New Mexico tribe transforms old casino into movie studio

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TESUQUE PUEBLO, N.M. (AP) — A small northern New Mexico Native American tribe has opened a movie studio in a former casino that it hopes will lure big productions.

The Tesuque Pueblo recently converted the building near Santa Fe into a movie studio campus called Camel Rock Studios with more than 25,000 square feet (2,323 square meters) of filming space.

The tribe’s lands feature stunning desert and the iconic Camel Rock formation in the red-brown foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and tribal officials said outdoor filming can take place on 27 square miles (70 square kilometers) of the reservation.

The tribe with about 800 members decided to open the studio after scenes from the Universal Pictures western movie “News of the World” starring Tom Hanks were filmed last year in the Camel Rock Casino, which closed in 2018.

Universal’s use of the casino for filming helped convince tribal officials to transform the empty building into studio space, said Timothy Brown, president and CEO of the Pueblo of Tesuque Development Corporation. Also influencing the decision were investments in New Mexico movie studios by Netflix and NBCUniversal in recent years, said Tunte Vigil, Tesuque Pueblo’s business development associate.

“The Pueblo of Tesuque Development Corporation wants to bring different businesses to the pueblo and the market is really open,” Vigil said. “So this is a good opportunity.”

No productions are happening now and none are planned for the immediate future because the pueblo and most of the state remains under strict COVID-19 business restrictions. But Brown said that that hasn’t stopped potential productions from contacting the pueblo and asking to reserve studio time.

Cheyenne and Arapaho filmmaker Chris Eyre, a Santa Fe resident and an advisor to Camel Rock Studio, said the studio’s unique aspect is that its former makeup as a casino provides the site with pre-made infrastructure that can be used for filming different types of movie scenes

“It’s a museum. It’s an opulent hotel lobby. It’s a capitol building,” said Eyer, who directed the 1998 film “Smoke Signals” about two Coeur d’Alene tribal members who travel from Idaho to Arizona to retrieve the remains of their father after he died alone. “There are sorts of interesting standing sets that can be creatively (crafted) for all sorts of scenes.”

The site also has a set workshop called a mill that can be used by crews to build sets for use inside the casino or on the tribe’s land, Eyer said, adding that he could envision movies filmed there that are set in the Middle East or the U.S. Southwest.

Older movies filmed on the Tesuque Pueblo include the 1955 western “The Man from Laramie” starring James Stewart and the 1988 “Young Guns” with Emilio Estevez and Kiefer Sutherland.

But Eyer said previous productions had stereotypes about Indigenous people and limited Native American input and that tribal officials hope future productions don’t follow in their footsteps.

The studio is being established at a time when Native American writers including Pulitzer Prize-winning Cheyenne and Arapaho author Tommy Orange and Inupiaq American poet Joan Naviyuk Kane are transforming American Literature — and putting pressure on Hollywood to incorporate more Native American stories.

Tribal officials plan to create internships and movie training programs for Tesuque Pueblo members and hope that the studio will foster a new storytelling movement, Eyer said.

“Native Americans are natural storytellers,” he said. “What better place to do it?”

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Associated Press writer Russell Contreras is a member of the AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow Contreras on Twitter at http://twitter.com/russcontreras

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