Where is Mountainair, New Mexico?” veteran UPM Alton Walpole laughs by way of fixing his tiny Southwestern hometown on a mental map. “If you drew an ‘X’ it would be where the two lines meet, in the middle of the state,” he explains. “We hung out at the old movie theater until it snowed so hard one winter the roof caved in and it became a drive-in. It was a lot like The Last Picture Show.”
Walpole’s background in architecture and photography and experience as a grip, editor, camera assistant and actor made him a natural for helping visiting filmmakers get the most out of New Mexico’s famous vistas. Local crews, he says, are made up of experienced industry veterans from Los Angeles and Texas who have moved to New Mexico, brand new trainees, and longtime natives. “It’s a diverse group to draw from and they are incredibly loyal because they love living and working in New Mexico,” he says.
Talking from the Albuquerque soundstage of the Hughes Brothers’ latest film, The Book of Eli, Walpole has no need to hard-sell the artistic virtues of shooting in his state, given the many shows eager to capitalize on New Mexico’s generous film incentives. Locations for the $75 million Eli include Cochiti Pueblo, 55 miles north of Albuquerque, and the tiny town of Carrizozo, 200 miles to the south. “We’re taking over four blocks of the main street, which is meant to be an abandoned, apocalyptic town,” explains Walpole.
Walpole says his most challenging shoot, Passion in the Desert, took place in another iconic Western location, Moab, Utah. “It was about a leopard, so I hired a cat containment crew to build a 10-foot chain link fence outside of camera range. We’d light the scene and lock ourselves in trucks while the trainers brought out the leopard and the actor. We were basically working in a state of panic and fear the entire shoot.”
A far more common sight in the UPM’s universe are rattlesnakes. “There’s quite a few rattlers in the lower desert areas, and they’re considered sacred by the Indian tribes. You never kill a rattlesnake, you simply remove them.”
Walpole’s favorite spot is Bonanza Creek Ranch, just north of Santa Fe. He has brought shows such as The Far Side of Jericho and Undead or Alive to the location, where not a single phone line or high-voltage wire can be seen for miles. “It used to be all about the landscapes and Western scenery,” he notes, “but now we’re seeing more urban stories coming into Albuquerque.”