Would you film a 9/11 movie in Toronto? As Hollywood re-creates the Yarnell Hill Fire in New Mexico, family members and survivors wonder if media interest has crossed into exploitation.

Selling Yarnell

Written by Jimmy Magahern Category: Valley News Issue: October 2016
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Walking through Arizona’s most benevolently scrutinized small town, it’s hard to spot any lingering damage left by the devastating fire that tore through these chaparral shrublands on June 30, 2013, destroying 127 homes and famously taking the lives of 19 firefighters with the Prescott Fire Department’s Granite Mountain Hotshots, who had rallied heroically to protect it.

Yarnell remains, as it was before, a town full of cozy-looking houses with loads of hippie flair, with one noticeable difference: The rebuilt homes are better constructed, with modern fire-adapted materials (many of those destroyed were erected in the pre-code ’30s and ’40s), and have been conscientiously thinned or cleared of surrounding flammable vegetation. Signs posted throughout the neighborhoods express the town’s new mantra: “Be Firewise – Create Defensible Space.”

“To tell you the truth, there’s not a whole lot to see anymore in terms of what hasn’t been restored,” says Frances Lechner, a resident of the tiny unincorporated community, located along Highway 89 between Wickenberg and Prescott, who now serves as secretary of the Yarnell Hill Recovery Group, a small cadre of community leaders who have been responsible for channeling a generous outpouring of aid into the rebuilding. In the first seven months following the fire, many of Yarnell’s 649 residents (mostly retirees; the average age is 65), along with volunteers from countless churches and charitable organizations, completely reconstructed the 11 homes that had been uninsured – a point of contention to many Yarnellites who were insured, and in some cases are still working on repairing their homes.

“The vestiges of 2013,” Lechner says, “are getting harder and harder to see.”

Those vestiges will come roaring back on movie screens next September, however, when Granite Mountain, a big-budget film based on the event with an impressive cast that includes Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly, Jeff Bridges, Taylor Kitsch and Andie MacDowell, hits the nation’s theaters. The movie comes after a flurry of literary releases, each taking a different look at the tragedy, from The Fire Line, an exhaustively researched profile of all 19 men by The New York Times’ Phoenix bureau chief Fernanda Santos; to My Lost Brothers, an intensely personal memoir by the Hotshots’ lone survivor Brendan McDonough. Four books, in all.

The film – which began principal production in July – is being shot not in Arizona but around Santa Fe, New Mexico, thanks to that state’s attractive tax incentives, which angers some Yarnell residents, leading them to believe Hollywood’s take on the story of the fallen firefighters will omit any sense of place and ignore the important side narrative of their town’s destruction and rebirth. No one connected with the production has approached the Prescott Film Office about shooting even location-establishing scenes in the area, according to Jeff Burt, the city’s director of economic initiatives.

Nina Bill Overmyer, who lost her home in the fire – along with a prized 1972 Plymouth Barracuda she began her drag racing career in 20 years ago, at age 49 – is convinced the film will be a generic look at wildland firefighters, with the location merely alluded to as a cinematic backdrop. “Why they are even referencing the Yarnell Hill Fire when it’s not based on fact is beyond me,” she says, shaking her head. “I have no desire to see it.”

“Will I even consider watching it? I don’t think so,” echoes Linda Ma, a 16-year resident of Yarnell who also lost her home in the fire. “Because I still ride the roller coaster of emotions. It comes when it hits.” Ma, who worked for 34 years in San Francisco’s parks and recreation department and helped with relief efforts following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake before moving to Yarnell in 2000 to care for her godfather, says she thought she had gotten over the tragedy by jumping into volunteerism – until another fire this past June threatened the town again. That one, fortunately, was abated, thanks in large part to the lessons Yarnell’s newly appointed fire crew learned from the last disaster.

“When the second fire hit, I just started sobbing,” Ma says. “And I realized, ‘Oh, I do have PTSD!’  I had just shoved it down, but it’s there. It’s always there just below the surface.”

