Member Jim Collette gives Stevie Nelson an inside look at “The Old Pueblo”—a sun-drenched city of saguaros and murals.
Photos by Jim Collete/LMGI, except as noted
Stevie: Are you an Arizona native? How long have you been working in locations? How did you start and what do you primarily work on?
Jim Collette: My family moved to Arizona from Indiana when I was 6, with the old post-’50s exuberance of “let’s drive west until the highway gives out.” I grew up in and around Phoenix, had a stint in Los Angeles for a few years, went to college in Flagstaff and lived there for 35 years, and now live in Tucson. I’ve worked all over the state. If you are a Mandalorian fan, consider me the Grogu of location managers. I am 65 years old but a baby at the craft, having begun earnestly only as I hurtled toward retirement. But if, as Jack Palance reminded us in City Slickers, you focus on doing one thing well, it can lead to other opportunities. For me, it was writing. I picked up a degree in journalism from Northern Arizona University, which led to sports writing, which veered into copywriting, and then backslid into a career in archaeology.
I did that for 30 years and I loved it. The highlight had to be a cultural resources inventory we did for an early incarnation of Speed Racer that you never saw, where in pre-CGI fashion, they were going to launch a four-wheeled Mach-something into Piute Canyon and have it crash perilously close to a Navajo hogan. Since I worked for the Navajo Nation at the time, it was my job to ask the resident, “Any Anasazi ruins, burials, sacred plants we should know about around here?” In fact, I was standing on top of such a plant, and when we relayed the no-go signal to the fancy Hollywood location bigwig, he screamed and yelled and never paid the survey tab!
But you can only dally about like Ralph Fiennes in The Dig for so long, and when my wife took a job at the University of Arizona in Tucson, I traded in my trowel for a Panasonic GH5. Knowing which was the mossy side of a barrel cactus (hint: there is no such side) qualified me to volunteer at the Tucson Film Office, and through the generosity of former director Shelli Hall and the graciousness of Nancy Haecker/LMGI, I snuck aboard the LMGI much like Audrey Hepburn said she graduated from Bryn Mawr—“by the skin of her teeth.”
I now do the occasional piece for LMGI’s Compass magazine, so the whole journalism thing has swung around like the Queen Mary. On the ground, I focus on location work for independent films, specifically sub-200K genre fare where somebody is getting shot out of a saddle or eaten by a vengeful mountain spirit. Preferably both. Since this is a non-union state, where the living is easy, I’m often enlisted to do still photography and Behind the Scenes video.
Stevie: What do you think is the primary draw for filming in and around Tucson? What kind of “looks” are there?
JC: Saguaros! In the States, they are nearly exclusive to Arizona, but the grandest, tallest, most dense specimens bookend Tucson at Saguaro National Park and Tucson Mountain Park. They truly are emblematic of the “look” of Tucson, that uniquely American panorama that Howard Hawks channeled in Red River, and now serves as a backdrop that screams “we are Out West!”
The most famous example is San Xavier del Bac, a Spanish Colonial mission featured in everything from fashion catalogs to The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold. They often—but not always—say no to filming, in which case, a spectacular alternative is San José de Tumacácori in Tubac, a short drive south, and if they say ‘no,’ there is the lovely 1930s San Pedro Chapel right here in Tucson.
One of the most common location requests is for authentic Old West ranches. There are more than 25 film-ready ranches in the greater Tucson area—dude ranches, working cattle ranches and wide-open rangeland. The line in Oklahoma!—“And the land we belong to is grand!” That Cinemascope terra firma was actually the San Rafael Valley, a short hop south of Tucson.
Tucson has nearly 30 designated historic neighborhoods, ranging from 19th-century adobe homes in the brightly colored neighborhoods of Barrio Viejo and El Presidio, to more than 100 architecturally significant mid-century Moderns scattered throughout The Old Pueblo. Take a look at the 1958 version of A Kiss Before Dying with Robert Wagner pushing people off tall buildings. Filmed throughout Tucson by director Gerd Oswald, many of those locations remain intact and recognizable 60 years later.
As we used to say in archaeology, Tucson has also managed to save the past for the future. Tank Girl and The Postman with Kevin Costner both utilized otherworldly open pit mines in the area, and the ICBM silo at the Titan Missile Museum, featured in Star Trek: First Contact, is just a short drive down I-19. If you are looking for your very own underground Titan II launch complex with silo, blast lock, and control center, call me!
Stevie: What is your personal favorite location?
JC: That’s easy. It’s my own backyard. My house backs up to Tucson Mountain Park, and if I turn my head, I can see the ragged crest of the Tucson Mountains, where Walter Brennan nonchalantly informed John Wayne, “I brung you some dynamite!” in Rio Bravo and Jennifer Jones clawed her bloody way up the scree slopes after Gregory Peck in Duel in the Sun shouting, “I’m comin’ up after ya!”
Stevie: What types of productions film in Tucson?
