When filmmaker Emily Kaye Allen lived in Utah, she said, “I never really thought of it much as a place I would want to use creatively.”
It took a place barely on the map, a ghost town in Grand County called Cisco, to spark her interest, 15 years after she left the state.
It’s the town, and the fascinating character who now owns it, that is the subject of Allen’s documentary, “Cisco Kid,” scheduled to show Friday and Monday at the Slamdance Film Festival in Park City.
In the 1880s, Cisco was a water-refilling station for the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, and amenities for rail workers — a saloon, stores, hotels, restaurants — built up around the station.
According to the Moab Sun News, the town’s population shrank after the railroad switched to diesel locomotives, making steam engines obsolete, and rendering the water the Cisco station provided unnecessary. When Interstate 70 was built, it bypassed Cisco completely.
The town appeared in a car chase in director Ridley Scott’s 1991 movie “Thelma & Louise.”
At first, Allen, who now lives in Brooklyn, didn’t know anything about Cisco, though it sounded vaguely familiar. “I realized after going there that I had sort of driven through it [while] on a river trip at Green River,” she said.
In 2020 U.S. Census data, Cisco recorded a total of four residents. And while artists come to live there part of the time, there’s only one year-round resident: Eileen Muza, who bought the town in 2015.
Allen heard about Muza through their sister. Then Allen went to meet Muza in Cisco.
“I went out with my equipment, thinking this will be a film, but still not totally sure if I’d be interested,” Allen said.
Then Allen met Muza, and in her words, found them to be a real character. Combining Muza’s appeal with the mystique factor of the landscape — the dry and dead ground, with no ability to grow anything — and intrigue about how once-thriving small towns die out, Allen was convinced that she should make a movie.
In the press notes for her film, Allen — who is director, cinematographer and editor — acknowledges that there is a famous character in Westerns called The Cisco Kid. He was a murderous desperado in O. Henry’s 1907 short story that introduced him, and later transformed into a heroic Mexican caballero with his sidekick, Pancho. In the movie Westerns of the ’30s and ’40s, The Cisco Kid was portrayed by Cesar Romero, Duncan Renaldo and Gilbert Roland.
Allen is adamant in the press notes that “Cisco Kid is not a Western, nor did I have any intention to pay homage to Westerns or to the original character.” But the comparison to Muza, Allen wrote, “might dismantle reconceived notions of the American West and the stories that unfold in this complex and diverse place.”
Allen’s film shows Muza in the process of creating a life in Cisco. At the time of filming, Muza lived by themself, except for their dog. There were no neighbors within miles. The nearest sizeable towns are Fruita, Colo., about 42 miles east, and Moab, 46 miles southwest — about an hour’s drive, Allen said.
At first, Allen said she found it all spooky.
“It was interesting because it was just a landscape I wouldn’t expect someone to want to live [in],” Allen said, “There’s a lot of beauty surrounding Cisco.”
The abandoned areas and sparse landscape are compelling, Allen said. It pays off in the film, which is punctuated with eerily quiet shots — and with the realities Muza faces, like having to conserve water and be strategic about washing dishes.
One particularly tense and poignant moment in the film is when Muza must deal with a troublesome neighbor. Someone known as Booster, who once lived in an abandoned house next door, needed to register as a sex offender (for reasons neither Muza nor Allen knew, though Muza was alerted by another nearby friend).
Booster walked up to Muza in a moment Allen wasn’t filming, but the filmmaker captured Muza’s nervousness the rest of the day. There are no neighborhood watch programs in a ghost town. There’s just Muza.
“It taps into a real big fear that a lot of people, especially women or nonbinary people, have about that kind of life,” Allen said, noting that the next scene has Muza talking about women who stay in their AirBnB ask if they’re scared to live by themself.
Another current that runs through “Cisco Kid” is the way technology can lead to feelings of abandonment.
Muza’s AirBnB is housed in the town’s former post office shack, which they have fixed up to maintain an income. About 80% of the guests there, Muza said in the film, are female and ask Muza about safety out in the middle of nowhere.
Muza says in the film, “something that I’ve noticed out here is that you can’t help but live with the past and things that have happened here before. … You’re not really starting over, you’re continuing something, and hopefully improving it.”
“It’s at the forefront for women when they think about living in a more isolated place,” Allen said.
As a filmmaker, Allen loved the duality of that combination of safety and solitude. Being in that environment, isolated with her subject, gave her a chance to create the film in an intimate way, she said.
Ghost towns may seem sad, Allen said, but “there’s a lot of stories, whether they be books or films, about people that choose to live off the grid.”
Muza isn’t totally off the grid — they have wi-fi and their devices, which for Allen makes it a more modern experience. It’s not a mythic tale of rugged individualism, but a more realistic story of Muza creating a small community, even if their neighbors are an hour away.
“Cisco Kid,” directed by Emily Kaye Allen, will show Friday, 3 p.m., at the Slamdance Film Festival, at Treasure Mountain Inn, 255 Main St., Park City. A second screening is set for Monday, 1 p.m., also at Treasure Mountain Inn. For tickets, go to slamdance.com/festival.
Correction, Thursday, Jan. 19, 10:29 a.m. • In an earlier version of this story, the former neighbor who confronted Eileen Muza and filmmaker Emily Kaye Allen was misidentified.