For many of the evacuated who chose to return and rebuild in Yarnell, restoring their town was seen as a sacred duty in response to the young men who died trying to protect it. A banner on the door of the Yarnell Family Diner reading simply “19” encapsulates the town’s uneasy gratitude.

“We’re really clear that if the firefighters hadn’t died, there is no way that Yarnell would have gotten the help that it did,” says Lechner. “It’s easy for a lot of us, still, to get choked up thinking about them, even though most of us didn’t know any of them.”

“I remember two women who came down from Prescott and were helping Steve and Debi Keehner [the first couple to move into a rebuilt home] clean their place,” says Chuck Tidey, a longtime Yarnell resident who helms the Chamber of Commerce for Yarnell and nearby Peeples Valley, which also lost homes in the fire. “And Steve asked them, ‘What made you come down and help?’” Tidey is a stout Army veteran who served in Korea and Vietnam, but here he has trouble holding back tears. “And one of the women, who turned out to be the sister of [fallen Hotshot captain] Jesse Steed, said, ‘I think my brother would have wanted me to.’”

Tidey, too, has mixed emotions about seeing his town’s tragedy turned into popcorn fare, but like many here, he feels the story has grown too big for any of them to own. “It is what it is,” he shrugs. “We couldn’t stop it if we wanted to.”

Up about another 32 miles to the north in Prescott, where many of the parents and widows of the Granite Mountain Hotshots still live, emotions regarding the upcoming movie are even more intensely pitched.

Standing in the front door of his automotive welding shop hidden behind the Maaco just south of A.C. Williams Park, David Turbyfill, dad of Travis Turbyfill, the Hotshots’ mechanical whiz, eyes the approaching thunderstorm heading north toward the city with a weary familiarity. For the past three years, Turbyfill has spent much of his free time fabricating a fire shelter that reflects radiant heat – something that might have saved his son and the other Hotshots, who found scant protection in the thin foil and insulation coverings they deployed at the last minute after a strong wind blew the Yarnell Hill Fire over the box canyon they became trapped in. Turbyfill has turned his work over to the U.S. Forest Service’s Missoula Technology and Development Center, and NASA has reportedly gotten involved in further developing it.

“I know little to nothing about the movie,” he says. “I was not ever consulted, or ever asked for my opinion. Frankly, I feel at odds with anyone making money off of my son’s death.”

For the same reason, Turbyfill says he hasn’t read any of the books written on the fire – which includes the two described earlier, along with On the Burning Edge, by Outside associate editor and former wildland firefighter Kyle Dickman; and From Tragedy to Recovery, a collection of first-person accounts by Yarnell residents edited by Lechner’s husband Emad Mohit. “There’s not really much that any of us can do to preclude them from doing these kinds of projects,” he says. “But it’s a difficult thing to keep seeing.”

Even the writers and filmmakers involved with the various Yarnell projects tend to agree with that sentiment. In writing The Fire Line, Santos decided it was crucial to speak to the loved ones of all 19 Hotshots who died fighting the fire that day, a mandate that required her to make multiple trips to Prescott and Yarnell as well as to five other states, tracking down families that in many cases were reticent about talking to a reporter. Santos says she spent two years gaining the trust of the Hotshots’ widows and parents, many of whom she retains contact with on Facebook.

“To do a book like this right, I needed more than a collection of quotes,” she says. “There was a context to it, there was an understanding of people and a sense of place that required me to learn about the story not just from the facts but from the personal histories and emotions that were part of the story. I really believed that this story could only be told if I was able to meet all the guys. And the only way I could meet them was to get to know their families.”

