Filmed in New Mexico, Tony Hillerman's Leaphorn and Chee series brings Native Americans to the forefront - Albuquerque Journal

Filmed in New Mexico, Tony Hillerman’s Leaphorn and Chee series brings Native Americans to the forefront

Zahn McClarnon as Joe Leaphorn, right, and Kiowa Gordon as Jim Chee in “Dark Winds.” (Michael Moriatis/Stalwart Productions/AMC)

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Six years ago, it started with a meeting.

Chris Eyre, Robert Redford and George R.R. Martin met at the Four Seasons Resort Rancho Encantado Santa Fe.

The topic that day – Tony Hillerman.

“It was a casual meeting,” Eyre says. “The intent was that we wanted to see if George would be interested in helping bring Tony’s work back to life on the screen. When the Sundance Kid asks you to go to lunch, you do it.”

As they talked, Eyre and Redford became aware that Martin had known Hillerman in the 1980s. The two writers share a similar history – both starting their career as journalists.

“George was a fan and had optioned Tony’s books in the 1980s,” Eyre says.

To say the meeting went well is an understatement.

Six years and a pandemic later, the trio are the executive producers behind the AMC series, “Dark Winds,” which will premiere at 7 p.m. Sunday, June 12.

Hillerman wrote his first novel, “The Blessing Way,” in 1970 and introduced the world to Navajo Tribal Police officers Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. Since then, there have been 18 chapters in this story.

Set in 1971 on a remote outpost of the Navajo Nation near Monument Valley, Utah, “Dark Winds” follows Lt. Joe Leaphorn of the Tribal Police as he is besieged by a series of seemingly unrelated crimes.

From left, Kiowa Gordon as Jim Chee, Jessica Matten as Sgt. Bernadette Manuelito and director Chris Eyre filming on the set of “Dark Winds.” (Michael Moriatis/Stalwart Productions/AMC)

The closer he digs to the truth, the more he exposes the wounds of his past.

He is joined on this journey by his new deputy, Jim Chee.

Chee, too, has old scores to settle from his youth on the reservation.

Together, the two men battle the forces of evil, each other and their own personal demons on the path to salvation.

Zahn McClarnon and Kiowa Gordon bring Leaphorn and Chee to life in the series, alongside Jessica Matten, who brings Bernadette Manuelito to the screen and Noah Emmerich as FBI Special Agent Whitover, Deanna Allison as Joe’s wife Emma Leaphorn, and features Rainn Wilson as Devoted Dan, a full-of-faith car salesman.

For Gordon and McClarnon, bringing the journey of Leaphorn and Chee to life is an amazing opportunity.

The pair are both familiar with Hillerman’s books and the two TV projects that brought them to life in the 1980s and the early 2000s.

“It’s pretty amazing because I watched the whole PBS series in the early 2000s with Adam Beach as Chee,” Gordon says. “It’s great to follow those footsteps and be part of the world that Hillerman raised up back in the day.”

Gordon learned about the project while he was showing a film at an Indigenous film festival where Eyre was the moderator.

“He came up to me and said I was a leading man and he needed me to play an officer,” he says. “I didn’t realize that it was ‘Dark Winds.’ Then I learned about everyone involved and I’m on their radar. It was a no-brainer. I talked to Zahn about it and then learned Jessica was going to be in it.”

McClarnon shares the sentiment of the series being a special project.

Not only did Eyre serve as director for four of the six episodes, its leading cast is Indigenous, and it was filmed on Native American land.

The production filmed in Santa Fe, but will have locations in Española, Cochiti Pueblo, Tesuque Pueblo and the Navajo Nation.

According to the New Mexico Film Office, the production employed 200 New Mexico crew members and more than 275 New Mexico background and extras.

Martin jumped at the chance to work with Redford and Eyre on the project.

“Tony Hillerman was one of the greats, as every mystery reader knows. Down here in the Southwest, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee are as iconic as Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Philip Marlowe, and Travis McGee,” Martin says.

Redford, who lives in New Mexico, says he read his first Hillerman book in 1986 while filming in the state.

“Hillerman is a master storyteller, his writing is full of mystery and suspense, set amidst a background that blends traditional oral stories of Native American culture and landscape,” Redford says.

Home base was at Camel Rock Studios, which became the first Native American owned film studio in the country when it opened in 2020.

The Tesuque Pueblo converted the building just north of Santa Fe into a movie studio campus which has more than 25,000 square feet of filming space.

The tribe decided to open the studio after “News of the World” filmed in the space.

Zahn McClarnon stars as Joe Leaphorn in “Dark Winds.” (Michael Moriatis/Stalwart Productions/AMC)

“We’re the second production to film there. It’s a special place that helped us capture the brilliance of Tony,” Eyre says. “Over the past 25 years, it has been my goal to celebrate the telling of Native American-themed stories from a Native American perspective with characters we can all relate to.”

Gordon says he enjoyed being inside a converted casino.

“It allowed us to be in one spot doing all this crazy stuff,” Gordon says.

McClarnon echoes the sentiment and says it was a blessing to film on sacred land.

“The landscape morphed into what we needed it,” McClarnon says. “That’s the beauty of filmmaking.”

While the series is set on the Navajo Nation, production took place in the area sparingly.

“It was very important for the team to shoot on Native land,” McClarnon says. “Because we were filming during the pandemic, the production didn’t want to film too much on the Navajo Nation to ensure that everyone was kept safe. We didn’t want to film and bring a chance that our brothers and sisters getting sick.”

“Dark Winds” also marks a moment in history for Native Americans – as Native Americans are represented in front of the camera, as well as behind.

It’s a story that’s been more than 40 years in the making since Hillerman’s first book in 1970.

Tony Hillerman’s daughter, Anne, picked up the writing after his death in 2008.

She thinks it’s wonderful to see the renewed interest in the book series.

“I am very impressed with the way the writers were able to capture the essence of the characters my Dad and I write about while placing them in different scenarios,” says Anne Hillerman. “I am hoping that viewers who have never heard of us Hillermans will find the television versions of Joe Leaphorn, Jim Chee and Bernadette Manuelito so interesting that they will move on to read the books.”

Anne Hillerman wasn’t too involved in the leap to the TV screen – only to sign on behalf of the Hillerman estate the authorization of the project and cheer from the sidelines.

“I hope the series gives the audience appreciation for the richness of the Navajo culture, for the beautiful scenery of the Southwest and the Navajo Nation where much of it was filmed, and for the challenges involved in rural policing – still true today,” Anne Hillerman says. “I also hope that they appreciate the talent of the cast who have taken these legendary characters and brought them to life. Finally, I hope the show makes viewers curious about the original source of the stories.”

McClarnon has worked his entire career to be seen in the industry.

“We work all of our careers to become series regulars or leads of movies,” he says. “Within the last few years, we’ve had some control over some of our stories. I hope an audience sees Native Americans as normal. Native people are part of American history, it’s also Native history.”

Gordon says the series shines a brighter light on representation.

“I hope an audience will take away what they need from the series,” Gordon says. “We’ve put the story out there for people to connect with and it’s an honor to be working on such an important project. These are our stories and Tony’s stories have been around for more than 40 years.”

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