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‘Amazing variety’: Santa Fe area doubles for 19th century Texas on ‘News of the World’

Tom Hanks as Capt. Jefferson Kyle Kidd in “News of the World.” (Bruce W. Talamon/Univeral Pictures)

Production started in October 2019 for “News of the World.”

The leap from page to screen would take some magic to re-create the fabric, mood and detail of Texas during the post-Civil War Reconstruction era.

Director Paul Greengrass assembled some of the top creative collaborators to make this happen.

The project was starkly different from any of his previous work.

“When I read Paulette Jiles’ wonderful book, I connected to it in a deeply intuitive way,” Greengrass says. “Plus, every director wants to do a Western; it takes you back to that romantic notion of the American West in all its mystery and adventure. I couldn’t say no.”

Adding to the draw was the opportunity to work with Tom Hanks again.

“Tom is a wonderful actor and such a lovely man,” Greengrass says. “We had a great time making ‘Captain Phillips,’ so that clinched it. The best decisions are always the instinctive ones; I knew it would be fantastic fun.”

Cast and crew would embark on a 53-day odyssey across the forests and mountains surrounding Santa Fe.

Helena Zengel, left, and Tom Hanks appear in a scene from “News of the World.” The production filmed for 53 days in and around Santa Fe. (Bruce W. Talamon/Universal Pictures)

Hanks worked all 53 days. Co-star Helena Zengel worked nearly as many.

Producer Gregory Goodman says each film poses different demands.

“I work hard to understand the underpinnings of the film a director means to make … and come up with a durable plan to accomplish that,” Goodman says.

“News of the World” is based Jiles’ novel and is set five years after the end of the Civil War.

It follows Capt. Jefferson Kyle Kidd, played by Hanks, who is a widower and veteran of three wars as he moves from town to town as a nonfiction storyteller.

He shares the news of presidents and queens, glorious feuds, catastrophes and adventures from the far reaches of the globe.

In the plains of Texas, Kidd crosses paths with Johanna, played by Zengel, a 10-year-old taken in by the Kiowa tribe six years earlier and raised as one of their own. Johanna, hostile to a world she’s never experienced, is being returned to her biological aunt and uncle against her will.

Kidd agrees to deliver the child where the law says she belongs. As they travel hundreds of miles into the wilderness, the two face challenges of both human and natural forces as they search for a place that either can call home.

According to the New Mexico Film Office, the production filmed through November 2019 and employed more than 200 New Mexico crew members and 25 New Mexico actors.

The film was released on Christmas in theaters – just in time for Oscar consideration.

Beginning on Friday, Jan. 15, the New Mexico-filmed production will be available on demand through Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu and Xfinity.

Producer Gary Goetzman hopes that viewers will embrace the compassion and heart of the story.

“We never know what movies are going to mean when they reach the audience,” Goetzman says. “And this one speaks to hard times, difficult situations, things that we’ve gone through as a country before and ones we’ll hopefully never go through again. Interestingly, this story is finding its meaning in the world we’re living in today.”

Scouting in New Mexico

During the 53-day shoot, multiple locations were used in and around Santa Fe.

To set in motion the 400-mile odyssey through the frontier towns and wide-open spaces of Texas, the filmmaking team scouted locations across the landscape that once marked the Western frontier.

Although the instinct of location manager and native Texan Hilton Clay Peres was to chart a course through his home state, he found a more ideal option.

“I had read the book a few years earlier and loved it,” says Peres. “So to help the filmmakers find a canvas for a story set near where I grew up was a huge privilege. But to create that sense of travel, I knew we’d need dramatic shifts in terrain within a limited geographic footprint, so I fed Paul Greengrass and the producers every possible option – in terms of environments that were both topographically accurate and cinematic.”

Peres says Santa Fe checked all the boxes.

“You can drive 30 minutes in any direction and find yourself on wildly different terrain – endless flats with gorgeous mountain peaks in the distance, rolling hills, pine forests, tons of rivers,” he says. “It has an amazing variety of environments, and no other state has as many Western towns so close to each other as New Mexico does.”

As a lifelong fan of Westerns, Greengrass knew that the landscape had a story to tell.

“One of the most resonant elements in the lives of these characters has been the power and presence of the natural world,” Greengrass says. “To make a film out on these epic landscapes is to be reminded of what it must have been like crossing America in the 19th century – when you’re at the mercy of the elements, when privation is everywhere, and a 20-mile journey can mean life or death. It’s astonishing because you look at the wagons and this unforgiving terrain and think, ‘How did they do it?’ ”

With rare exception, all locations that would be traversed by the production were remote, off the beaten path and surrounded by breathtaking natural vistas that stretched out as far as the eye could see.

“In New Mexico, no matter where you look, it’s beautiful,” says stunt coordinator and second-unit director Jeffrey Dashnaw. “You cannot get a bad shot there. New Mexico crews know Westerns, so they know what they’re in for. But no matter where we are from, we jump in. Everybody was invested in Paul succeeding.”

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