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New Mexico film 'The Penny' among many productions halted amid COVID-19 pandemic


Damien D. Willis   | Las Cruces Sun-News

LAS CRUCES – During the COVID-19 pandemic, most industries have been disrupted. Many things are difficult in the current environment. Making a film in New Mexico may be among the hardest.

Nevertheless, four New Mexico filmmakers have a story to tell. And they’re eager to tell it.

Produced by a native Las Crucen

Carolyn Graham — neé Short — was born and raised in Las Cruces. She is a Bulldawg and an Aggie, having graduated from Las Cruces High School and earned a degree in journalism from New Mexico State University.

“My dad was a land developer there — not to go TOO far back into my history, but he developed Telshor Hills,” Carolyn said. Carolyn’s father, Bob Short, had a partner named Pardner Tellyer — from whence “Telshor” was derived.

After journalism school, where she met her husband, Steve Graham, the couple moved to Nevada, where she took a newspaper job and was a reporter for a while. Then they moved to Los Angeles.

“Steve was working for the Screen Actors Guild,” she explained. “He decided he wanted to go into film. I decided I wanted to go into the journalism on the travel-writing side. And then we decided, a couple years ago, in 2017, to come back to New Mexico.”

Carolyn had the opportunity to work for New Mexico Magazine, as the magazine’s CEO.

“So I came back and did that,” she told the Sun-News. “ And around the end of 2018, the beginning of 2019, we founded Goodwest (Productions) — we decided we wanted to work on some film projects together. Steve had been working (as executive producer, head writer and director) on a SyFy television show called ‘Z Nation,’ which ended in 2018.”

Goodwest Productions launched in February 2019.

The storyline

In 2016, co-writer Donald Davenport was doing some contract research work with fellow writer Harry Musselwhite. While the two were kicking around some ideas one night, they thought, wouldn’t it be interesting if somebody found something of great value that, potentially, could change one’s life.

“But, instead of doing that, it changed one’s life really for the worse,” Davenport said. “I immediately thought of one of my favorite books, which was John Steinbeck’s ‘The Pearl.’”

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Davenport has been living in Santa Fe for about 20 years.

“And, with the burgeoning film industry, there’s always the (grievance) among us ‘above-the-line’ types that every deal gets made in L.A. or New York. And the local creatives — writers, directors, producers — they don’t even know we’re here.”

The film is centered on a single, struggling mom working with a kind of emotionally challenged son — a divorcée trying to make ends meet while working as a convenience store clerk.

“She’s enduring the typical convenience store experience — kids with phony IDs and getting held up on the night shift,” Davenport said. “But her father, who had died fairly recently, was a rare coin dealer and taught her the ways of numismatics (coin collecting).”

She’s looking at the change drawer 300 times a night. One night, an elderly woman comes in, having robbed a coin jar in her house, to buy something.

“And the clerk spots a wheat penny and thinks, ‘Well, this is kind of interesting.’ And she usually has change in her pocket, to swap out anything she finds,” Davenport said. “But, on this night, she doesn’t have any change on her. So she takes a penny from the ‘Take a penny, leave a penny’ pile, and puts it in the drawer.”

And there, things take a twist.

“Come to find out, it’s the rarest penny ever struck,” Davenport said. “There were only five ever made. It was a mistake. It was 1943, and the government had gone to making zinc-covered steel pennies, but there were still a couple copper blanks in the machinery. So there are only four or five 1943 copper pennies left. So, symbolically, that becomes ‘the pearl’ for her.”

But the convenience store is a small, family-owned chain. And, in looking at the surveillance tapes, the owner — who has been known to have some unsavory ties — hears on the news that one of his cashiers has found a penny worth $1.7 million, while on duty as a cashier for him.

“He decides that, once that penny was tendered in the cash drawer, it became his,” Davenport explained. “And he sets about, by legal and nefarious means, to get it back.”

Davenport is quick to note that the story is not based on “The Pearl,” but rather is inspired by the themes present in the story line.

“It’s not set in Mexico. It’s a penny in a cash register, not a pearl,” he said. “It was just kind of an inspiration as the story line developed.”

The players

“The Penny” has been optioned by Steve and Carolyn Graham, co-owners of Santa Fe-based Goodwest Productions, which will produce the film. The screenplay was co-written by Donald Davenport, who lives in Santa Fe, and Harry Musselwhite, who lives in Los Lunas.

Steve Graham is a producer, writer, and director, and a co-founder of the Los Angeles based production company Go2 Media. Since 2005, he has produced 111 episodes of television and worked on more than a dozen films. In his role as co-executive producer on the television series "Z Nation," he produced, wrote, and directed on one of the SyFy’s most popular shows. He was co-executive producer on the Netflix series "Black Summer," starring Jaime King.

His wife, Carolyn, is a producer, journalist, editor, photographer and publisher, and has worked for regional and special interest magazines for more than 25 years — most recently as the former CEO of New Mexico Magazine. She is currently in development on "Fork in the Road," a New Mexico food and culture show.

