Movie-making mania

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Like a pebble tossed into a pond, there’s a ripple effect throughout the economy whenever Hollywood comes to town. In short, making movies means money.

Three movies were filmed in and around Belen this summer, the biggest being “Transcendence,” a sci-fi morality movie starring Johnny Depp and Morgan Freeman. While the stars only came to town a few days, set designers and construction crew members spent six weeks building sets for the eight days of actual filming.

Janis Marston-News-Bulletin photo: MOVIE MEMORABILIA fills one upstairs room of the Harvey House Museum in Belen as movie buffs, such as museum technician Ronnie Torres, like to show off those films shot in Valencia County, including the 17 movies shot in Belen.

“Hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent in the county,” said Steve Tomita of that one movie’s economic impact. Tomita wears many hats for the city of Belen, from planning and zoning to economic development. He’s also the city’s movie liaison, working to make a film crew’s experience in Belen as productive and enjoyable as possible.

Tomita leans toward $400,000 when pressed as to the economic impact of “Transcendence.” There were 150 people building the sets, he points out, noting that many slept in area motels, ate in local restaurants, bought gas for their trucks or cars.

The movie industry on the whole “tries to maximize local spending,” he said. “They try to buy and hire locally.”

Belen, with its iconic water tower and small, home-town look, leads the field for attracting movie productions and, in turn, has received the biggest economic boost. But several other communities in Valencia County can boast that they live where a film was made.

Little bucolic Bosque Farms became center stage for the hair-raising, cornfield car-chase scene in the $30 million action movie, “The Last Stand.”

Emil De Smet, patriarch of De Smet’s Dairy, said the film company rented 20 acres of cornfield, which netted the family between $40,000 and $50,000.

The worth of the corn, the loss of a winter wheat crop and the cost of leveling the field after the movie people left were added up, De Smet said.

“We added some to that,” he said, to come up with what the film company paid upfront.

He said his son, Michael, dealt with the movie crew. They showed up last October, about the same time the corn is shocked for silage.

“They brought in a bus load of people, maybe 10 or 15 people,” the elder De Smet recalled, and drove a used car through the corn stalks to see how it went.

They came back about a month later and began filming in the 20 acres of untouched corn. They returned in December to finish shooting but were delayed by snow and Christmas holidays. The car-chase scene finally was wrapped up in January of this year, De Smet said.

While filming, the cornfield was off limits. But De Smet got to meet “Last Stand” star Arnold Schwarzenegger. He never got his picture taken with the action hero-turned politician, but did shake his hand.

“He’s a real nice guy,” De Smet remembered

Schwarzenegger’s fondness for Mexican food from Pete’s Cafe is part of Belen’s modern folk lore as he promised he’ll be back for more. Tomita said Pete’s saw an increase in customers since film crews began shooting scenes along Becker Avenue.

On one hand, streets are blocked off, making easy access to Pete’s nearly impossible. On the other, people continue to drive around the barricades, to the cafe, in hopes they might catch a glimpse of a star.

Other businesses besides those along Becker that became part of “The Last Stand” benefitted from the movie.

“Any curtains you see came from here,” said Alan Tomalavage, co-owner of Bernie’s fabric store on North Main Street in Belen.

“Transcendence” didn’t need any fabric from his store but Depp’s other movie — the $250-million “The Lone Ranger” — did. The film’s costume designer bought all the vintage trim she could find. “It was a several hundred-dollar sale,” Tomalavage said.

A few blocks south of Bernie’s is the Bethlehem Trading Post. There’s a handmade quilted wall hanging of the Virgin of Guadalupe above its sales counter. It’s a present from the set decorator of “The Last Stand,” who went through the shop on South Main, pointing to items she wanted to buy.

“She came in and said, ‘I’ll take that… (and) that.’ We followed (her), making a list,” said shopkeeper Pat Trujillo, who helps run the store with her sister, Nancy Stalnaker.

They are the daughters of the trading post’s owners, Lillian and Johnny Griego of Belen.

Set decorators from “Transcendence” and “The Enemy Way” also bought items from them. The movie people want used-looking stuff for whatever the set looks like, Stalnker said.

Oil lamps, globes of the word, chairs and a vanity were some of the items sold to the French movie, “The Enemy Way”; “Transcendence” wanted small items to dress up the sets.

“We watch the movies, just to see our stuff,” Stalnaker said.

They sell items ranging in size from large wardrobes to old framed pictures or knickknacks.

“Let’s just say (they’ve bought) a substantial amount over the years,” Trujillo said. “It’s in the thousands.”

