Back in 1979, when George R.R. Martin first arrived in Santa Fe, both he and his newly adopted city were relative unknowns outside of their respective genres: GRRM’s fantasy, horror and sci-fi; Santa Fe’s the visual arts market. But for this already-successful writer of novels and TV shows, the world was about to expand far beyond that niche, as even then, he’d begun envisioning the shape and pulse of what was to become his epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, from which followed HBO’s blockbuster TV series Game of Thrones. And as his own world morphed, he would help catapult ours into a whole new future, as well.
From the beginning, he was one of us. Over almost four decades, his celebrity has grown, but he’s remained an actual resident, one of Santa Fe’s biggest fans of small-town friendliness and scale along with its many cultural treasures, historical and more recent, including our penchant for small, independent movie theaters. He’s a movie palace aficionado all the way back to his New Jersey childhood; he’s mingled in audiences with us, and like us, he grieved the loss when the Jean Cocteau theater went out of business, standing empty for years. In fact, his first widely witnessed public stand for our arts potential was in deciding that someone should buy this gem—why not him? If this sounded initially like a typical celebrity impulse buy, we know better now.
He’s called it a “passion project,” and that turns out to be putting it mildly. When NPR came to cover opening night, and the reporter asked why he wanted it, GRRM described the moment in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indiana Jones shoots an attacking swordsman in a crowded marketplace, “and the shock that went through the audience—the audible gasp at that moment—and then the howl of laughter that followed it—that was a great moment in cinema, and it was a great moment because it was shared. If you’re sitting all alone in your living room, it doesn’t have anywhere near the impact,” he said.
GRRM lovingly restored and renovated this old movie palace, which was in somewhat of a shambles when he bought it, keeping intact its beauty, its quirks (including the “crying room”), its spirit and all of our memories—while gleefully giving it permission to reinvent itself, as something far more innovative and fun than it ever dreamed of being in the past.
“As Santa Fe’s most eclectic movie house,” says Jacques Paisner, who is cinema programmer alongside his sister Liesette Paisner Bailey. “Jean Cocteau Cinema presents first-run features, classic cinema, author readings and signings, and a space for community events. We understand that Santa Feans have a lot of choices on how to spend a Friday night, and therefore we offer a very special experience for our audience.”
Working together with George R.R. Martin, “We have an amazing amount of creative freedom, since this is, after all, a cinema built on creativity and named after Jean Cocteau,” Jacques says. “We’re bound only by the taste of the audience and the limits of our imagination.” One of the most fun parts of the job is “brainstorming seemingly impossible ideas and making them a reality,” like a weeklong celebration of ’80s cultural icon Max Headroom, featuring live readings of GRRM’s unproduced script for his series of the same name; a book-signing and reading by award-winning sci-fi author William Gibson and a series called The Films of Resistance, “the kind of programming that isn’t yet taking place anywhere else in the world,” Jacques says. “I think that GRRM enjoys being there as much as we do.” He recounts a story of a visiting screenplay author for a biopic TV series who asked GRRM if he ever dressed in costume while writing, and his reply: “Did you wear a powdered wig when you wrote John Adams?”
The word was out, and soon after founding the nonprofit the New Mexico Film Foundation, Executive Director Dirk Norris recognized George R.R. Martin as a kindred spirit in the belief that encouraging the movie industry to work in New Mexico would greatly benefit all involved. He asked GRRM to sponsor a grant for aspiring New Mexico screenwriters 18 years old and up. “George said yes, but he wanted it to be in his neighborhood of Sci-Fi/Fantasy. It’s the only grant of this type we have,” Dirk says. The purpose of the George R.R. Martin Science Fiction/Fantasy Screenwriter Grant is “to help aspiring screenwriters, to be used in such a way as to allow the screenwriter to write,” the director continues. Now in its fourth consecutive year, they have a stage reading of the previous year’s winner at the Jean Cocteau when GRRM awards the current winner’s check. Jocelyn Jansons “had a wonderful reading—actually, more like a production!” Inspired by her recent experience as GRRM’s grant recipient, Jocelyn created her own organization, New Mexico Girls Make Movies, providing workshops with professional mentors for girls 12-25 years old, and a short-film grant whose winner gets a $1,000 film production budget and the support of a Santa Fe crew. Ways that Jocelyn’s workshop rippled into the community thrill Dirk, who says, “It’s nice to hear about the impact these opportunities present!”
