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Weekly Alibi Local Book Turned Film Makes Local Debut

By Devin D. O'Leary

JANUARY 11, 1999:  New Mexico recently ushered in its second century of filmmaking. To mark this occasion, Taos Taking Pictures (organizers of the Taos Film Festival) and Gramercy Pictures (makers of fine independent movies) will be presenting the Southwest premiere of The Hi-Lo Country. This new Western is directed by Stephen Frears, produced by Martin Scorsese and stars Woody Harrelson, Billy Crudup, Patricia Arquette, Penelope Cruz and Sam Elliot.

The Hi-Lo Country got its start right here in New Mexico under the pen of local author Max Evans. Evans is a noted artist and writer, a recipient of the Levi Strauss Saddleman's Award, the New Mexico Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts and, most recently, the Western Heritage Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. Among his many Western novels is The Rounders, which was made into a movie in 1965 starring Glenn Ford and Henry Fonda.

Evans' 1961 book The Hi-Lo Country--which the author says is "based on real experiences" working on the ranchlands of northeastern New Mexico--was first optioned as a film by famed Western director Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch). Up until his death in 1984, Peckinpah labored unsuccessfully to bring Evans' tale of friendship between two struggling ranchers to the big screen. Eventually, the book ended up in the hands of director Martin Scorsese (Raging Bull), who fell in love with the characters, the setting and the time period. Set in post-World War II New Mexico, The Hi-Lo Country examines the relationship between Pete Calder and Big Boy Matson--two members of that dying breed known as the American cowboy who go from friends to rivals over the love of a single woman. Scorsese's schedule precluded him from directing the film, but he agreed to produce it and brought British director Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters) on board to helm the project.

In the summer of 1997, after "one or two lifetimes" of development, Evans saw his story go before the cameras. "I'll tell you, it took enormous courage to make this film," says Evans. "It took even more courage for a British director to do it." The Academy Award-nominated Englishman impressed Evans, though, by talking to locals, to cowboys, to rodeo riders and by immersing himself in New Mexican culture.

Evans patterned The Hi-Lo Country after characters he met and places he saw while working on a cattle ranch in Union County, N.M. He was delighted when the filmmakers chose to shoot the film in the very northern New Mexico climes in which the novel was set. Ever up for adventure, the one-time cowpoke even helped scout locations for the film shoot.

"Myself and the line producer, we drove 2000 miles over the northeast corridor of New Mexico on corrugated roads," recalls Evans. Dozens of picturesque locations on the wide-open plains along the New Mexico/Colorado border were chosen to give The Hi-Lo Country an authentic feel. While headquartered in Santa Fe, the production utilized many nearby farms and ranches. Las Vegas, Galisteo and the Cook Ranch all served as locations for the multi-month shoot.

The completed film recently opened in L.A. on Dec. 30 in order to qualify for Oscar consideration. Evans couldn't be more pleased with the final result and reserves special praise for actor Woody Harrelson and his portrayal of Big Boy Matson, a character based on one of Evan's best friends. "Everyone I've come into contact with has proved their love and dedication to this project." Evans concludes. "I can't think of a greater honor to myself and to the memory of Big Boy."

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