Back in the Land of Enchantment 

Sicario’s sequel, Day of the Soldado, returns to New Mexico for its locations and the team that calls them home.

by Shannon Mullen

All photos by Richard Foreman/SMPSP, except as noted. © 2018 Sony Pictures Entertainment. All Rights Reserved.

Establishing shot near Angel’s farm.

Their first meeting was at a Starbucks in Albuquerque. Kevin Kavanaugh had just flown in from Los Angeles to start prep with location manager Shani Orona, LMGI on Sicario: Day of the Soldado. “I guess I look like a production designer because she came right up to me, this creepy guy in the corner,” Kavanaugh remembers. “I’m a little shy, but we hit it off. They shared a lot of common ground already, including high expectations set by Sicario’s critical and commercial success. There was a lot of faith that a sequel would be equally well received,” Orona says. 

That sequel, billed as “the next chapter in the Sicario saga,” had a different director, cinematographer, composer and Kavanaugh as production designer, among other new hires in key creative positions. “We all started fresh, like a one-off movie,” he says. “We didn’t have to abide by any rules from the first one, except for the fact that they’re both set in the southwestern US and Mexico.”

The film’s producers also wanted the same location team, led by LM S. Todd Christensen, LMGI, and Orona as key assistant, back for the sequel. “We knew what we were getting into,” Orona says. “We had been so proud of our work on the first film and for Soldado, we felt it was really critical that everything matches that or tries to surpass it.”  

Benicio Del Toro and Isabela Moner

Sicario was shot mostly in and around Albuquerque to take advantage of New Mexico’s film tax incentive. Orona and Christensen both live in the state full time, but he was already managing another feature for Sicario’s producers, Black Label Media, so he agreed to supervise Soldado, write the department’s budget and scout and manage its six-day Mexico shoot, and he promoted Orona to location manager in charge of the sequel’s locations stateside. “There were days when we had three per day,” she remembers. “It felt like TV, but it was a huge movie where we weren’t just a push away from the next location.”  

Migrants cross the Rio Grande River

Orona counted a total of 48 locations on Soldado, including both sides of the border—nearly double the number in the first film. “It is a little bigger, with a little more action,” hints producer Trent Luckinbill, one of Black Label’s co-founders. “It kept the DNA of that gritty prestige the first one had but we wanted something that could be completely standalone, so if you hadn’t seen Sicario, you could still dive in and feel you hadn’t missed anything.”

The idea for a second film apparently came up in Black Label’s earliest conversations with screenwriter Taylor Sheridan. “We had it in the back of our heads that we’d look at this if [Sicario] worked out,” Luckinbill says. “When the characters sparked with audiences in a way where you could spend more time with them, Taylor came to us and said, ‘I’ve got an idea and I want to write it.’ There was more to tell and he really got the story right.”

Josh Brolin (right) and Shea Whigham

Josh Brolin

The first film introduced quasi-vigilante federal agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and pragmatic hit man Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), two shadowy recruits hired to escalate America’s drug war quagmire. Sicario didn’t set up much in the way of backstory about the two men, other than a few details about the brutal murder of Alejandro’s wife and daughter. We never even learned his last name. Soldado gives him one—it’s Gillick—and the sequel puts his relationship with Graver at the center of its plot.  

When the sequel picks up the story, Mexican cartels have begun trafficking terrorists across the US border. That’s enough for the powers that be to unleash Graver, who in turn, reenlists Gillick, assuring him “there are no rules this time.” Fair warning to those who found the violence in Sicario shocking: Sheridan has hinted that his sequel “makes the first one look like a comedy.”  

Emily Blunt’s character, FBI agent Kate Macer, does not return in Soldado, presumably having followed Alejandro’s parting advice that she move to some “small town where the rule of law still exists.” Taking up her mantle as the movie’s moral compass is newcomer Isabela Moner, playing the kidnapped daughter of a cartel kingpin. Catherine Keener also has a new role as Graver’s boss, opposite Matthew Modine as defense director.

Border crossing set for vehicles crossing into Mexico.

