Author, film historian to deliver presentation
FARMINGTON – Despite being one of America’s most enduring pop culture icons, Route 66 — the famed Mother Road that ran from Chicago to Los Angeles — has a surprisingly small presence in American film history, according to a New Mexico film historian and writer.
Jeff Berg — author of “New Mexico Filmmaking,” an exploration of the history and legacy of New Mexico on the big screen — will deliver a presentation this weekend at the Farmington Museum at Gateway Park, “Films Made in New Mexico: Route 66.” Berg said he assumed he would have a wealth of material from which to choose when he began researching the subject, but that turned out not to be the case.
“It was a bigger project than I thought. I thought it would be kind of easy, given all the Route 66 history and lovers,” he said during a telephone interview last week from his Santa Fe home. “I thought there would be a long list of movies, but guess what? There is not.”
To illustrate that point, Berg referenced the television series “Route 66” starring Martin Milner and George Maharis that aired from 1960 to 1964.
“Ironically, not a single episode of that series was shot on Route 66,” he said.
Eventually, Berg said, he cobbled together 15 to 17 clips from feature films that were shot at Route 66 locations between 1940 and 2005. Berg’s plan is to show the clip, then talk about the specifics of it for a minute or two before moving to the next one.
Only three of the scenes on Berg’s list were shot in New Mexico, but one of those is pulled from a Hollywood classic — “The Grapes of Wrath,” the 1940 drama directed by John Ford and starring Henry Fonda that was adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by John Steinbeck. There’s also a scene from “Forrest Gump” and another that is likely to surprise people — a scene from “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” the 1987 John Hughes-directed comedy starring Steve Martin and the late John Candy. Berg said the famous “hand-between-the-pillows” scene actually was shot at a Route 66 motel in New Mexico, although it isn’t billed as such in the film.
Berg said he hopes his presentation appeals to fans of both movies and Route 66. This will be only the seventh time he has delivered it, and he opens the presentation with an entertaining story about how the highway, which ran through Santa Fe in its early days, came to be relocated through Albuquerque.
Even after he had compiled enough material for his presentation, Berg said he continued to research the presence of Route 66 in films, and he came up with enough scenes to put together a second presentation on the subject. That one includes scenes from films ranging from “Hud” to “Waking Up in Reno” to “It Came From Outer Space.”
But Berg’s real love, and area of expertise, is exploring the overall history of filmmaking in New Mexico. The state’s profile as a filmmaking location was raised exponentially by the multi-year run of “Breaking Bad” on AMC, he said, but New Mexico has been home to dozens of well-known productions over the decades, including such classics as “Easy Rider” and “No Country for Old Men,” even “Escape From New York” — a campy, futuristic 1981 adventure film featuring Lee Van Cleef, Donald Pleasence, Harry Dean Stanton, Isaac Hayes and Ernest Borgnine, with Kurt Russell in the starring role as the unforgettably named, one-eyed Snake Pliskin. The cult classic supposedly takes place entirely on Manhattan, which has been sealed off and turned into a maximum security prison, but Berg said part of it was shot in New Mexico.
His book, released earlier this month, is full of such surprises. Berg said his research, which began in 2001, revealed that more than 800 productions have been shot here since 1897. Las Vegas, N.M. — where the Coen Brothers chose to film much of “No Country for Old Men” — actually was a production hotbed at one time, as famed silent film cowboy star Tom Mix shot several films there. And silent film actor, writer and director Romaine Fielding shot his epic “The Golden God” there from 1913 to 1915. Berg said it was the first film to ever use airplanes, but it remains notable for one other reason – its politics. The film was set in the future and featured a strong socialist presence — so much so that it was never widely released and may have been screened only a handful of times before the only print of it was destroyed in a fire in Texas, Berg said.
But most of his book, and his presentation, deals with films that are far better known, Berg said, emphasizing the accessibility of his subject matter.
“This is not a Ph.D thing,” he said. “It’s mostly for fun — Route 66 movies and a little bit of New Mexico history,” he said.
Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.
If you go
What: “Films Made in New Mexico: Route 66,” a presentation by film historian Jeff Berg
When: 11:30 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 5
Where: The Farmington Museum at Gateway Park, 3041 E. Main St.
For more information: Call 505-599-1174 or visit fmtn.org/farmingtonmuseum