When you watch a movie like 2016’s “Hell or High Water,” the places you see on the screen don’t appear by accident. They are there because of a location manager’s knowledge and experience.
In Taos, we have one of the best. His name is Jonathan Slator, 66, and he’s so good at his job, he was recently nominated for what amounts to an Academy Award in his field. Although he didn’t take home a trophy at the April 8 black tie event on the Warner Bros. lot in Los Angeles (that went to “La La Land’s” Robert Foulkes and Steve Beimler), he remains New Mexico’s “go-to guy” for locations that fit the bill for an ever-growing list of movie and TV productions.
The Location Managers Guild International, which presented the awards, is an organization that promotes the interests of location professionals in the motion picture, television, commercial and print production industries. It was founded in 2003 as a nonprofit corporation. It is not a union. “Location managers and scouts are vital members of the design team for film, television, commercials, music videos and print advertising. Our primary job is to find the settings that‑ best represent the visual concept of the producer, director and production designer,” a statement on the guild’s website (locationmanagers.org) reads.
Being nominated for his work on “Hell or High Water” in the “Outstanding Locations in a Contemporary Film” category was “marvelous” for the British-born Slator. “It was a tough film to do,” he said. “Every frame of it was on location. No sets – at all. The art department, all they did was fix up the things that we found. It was an extremely demanding film from my department. … We were based in Albuquerque for the first part and then to all these places in Eastern New Mexico.”
The independent feature was written by Taylor Sheridan and directed by David Mackenzie. It starred Chris Pine and Ben Foster as brothers who start robbing banks as a way to help save their family’s ranch. Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham play Texas rangers on the hunt for the brothers. Although the film is set in West Texas, it was shot in Eastern New Mexico. That was because the film’s creative team believed the New Mexico locations presented by Slator best suited the places they envisioned for the story.
Sheridan, incidentally, worked as an actor on the “Sons of Anarchy” TV series (as Deputy David Hale) and wrote the script for “Sicario” (2015), which, like “Hell or High Water,” was nominated for several Academy Awards and also was shot in New Mexico. Slator said he got a hold of the “Hell or High Water” script by way of colleagues of his that worked on “Sicario.”
“I was working on ‘The Avengers’ at the time,” he said. “But, Leah was available.” Leah Slator is married to him and is a partner in his business. She is the daughter of locals Jane and Bill Mingenbach and sister to well-known motion picture costume designer Louise Mingenbach.
“So, she went out and scouted everything in Texas to start with,” driving around, taking pictures, talking with locals. But, as it turned out, the locations in Eastern New Mexico perfectly fit the bill.
“It was hugely gratifying to work so hard on a project and for it to get the recognition that it got. Obviously, I was delighted that my peers recognized my work, but it got quite a lot of ‘juice,’ as they say, through the four nominations for the Oscars. Sadly, it didn’t pick up any, but for a little film like that to get that kind of recognition was brilliant,” he said.
Slator made sure to put in a plug for the guild, which he said has been largely responsible for making sure location managers get their due, meaning actual screen credit at least above honey wagon drivers. It’s an important distinction because the work they do is such an integral part of any given film’s creative team. The state of New Mexico stands to benefit tangentially because so many films and TV shows are being shot here.
For now, Slator says he is winding down a little, but will probably never get out of the business entirely. He is still fairly fit, probably due to his days of climbing mountains, and may even toy with the idea of helming another film festival in Taos. Since Taos Shortz ended its 10-year run recently, our community no longer has a film festival.
Slator has a track record in that arena, having worked on the still-lamented Taos Talking Picture Festival and directing his own Taos Mountain Film Festival after that ended. We’ll see. Until then, Slator will likely find himself sought out by eager filmmakers hoping to find the best locations for the latest superhero movie needing a rural setting or just a place so out of the way no one cares whether Chris Evans or Robert Downey Jr. is around.
Plus, he may hate to admit it, he loves hearing when the A.D. yells, “Action!”