By Bill Van Nimwegen
It was oppressively hot sitting in the Apache Junction High School parking lot at mid-day, but Cristi Harris was full of fresh excitement. She is one of several producers of The Unhealer, an independent feature movie that is being created in and around Apache Junction.
Harris and her family live in Phoenix and she is a co-founder of Phoenix-based Shared Card Films.
“I wanted to see this project created in Arizona, not just because the story lends itself to this locale—I am closer to my kids here.”
Harris is also on a crusade to see more feature films produced in the state. “There is so much talent here and we have enlisted as many as possible for The Unhealer,” she said. Some of the actors, crew and many of the production assets on the set are local. There were contributions from Arizona State University, Glendale Community College and Huntington University.
Two years ago, the state opened Studio 48, the Arizona Office of Film and Digital Media to promote the state as a destination for filmmakers. It is named for Arizona being the 48th state and has stiff competition from our neighboring (47th) state—New Mexico. Matthew Earl Jones (half brother of James Earl Jones) is the studio’s director and says that their focus is on marketing and promotion rather than offering income-tax incentives to production companies. Harris says that The Unhealer is helping to lay the groundwork for future independent productions in Arizona.
As described in a release to the press: “The story of The Unhealer begins when an ancient Native American burial site is desecrated and robbed, unleashing otherworldly effects. A sickly and disturbed local boy becomes instantly healthy while rapidly gaining alarming supernatural powers. But when he uses those powers to enact murderous revenge on the teens who bully him, the unnerving, bloody horrors begin and won’t end until he surrenders his powers or his life.”
Besides the AJ High School location, the crew spent time at the Blue Bird Mine, a way-station on SR 88 (Apache Trail) for those heading to the lakes.
“We looked all over the valley, Glendale, Peoria,” said Harris, “but when we were travelling east on Lost Dutchman Boulevard, it felt just right. The landscape with the Superstition Mountain, the cactus, the hills—everything we wanted was here. The staff at the City and the Chamber of Commerce have also been so helpful.”
While The News was on the high school set, a scene was being recorded in front of the AJHS Performing Arts Center.
In the scene, 16-year-old Kelly Munson, played by Elijah Nelson (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) rides his bike past some students and then pauses to enjoy a bite from a styrofoam cup. The character suffers from the eating disorder PICA, causing him to ingest inedible materials and makes him the victim of school bullies.
Cristi Harris told the News that the boys who play bullies in the story were not at all comfortable in those roles. “These are the sweetest kids, I doubt that they ever behave that way in real life.”
We experienced the scene live on a monitor several thousand feet from the action. Director Martin Guigui and Director of Photography Massimo Zeri watched the action unfold, commenting on the movements of background actors who were subtly advancing the story line.
In addition to the character played by Elijah Nelson, a cast of other young Hollywood and Arizona actors are led by a trio of veteran film and television stars. They include: Natasha Henstridge (Species, The Whole Nine Yards), Lance Henriksen (The Terminator, Aliens) and Adam Beach (Suicide Squad, Flags of Our Fathers). The players depicting high schoolers, who just might not make it to their senior year, are Nelson, Kayla Carlson (CSI: NY, Secrets of the Mountain), David Gridley (The Last Ship, Guidance), Angeline Appel (The Ranch, The Fosters), Will Ropp (Speechless, The Dejects) and Gavin Casalegno (The Vampire Diaries).
The production crew uses a Red Dragon digital camera with a helium sensor instead of traditional film. “We are not using film for this production,” said Harris, “we are also avoiding the toxic processes that go along with film.”
“It was a big team effort that brought this film to Arizona, Harris said. “We look at this project as laying the groundwork for re-energizing the state’s film business. The Unhealer’s above-and-below the line talent are proving to be a terrific working blend of great professionals from two great film markets, Los Angeles and Phoenix.”
Be sure to watch for the release of The Unhealer and support it when you can. Who knows, maybe Apache Junction will return to the community that once hosted John Wayne, John Ford and Elvis Presley.
Photo above: Veteran actor Lance Henriksen is proselytizing on the set of “The Unhealer” at the Bluebird Mine near Apache Junction. Courtesy photo