Add some zeroes and that’s what locally-owned lumber companies have experienced with the influx of movies and their need for sets.

For example, the making of “Transcendence” resulted in half a million dollars in lumber and other material for the three RAKs lumber yards in Los Lunas and Albuquerque.

Of that $500,000, construction crews spent about $125,000 at the Los Lunas store, says RAKs sales manager Wesley Young.

In Belen, Herman Tabet, owner of Tabet Lumber, said his store sold about $98,000 in lumber, metal roofing and other material to the film crew.

“They bought every piece of weathered lumber we had,” Tabet said.

Sections of metal roofing that had been weathering in the yard were bought as soon as the crew heard about them.

“They came in every day. Every day, they’d order something new,” Tabet said of the set designer and crew. “They’re very good people, very easy to deal with.”

“Transcendence” is the fourth film Tabet has supplied lumber to, he said.

“These movies,” he said, “they’re good for the city, good for restaurants, good for gas stations and motels.”

Residents can get a nice reimbursement by letting a film take over their house or yard for a few days.

Former Belen mayor Ronnie Torres shows off a picture of a $4,000 check he got from the 2013 movie “As Cool As I Am.” The crew filmed in his Dalies Street neighborhood for 11 days for the coming-of-age movie starring Claire Danes and James Marsden. His check was for two days of shooting inside his home.

Compensating for any inconvenience a film brings to residents or business owners usually comes in the form of a check. Sometimes, like this summer, “Transcendence” paid Valley Fence to replace chain-link fencing around several homes near Dalies and Second streets. Fresh coats of paint or new awnings often appear on businesses right before the film crew leaves.

As the coordinator between Belen and the film crews, Tomita said he watches over everything the crews do, to protect residents and make sure their businesses or residences are restored when the filming stops.

He said there are about a half-dozen reasons why Belen is becoming a film mini-mecca. They include:

• Belen has an “old-town USA” feel;

• Locals are willing to have their buildings modified;

• Becker Avenue is nice and wide for shooting scenes;

• Film crews can build whatever they need in empty lots near Becker.

One other unlisted plus for Belen is that Tomita and other city backers will go to extremes to keep things running smoothly for a film shoot.

Take this summer’s rains, which started a day or two after cameras began to roll. Soon the streets were filled with rainwater — water not called for in the script.

“Our pumper trucks were pumping all night long, getting rid of the rainwater,” Tomita said, noting how this impressed the production team, which didn’t lose any shoot time. “They were amazed at how fast we could clean that rain up. The location managers, the production team, said Belen is by far the best place they’ve worked in. They’ll be back.”

To support this, he points to “Killer Women,” an upcoming television show on ABC that filmed for two days recently in Belen and Rio Communities.

The show’s assistant location manager was in Belen before, Tomita said, for “The Last Stand” and “Swing Vote.”

A film website shows 17 movies have been filmed in Belen, beginning with the 1970 post-apocalyptic dark comedy “Gas-s-s-s” (also known as “Gas!” or “It Became Necessary to Destroy the World in Order to Save It”). This was followed by the 1971 movie “Bunny O’Hare,” starring Bette Davis and Ernest Borgnine, who rob banks disguised as hippies.

Some scenes of the 1976 David Bowie science-fiction movie “The Man Who Fell to Earth” were filmed in the desert along the Manzano Expressway. Los Lunas and Belen were featured in the 1978 trucker movie “Convoy.”

There was a dry spell during the 1980s and ’90s. For the 1994 movie “The Cowboy Way,” Woody Harrelson and Kiefer Sutherland learned how to rope at the Valencia County Sheriff’s Posse Rodeo Arena in Belen. Harrelson’s character, Pepper, is announced as a roper from Belen.

For Belen, in particular, movies began to come with the new millennium. There have been 11 movies filmed in Belen since 2003.

“Swing Vote” was shot entirely in Belen, even though the name of the town was changed to Texico. The 2007 movie’s all-star cast was headed by Kevin Costner. Belen became Somerton Junction, Ariz., for “The Last Stand,” and it was somewhere around Tucson for the indy film “Sunbelt Express.” In “As Cool As I Am,” Belen finally got to keep its name, as seen by the water tower with water tower “Belen” on it.

Bob Knowlton, the mayor of Bosque Farms, was one of 200-plus extras in “The Lone Ranger.” He watched construction crews build an entire town, with its own railroad tracks, near the Route 66 Casino north of Albuquerque.

“Those guys put a ton of money into New Mexico’s economy,” Knowlton said, adding he’d like to see more of it coming into Valencia County in the years to come.