In the end, Santos brought the young men to life in such vivid detail that when she got to the chapter where they died, she says she got very emotional. “I remember crying when I got to that point in the story,” she says, “because I felt like I was killing them again.”
Despite the anguish it might stir up, Turbyfill admits it “would be nice to be invited to an Arizona opening” of Granite Mountain, but doubts he and his wife will pay to see it. “Again,” he says, ducking back into the shop as the rain begins falling, “it comes down to the conflict of putting money into the bloodsuckers’ pockets.”

Non-Location

How do you turn rural New Mexico into fire-ravaged rural Arizona? Tax breaks, special effects and a bunch of counterfeit Arizonans.

For a chance to be an extra in the upcoming Lions Gate movie Granite Mountain, Stephen Conn drove all night from his home in Las Cruces, New Mexico, to arrive in Santa Fe for a 6 a.m. call time.

“They needed a two-stepper for a barroom scene they were shooting, and I looked country enough in a cowboy hat,” the actor says. “So I got this gig for a couple days. It was neat – got to hear Jeff Bridges sing ‘Ghost Riders in the Sky’ multiple times.”

Up until recently, Conn worked mostly in regional theater and improv groups, but he says lately he’s been getting more jobs in “the extras scene” that’s developed around New Mexico’s booming movie business. “There’s a Facebook page for the New Mexico Extras Casting Network that we all check,” he says, “and they’re always posting call notices for films.”

New Mexico’s refundable tax credit program for film production, which offers movie companies a 25 percent rebate for feature film costs and 30 percent for TV productions, has created a thriving film industry there, bringing a record $288 million into the state economy last year, according to the state’s film office. Further, the 5 percent bonus the program offers for using New Mexico labor has created plenty of jobs for striving actors, technical crew and even construction and catering professionals. For Granite Mountain, Lions Gate, which at one point planned to build its own studio in Rio Rancho, is employing 190 crew members, 40 actors and approximately 1,300 background talent all recruited from New Mexico.

There was a time when Arizona was on track to assume the role of “Hollywood’s backlot,” as Old Tucson, the studio Columbia Pictures built in 1938 as a backdrop for its Westerns, was once nicknamed. “We still have a legacy of film production, they can’t take that away from us,” says Shelli Hall of the Tucson Film Office. “But the studios have not come back since our incentive went away.”
Hall’s referring to the tax incentive program that Arizona had from 2005 to 2010, which temporarily revived its film business by offering a 20 percent tax credit for film productions but was not renewed, largely because of political opposition from anti-tax groups. Today, because other states from New Mexico to Louisiana to Utah to Michigan each offer attractive incentives to moviemakers, Arizona is largely ignored as a shooting location.

“We get the calls from production managers and location scouts who tell us they love the scenery in Arizona and want to film here, but their hands are tied because the people with the money want to do it in states that offer the incentives,” says Joanne Hudson, Flagstaff’s film commissioner.

That’s particularly infuriating on an Arizona-centric story like Granite Mountain. Some feel going to New Mexico to film the story is akin to making a movie about 9/11 in Toronto. “On a story like this one about the Yarnell Hill Fire, which is purely about events that happened entirely in Arizona, they’re going to fake the scenery somewhere else,” Hudson says. “That’s incredibly frustrating to those of us in the film industry here.”

Not to mention those Arizonans whose real-life stories are being re-enacted on film elsewhere, often by people unfamiliar with the original details. “It was all about the Prescott firefighters who died doing . . . something about protecting a juniper tree?” asks Conn after spending two days in a downtown Santa Fe plaza made-over to look like Whiskey Row. “I’m a little hazy on that.”

For the past three years, Brendan McDonough has been the reluctant steward of the Yarnell Hill fire story. As the Hotshot assigned to stand as the lookout, watching the fire and the weather, while the other 19 firefighters hiked through dangerously high brush toward a supposed safe spot – only to become trapped by the fire when a sudden shift in the wind caused by a thunderstorm pushed the fire in their direction – McDonough became, inextricably, the “lone survivor.”

