It’s become easy to ignore news stories about the latest movies or TV shows being made in New Mexico. There are so many film productions coming our way that we’ve become blasé about our Tamalewood status and those little yellow traffic signs with mysterious code words or acronyms directing film crews to their sets.
But one of the latest movie announcements is at a whole other level. AMC — the network that brought us “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul,” with stories set and filmed in Albuquerque — has greenlighted a new series that is New Mexico to the core.
“Dark Winds” is based on the crime thriller series by the late Tony Hillerman, the New Mexico newspaperman-turned-novelist whose fictional Navajo police officers Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee have become heroes and even life coaches for millions of fans.
Before “Breaking Bad” brought tourists to Albuquerque to see the urban locations where Walter White and Jesse Pinkman perpetrate and survive various crimes, readers — yes, readers! — of Hillerman’s masterpieces traveled from around the world to view the spectacular landscapes of the Navajo reservation and other locations in the Four Corners region that Hilllerman painted so well with words. The books also provided a window into Navajo culture unlike anything presented before to a mainstream audience.
Hillerman’s iconic source material is enough by itself to generate a lot of interest in these here parts about “Dark Winds.” But there are plenty of other local connections to the production.
The executive producers include George R.R. Martin, the Santa Fean whose “Game of Thrones” became a worldwide smash on HBO and who has since become a benefactor of local arts; and real movie star Robert Redford, who has a Santa Fe home and directed a New Mexico film classic, “The Milagro Beanfield War.”
Then there’s Chris Eyre, who rose to fame as director of the 1998 film “Smoke Signals” (which birthed thousands of Frybread Power T-shirts) and who was chairman of the film department at the defunct Santa Fe University of Art and Design. He will direct the “Dark Winds” pilot.
Martin says the plan is to shoot the series in New Mexico and on the Navajo Nation, with the support of tribal leadership. Scripts were developed in a “writer’s room” staffed entirely by Native Americans, the series’ press materials say. The Native actors who will populate the film include Zahn McClarnon, from “Westworld” and also a “Dark Winds” executive producer, and Kiowa Gordon, of “Roswell, New Mexico,” as Leaphorn and Chee.
What’s fun to think about is how close to Hillerman’s creations the new series will adhere or what kind of changes or elaborations might be made. Will Chee and Leaphorn be familiar to the versions readers know from the books?
Redford has been working on the Leaphorn/Chee stories for a long time and has owned the rights to many of them for decades. He was executive producer of a movie version of Hillerman’s “The Dark Wind” in 1991, starring Lou Diamond Phillips as Chee. But Redford was unhappy with the production, which ended up as a straight-to-video flop, and has called it a “false start” toward a goal of a series of Hillerman films. At that time, “Getting an all-Native American cast financed above a certain budget was just really hard to do,” Redford told the Los Angeles Times years later.
Much more successful was an adaptation in 2002 of “Skinwalkers” for PBS, where Redford produced and Eyre directed. It drew PBS’s largest audience that year, and the network followed up with two more shows based on Hillerman books — “A Thief of Time,” with the Redford/Eyre team again at the helm, and “Coyote Waits.”
Santa Fe’s Oscar winner Wes Studi was great playing Leaphorn in the PBS shows, which changed the character significantly from Hillerman’s creation. This Leaphorn was a more urban Navajo back on the Rez, giving Adam Beach’s Chee more reason to explain traditional Navajo ways to the older officer.
A recent article on “Dark Winds” appears under a headline that reads “How Robert Redford and George R.R. Martin helped push to properly adapt Tony Hillerman’s detective novels.” It tells how Martin was invited to join up with Redford and Eyre during a meeting in Santa Fe six years ago.
The article says, “Together they brought the project to HBO, which put ‘Dark Winds’ into development — yet ultimately passed. One sticking point was maintaining the novels’ pricey 1970s time period, which the producers felt was essential for the character of Leaphorn, who was raised in a forced assimilation boarding school common to the mid-20th century that attempted to detach young Native Americans from their cultural roots.” HBO did allow the group to take the project elsewhere, and AMC took it on.
Although the new series is called “Dark Winds,” which sounds a lot like Hillerman’s “The Dark Wind,” Martin says in the press materials that another mystery in the Hillerman series, “Listening Woman,” is the source material for the show.
“Tony Hillerman wrote a lot of amazing books, and it is our dream to adapt as many of them as we can,” Martin also said.
“Dark Winds” is something to look forward to. “Breaking Bad” was, of course, a classic show and “Better Call Saul” is as good or even better. But, with “Dark Winds,” maybe we get a great TV series set in our part of the world where the main characters are the good guys instead of reflecting our darker side.
The people behind the new series also appear to be totally committed to the idea of doing right by Hillerman’s body of work. That’s important. Hillerman, Leaphorn and Chee are part of the legacy of modern New Mexico.