'Junkyard Genius' inspires a movie

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

PINON, Ariz., April 4, 2013

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(Times photo — Cindy Yurth)

Misty Upham, playing the mother of the young scientist in Eliza McNitt's short film "Without Fire," reacts as she realizes the radiator of her truck is missing as a film crew records the scene. Upham's character is based on Georgia Yazzie, mother of national science fair entrant Garrett Yazzie. Believe it or not, the truck was towed in from Albuquerque.

A fter appearing in multiple newspapers, on TV ("Extreme Home Makeover"), being written up in Oprah magazine and being profiled in a book (Judy Dutton's "Science Fair Season"), Garrett Yazzie thought his 15 minutes of fame may be coming to an end.

But there was still one medium that hadn't tackled Yazzie's compelling story of making it all the way to a national science competition with a device made out of scraps from the rez: film.

Now he can cross that one off his list too.

For two weeks, a crew led by promising young writer/director Eliza McNitt was holed up in Pinon, Ariz., Yazzie's hometown, filming "Without Fire," a 15-minute short film based on Yazzie's 2005 invention of a solar device that heats both water and air, made almost entirely of things he found lying around.

We should note it's rather loosely based on Yazzie's life. For instance, the young scientist in "Without Fire" is a girl.

"I wanted to tell the story from a perspective I had insight into," McNitt explained. "I wanted to take Garrett's story, and put my experience with creative science into that character."

As young as she is and as into film as she is, McNitt has personal experience with being a female scientist. In 2009, she won the INTEL International Science and Engineering Fair for her work finding pesticide residue on honeybees — thought to be a cause of the bees' declining population.

She met Yazzie in 2005, when they both competed in the Discovery Channel's national science fair. She won second place, he came in ninth ... but was a crowd favorite with his homespun invention and traditional Navajo attire.

A Navajo living in Salt Lake City petitioned "Extreme Home Makeover" to build his family a house, and the parents of Sarah Pierz, a fellow science fair contestant, invited him to live with them and attend a prestigious prep school in Michigan for the rest of his high school career.

"I learned a little bit about Garrett's story then, at least the TV version," McNitt recalled. "But it wasn't until I read 'Science Fair Season' (in which both she and Yazzie were featured) that I thought of doing a film about Garrett."

Yazzie and McNitt had in common that "we weren't really scientists," McNitt explained. "We're just creative people who used our creativity to answer some questions."

McNitt, a film student at New York University, traveled to Pinon to interview Yazzie, and when she saw his community and family situation, became even more impressed with how he had risen to the upper echelons of the teen science world.

She wrote a script based on his story and submitted it to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which was holding out a $25,000 grant for a film script that would "challenge contemporary stereotypes about scientific inquiry and technological innovation."

"Without Fire" won the contest handily, but McNitt, who had already made several award-winning short films, could see $25,000 wouldn't be nearly enough to tell Yazzie's story, so she pared the script down.

In real life, Yazzie invented his heater so his asthmatic sister wouldn't have to breathe the smoke from the family's wood stove. In "Without Fire," it's the mom who has asthma, and there are just two main characters: the mother and her 10-year-old budding scientist daughter.

The grant still wasn't nearly enough to make a movie that would involve flying a crew (all also film students or recent graduates) and a lot of equipment across the country. McNitt's father and the parents of her cinematographer, Emmy-winning Hunter Baker, agreed to bankroll the project if they could be part of the adventure.

(The elders came in handy: Jim McNitt, a photographer, has been taking stills for the production, and when Eliza got violently ill the third day on the set, Patty Baker used her East-Coast moxie to convince the IHS clinic in Pinon to admit her even though she's not Indian.)

Yazzie arranged for the 20-something crew, converging from New York, California and Phoenix, to stay in the dorm at Pinon Community School and teachers' apartments at Pinon High School, as the nearest motel was 45 minutes away in Chinle.

"The little girls in the dorm were great," said Fletcher Wolfe, the production's key grip. "They were like, 'Hi! Where are you from? Who are you? Have you been to Paris?'"

McNitt promised to screen the film at the school once it is finished.

It was something of a fluke they even ended up filming in Pinon. When the Navajo Nation Film Office failed to respond to their queries, Baker and McNitt turned their focus to New Mexico, which in recent years has waged an all-out offensive to attract movie-making and its accompanying dollars.

"They had descriptions and pictures of about 17,000 locations," Jim McNitt recalled. The crew had settled on Ghost Ranch as the scene for the film when Eliza cast 10-year-old Magdalena Begay in the lead ... not knowing she would get Magdalena's dad Ryan into the bargain.

Ryan Begay, a Navajo actor and filmmaker living in Albuquerque, had navigated the Navajo bureaucracy before. He quickly arranged a permit to film on the Nation ... and led the crew to a set — his aunt's sheep camp — just a few miles from where Yazzie grew up. In fact, Begay's aunt, Phyllis Gilmore, was Garrett's niece and grandmother by clan.

Gilmore was happy to lend her sheep camp to the crew.

"It's something different for around here," she said Thursday as she sat on her porch, munching pistachios and watching the filming as though she were already sitting in a movie theater.

To play the role based on Garrett's mother, Georgia Yazzie, McNitt aimed for the top.

"I had seen Misty Upham in 'Frozen River,'" she recalled, "and she was the only one I could think of to play Mae (the Georgia character)."

Not thinking a professional actress who had been in large productions would want to be part of a student film, McNitt called her casting director.

"I kept saying, 'I want someone like Misty Upham, I want somebody like Misty Upham,'" she recalled. "Finally she said, 'Why don't you just ask Misty Upham?'"

To her surprise, the Blackfeet actress said yes.

"I knew I wanted to do it when I read the script," Upham said. "It's fun to be working here among Natives. At night, this place looks exactly like my rez."

Georgia Yazzie said she's thrilled to be played by Upham, who watched the "Extreme Home Makeover" video to study her expressions and has been questioning her about her daughter's asthma so she can play a convincing asthmatic.

"In the movie," quipped Georgia, "I won't be handicapped." (The real Georgia walks with a cane since a 2006 auto accident.)

As for Garrett, now a 22-year-old student at Navajo Technical College who hopes to study radiology at Northern Arizona University next year, he finds the whole thing kind of amusing.

"It's not really my story," he shrugged. "They haven't even let me read the script yet. But if it can inspire some kids to do science, that's great."

The way Garrett sees it, he's Coyote Pass Clan, and "in our culture, coyotes are messengers."

"I never really wanted to be a scientist," he admitted. "I was just a kid who was tired of chopping firewood, and then I got kind of swept up in the whole science fair thing. But maybe there's some kid out there who does want to be a scientist, and they'll see that you can be from the middle of the rez and still do science."

Information: www.elizamcnitt.com.

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