Above: Arron Shiver plays Jesse Lirette in his film Cortez.
WITH EASY ACCESS TO DIGITAL VIDEO, almost anyone can whip up a short movie these days. But Arron Shiver chose to dig deep—into his screenwriting skills,his acting chops, and the resources of his hometown of Taos. The impressive result is Cortez, an independent feature film for which Shiver is co-writer, starring actor, and a producer. Completed in 2016, the film has won numerous festival awards this year.
You may recognize Shiver’s rugged good looks if you’ve seen Boardwalk Empire, The Men Who Stare at Goats, or 3:10 to Yuma. Inspired by his experiences on those soundstages, Shiver and his partner, Cheryl Nichols, co-wrote the script for Cortez and shot the entire film at 26 locations in and around Taos. (Cortez is the fictional town in the film, modeled after Taos.) The plot follows Jesse (played by Shiver) as he seeks his ex-lover Anne (played by Nichols, who also directs), to heartrending effect.
With New Mexico moving further into the realm of big-time filmmaking, TV shows, and indie efforts, we thought we’d sit down with him to find out where he learned his chops—and why he brought them home.
Q: What inspired you to write this script?
Cheryl and I wanted to tell a story about a musician who is torn between this idea of being a father and being a creative. We also wanted to tell a story about the impact the male ego has on women and relationships. It took two years of writing and rewriting. Describe the story to someone who hasn’t seen the film. It’s a character drama, and relies on good acting performances. My friend Peter Prato [one of the set photographers] describes it as “a movie about a guy who has too much ego to ask for forgiveness and a woman who is too proud to forgive him.”
Q: Which idea came first: write a script or make a film in Taos?
We knew we were going to do something set in Taos, but I wasn’t holding the vision for it. Cheryl knew from a very early stage that it was going to happen, and she manifested it.
Q: Were there things about Taos that made you say, “That should be in a movie”?
In the movie, we talk about the legendary “Dennis Hopper stash” [of drugs] rumored to be buried in Mabel Dodge Luhan’s house. We also include the way people actually give directions in Taos. We have characters who refer to no street names but instead say things like “Turn right at where Bobby’s uncle’s truck used to be parked.”
Q: Cassidy Freeman (who plays Cady Longmire in the Longmire TV series) is the film’s lead producer and plays the role of a bar manager. How did that acquaintance evolve?
Cassidy and Cheryl moved to Los Angeles around the same time. They are dear friends and they stay in touch. So when Cassidy came to a reading of the first draft of the script in 2013, we all shared a cigarette on the balcony, and Cassidy said, “If I can do anything to help you guys, I will.” The way we describe how the movie happened is that we are a three-legged stool. Without Cheryl, Cassidy, or me, the movie doesn’t exist.
Q: What was the hardest concept to convey about New Mexico?
There is a pastoral feeling about northern New Mexico—the way the water sounds gurgling in acequias, the way the light filters through the trees. It’s very tranquilo. That’s a delicate feeling to communicate to an audience. There’s also the sense of time passing naturally. For example, there’s a scene in which Jesse and Anne watch the sunset.
Q: What landscapes will viewers recognize?
The Río Grande Gorge and the Río Grande del Norte National Monument. With permission, we filmed on Taos Pueblo land, but not in the main area that people visit. We also filmed a scene at Abiquiú Lake, which is right near Georgia O’Keeffe’s Ghost Ranch.
Q: Taoseños are familiar with the notion of “Taos magic”—meaning that an obstacle is impossibly surmounted. Did you get any of that?
Yes, the people of Taos are the magic! One of our producers, Johnny Long, got on the phone, and in a half hour we had extras to shoot a big bar scene. They weren’t reluctant; they partied. In Taos, it is common to encounter people with their arms open instead of their hands out. Then there was the scene Cheryl had written in which she wanted to have the contrast of the main character being a loud, totally self-involved jerk—while wild horses placidly grazed in the background. Well, you can schedule a lot of things in filming, but not wild horses. Yet we drove out to the mesa and there were some horses. We showed up, and they did, too. We parked our cars and shot the scene. Total magic.
Q: When you were young in Taos, what drew you toward acting and film?
I was encouraged to “follow my bliss” at a profoundly early age. My first play was Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit. I liked memorizing lines. I distinctly remember it being so pleasurable, so natural, and so fun that I thought, I’m going to be doing this forever.
Q: Cortez won awards at the Ashland (Oregon) Independent Film Festival and the Atlanta Film Festival, and garnered numerous other festival accolades—and you’re hoping to show it at one of New Mexico’s. What excites you about film festivals?
I hope people watch Cortez and say, “I can also make a film in New Mexico about New Mexico.” I’m just this dude from a small town. I tried to be as honest as I could. I would hope that would be an inspiration.
Film fests dot the New Mexico calendar, featuring inventive and sometimes quirky moviemakers. A film fest devoted to cats? Sure, we’ve got that. (Events listed without dates have not yet published their 2018 schedules; watch their websites.)
- Albuquerque Film Festival: abqfilmfestival.com
- Albuquerque Film & Music Experience June 4–10, 2018: abqfilmx.com
- Albuquerque Jewish Film Fest: jccabq.org
- Albuquerque Latino Film Festival/ ¡Cine Magnifico!: cinemagnifico.com
- CineFesta Italia (Santa Fe): cinefestaitalia.org
- Feline Film Festival (Albuquerque): animalhumanenm.org
- Gallup Film Festival: gallupfilmfestival.com
- Las Cruces International Film Festival March 7–11, 2018: lciffest.com
- Native Cinema Showcase: nmai.si.edu/ncs
Coincides with August’s Santa Fe Indian Market
- Pueblo Film Fest (Albuquerque): indianpueblo.org
- Roswell Film Festival: roswellfilmfestival.com
- Santa Fe Film Festival February 7–11, 2018: santafefilmfestival.com
- Santa Fe Independent Film Festival: santafeindependentfilmfestival.com
- Taos Environmental Film Festival: nmmag.us/TaosEnviroFilm