In the November 2010 edition of New Mexico Magazine, I interviewed Santa Feans Joe Ray Sandoval and Karen Koch about their experiences creating the film Spoken Word. Released to select theaters nationwide in 2010, the independent film was inspired by Sandoval’s journey of growing up in northern New Mexico, earning recognition as a spoken-word poet, and returning home. The film is New Mexican through and through. Sandoval pitched his poetry to Santa Fe-based production company Luminaria Films, headed by Bill Conway (who cowrote the film with Sandoval) and Koch. Koch brought her Hollywood experience on such films as Spike Jonze’s Adaptation to her role as coproducer. With director Victor Nuñez (Ulee’s Gold) at the helm, and a crew of 98 percent New Mexico residents, Spoken Word was filmed on location in Santa Fe, Chimayó, Española, and Truchas.
Here’s an extended version of my interview that didn’t make it into the magazine’s print edition.
What personal experiences did you bring to the script?
Sandoval: I based [the script] on my own personal work. It was based on my poetry, which is very personal. I learned a long time ago to express myself, and that’s my medium. When I started teaching young people, that’s what solidified for us as a species to be able to release. I wasn’t really close with my family growing up so there wasn’t a lot of dialogue with that. I kinda figured things out on my own. My notebook was my friend at that point. I went off to college, I was 17 years old. Then went on this journey and here I am 20 years later…. I think the appeal was that it was a very New Mexico story. It’s a tale of hope and possibility. I write in my work a lot that if you can dream it, it’s possible. It can happen. And it has happened.
Koch: There wasn’t really a story at first. There was his poetry and an idea. And in the next year and a half came the story. We did want to tell a New Mexico story. But also it had elements of being new and being old. I think that’s part of the interest of New Mexico: It innovates and it carries with it a long history. So when you combine a spoken word artist, which is such a modern concept with life in Chimayo, it was an intriguing combination.
What makes the film a New Mexico story?
Sandoval: It’s deep rooted in Hispanic culture. People here have said, “Thank you for telling our story.” It’s a lot about the lack of communication, or the unspoken words, between family members, especially the men in the family. It’s not exclusive to New Mexico, but it is a very New Mexican quality. The main characters are Latino. It’s important to tell stories about people who actually live here. People come here and it’s like an adult Disneyland for artists. There are people who live here and were born here, and it’s a really old part of the country.
Koch: We were told many times in Chimayo, the border crossed us we didn’t cross the border. That tradition precedes us all.
Sandoval: Both sides of my family had land that was land granted from Spain. It was important to me to tell a true story, and what was great about working with Luminaria was they wanted very much to keep it authentic.
Koch: It’s also a universal story. The issues that are ingrained in northern New Mexico are universal too, stories about land and about fathers. It’s the backbone of myth and storytelling, and it’s right in front of us in such an obvious way here.
Sandoval: It’s an age old story of the prodigal son and coming home.
As native Santa Feans, how has this place shaped you as artists?
Koch: I live in Jacona, and driving to Chimayo everyday from there when we were shooting, I had this profound feeling of blood running so deep along every road. As an artist it is so inspirational to life on that knife’s edge between beauty and sadness. There’s such a deep well of life here. Those of us who manage to live here are fed by it all the time. I’m a third generation New Mexican, and we say this I feel like I was able to make a love poem to the place that I’m from. It wasn’t about being from Santa Fe, it was about being from the land of New Mexico.
Sandoval: I was raised by this. I became an artist to transcend all this. And I wanted to stay. There’s always been a pull to Santa Fe.
Sandoval: It almost seems like a responsibility now to give back to my community. I don’t know if I qualify as a spokesman for my hometown [Santa Fe], but somebody’s got to tell that story. And I think that’s part of my role on this planet: to be a voice for those who don’t have it…. There’s a line from one of my poems, “We want to tell our history even as we’re making it.” And we’re making our history right now.
Tell me about the challenges you had while filming.
Sandoval: This project just seemed to come together, for whatever forces that put it that way.
Koch: The film gods!
Sandoval: They shined upon us. The chemistry on set, it just worked out in a very positive way. We got the best of the best for the budget, the timing.
Koch: And incredible support from the local crew.
Sandoval: When people are asked to step up for their hometown, they will. And they did.
What do you hope people take away from this film?
Sandoval: I always tell my students, you have to put pen to paper. That’s where it all starts. And if you work at it, you can make things happen…And I’m not trying to make every one into a poet, that’s just my medium. Whatever it is you use to express yourself and to focus your energy on some sort of art form instead of hustling, do it. It’s amazing to see how powerful art is and the effect it can have on any community, not just the underserved.
Koch: There’s a perception of whom Chimayosans are that I hope we broaden. Also, there are incredible stories still to be told that are locally based. I hope that we continue as a community to embrace those stories and help make them happen, and not just cater to Hollywood.
Spoken Word is slated for DVD release in October. For info on theatrical showings and DVD availability: www.spokenwordmovie.com