Written by Murray Ashton on Dec 26, 2011. Posted in Interviews

Filming in New Mexico with Locations Co-ordinator Don Gray

Don grew up in New England, went to art school in New York and ended up in New Mexico the way a lot of people do. He has lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, since 1986.

"I followed a love interest out here. She left long ago and anyway I had fallen in love with something bigger... the American south-west."

Don's first job in the film world happened a bit by accident:

"I was working (at least some of the time) as a photographer when I read a small blurb in the local paper that the state had passed film industry tax incentives. I took my book to the film office and asked what a guy like me might do in the industry."

Don got a call a few months later from someone on a production desperately trying to find a photographer in town who owned a digital camera ("I was an early adopter in 2003!") and that got him the job.

"I was sent out to take location photos that morning and asked to return by lunchtime to show them to the Director; Iʼve worked in the industry ever since. From the early scouting jobs I moved on to location management and in 2006 I went to work as the Contract Locations Co-ordinator for the New Mexico State Film Office."

Tell me about New Mexico.

New Mexico is the 5th largest state (in land size) in the US and I cover all of it. I have a five-year-old truck that currently has 230,000 miles on it, all of it done within the state of New Mexico.

Certainly New Mexico is known for its spectacular desert locations but many people donʼt realise that we also have forests, mountains, rivers, lakes, grasslands and even urban areas as well.

New Mexico also has some unique locations that are difficult or impossible to find elsewhere.

New Mexicoʼs film industry is very mature - one of the first films ever made by Thomas Edisonʼs company was shot at Isleta Pueblo in 1893. Certainly the last decade (since the incentives were introduced) have been very successful for the industry, resulting in excellent infrastructure throughout.

We boast the largest film crew base between the coasts. We have numerous sound stage facilities including the largest purpose-built facility in the country, Albuquerque Studios. Any and all equipment can be sourced through on-the-ground rental houses as well.

What locations are most commonly used by film and TV crews when they film in New Mexico?

Hollywood still has an abiding love affair with the 'Open American Road' and we certainly get a lot of requests for that. The lonely diner in the middle of nowhere. The falling-down gas station and isolated ranch house are frequent requests. We also have three standing Western Town sets (and the matching landscapes) that get a lot of use as well.

Extinct volcano the Valles Caldera is the most startlingly verdant valley you will see anywhere and the scale of it is enormous.

New Mexico also has some unique locations that are difficult or impossible to find elsewhere, such as a functioning vintage railroad and one of the largest white sand dune areas in the world. Since our population is small (less than two million in the whole state) we also have access to areas untouched by population or left intact areas that have survived modern urban development.

What are the rare, more unusual locations that our readers would not necessarily associate with New Mexico?

Iʼm constantly amazed at the variations in landscape in New Mexico and how quickly they change. Thereʼs an extinct volcano 40 minutes outside of Santa Fe called the Valles Caldera. Itʼs the most startlingly verdant valley you will see anywhere and the scale of it is enormous - what I first thought were rabbits sitting on the valley floor turned out to be a heard of elk.

I think the inherently difficult nature of what we do is why we love it. Every movie is a challenge.

For your industrial needs, downtown Albuquerque boasts a historical industrial building that was once the largest steam locomotive repair facility in the country. Up north beneath the 13,161-foot summit of Wheeler Peak lay one of the best ski mountains in the US at the Taos Ski Valley.

In southern New Mexico there is even an extraordinarily accurate replica of a Middle Eastern Village. It was built for military training but it's available for film projects as well.

What has been your most difficult location assignment to date and why?

You mean like the time I was almost arrested on set as the Location Manager? That only served to demonstrate the unwavering power of having all your permit paperwork in order. Seriously though, I think the inherently difficult nature of what we do is why we love it. Every movie is a challenge.

New Mexico only occasionally plays itself in films. Most often we are standing in for other places in the world. The process of turning your eye to  your everyday surroundings and finding Afghanistan, Iowa or Munich and then communicating that to the filmmaker in pictures is the challenge and one that I enjoy very much.

What types of production do you work on most?

Feature films and television work are the bulk of what I spend my time on, but commercials and documentaries are a part of my job as well. Weʼve had some very notable projects shot in New Mexico. The last few years have seen pictures such as Crazy Heart, True Grit and most recently The Avengers. We currently have several long-running TV shows, including Breaking Bad, which is considered by many to be one of the best TV shows ever produced.

Is there anything else you would like to share about filming in New Mexico?

I think the biggest misconception about New Mexico is that we only have locations similar to what you see in a Road Runner cartoon. That and people think our seasonal weather is akin to someplace like Phoenix, Arizona. New Mexico is high-altitude desert and though most are temperate we do experience seasonal change. I consider this an advantage. Need hot desert? We got it. Snow? Yep. Fall leaf colour? Yes.

Which are the best airports to use to film in the region?

Albuquerque International Sunport is certainly the best choice. Most of the major airlines service this airport and Southwest has the most direct flights from LA. The Santa Fe Municipal Airport actually has some direct flights from LA as well, serviced by American Eagle. For better proximity to locations in southern New Mexico, El Paso International is very convenient (flights into El Paso booked with a New Mexico travel agent qualify for the incentive when the destination is New Mexico!).

What do you do with your time off?

Somewhat ironically I like to take photographs and make my own films!

Thank you.

Click here to contact Don.

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