Davenport is a producer, documentary filmmaker, director and writer, with numerous film and TV credits. He is best known for his critically acclaimed Hallmark movies, including "Expecting a Miracle," starring Jason Priestly, Teri Polo and Cheech Marin, and "Love Finds a Home," the final installment of Janette Oke’s popular Love Comes Softly series, starring Oscar-winning actress Patty Duke.

He also wrote "Christmas in Canaan" for the channel, which he co-wrote with Kenny Rogers and which starred Billy Ray Cyrus — perhaps that’s a story for another day. But it was Hallmark’s highest-rated movie of 2009, and Davenport considers it a breakthrough moment in his career.

Musselwhite is screenwriter, musician, author, actor and producer. He is a film festival veteran, as well as a singer, conductor and guitarist who has appeared in venues from Carnegie Hall to the cathedrals of Europe. He has acted on stage with legends such as Vincent Price, in motion pictures directed by Academy Award nominee John D. Hancock ("The Looking Glass") and in TV shows including "Rescue 911," "Better Call Saul," and "It’s Supernatural." He authored the Martin the Guitar children’s music trilogy, and produced Martin audiobooks in 2020 with Davenport. 

Musselwhite, in a conversation with the Sun-News, said he was likely a distant relative of the legendary blues musician, Charlie Musselwhite. The two are aquainted, supportive of each other’s work, and refer to each other as “cousins.” Charlie wrote a blurb for Harry’s second Martin the Guitar book.

Disrupted by the pandemic

“The Penny” was in the early stages of development when the COVID-19 pandemic struck in New Mexico. Production ground to a halt.

“I’m also a Unit Production Manager for hire,” Steve Graham said. “I had a film lined up to work on in May. Obviously, that went away. And then we thought the state was going to open up — and then it got pushed to July, then August, and now we’re hoping for October. And that’s with all of the extra precautions for COVID — testing three times a week, the PPE for everyone. It’s a big deal to try to keep people safe in the workplace, in the kind of work we do.”

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The pandemic effectively shut everything down, from mid-March until now, really.

“I haven’t read the governor’s announcement today,” Steve said on Aug. 27. “It was widely rumored that she was going to open film, provisionally. They opened it for pre-production — meaning construction crews could start — a couple of weeks ago.”

There was nothing specifically in the public health order that addressed it. Pre-production is still allowed, but Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has not yet announced when filmmaking will be allowed to fully resume.

“All of the unions got together and put out a document called the Safe Way Forward, which outlines very specific and stringent requirements for keeping everyone on set safe,” Steve said. “As a production, you have to have a plan in place, and be able to show that you have the means, the budget and the personnel to implement it. We’re all abiding by the rules that keep the actors and crew safe, and that’s a pretty high bar.”

New Mexico and ‘The Penny'

Like “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul,” New Mexico will play a significant role in “The Penny.”

“New Mexico, as a character in the film, might get top-billing,” Musselwhite said with a laugh. “The lead male character is a state Game and Fish warden at Bosque del Apache. He has a great affection for the mountains, the water and the birds.”

Steve Graham agreed that New Mexico would have a starring role, but put it differently.

“Part of the story is set in Albuquerque, and there’s a good chunk of it that’s out on the Bosque del Apache — one of the characters works there,” Steve said. “We hope to be able to film there and get some of those fantastic landscapes.”

“I think (the state) plays a pretty big role,” Carolyn added. “The screenplay is written with strong New Mexico locations.

“And the types of characters are New Mexican, as well,” Steve said. “I feel it’s more of a canvas on which this story is painted, and it’s painted with a palette of New Mexico colors. We’re very keen on New Mexico, and the talent that’s here.”

Looking ahead

“(The return) is going to happen incrementally,” Steve said. “We hope that we’re all working on something by the end of the year. It has disproportionately affected independent filmmakers. If you’re Netflix, or you’re Amazon, you have shareholders and a big bank. You can absorb some of these costs. If you’re a small producer, like us, it’s really hard to go back to investors and say, ‘You know, we said it’s going to be a $10 million job — it’s actually going to be a $13 million job.’ The generally accepted belief is that it’s going to cost an additional 25% to produce under COVID restrictions.

The cost to produce “The Penny” is still being determined. The Grahams would like for it to be available for theatrical release, which would put the budget in the $5 million range, Steve said.

Currently, the couple is continuing to seek funding for the project and will soon begin reaching out to attach actors to the film.

“The best-case scenario — and I’m on bended knee for this — is that we could begin the film in late spring or early summer of 2021,” said Musselwhite. “One of the great things about ‘The Penny’ — and we didn’t do this on purpose — is that we don’t have any big crowd scenes, with 50 people in tight quarters. It’s very intimate, which is a check mark when it comes to abiding by (COVID-safe guidelines) coming out of L.A. Also, a lot of our scenes are outdoors.”

Learn more about the film by visiting https://www.goodwestproductions.com/.

Damien Willis is a reporter and columnist for the Las Cruces Sun-News. His biweekly column focuses on the impact of the COVID-19 crisis in Las Cruces and around the region. Have a story to share? Contact him at dwillis@lcsun-news.com or @DamienWillis on Twitter.

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