It’s a mantel the self-professed former “party monster” from Southern California has carried with a keen sense of responsibility. “He’s like that man without a country,” says Bob Brandon, a retired fire chief from nearby Peeples Valley who attended wildland firefighting school with many members of the Hotshots every March, and whose granddaughter went to school with McDonough. “He’ll always be that ‘lone survivor.’ Some of the parents of the fallen don’t consider him anything, which is sad.”

McDonough, 21 at the time of the fire, spent most of the first year afterward speaking at funerals, as well as speaking to the press, which he said he viewed as running interference for the families too pained to talk. His book, My Lost Brothers, turned attention on his own slacker past and the Hotshots’ role in his personal transformation, rather than on the inside details of what exactly, or who, caused the crew to move out of their safety zone that day – still a mystery, even after several investigations, in which McDonough was often called to testify. Faithfully, McDonough revealed nothing in his book that would point a finger at any of his fallen brothers, prefacing his account of the fire with chapter upon chapter of sometimes cringingly personal stories, almost as distraction.

Now, McDonough is not talking at all, at least not publicly. It became common knowledge that McDonough was going to be involved in Granite Mountain when pictures of actor Miles Teller began showing up on Instagram with his normally brown hair dyed blonde for a movie role. Soon, side-by-side pictures of the Whiplash star next to the naturally blonde McDonough began making the rounds on Twitter, after their names were linked in the credits on Granite Mountain’s IMDb page.

Reached by phone, McDonough at first sounds agreeable to an update. “Yeah, happy to talk. I’ve just got to speak with my publicist.” Two days later, he reports his publicist has instructed him to hold off on doing any interviews until closer to the film’s release date. Perhaps anticipating calls from Arizona media, Lions Gate has hired its own Phoenix-based publicist to run spin control, essentially reinforcing the no-discussion rule. “It’s just not good, timing-wise,” McDonough says.

It’s the same story with Amanda Marsh, the widow of Eric Marsh, who as a couple are expected to be the other lead characters in the movie. Eric will be played by Josh Brolin; Amanda will be played by Jennifer Connelly. Amanda’s publicist is friend Amy Armenta, who normally helps run the Eric Marsh Foundation for Wildland Firefighters, a donation-supported nonprofit the two formed to directly aid families of wildland firefighters killed in the line of duty, a cause Marsh has very publicly championed. “Amanda is not allowed to do any interviews regarding the movie,” Armenta says. “But we’re willing to take interviews regarding our foundation.”

What’s likely happened, says another Arizonan who’s recently gone through this same process, is that McDonough and Marsh have sold their “life rights” – a Hollywood formality that, by name alone, might make any signer skittish.

“What happens is a studio can buy the rights to your life story, and they can ask you to keep a lid on it before the movie’s released,” says Faridodin “Fredi” Lajvardi, the Carl Hayden Community High School teacher whose real-life underdog story about leading a group of South Phoenix high schoolers, including four sons of undocumented Mexican immigrants, to beat MIT in a college underwater robotics competition was brought to the big screen in the 2015 movie Spare Parts, starring George Lopez in a role loosely based on Lajvardi.

In the case of the Spare Parts script, which began as a treatment of a 2005 Wired story titled La Vida Robot, Lajvardi watched his life rights get bought and sold several times before the movie was made. “Warner Bros. bought it first, and then MGM, and then finally Lions Gate bought it,” Lajvardi says. “What’s interesting is the rights are time-based. They get the rights to maybe a couple years of your life story. So by the time it got to Lions Gate, we were all a little smarter. We said, ‘Look, we’ll give you everything up to the competition. Anything that happens after the competition, you don’t have the life rights to.’ Because, what if we beat MIT in another competition?” he adds, with a sly laugh.

