Crest, Hatch, Los Lunas and Santa Fe.
The movie employed about 150 New Mexico crew members, 30 New Mexico actors and stunt performers and 300 background players, according to the Film Office.
Del Rio says being part of the film was “one of the best experiences in my life.”
When it came to diving into the role of Asher, Del Rio found himself journaling as his character.
“Outside of his inspiring kindness, I had to create depth outside,” Del Rio says. “From my point of view, I have to know about the characters I play. It’s important for depth. You’ll see my character eating doughnuts in the film. Eating doughnuts were what me and my father bonded over.”
Though Asher is mostly seen as comedic, Del Rio also stretched his acting skills with the dramatic side.
“Asher is grieving in the movie,” he says. “There are a lot of impulsive decisions.”
Luke Greenfield is at the helm of the movie, and the production had a modest budget and only 31 days to film.
He says it made sense to shoot in just one state.
“New Mexico was the top choice, offering diverse locations that would double for numerous Midwest states and parts of Mexico,” Greenfield says.
Location manager Rebecca “Puck” Stair had the considerable logistical brief of finding locations for an interstate road trip that takes place in the present but also flashes back to things that happened as long as 25 years ago.
“The journey goes through Chicago, St. Louis, the Midwest, Texas, El Paso, San Miguel de Allende, several border crossings, several detention centers, lots of roads to run out of gas on or to fight on or just to squabble on, a wood-side cabin, and a couple of airports,” Stair says. “Then there’s the emotional and character challenge of finding the locations that convey the interior journey that all these characters have.”
Production designer RA Arancio-Parrain was resourceful in creating environments that reflected the different characters, cultures and time frames of the story.
His first task involved converting Wild Pony Bar, a roadhouse on a strip of local highway in rural Los Lunas, into the movie’s Jalisco Beer Hall, a Mexican factory bar in the Midwest.
Ranchero images and cow skulls were mounted on the walls.
Practical lamps with burlap shades were placed on the tables. Neon Budweiser signs were displayed alongside signs in Spanish.
“We added shelled peanuts and chicharrones as snacks. And horchatas to drink. We did not want to make it like the Mexican bars you’d see in Baja and San Diego, where it’s all fiesta-like, with red and green and sombreros,” Arancio-Parrain says about the details. “We wanted it to be a factory bar for Mexican workers here in America, who would drink American beer. We put up some Mexican posters with a tank from Vietnam, a saguaro cactus, a soccer player and a bikini girl. Our signs say ‘no checks’ in Spanish.”
Contrasting with the Jalisco Beer Hall is Flavio’s Midwestern two-story house, a Cape Cod Craftsman-style white wood house in Albuquerque’s Northeast Heights.
“It’s as American as we can be, so we emphasize the idea that Flavio has been immersed in the American culture and pulled away from his Mexican roots and wife and child,” Arancio-Parrain says.
A key location in the film is an isolated hunting cabin that the siblings happen upon after running out of gas. The cabin appears abandoned but is in fact the stomping grounds of a particularly nasty group of 15 friends. But before the brothers make that unwelcome discovery, they enjoy a real period of camaraderie as they improvise a solution to their fuel problem.
The importance of the cabin scenes called for a structure that would make a big visual impression.
“The cabin is a turning point in the story. It’s when Renato realizes there is something of value in Asher. The cabin is kind of both their darkest moment and their brightest moment. So it needed to be an outlier with a unique look and an almost mythic appeal,” Stair says.
There was a lot of searching for the right log cabin in the woods.
“It had to have a dark side, and it had to be slightly creepy, and a place where danger abounds, enough danger that would cause these characters to make their pivot in the plot,” Stair says.
They finally found the place in Sandia Park, a lightly populated area on east side of the Sandia Mountains.
“It happened to already be dressed with all kinds of knives and hatchets hanging from the ceiling, and there were rotten stumps of trees already in the center of it. So the gods of film smiled upon us,” Stair says.
Del Rio was born and raised in Chicago.
“Half Brothers” not only marked his first time as a lead in a film, but also his first time in New Mexico.
“Albuquerque is very different than Chicago,” he says. “At first, I didn’t know what to do, because I was out of sorts. It’s my first movie, and once I found the schedule, I was good. On my downtime, I would study my lines.”
“Luis fell in love with Los Poblanos (Historic Inn & Organic Farm), and we would have a great brunch there,” Del Rio says. “Our cinematographer was a member of the Albuquerque Press Club, and we would play pool and have a drink and connect with each other. This is where Luis and I developed our bond more.”
Of course, Del Rio also checked out the summer street festivals in Albuquerque and hit up a lot of vintage shops.
“There’s some really cool stuff, and I got some cool clothes,” he says. “Some of my favorite shops are now in Albuquerque.”
Although he fell in love with the city during his time here, he has to admit one thing.
“I’m not a fan of green chile,” Del Rio says hesitantly. “It’s not for me. I understand, though, because people come to Chicago and they don’t like deep-dish pizza.”