Since the 1914 silent western “The Bargain,” Arizona’s variety of landscapes and dependable climate has made it one of the most filmed locations on earth. From blockbusters like “Return of the Jedi” (Yuma), “Forrest Gump” (Flagstaff and Twin Arrows) and “Gravity” (Lake Powell), the state is forever embedded in Hollywood’s DNA.
While a 2011 rollback of state tax incentives scaled back Hollywood blockbuster productions here, Arizona continues to inspire a number of cinematic detours—sometimes for the obscurest of reasons.
In a scene from the 2012 adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” actor Kristen Stewart and company are driving though cotton fields, recalls film commissioner Phil Bradstock at the Phoenix Film Office.
“[The production team] was looking at the agriculture in Texas and New Mexico, which were having bad cotton seasons, and it turns out Arizona wasn’t hit by whatever was going on in the agricultural world,” he says.
Yet it’s Arizona’s own independent filmmakers who give the state the star treatment year round.
Take “Durant’s Never Closes,” a biopic currently in production about Jack Durant, founder of the titular Phoenix steakhouse. The movie stars Tom Sizemore, Pam Grier, Michael Richards, and director Peter Bogdanovich (“The Last Picture Show”).
“My interest is telling Arizona stories and this is one of the best of those,” says the film’s director Travis Mills of Running Wild Films. “Durant was a larger-than-life figure who died in 1987, but we keep talking about him and his restaurant, which is still open and will probably be open for a very long time. This story is legendary in Phoenix.”
Mills and co-producer William Long are actually no strangers to the restaurant—they shot scenes in their film “The Men Who Robbed the Bank” inside the restaurant. For this project, exteriors are being shot at the restaurant, while nearly all of the filming is being done on sets built inside the MonOrchid art gallery in downtown Phoenix.
Most at home showcasing “under-seen” locations in downtown Phoenix, Mills admits he also loves “exploring the diversity of the entire state in [his] films.”
Also capitalizing on the bounty of Arizona’s cinematographic opportunities is indie filmmaker Archer Wave Productions, which is currently in production on “The Walkers.” The dark thriller centers on a wake of murders that occur near the Navajo Reservation, drawing on tribal legends of skin-
walkers: those who can turn into animals at will.
“We had an interview in Joshua Tree with a Navajo shaman who told us a lot and we captured it all on video,” says producer Matthew Mason. “We also set up an interview with a woman at the Heard Museum, but on the day we showed up to shoot, she freaked out and we were escorted off the property by security and staff.”
Which, many will tell you, neatly sums up the life of the independent filmmaker.