New York Times best-selling novelist Michael Koryta wasn’t sure New Mexico could pass for Montana — until he visited the state in June, when a film crew was shooting Those Who Wish Me Dead, a movie based on one of his books.
The production — directed and adapted by actor and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan and shot in and around Bernalillo, Torrance, Sandoval and Rio Arriba counties, as well as Santa Clara Pueblo — recently finished filming in New Mexico, though the action is set in Montana. The movie stars Angelina Jolie, Nicholas Hoult, Jon Bernthal, Tyler Perry and Aidan Gillen.
The New Mexico Film Office said 675 New Mexico residents worked on the production during a six-week shoot in the state.
Koryta, who lives in Maine, was present for some scenes filmed in the Sandia Mountains.
Yes, he was enchanted.
“My first thought is that you couldn’t find an area that would be able to duplicate Montana,” he said by phone. “But to actually get out there and see the elevation, see how rugged it is, see those burnt-out areas where previous fires had occurred, made me think New Mexico did a much more convincing job standing in for Montana than I could have initially guessed.”
Koryta’s 2014 book follows a teen boy who is placed in a witness protection-type program within a wildlife survival camp in Montana to keep him safe from a pair of killers who know he saw a murder. Soon, the boy and the adults caring for him find themselves using their survival skills to outpace the killers in a mountainous forest where the potential for fire is high.
Koryta said he worked on a film adaptation of the book, as did screenwriter Charles Leavitt, before Sheridan — known for his contemporary neo-Western films Hell or High Water and Wind River, in which the challenging environment plays a role — took over the project.
“If I could have handpicked a writer and director to tell this story, it would have been Taylor Sheridan,” Koryta said. “He gets the idea of wilderness and character, and that is the essence of the story to me.”
Koryta said he came up with the idea for Those Who Wish Me Dead while taking part in a wilderness survival training program in Montana. He was inspired to consider writing a novel set in New Mexico after visiting some of the forested mountains in the state.
“I have a few ideas I’m kicking around for another book so I can come back,” he said.
New Mexico’s film industry appears to be enjoying a boom.
Last month, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller announced a new NBCUniversal television and film venture that could inject $1 billion into the state’s economy. And according to a report in the Albuquerque Journal, political controversy over restrictive abortion laws in Georgia and Louisiana was prompting producers working in those states to consider New Mexico as an alternative location for filming.
New Mexico’s financial incentives for movie companies shooting in the state have grown since former Gov. Gary Johnson, then a Republican, signed a movie incentive program into law in the 1990s. Lujan Grisham signed legislation earlier this year that raises the cap on what can be paid out to film and television productions to $110 million from $50 million in a year, effective this week.
The bill included an additional 5 percent tax credit for companies that shoot in rural areas and money to pay off $250 million of a roughly $380 million backlog in rebates the state still owed to production companies.
Currently, eligible film productions can get a 25 percent rebate on certain expenses in the state, while television series that anchor in New Mexico for longer-term projects can get a refund on up to 30 percent of expenses. Advocates for the film industry say it pays off for the state financially — with the industry bringing about $464 million to New Mexico in fiscal year 2017.
Critics, however, say the incentives amount to a giveaway that brings little, if any, profit to the state.
Paul Gessing, president of the nonprofit Rio Grande Foundation, wrote in a recent opinion piece published in The New Mexican, “Both economically and morally, it is one thing to exempt a business from taxes that would otherwise be paid (think Industrial Revenue Bonds and their long-term property tax exemptions), it is another thing entirely for government to cut checks (using our tax dollars) to fund the ongoing operations of chosen businesses.”
Such criticisms are unlikely to stop Hollywood from coming to New Mexico.
New Mexico Film Office Director Todd Christensen said Tuesday, “If all goes well, we will have productions that run into the autumn, into the winter, into the spring and into next summer.”
Besides the financial benefits to the state, Christensen said, the film industry boosts tourism and showcases New Mexico “on screens all over the world or through streaming services. It’s all a plus.”
Koryta said his visit to the set made him feel “everyone was a pro.” More importantly, it made him want to return to New Mexico as a visitor.
“I want to come back in the very near future to do some backpacking and fishing,” he said. “That is a beautiful part of the world.”