JC: The bulk of our production comes from commercials, fashion shoots, music videos, nature docs, reality shows, international series, and independent features that do not need to chase tax incentives. In almost all cases, they are looking for a desierto quality and mood that cannot be doubled in their own backyard.
Cameras recently rolled on the feature film Spiked with Aiden Quinn, directed by Juan Martinez Vera, and Highflyers, a series on Dutch fighter pilots that utilized the Arizona Air National Guard facility at Tucson International Airport. Westerns remain in vogue as Eminence Hill with Lance Henriksen shot at the fabled Mescal movie ranch east of Tucson, where Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer once faced off in Tombstone. Our proximity to the U.S./Mexico border helped bring in MTV’s Border Life and the similarly titled Border Live from the Discovery Channel. Tucson’s zootopia of rattlesnakes, gila monsters and kangaroo rats enticed the producers of Tiny Creatures, now airing on Netflix. Zara Kids and Rika Magazine verr-rry carefully framed up their models against our numerous chollas and ocotillos cactus. Kenworth trucks, Monster energy drinks, Samsung, the BBC, HGTV and rapper Moha La Squale have also filmed of late.
Of course, nothing says the Old West like Tucson and we still have three standing movie sets: the original Old Tucson Studios, created by Columbia in 1940 for the movie Arizona; Mescal Movie Set, built in the early 1970s for Monte Walsh; and nearby Gammon’s Gulch Movie Set, which has been in continual operation since 1995. Old Tucson closed its doors last summer—a victim of COVID—and Pima County is looking for someone to take over the lease. It remains an outstanding Western set. Mescal was just purchased and renovation is underway where the likes of Eastwood, McQueen and Newman once trod.
Stevie: Does Arizona offer any incentives to Hollywood filmmakers?
JC: Short answer: no. Arizona does not offer tax credits, rebates or grants to filmmakers. They do offer what they call a “private sector/public sector discount and rebate program” called Reel Savings. This can include no-fee permits, discounts from businesses, and rebates from production vendors with no caps, audits or local hire requirements.
However, Arizona has a superpower you might not have heard of: a binational initiative called the “300-Mile Zone,” with Tucson as its hub. This agreement allows Arizona to cross-market its talent, locations and services with our partners in Sonora, Mexico, which includes close relationships with film offices and liaisons in Hermosillo, San Carlos and Rocky Point. Film Tucson has a long history of joint U.S./Sonora productions and long-held agreements with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. A recent example was the “border-based dramedy” Run, Coyote, Run (FOX Networks Group Latin America), which filmed in Sonora, Southern Arizona and the streets of Tucson.
Stevie: What challenges do you face in your job?
JC: If we are being honest, the lack of film incentives doesn’t make anyone’s job easier. But I’m an optimist. Imagine if Regé-Jean Page was trapped on a desert island, waiting to be discovered. Arizona is like that. With its proximity to Los Angeles, and the incessant, content-devouring need for new 120 fps horizons, it’s just a matter of time before our filmic real estate is snapped up. You, the LMGI location professional, can lead the charge.
Stevie: What are some of the challenges to filming in Tucson or your general area?
JC: Very similar to what LMGI members face every day: finding a location that works, but with a Tucson twist. Recently, a talented director from the London Film School named Chris Brake brought a short film that was literally called Cactus Boy to Tucson, and we had set him up at a nice ranch that fronted Saguaro National Park. We wandered over to the fence that divided the properties and, sure enough, there’s way more saguaros on the Park side. Chris really wanted those saguaros, but dealing with the NPS means going up the chain and he only had a couple of days. A quick call to film-friendly White Stallion Ranch provided the solution. White Stallion owns vast acreage on the north end of the Tucson Mountains—the same skyline where Anthony Mann directed Jimmy Stewart in Winchester ’73—and a further appeal to the Greek gods meant that Chris also got a trademark Tucson sunset for his emotional boy-leaves-cactus scene.
Tucson also has a historic connection to civilian and military aviation, and Davis-Monthan AFB is famous for having the largest aircraft “boneyard” in the world. Officially known as the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG), it’s home to thousands of mothballed bombers and fighter jets. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen shot there. But if the Air Force does not move at production’s pace … there’s a private, mini-boneyard called Aircraft Restoration and Marketing (ARMair) located right next door. Over the years, ARMair has supplied planes and props for shows such as Con Air, The Expendables, Flight of the Phoenix (2004), Cliffhanger and Armageddon.
Stevie: What is your favorite or most memorable filming experience?
JC: I helped out that guy who made Citizen Kane and you can read about it in the Fall 2018 issue of the LMGI Compass.
Stevie: What are your tools of the trade?
JC: The GH5 camera I mentioned previously—I love mirrorless. Light and quiet, and I’m a sucker for fast MFT primes. I’m employing the multiple lenses, HDR and Night Vision on my iPhone 12 Pro more and more. Lightroom is a must, as are vast quantities of terabytes. I still shoot film for fun, so if all else fails. there’s the Pentax K-1000 in the closet.
Stevie: What do you love about the job?