Some of the biggest changes from the first film took effect behind the camera. Sicario’s director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins, who had also worked together on Prisoners, were both tied up shooting Blade Runner: 2040. For Soldado, the producers hired Italian helmer Stefano Sollima, who was known for his work on the series Gomorra and the mob feature Suburra, and paired him with Dariusz Wolski, a seasoned director of photography who cut his teeth shooting music videos for the likes of Aerosmith and Van Halen, and now specializes in blockbuster studio features.  

Sollima had never shot a film in the United States before, but Orona says the director had a clear vision for the sequel. “He wanted it to be vast and expansive so there was a sense of panic in one’s isolation. So in that sense, it’s a very different film from Sicario. That was important to him. He loved Sicario and he and Denis spoke quite a bit, but he wanted it to be, not only his film, but something quite different.” 

Translating Sollima’s vision across cultural and language barriers proved to be a new challenge for the Location Department. They struggled to find locations that matched the idea of Mexico and America the director had pictured before coming over from Europe to scout both firsthand. “It was interesting because what we would think of for locations wasn’t what he was thinking of,” says Ariel Lopez, LMGI, a key assistant LM who also worked on Sicario. “When we think of a big box store, we think of a warehouse. It was literally written as a Costco with a giant parking lot, but when we showed him a Costco, he didn’t like what it looked like. He wanted something that felt more subtle, like a smaller store. So for us, it was seeing in a new light.”   

Shani Orona. Photo: Courtesy of Shani Orona/LMGI

Sollima’s idea of Mexico called for vast, desolate locations, but in New Mexico, Orona says those can only be found on the To’hajiilee and Laguna Pueblo Reservations, presenting more limitations than her director was accustomed to. “One thing he could not wrap his brain around, even to the last day, is that we have a very specific permitting process, especially on tribal land where they have certain spiritual protocols. We kept saying we can’t even point our camera there, and he’d say, ‘But I shot in the Vatican.’ It was very frustrating to him.”

A key set piece featured in Soldado’s trailer—when Graver and Gillick’s convoy gets ambushed—was filmed at To’hajiilee. “We found a great location on a deserted road with this incredible landscape of nothingness,” Kavanaugh recalls. “Then you have these Humvees barreling down the road and they get taken out by an RPG and that starts this escalation of the movie. Everyone has their own agenda, no one trusts each other and it all goes haywire.”  

The production spent a lot of time at To’hajiilee, in part because extreme wintry weather kept forcing schedule changes. Key assistant LM Erik Keeling-Torrez, LMGI had a previous relationship with the tribe from his work there during the filming of Hell or High Water, and he says Soldado had a heavy impact on the reservation. “Every time we were there for the convoy scene, it rained or snowed and we had constant reshoots. The tribe was so tired of us closing down their roads to get this scene. But everything we damaged, we made sure to restore, and we brought in a lot of money to the community during a time when a lot of families were on the verge of losing power and heat.”

Another pivotal sequence was filmed at a village on the Laguna Pueblo, where the Rio Grande was deep and wide enough for a dramatic night shot of migrants smuggling drugs across a river.      “We needed rough terrain in a wooded area, with a pretty decent span of river flow and no communities in sight whatsoever,” says Torrez. “To tell the story, it had to feel treacherous, like a place you needed to get away from or you were just not going to make it. Freezing cold water, gusting winds, shooting in the middle of the night. I felt so bad for some of those background actors but it looks spectacular.”

Todd Christensen. Photo: Andy Willinger

The closer Soldado’s script got to the border, the harder it was for the production to cheat greater Albuquerque for the real thing. “That was our biggest challenge,” says Kavanaugh. “Those border towns have their own look to them. They’re right on the edge of society. The deeper into Mexico you go, it’s a whole different feel, but when you’re on the border, there’s such a thin line for survival. So that’s what we had to try and find in Albuquerque.” For scenes set in Mexican cities and towns, Christensen says he considered Colombia but opted for Mexico City itself because it had the best local infrastructure, dollar for peso, to support filming.  

