The gypsum dunes of White Sands National Monument and its surroundings have long served as backdrops for high-profile films, including King Solomon’s Mines (1950), Hang ’Em High (1968), Young Guns II (1990), and Transformers I and II. And who could forget The Man Who Fell to Earth (1975), in which pop icon David Bowie landed at White Sands to star as an extraterrestrial in a wonderfully bizarre British science-fiction film that became a cult classic? Given the area’s popularity among location scouts, producers, and directors, it was perhaps in the natural order of things that, seven years ago in Alamogordo, the White Sands International Film Festival (WSIFF) was established. The event quickly outgrew its birthplace, and in 2009 migrated 68 miles west, to Las Cruces, where it has taken hold as one of the largest international film festivals in the Southwest.
Part industry workshop, part independent film showcase, and part opportunity for viewers to experience films with limited distribution, this year’s fest runs September 4–8 at select venues, including the historic Río Grande Theatre, which opened in 1926. The schedule is packed with some 80 independent titles, including shorts, documentaries, student films, and features.
A VIP party on opening night celebrates the world premiere of Roswell FM, a comedy feature written and shot entirely in southern New Mexico. The big fête is Friday night’s celebration honoring actor, writer, and producer Lou Diamond Phillips (La Bamba, Stand and Deliver, Courage Under Fire, Longmire), this year’s recipient of the festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
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Roswell’s reputation as a hub of unexplained activity is the stuff of legend, and sets the stage for the oddball narrative of Roswell FM, the debut feature of screenwriter David Spence—a Las Cruces native—and director Stephen Griffin. Shot over five weeks in Roswell and Artesia, the film revolves around Jay Rathbone, “the only normal guy at a paranormal radio station.” He quits his gig as a radio-show host to take a lousy but better-paying job so that he can help his weird nephew pay for college.
Although most of the film crew was New Mexico–based, casting director Cathy Henderson recruited outside actors for much of the core cast. And what a great comedy-laced cast it is. Brendan Fehr, whom many may remember from the television shows Roswell, Bones, and CSI: Miami, is cast as the straight-shooting Rathbone, while Jason London (Dazed and Confused) plays Rathbone’s eccentric best friend. The principal cast of 15 also includes Santa Fe actor Hugh Elliot.
Spence wrote an early draft of Roswell FM in 2007, while taking a screenwriting class led by Mark Medoff, a longtime faculty member at NMSU’s Creative Media Institute for Film and Digital Arts, and who wrote the 1980 Tony Award–winning play Children of a Lesser God and its screenplay.
Like previous WSIFF Lifetime Achievement Award recipients Jeffrey Tambor, Linda Hamilton, and Val Kilmer, Lou Diamond Phillips has been asked to choose two films featuring his work to screen during the festival (La Bamba, Stand and Deliver). Phillips’s résumé spans roughly 30 years, with some heavy-hitting New Mexico productions under his belt, including Young Guns I and II and Longmire, the popular contemporary-western cable-TV drama. In the series, which is set in Wyoming but is shot in and around Santa Fe and Las Vegas, Phillips plays Henry Standing Bear, a Cheyenne bar owner and a childhood friend of the show’s protagonist, Sheriff Walt Longmire (Robert Taylor).
“Filming in New Mexico is almost like coming home again,” Phillips says. “You guys have the tax incentives that make it possible to shoot there, as well as the crew and actors to get the job done.”
Phillips is currently directing and starring in The Tao of Surfing, a film based on the Pulitzer Prize–nominated book of that title, by Michael A. Allen. “The film takes place mostly in Santa Cruz, California,” Phillips says, “but we may spend a few weeks shooting in Las Cruces and White Sands. I like the idea of bringing a small production to New Mexico.”
The White Sands Film Festival was originally established by filmmaker David William Gibbons, casting director Donn Finn, and writer Sam Smiley to showcase independent films that, without a festival in town, might otherwise pass under many moviegoers’ radar. The board of WSIFF also promotes the New Mexico film industry, and southern New Mexico’s charm, to a global audience of filmmakers and visitors. Dawn Starostka, an event planner who helps organize the festival, says moving the festival to Las Cruces made sense because the city is home to two film programs: the Film-Crew Training Program at Doña Ana Community College, and the Digital Filmmaking and Animation/Special Effects programs at NMSU’s Creative Media Institute for Film and Digital Arts.
The festival is also an opportunity for emerging filmmakers and screen actors to take away a little extra knowledge about the business. Along with an acting workshop led by veteran film and television actor Christopher McDonald (Happy Gilmore, Requiem for a Dream), the festival is offering a workshop on film financing. New this year are a few more workshops that target filmmakers, according to WSIFF board president Rob Sharp, including one titled “Aesthetics of the Camera”: an overview of the film industry’s latest equipment and cinematic techniques. There will also be a hands-on technical lab with industry professionals and experienced directors of photography.
The festival will debut the 48-Hour Film Frenzy, in which young filmmakers write, shoot, and edit a film in two days, following specific criteria. Sharp says it will help a new generation of cinematic visionaries to practice their craft in a fun, competitive environment. “It’s a great way to not only gain visibility,” Sharp adds, “but to also network with peers from throughout the region.” ✜