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This handout image shows actor Alec Baldwin being processed after the death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins at the Bonanza Creek Ranch in Santa Fe, New Mexico, October 21, 2022.—AFP
This handout image shows actor Alec Baldwin being processed after the death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins at the Bonanza Creek Ranch in Santa Fe, New Mexico, October 21, 2022.—AFP

‘Rust’ shooting looms over historic Western movie ranch’s legacy

Decades before Alec Baldwin and the “Rust” shooting, the dusty acres of Bonanza Creek Ranch helped put New Mexico on the map as a stunning, homespun location to film Westerns.

The ranch was the backdrop to classics like “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” a place where jaded Hollywood stars would be greeted by long-standing manager Imogene Hughes with a cool glass of homemade lemonade and banana bread.

Now, with Baldwin set to go on trial this week for manslaughter over an on-set death at Bonanza Creek that has drawn global headlines, Hughes’ daughter is glad her late mother never had to witness the ranch’s new notoriety. “I think that would have really upset her,” said Denise Spaccamonti. Nestled in the foothills outside Santa Fe, the ranch was mainly known for its cattle operations until Hollywood came knocking in the 1950s. Location scouts chose it for “The Man from Laramie,” a 1955 Western starring James Stewart, and more movies sporadically followed.

Film operations sharply accelerated when Hughes took over the day-to-day operations after the death of her husband Glenn, often working with local politicians to lure movie producers from California with financial incentives. Crews for “Silverado,” a 1985 Western starring Kevin Kline and Kevin Costner, erected a white-painted homestead building, which remained in place after the film wrapped.

More buildings were added in a piecemeal fashion for films like “Young Guns” and “Lucky Luke,” and soon entire Western town streets were in place. “’Lucky Luke’ comes to mind. It wasn’t a great movie. It was terrible actually!” said Spaccamonti. “But it’s kind of nice, how each movie had a part in building that... It wasn’t one person. It was a bunch of puzzle pieces put together.”

‘Insensitive’

But today, that legacy has taken a cruel twist. One of those hodgepodge buildings was a chapel in which, on October 21, 2021, a gun held by Baldwin discharged during a rehearsal, killing “Rust” cinematographer Halyna Hutchins. Movie productions were temporarily shuttered at Bonanza Creek in the immediate aftermath as police investigators combed the site. They have since quietly resumed, though the identities of recent and current films are under wraps.

“Nobody wants to say they are shooting a movie at the same location where she was killed,” said David Manzanares, field manager for nearby Ghost Ranch, where “Oppenheimer” was made.

Although there is no suggestion the ranch is in any way to blame, “people say, ‘if it gets out, we’ll be seen as insensitive, how could you film there?’” added Manzanares, a longtime friend and collaborator of Hughes. Recognizable buildings like the chapel could be “skinned” to disguise their infamous connotations in future films, he suggested.

Contacted by AFP, Bonanza Creek’s owners declined an interview. Asked if the shooting had caused Bonanza Creek challenges going forward, Shannon Hughes, who runs the movie operation, said that was “an assumption.” She said Imogene Hughes’ legacy “should not be involved in the ‘Rust’ accident... she’s deceased, she doesn’t get to speak for herself.” Yet the legacy of Hughes -- who died just weeks before the “Rust” shooting -- was warmly described by other relatives and prominent New Mexican filmmakers.

“She was somebody who touched deeply everybody that she met,” said Jacques Paisner, artistic director of the Santa Fe International Film Festival, who runs a scholarship for local film students named after Hughes. “My mom had a heart for students. She would let them come [to film at the ranch], no charge. Who does that nowadays?” said Spaccamonti.

For Manzanares, Bonanza Creek and Hughes were “so instrumental” in bringing valuable Hollywood cash to New Mexico, one of the poorest states in the US.

“The owner could easily have said ‘I’ll get on with raising cattle,’” said Manzanares. Instead, “she allowed everyone else to prosper,” with “millions of dollars for multiple decades” going to industries from film crews and technicians, to drivers and catering companies. “It’s just very unfortunate,” he said. — AFP

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