Like Granite Mountain, another Lions Gate property, Spare Parts was shot almost entirely in New Mexico, a more appealing locale due to its generous refundable tax credit program for film and TV productions (see sidebar). Arizona let its program expire in 2010 – a lost economic opportunity for the state that still irritates Lajvardi. “It was cheaper to duplicate our school in Albuquerque than shoot it in Phoenix,” he says. “Something’s wrong there.” Lajvardi and fellow Carl Hayden science teacher Allan Cameron were tapped as on-set technical consultants, for which they were each paid $80 a day, and about a dozen students from their Falcon Robotics Team were hired to build all of the robots used in the film’s climactic competition. “Believe it or not, not a lot of special effects people know how to build real robots,” he says. Still, Lajvardi wishes Carl Hayden’s students could have at least had the opportunity to appear in the movie about their school. “The students at our school were frustrated, because they wanted to play extras and they couldn’t. Our stories are going to other states.”

Lajvardi and the students haven’t seen a lot of money from the production. He says the life rights they negotiated give them a small percentage of future profits on the film. “It’s like 2 percent of our agent’s fee,” he says. “It’d have to make lots of millions before we see a penny. So we haven’t seen anything from the movie yet.”

The notoriety did launch a lucrative side career for Lajvardi as a public speaker, however, which may also lie ahead for McDonough and Marsh. But their story doesn’t have the happy, life-affirming ending the Carl Hayden students’ had.
Before going into blackout mode, Granite Mountain producers discussed the movie with the Arizona Republic, which intimated it was being shot in New Mexico partly because of “the summer heat.”

The average high temperature in Prescott during the month of August: a mind-boggling 86.1 degrees Fahrenheit.

After weeks of trying in vain to persuade relatives of the Granite Mountain 19 to share their thoughts on the movie, PHOENIX finally received a call from Claire Caldwell, widow of Robert Caldwell, the youngest of three squad bosses on the Hotshots team that day.
Although Claire, too, is a sizeable real-life character in the film – Pell James (Zodiac, The Lincoln Lawyer) has been cast to play her – she’s refreshingly open about discussing her time on the set in Santa Fe earlier in the week, where she says they’ve done “beautiful work” in simulating familiar stomping grounds.

Whether or not the studio asked Caldwell to muzzle her recollections on the set, she evinces a perfect upbeat attitude toward the project to ease the locals’ worries. After spending the last two years in Auburn, Washington (“more or less as a distraction,” she says), Caldwell is finally moving back home to Prescott, and seems eager to let the town know their story is in good hands.

“I got to meet almost everybody on the set – Jeff Bridges, Miles Teller, Josh Brolin – and you know what? I feel more than positive about what they’re doing,” she says. “It was almost healing for me. I could feel the layers of pain going away. It was like in Prescott after the guys passed away, we were surrounded by so much love and so much support, and so many people who really were inspired by our men and who cared about our loss. And now this movie is providing a whole new flood of love, if you will. They’re getting the story out in a bigger way for more people to know about it, and every single person that I met on that set has been so serious about getting it right. They’re not taking this lightly. Their hearts are behind what they’re doing.”

Caldwell, who’s become close friends with Amanda Marsh and says she shares an unshakable sisterhood with the other Hotshot widows, acknowledges that seeing the story’s tragic ending unfold again on the big screen may be hard for everyone who lived through it.
“But you know what? The pain doesn’t ever go away, it’s always there,” she says. “And books, movies – they’re not the reminders. Waking up every morning and not seeing him in the bed next to me, that’s the reminder. I live in it, that is my world. So if anything, I have gratitude and love and respect for the people who are working diligently to keep his memory alive. I met the person playing Robert [Taos, New Mexico-born actor Dylan Kenin], and he is a wonderful gentleman with a lot of integrity, respect and discipline. He is the perfect person to play my husband.

“It may sound a little hippie,” Caldwell says with a laugh, settling back into life amidst welcoming friends in Prescott. “But I fully believe that our 19 angels are working with them, hand in hand. I could feel it, and I could feel it in the people working on it. For the first time in three years I feel free, and excited about the future.”