JEMEZ MTS., N.M. – Perched on black director’s chairs emblazoned with their names in white, Chris Eyre and Roy Wagner stare, unblinking, into two small video monitors, their heads together; minds working as one.
Actors not in the scene and crew mill about in front of a rustic log cabin deep in the woods next to a winding road, until they hear “Rolling!” when everyone becomes very quiet and still.
Director Eyre and Wagner, director of photography, are working on the second of three PBS “American Mystery!” specials adapted from author Tony Hillerman’s detective series. During this scene of “A Thief of Time,” Navajo Police Officer Jim Chee discovers incriminating evidence while looking for a pilot to fly rescue for Lt. Joe Leaphorn, trapped at the bottom of a deep canyon and in danger of losing his life.
The story brings the detectives together again in this ninth of the 18 Hillerman adventures to search for a missing archeologist while solving several murders that seem to have only the theft of ancient and valuable “Anasazi” pots in common.
Hillerman called this 1988 work his “breakout book.” It led to the Public Service Award of the U.S. Department of Interior, an honorary membership for life in the Western Literature Association, the American Anthropology Association’s Media Award and the Center for the American Indian’s Ambassador Award for him.
“Coyote Waits,” the eleventh in the series is slated for filming following wrap up for “A Thief of Time,” and will also be shot in and around Albuquerque.
On set, Eyre speaks in a low, even tone; so low that one has to lean close to catch what he says. Though his speech is restrained, it cloaks an intense passion evident onscreen as the scene unfolds – and when the director yells, “Cut!”
Both Eyre and Wagner share the same vision for this film. Both are approaching the project as if it were for the big screen.
“Generally, we’ve shot these as theatrical features. We’ve shot them in wide, picturesque, beautiful locations,” explained Eyre. “We’ve never talked about it in terms of television. We’re not limiting ourselves to what television looks like, this is always a movie. You would be selling Roy’s talent short to talk of it in terms of being on a small screen,” Eyre said smiling slightly and glancing at his director of photography.
Eyre is known for his work on “Skins” and “Smoke Signals” and has another film ready for screening at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival.
“I think of it as telling stories,” responded Wagner. The director of photography has worked on “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” among other top-draw films and as both director and cinematographer for television dramas such as “Pasadena” and “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.”
Part of the story is its location. The first of the three films, “Skinwalkers,” was shot mostly in the rural town of Superior, about 60 miles east of Phoenix last year. This year, both sequels, “A Thief of Time” and “Coyote Waits” are being produced in and around Albuquerque.
Filming in New Mexico has become more prevalent recently because of a law sponsored by Sen. Shannon Robinson, D-Albuquerque, allowing the state to invest up to $7,500,000 per film. Other incentives, also available to filmmakers working and hiring in-state, include a gross receipts (sales tax) deduction and a 15 percent production tax credit. These enticements were not available at the time “Skinwalkers” was produced.
“The locations are more fitting to the story,” said Wagner. “Tony Hillerman wrote the stories around this area, around this state, so you’re going to have a great deal more of a sense place here than you do in Arizona.”
“I found that these stories are about the openness of the southwest. About 75 percent of each script takes place outside. We need to find the right locations for it so obviously this is a good place,” said Craig McNeil, producer. Originally from England, the producer said that although he’d been in the U.S. for six years, he’d never visited the southwest. “I’d never seen anything like it. It’s spectacular.”
He said one of the unique aspects of the series is bringing little-known, panoramic areas and cultures of the American landscape onto the screen.
“These projects haven’t really been done before,” McNeil said, explaining the success of the first film, “Skinwalkers” and the anticipated success for the next two films. According to Ellen Dockser, “Skinwalkers” was the highest-rated program on PBS in 2002, with an audience of approximately 12 million viewers. Dockser represents WGBH Boston who aired the film and is currently co-producing the series.
Actor Wes Studi feels the production and success of the series is a milestone for Native people and a landmark for television broadcasting. “This is the closest thing that we, as American Indians, have to an on-going story of people that we recognize over and over again,” said Studi, who is Joe Leaphorn in the series.
“It also provides work for American Indian actors, exposure and there is a dedicated following,” he continued. Studi’s career includes starring roles in “Skinwalkers” and movies such as “Last of the Mohicans” and “Dances With Wolves.”
“These films will entertain, but will also show a bit of the reality of who we are. There are doctors and lawyers who are Indian. There are killers who are Indian. I think it’s nice to finally be a part of society in films because, back in the day, there was a romanticism of what we were,” said Adam Beach, who is Officer Jim Chee.
Beach, who recently had a lead role in “Windtalkers,” believes television reaches new audiences, hence the success of “Skinwalkers.” He said movies only reach limited numbers of people; especially on reservations where there are few to no theaters, but many people own satellite dishes.
Graham Green and Peter Fonda are also cast in “A Thief of Time.” Series executive producers are Robert Redford and Rebecca Eaton. Both films are scheduled to air this fall.
For more information about “American Mystery!” go to www.pbs.org/wgbh/mystery/ and for more about Tony Hillerman go to www.tonyhillermanbooks.com.