Reverberations from GRRM’s subsequent philanthropic act may have even his own ears still ringing. The House of Eternal Return’s explosive 2016 reception—the first permanent interactive installation by Meow Wolf, Santa Fe’s wildly innovative young artists’ collective—is the stuff of which legends are born. During their search for the right space, they earmarked the long-defunct Silva Lanes Bowling Alley, which George R.R. Martin, generously agreeing to their request, bought and is leasing back to them. How is its spectacular popularity benefitting its creators? “My life has been massively impacted by it!” says artist Nico Salazar, owner of Future Fantasy Delight, which Meow Wolf invested in for their gift shop. “I went from handing out samples at a grocery store to living my dream as a fulltime artist. I’m super grateful for being part of the House of Eternal Return—ever since it opened, it’s pushed my career to the next level. The exposure it’s provided has made me so busy I have to say no to lots of projects. It really did create an artist economy that I’ve never seen done before.” This April, Nico says, he was able to go to Tokyo for his own art show, working with local models and placing his products in stores. “A dream come true!” he says. About this “amazing group of individuals,” artist Sofia Howard adds, “The collective consciousness we share is something I’ve never experienced anywhere else. My whole world has been rocked to its core by Meow Wolf and I’m eager for many years of earth-shattering with my friends.”
Most recently, a friend and businessman, scientist, filmmaker and pilot bequeathed his 10,000-square-foot office building to GRRM, whom he trusted to use it in support of Santa Fe arts and technology. In his March 19 Not A Blog entry, just ahead of the grand opening, GRRM describes his new nonprofit, the Stagecoach Foundation, writing, “It’s dedicated to bringing more film and television production to the City Different and the Land of Enchantment. We’re very excited. Our dream is to bring more jobs to the people of Santa Fe and to help train the young people of the city for careers in the entertainment industry, through internships, mentoring and education.” It’s not a film studio, he’s careful to add—Santa Fe already has several good examples of those—but is primarily for pre- and post-production purposes, available for rent to production teams working here on location, an accessible and affordable facility that allows aspiring local filmmakers to work alongside industry professionals.
Marisa Xochtl Jimenez is executive director of the foundation, managing, executing and overseeing operations and community outreach. “Once upon a time,” GRRM’s blog entry continues, “before airplanes, before railroad, it was the stagecoaches that brought people to Santa Fe. Our hope is that the Stagecoach Foundation will do the same. And none of this would be possible without the generosity and visions of David Weininger, who passed away in November…but his legacy will live on.” First clients to sign up? Joel and Ethan Coen. With names like these, creators of some of the highest-quality work out of Hollywood today, New Mexicans interested in film careers now have previously undreamed of opportunities through GRRM’s Foundation.
With each of these projects—and surely, more to come!—George R.R. Martin brings to all of us here in his hometown a kind of hope sorely lacking in the rest of the world. Imagination, his vision suggests, can be stretched to the outer limits and beyond—playful, fun, even risky! With a more inclusive kind of creativity, one that builds on endless opportunities, we can expand our identities, embracing what used to seem impossible, opening our eyes to bold new alternatives. And we don’t need to know how to do it all ourselves. In fact, GMMR is a huge believer in collaboration. In Not A Blog, he writes, “Robert A. Heinlein once said, ‘You can never pay back the people who helped you when you were starting out…but you can pay forward and give a hand to those coming after.’” In another of his journal entries, he congratulates the winner of a grant he sponsors for the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writing Workshop, saying, “…and in the years and books to come, I hope [you] take us to the stars and show us wonders.”
Story by Gail Snyder