“The first warrior looked out on the land that was his Home. He saw the hills and the stars, and he was happy.”
Little did he know that land was Santa Fe.
These eloquent lines—the first two, anyway—issue forth from the lips of Henry Standing Bear (Lou Diamond Phillips). Standing Bear is best friends with eponymous protagonist Walt Longmire (Robert Taylor) in A&E’s hit drama “Longmire.” The series, which regularly garners the attention of millions nationwide, is filmed right in our own backyard, at Santa Fe’s Garson Studios. Nearly every Burqueño was captivated by five invigorating years of “Breaking Bad,” and “Longmire” promises to be another interesting filmic resident.
The series, based on Craig Johnson’s best-selling Walt Longmire mystery novels, combines classic Western film tropes and modern crime drama storylines, and it’s set in Absaroka County, Wyoming—or, as we like to call it, northern New Mexico. Protagonist Walt Longmire is the archetypal Western antihero with his love of tradition and stoic, yet charismatic personality. The county sheriff began the series trying to carry on with crime-solving while mourning the loss of his wife. With the help of Standing Bear, Deputy Vic Moretti (Katee Sackhoff) and his daughter Cady (Cassidy Freeman), Longmire captured the bad guys and drew an average of 5.373 million viewers per week during its second season, according to the network.
In an interview with Collider.com, Taylor said he immediately loved the character of Walt Longmire. “He’s decent, he’s restrained, he’s old school, he’s not demonstrative,” Taylor said. “I just identify with people like that. I love the stoicism, and I love people who get on with it and do it and don’t make a big deal of it. I just really like Walt. ... And I get to wear a nice hat, too.”
Taylor notes that the show has a natural charm, due in part to its setting. The combination of high desert and mountainous terrain along with a small-town atmosphere brings something uncommon to television screens. “The show has a certain lyricism, which reflects the setting and the people there,” Taylor said. “When you’ve got big sky, big places and less people, people act differently and treat each other differently. It’s tangible. It’s not just a concept.”
It appears that Santa Feans agree. Paula Amanda, director of Garson Studios, where Longmire is based, and Associate Chair of Film Department at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design (SFUAD), said “Longmire” has a vast and distinctive audience because it is a distinctive show.
According to Amanda, acclaimed series “Breaking Bad” scored high ratings in New Mexico owing to its drama and the fact that it actually takes place in Albuquerque. “Longmire” contributes a different story to New Mexico’s film landscape. “‘Longmire’ is more of a quiet story,” said Amanda. “It’s got a solid, loyal base. ‘Breaking Bad,’ because of its content, was more excitable. I think it got more press in that direction.”
The two productions are simply very different stories, said Amanda. Whereas “Breaking Bad” dealt with urban atrophy, Longmire tackles earthy grit. Amanda praises the “Longmire” embrace of Native American culture and the beauty of New Mexico. “It’s Wyoming also, so we can’t really say ‘Yay, New Mexico!’ because it’s ‘Yay, Wyoming!’ It’s kind of a secret,” said Amanda. “I think most people nationwide watching this don’t know it’s [filmed] in New Mexico, [but] that’s part of the magic of movies and TV.”
The popular series began filming in Santa Fe on a cool February day in 2012. Santa Fe—with its mountains, pine trees, film industry tax cuts and an abundance of local workers—proved to be a great location for the small Wyoming town in which the “Longmire” characters live. Amanda said that Warner Bros. chose to film at Garson Studios for a number of reasons, and in the end, that choice benefited Garson and its sister film school at SFUAD. “I try really hard to get student internships and student alumni jobs,” said Amanda. “And I try to get the productions to come up over to speak on the other side. It’s about developing relationships that are supportive of the film school curriculum.”
And developed relationships it has. Last year about 30 SFUAD students interned as crew members on the show, and other students have gone on to work for the production. Additionally Amanda says “Longmire” employs 200 to 300 New Mexicans; Albuquerque Journal statistics indicate that 85 percent of the show’s total crew is local.
Like “Breaking Bad” and other productions, “Longmire” seems to come with its own set of advantages for the state. Amanda estimates that the series brings “huge dollars into New Mexico.” To be more exact, the New Mexico Film Office states that $213.7 million of those dollars were spent in the New Mexico economy due to the film industry last year, and it calls “Longmire” a major project. Last year the industry produced 216,461 worker days, an all-time New Mexico record.
But it’s not all about dollar signs. “Besides economically, exposure is a more powerful tool than the economics,” said Chris Eyre, a filmmaker and Chair of SFUAD’s Film School. “Just [the fact] that people see New Mexico and the landscapes and the beauty ... It provides tourism to the state of New Mexico. There are ancillary benefits to the state.”
And perhaps some of the greatest benefits have nothing to do with money or even education. They involve the addition of new, eclectic members to the local community.
Members of SFUAD and the New Mexico community at large can now expect to see the “Longmire” cast eating at the next table or walking around Old Town. Amanda said it has been an exciting experience getting to know cast and crew as neighbors and friends. “Remember the excitement about ‘Breaking Bad’ [being] in Albuquerque,” Amanda said. “They lived with you. ‘Longmire’ lives with us, so we’re all excited about it.”
SFUAD student Olivia Nelson, who worked on set for both seasons, agreed that getting to know “Longmire” personnel and the fun of the production were among the greatest advantages. Nelson first worked as an intern on the show, and she was then hired for the prop department. She said that working in props means you never know what the day might hold. “It could consist of searching around for a mounted jackalope head or making a samurai sheath for a prop. ... There were times when I was making cotton candy in the back of the truck. ... You usually get to wake up early and go to bed late. ... [but] it’s almost not work.”
To hear Nelson tell it, the cast and crew eventually became a giant family of sorts. “Everyone is really into the show,” she said. “Because of that, there is a really great energy on set and off of set. Hanging out with the cast was really fun. Robert [Taylor] felt like a father when he was around. [The cast] are all really down to earth.”
Nelson fondly recalled spending time at karaoke with the cast at the Cowgirl and tutoring Katee Sackhoff in archery. “In the last episode of season one, they had an archery scene and Katee’s character, Vic, shot a bow and arrow. I’ve shot archery for years, so they let me be a ‘bow expert.’”
As a crew member and fan, Nelson’s appreciation of “Longmire” runs deep. And judging by the ratings, others are relishing the series, too. “The show really seems real and down to earth,” Nelson said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if I saw someone like Walt Longmire [walking down the street].”
“Longmire” returns to Santa Fe in February 2014 to begin shooting its third season.