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Oscars 2017: Hell or High Water in New Mexico

Hell or High Water David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water doubled New Mexico for rural Texas and has been hailed as a modern-day reinvention of the classic Western genre. 

The film was written by Taylor Sheridan and tells the story of two grown brothers who try to escape a life of poverty in rural Texas by carrying out a series of audacious bank robberies. 

Hell or High Water was nominated for Best Picture at this year's Academy Awards.

Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens has created a distinctive look with enticing open spaces, which he tells KFTV was inspired by “Taylor Sheridan’s writing about the relationships between the protagonists and their environment, which in this case was the drying up of farming lands and the poverty caused by the economic recession.”

The film is set in West Texas, but high production costs shifted its cast and crew to New Mexico, which is the most popular part of the US for desert filming locations because of its skilled crew base and generous incentive support.

“Unlike Atlanta people shoot there because it is New Mexico and not in spite of it,” says Nuttgens. “It's hard to describe the beauty at the end of the day looking across the reservation from the hill where we were shooting - amazing moments.”

For Hell or High Water, the New Mexico location proved ideal. “The desert is fantastically beautiful and I love the heat” says Nuttgens. “Like all incentive states, New Mexico has many crew members who have moved in from LA so it's possible to find good crew, although if the state is busy, like Georgia, it is a lot more difficult.”

“All the robberies were done in the first five days and it was fundamental to get all of us up to speed rapidly, but I know David and I both felt like a little more time covering the robberies would have helped in the edit. 

“The first bank is completely shot in available light, which meant we started the shoot on day one at a speed that no-one was expecting. It set the pace for the rest of the time. Although lighting is often dependent on the time available or the ability to manipulate the exterior light through the schedule, framing takes no time and costs nothing. Composition comes from innate sensibility and happens 24 times a second while the camera is running.”

Hell or High Water Foster and Pine

Nuttgens shot Hell or High Water on the Arri Alexa XT Studio (with Hawk V-Lite, Angenieux Optimo and Optimo 2S Lenses). 

“Hell or High Water was an experiment for us to make digital shooting as efficient as film and I think we managed it. In some cases – as with the car sequences – it was actually better. I just wish we had had the time to mix mediums. 

“The landscapes and the flesh tones would have been spectacular on Kodak but as David edits each day's scenes every evening it wasn't a possibility.”

Still moved by film images in a way he is “not yet with digital”, Nuttgens would “much prefer to be with a film camera, as the system is so streamlined and simple – maybe because it has been around for so long, or maybe it’s just because it’s second nature for me. Digital has introduced a huge amount of technology into the process (and manpower), which is required to get the best out of the images. 

Hell or High Water Ben Foster“Big studio films primarily use the studios that are in Albuquerque and Santa Fe,” explains Dirk Norris of the New Mexico Film Foundation.

“There is probably greater effort on the part of the state of New Mexico to recruit studio pictures rather than indie pictures because of budget, but all are treated the same by the New Mexico Film Office

“The senior manager of production at the New Mexico Film Office has a pre-production meeting with the production crew, be it an independent filmmaker or major Hollywood production, and outlines the rules and regulations of filming.”
New Mexico has a thriving local filmmaking community, keeping abreast with advancing technology through financial support and educational opportunities offered by the likes of The New Mexico Film Foundation.

“The trained crews are in fact part of New Mexico’s attraction and we get lots of Hollywood films coming here because of the skilled talent,” Norris says. 

Hell or High Water’s production only brought in one person from out of state. Norris proudly points to the fact that “New Mexico recently ranked at third place as best location to film in, behind New York and California”, with geographical beauty, friendliness, weather and diverse locations proving popular.

There are standing Western sets at Bonanza Creek Ranch, Eves Ranch and the new Netflix series Godless is constructing several sets near Santa Fe.

The town of Belen just south of Albuquerque hosted scenes for Johnny Depp’s 2014 sci-fi movie Transcendence and the city of Las Vegas east of Santa Fe recently featured in the Netflix series Longmire. Mark Wahlberg’s war film Lone Survivor doubled the Sandia Mountains outside Albuquerque for rural Afghanistan. New Mexico has also recently hosted alien invasion sequel Independence Day: Resurgence and Western movie Hostiles.

Hell or High Water BridgesNew Mexico state’s attractive film incentives include a 25% Refundable Film Tax Credit on all direct production expenditures, a 30% Refundable Film Production Tax Credit for qualifying television series, 25% plus 5% Film Credit on all resident off-camera crew wages and fringes for productions (using a qualifying production facility) for a minimum of ten or 15 days.

“The state’s ‘no minimum spend’ perk is particularly tempting to indies,” says Norris. “However low your spend is, you are eligible to claim so if you have $1,000 of eligible expenses you can apply to get $250 back, or $300 depending on the circumstances.”

Indies and major studios take advantage of the film office’s free database of location photos, searchable by town, building type or landscape, a full-time locations co-ordinator and the Film Business Association of New Mexico handy directory of local businesses, which offers details on car rentals, hotels, lumber yards, thrift stores, candy shops and restaurants.

“A great plus for independents shooting in New Mexico is big studios here helping independent filmmakers by offering their facility at discounted rates, at times when it is not booked,” Norris says.

For more on filming in New Mexico see our production guide.

Images: Lorey Sebastian/CBS Films