Al Harper is a big man with big dreams, and he's also not one to take "no" for an answer. So when he says Durango could be the next hot spot for the film industry - "Rockywood"? - don't be too quick to write it off as a pipe dream.
The owner of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is seeking investors for the first major motion picture to be shot entirely in and around Durango in about half a century, although portions of many others have been shot in the region, notably "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and "City Slickers."
"Red Moses" is the story of a Ute baby set adrift on Hermosa Creek and raised by a white military family during construction of the railroad in the 1880s.
"I don't read a lot of novels, but I've read the Bible a lot, and I thought the story of Moses would be a good parallel for this story," Harper said May 5 during a luncheon for potential investors at the Strater Hotel.
The script, which was co-written by Jim Hoff of Portland, Ore., and Christine Funk of Creede, is finished pending some final tweaking. But that will be done by professional script consultants, and Harper has vowed to keep his hands out of the day-to-day operations.
"I know nothing about making movies, but I know what I like. I'll see it for the first time with my popcorn and Diet Coke just like everyone else," he said.
Harper's budget for the film is $2 million - modest by Hollywood standards - and his plan is to recruit 20 investors at an even $100,000 per share. At the May 5 meeting he was about halfway there and needs to have the balance of funding in place by May 31 to stay on schedule.
In making his case for financing, Harper pointed to the success of several independent films like "The Blair Witch Project," "Juno" and "Bend it Like Beckham" that recouped their initial investments many times over, though he stopped short of guaranteeing a similar result for "Red Moses."
Any investors, however, are guaranteed at least a 125 percent return on their investment if the film sells to a major studio as well as a percentage of future earnings in theater release, DVD and television.
Although it would be a long shot to think that the movie would duplicate the success of, say, "Napoleon Dynamite," which was made for just $400,000 and has grossed more than $44 million, the formula is in place for substantial returns - in Hollywood speak, the "back end." And like any investment, there's also a great deal of risk involved if things don't pan out.
But the project is not just Harper's any longer because he's brought proven Hollywood talent on board. Signed on to direct and co-produce is Philip Patterson, a Hollywood veteran with 40 films to his credit, including "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," "Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas" and "Twelve Monkeys," all of which he served as first or second assistant director.
The balance of the producing team, along with Harper and Exposure Productions owner Marc Snider, is Patterson's wife, Ellen Hillers (the couple has owned a home in Durango for 18 years). Hillers also has a long and successful Hollywood résumé with producing or directing credits on 27 films including "Beyond Borders," "Men in Black" and "Quiz Show."
"When I first met with Al about this, I just thought it made sense, and Phil and I have wanted to give something back to Durango for a long time, and we're in the position to do it," Hillers said.
"I can put 25 years of filmmaking experience into this, and with Al's energy I know this can work."
"Red Moses" also could be a boon for the local economy. The producers plan to utilize Patterson's and Hiller's Hollywood contacts for professional positions such as casting and stunts, but construction crews would be local and the film probably would require between 125 and 200 locals to join the cast, although casting decisions for the primary roles won't be made until the financing is in place.
If all goes as planned, Snider said shooting would take place in August and September with production scheduled for completion by the end of December. That would allow "Red Moses" to be entered in the 2011 film festival circuit including Chicago, Toronto, Telluride and, of course, Durango.
Harper said interested investors should contact him through the D&SNG offices at 259-0274.