The Land of Enchantment serves as the backdrop for the film “Hell or High Water,” which opens today nationwide.
And the film is already garnering plenty of accolades as one of the year’s best.
The project brought back New Mexico film alums Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine and Ben Foster. (Bridges starred in “True Grit” and “Crazy Heart;” Pine in “Carriers” and Foster in “Lone Survivor” and “3:10 to Yuma.”)
The film is a story about the collision of the Old and New West, as two brothers – Toby, played by Chris Pine, a straight-living, divorced father trying to make a better life for his son; and Tanner, played by Ben Foster, a short-tempered ex-con with a loose trigger finger – come together to rob branch after branch of the bank that is foreclosing on their family land.
The holdups are part of a last-ditch scheme to take back a future that powerful forces beyond their control have stolen from under their feet. Vengeance seems to be theirs until they find themselves in the cross hairs of a relentless, foul-mouthed Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton, played by Jeff Bridges, who is looking for one last triumph on the eve of his retirement.
As the brothers plot a final bank heist to complete their plan, a showdown looms at the crossroads where the last honest lawman and a pair of brothers with nothing to live for except family collide.
Production for the film began in May 2015 and employed more than 100 New Mexico crew members and more than 850 background talent workers, according to the New Mexico Film Office.
Locations include Clovis, Estancia, Moriarty, Portales, Tucumcari and Albuquerque, though the film is set in West Texas.
Gil Birmingham stars in the film alongside Bridges as Alberto Parker.
And Birmingham is also an alum of New Mexico productions. He was in Disney’s “The Lone Ranger” in 2013, as well as “DreamKeeper” in 2003 and “Into the West” in 2005.
“I always have fun when I’m in New Mexico,” he says. “I get to visit some of my favorite places, and I head up to Santa Fe.”
Birmingham was drawn to the script, written by Taylor Sheridan, who also wrote the script for “Sicario.”
“It’s such a brilliantly written film,” he says. “Then there’s the many layered aspects and the subject matter. And of course, working with Jeff, Chris and Ben.”
Another part of the film that drew Birmingham in is that his character is half-Comanche and half-Mexican.
“I’ve done a large portion of playing Native American characters,” he says. “To have a character that was contemporary, it was fantastic. We did have to find our way through and it involved exploring the character some more.”
Birmingham says his character is a man of principle.
“He’s devoted to his wife and family,” he says. “He’s such a strong character.”
In the film, Bridges and Birmingham’s characters develop a brotherly bond and the pair often joke with each other.
“Jeff’s character had an outlet with mine,” he says. “In the film, Jeff’s character has lost his wife and he’s looking for a bond. That’s where the jabbing comes from.”
Birmingham was in New Mexico for a couple months.
He says director David Mackenzie kept everything on course.
“Chris filmed for about three weeks,” he says. “He had time restraints and then had to move on to the new ‘Star Trek’ film.”
Birmingham enjoyed his time in New Mexico and has since moved on to plenty of new projects.
He recently wrapped the film “Wind River,” written by Sheridan. He also joined the cast for “Transformers: The Last Night.” And one of his most fun roles has been on the Netflix series “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” in which he plays Virgil.
“All of these are great opportunities for me to grow as an actor,” he says. “It always comes down to how well the project is written.”
- Production Designer Tom Duffield was thrilled to find New Mexico towns such as Moriarty, Estancia, Tucumcari and just miles from the West Texas border, Clovis and Portales, to stand-in for West Texas towns.
“Moriarty is amazing.” he says. “I can’t believe we found such a perfect area. It has that beautiful tawny sea of grass, those unlimited horizons. David (Mackenzie) really wanted to capture the sense of desolation you feel in some of these small towns, towns that are getting rubbed out by the cities and the mega-stores, with downtowns that are just kind of evaporating. Moriarty is gorgeous but you get that feeling.”
- Director of photography Gils Nuttgens and production designer Tom Duffield found these New Mexico locations an incredible canvas, but director David Mackenzie also took them on a field trip to Texas.
“Before shooting began, we took a road trip through the actual locations where Taylor (Sheridan) based the screenplay, and then we went back to New Mexico and saw exactly how we could re-create that there,” Mackenzie says. “It was a tremendous help to absorb those details, and it became a big part of the creative process.”
- For the banks that Toby and Tanner hold up, Duffield renovated several abandoned banks but was excited to have the chance to use the operational Western Bank in Clovis to play one of the fictitious Texas Midlands branches.
“It was so important to have real banks,” Duffield says. “A lot of banks didn’t want to let us film robbery for obvious reasons but the Western Bank shut down for a day, and even let us shoot gunfire inside. It gave us something amazing.”