Soldado shot in the city’s slums and financial district, and a major scene in the old town area where an explosion flips a car and there’s a gun battle. But Christensen says they were filming in front of an old building that was leaning at a precarious angle and the schedule kept changing. “Finally, we pull the trigger and everybody’s happy and we’ve got the road closed, there’s security everywhere and nobody is even close to that building. They roll the cars and it’s a one-time deal, and it went off perfectly. The wall did not budge. To make the deal, to get the space, that’s the stuff you pull off.”  

Filmed in a suburb of Mexico City.

It’s a precarious balancing act to depict danger authentically in movies without causing actual harm, especially a violent film about terrorists and drug cartels. Security was a major concern for the production and Christensen spent several days in Mexico City before Soldado shot there, working with the company hired to protect the cast and crew. “I’ve set up security enough with other movies to know they were thorough,” he says. “You take the steps to make it safe, then when I’m on set, I’ve got an eye out all the time.”

On scouts, Christensen has sometimes brought a police escort with him, on both sides of the border, and long before the murder of colleague, assistant location manager Carlos Muñoz Portal, who worked on both Sicario films and was killed in Mexico last year while scouting. But on Soldado, Luckinbill says there were “zero problems” with security. “It was as smooth a shoot in Mexico as we’ve had in any US city,” he adds.

Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) enter the hangar at the Utah airfield.

For the most part, New Mexico’s geography only adds to the quality of life that led both Christensen and Orona to base themselves there full time. Before they moved to “The Land of Enchantment” (the state’s official motto), they both lived in other places doing myriad other jobs. “I worked cattle, drove trucks, did scenic painting for a couple years and I built crates for shipping art,” Christensen says. “All of it ended up being college for locations.” He got his start in Los Angeles on a TV show and almost immediately started working on big-budget features. 

Orona studied architecture in college and is classically trained in feng shui. She ran a landscape design business in London for more than a decade before she moved back to the States and got into locations by way of an extra’s casting gig in her home state. That led to a job as an assistant on the 2008 miniseries Comanche Moon. “It was brutal so I got broken in quickly,” she remembers. “All Westerns are brutal. We filmed 16-hour days for three months in 100-degree temperatures. I remember days when there were two of us with pop-up tents and we’d have 400 extras and people passing out from heatstroke.” 

Mexico City

Not long after that, Christensen hired Orona as an assistant on In the Valley of Elah and they’ve been working together ever since. “Shani and I are on the same page in terms of how we deal with a location,” Christensen says. “I could go back to every location I’ve ever been to and they’d be happy to see me and Shani has done that too. She has the same sensibility.”  

Orona says it’s always a difficult dance to advocate for a location on the same level as a director’s vision but it becomes a matter of survival in an incentive state. “It’s our bread and butter. There will be many times when we have to go up against production and say we can’t do this or that for whatever reason, and we’re really the only department that faces that dynamic.”  

She’s also gotten politically active, working to increase state and local lawmakers’ understanding of how incentive financing works. “I lived near the border for a year doing these deals to shoot there and I discovered how astonishing the locations are, but there’s no infrastructure to support filmmaking,” Orona says. “So I met as many politicians as I could to explain why film companies have to be near infrastructure. It’s been this mission of mine to continue to bring film down there so they start to see the dollars coming into their communities.”  

Christensen and Orona are particularly proud of the relationships they’ve cultivated with tribal representatives on the state’s reservations. “We have both cleaned up messes that other people made,” Christensen says. “It’s on my mind every time I do a show—to try to prove there’s a way to do this job successfully that makes both sides happy, to give everything the director and the production needs, and at the same time, to be good guests. It’s easier to do it the way Shani and I do than any other way.”  

Orona adds that living outside of Los Angeles helps keep her objective focused on the art of making movies. “There’s a buffer here and we just don’t get caught up in the story of what it is to be in film. There is a huge story built around that and here we don’t react to a story built around much of anything. People would look at you sideways if you did. We’re much more interested in quality of life and that seeps into the way we do our work.”