Ten years ago Travis Hamilton was living in the Navajo Nation in northern Arizona as a Mormon missionary. Today he’s the writer-producer of the first feature-length film about Navajos with an all Navajo cast and crew.
Hamilton, 30, of Mesa is preparing for the opening of his film, “Turquoise Rose,” on Friday at Harkins Valley Art Theatre in downtown Tempe. The film is scheduled to run for a week.
Hamilton, who is married with two children and has served in Iraq and Kuwait with the Arizona National Guard, said his life prepared him to be a filmmaker.
The Scottsdale Community College film graduate wrote the script while on-duty in Fort Bliss, Texas, Kuwait and Iraq, with the help of two fellow soldiers — Rose Brown, a Navajo from Chinle, after whom the movie is named, and a former schoolteacher, Marjorie Coltrin, who also helped with the writing.
“Almost every day, I was able to mentally escape into this little story world that I was creating,” Hamilton said.
He, Brown and Coltrin struggled to get their first draft printed while in Kuwait, where paper was scarce. They managed to make a few copies of it.
“There were about 10 of us in my unit that sat down, trying to kill time, and started to read through it,” Hamilton said. “So there are all these soldiers acting out this script that was still just this dream.”
The story’s about a Navajo girl, Turquoise, who lives in Phoenix and faces a tough decision in her life: Does she go to Europe to travel and practice photojournalism, or does she return to the reservation to care for her grandmother?
“It’s coming of age,” Hamilton said of the film’s themes, “but it’s really bringing the elderly and the younger generation where they can come together. Even though they’re almost two separate cultures, they’re still family.”
Hamilton admitted the project was a handful.
“It was weird working on that and writing that,” he said, laughing. “It was like I was writing a story about me but in the Navajo girl form.”
Making the film a reality presented challenge after challenge. After returning to Mesa, Hamilton and a friend, Jake Johnson, continued revising the script as they tried to raise money. But fundraising proved difficult, given their lack of experience making movies, and Hamilton said seven credit cards and money borrowed from relatives were largely responsible for its funding.
Then came casting and producing the film.
Hamilton’s vision was to have Navajo actors and actresses fill all of the roles. Hamilton and several friends auditioned about 1,000 people, searching for talent among hopefuls with little acting experience.
The fact that Navajos are the country’s largest tribe, with a population of about 300,000, motivated Hamilton during recruiting.
“Where are all the Navajo actors?” he asked. He realized that Navajos lacked opportunities to appear in films and he could change that.
He said their most-experienced actor was Deshava Apachee, whose biggest previous role was playing dead in a wagon in Steven Spielberg’s “Into the West” TV series.
The film’s crew also was recruited during the auditions. With what little experience Hamilton and his friends had, they taught their new hires what to do as the 25 days of filming progressed.
“I taught the sound guy the equipment the night before (filming),” Hamilton said. “I’m not a sound guy.”
Hamilton not only co-wrote the film, but he also directed it, served as cameraman and crew trainer, among other roles.
Though making the film seemed impossible at times, Hamilton said an almost militaristic “let’s make this happen, regardless of the cost” attitude drove his team on.
“In this case it was good. That’s not always good, but in this case it was,” he said.
The film had become more than making a movie — it was about breaking down stereotypes about American Indians. It was about humanizing people, he said.
Having spent 15 months in the harsh environment of Kuwait and Iraq gave Hamilton perspective when the filmmaking got tough.
“Look, I know where I was. Yeah, it’s hard. No one’s giving us money,” he said. “But it’s not as bad as it was when I was deployed in the combat zone. It’s not as hard as it could be, and so I kind of laugh at situations.
“This isn’t hard.”
‘Turquoise Rose’ screenings
Where: Showing at Harkins Valley Art Theatre, 509 S. Mill Ave., Tempe
When: 2:30 p.m., 4:40 p.m., 6:50 p.m. and 9 p.m. Friday through Thursday
Information: (480) 446-7272