JC: Scouting. Doesn’t everyone? Really, my superpower is having six decades of knowledge about Arizona. I’m strong on visuals and the history of locations. I work closely with director Peter Catalanotte at Film Tucson, one of the oldest and most revered film offices in the country, and the dynamic duo of director Matthew Earl Jones and Ramsay Wharton at the Arizona Film Office.
Stevie: What one piece of advice would you give your younger self or someone just starting out in this profession?
JC: I don’t tend to offer advice, though I appreciate it from others. But if I were advising my younger, less confident self, I’d say, “Keep asking. All you need is one person to say ‘Yes.’” I have never achieved anything without a sponsor in life.
Stevie: What made you decide to join the LMGI & how long have you been a member?
JC: I believe in professional organizations and strength in numbers and pushing forward on a common goal. I was monumentally impressed by the strides the LMGI had made in the last few years, and when I looked around, there was only one other active member in Arizona at the time and none in Tucson. I wanted to represent Southern Arizona and all it has to offer and as you can tell, I love my state. I’ve been a LMGI member since 2018.
Jin’s Private Tour
Scout the iconic historic mission, San Xavier del Bac, which is about 10 miles south of downtown Tucson. Reserve an hour to see the Barrio Viejo neighborhood, which borders the south edge of the city. Peruse the simple elegance of the brightly colored adobe homes—including one that Diane Keaton recently listed for $2.6 big ones—but then, take a moment to pause at the shrine of El Tiradito, which may be the United States’s only Catholic shrine dedicated to the memory of a sinner instead of a saint. Light a candle, make a wish, and if the candle burns through the night, your wish will come true.
Like many guys my age, I don’t shop. Denim jeans and cargo shorts just magically appear in my closet. But the world-famous Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum—which you’re probably going to see anyway—has one of the finest gift shops for Native American arts and crafts in Southern Arizona.
“Restaurant,” as in singular? Please, you’re killing me. Tucson was named the first UNESCO City of Gastronomy in the U.S. The city boasts “The Best 23 Miles of Mexican Food” in the country? The Northern hemisphere? This side of Blythe? You get the idea. Some say the heart of this El Dorado of Mexican-American cuisine is 12th Avenue in South Tucson, but I’m going to make a play for Anita’s Street Market in the middle of the historic Dunbar Springs neighborhood for its homemade tortillas and burritos and in memory of its beloved founder, Señora Grace Soto.
PLACE TO SEE BY NIGHT:
All fashion shoot roads lead to the big “neon saguaro” on Oracle Road north of Drachman. While you’re in the neighborhood, swing by the collection of vintage neon signs on Drachman just west of Stone Avenue.
BEST DAY TRIP:
This trip will hit some of the highlights already mentioned; use Google Maps to connect the dots. After breakfast in downtown Tucson, head for Gates Pass. Pull off the road and take in the view. Most everything around you is film-friendly in Tucson Mountain Park. From here, you can drive west to visit the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Saguaro National Park, or the Old Tucson movie set, if it’s open. The peak behind Old Tucson is Golden Gate Mountain, scene of countless Westerns and perhaps the most filmed prominence west of the Pecos. Head south to take in San Xavier del Bac, then continue on I-19 to the arts community of Tubac, the Titan Missile Museum and the mission at Tumacácori. Return to Tucson for a quick visit to Barrio Viejo. For an overnight, you can extend the trip to Nogales, Sonoita, Bisbee or Tombstone.
I’m doubling up here because my favorite neighborhood—the Sonoran rowhouses of El Presidio—is also the location of my favorite morning/lunch eats, Café a la C’Art (also big on catering for your crafty needs). With your scone and brew in hand, you are literally a stone’s throw from the Presidio San Agustin del Tucson, the reconstructed Spanish fort and birthplace of Tucson.
FAVORITE LOCAL ARTIST:
Tucson is Mural City, USA, with more than 100 highlighted by the Tucson Mural Program. My favorite local muralist is Joe Pagac. Check out his stunning 4,000 sq ft “bicycle mural” at the corner of Stone and 6th Street. And don’t miss The DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun Museum. Even if you’re not 100 percent sold on artist Ettore “Ted” DeGrazia, whom I adore, this 10-acre National Historic Site is not to be missed!
Start at downtown’s Hotel Congress and go from there. For the ultimate, ultra-divey and decades-long destination for Tucson ruffians and grad students on their third PhD, don’t miss The Buffet Bar on 9th Street. No way, no-how, not in this lifetime are you going to be allowed to film there, just enjoy your Coors and be cool!
BEST PLACE TO HEAR MUSIC:
Going with tried and true, it’s the Rialto or Fox theaters downtown for venue style. Eastside, try the Maverick for honky-tonk, eclectic Monterey Court in a refurbed motor court on Miracle Mile, or any joint with a sound stage and an amplifier on Fourth Avenue.
BEST VANTAGE POINT/SCENIC VIEW:
For the city viewscape at sunset, drive up the Catalina (aka Mount Lemmon) Highway, which spirals up from the desert to spruce- and fir-clad mountaintop in 27 miles. Welcome to Tucson!