"We got sage from a white woman at one of the screenings," director Chris Eyre says.
"Which is the equivalent of someone coming up and handing us Communion wafers," says his partner, novelist-poet-screenwriter Sherman Alexie.
"I'm baffled," Eyre says. Then, reconsidering, he says, "Not that much."
Native American filmmakers Eyre and Alexie do not suffer fools gladly, even here at the Sundance Film Festival. Had that well-meaning woman really looked at their new movie, "Smoke Signals," she would have kept the sage to herself.
Based on a collection of Alexie's short stories called "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven," "Smoke Signals" is about two young Native Americans, Victor (Adam Beach) and Thomas (Evan Adams), who travel from Idaho to Arizona to pick up Victor's father's ashes. Along the way, the movie manages to send up Indian stereotypes (a car that drives only in reverse, the stoic Indian warrior face) while grappling with what Alexie describes as "our dysfunctions" (parental abandonment, alcoholism).
Today, Eyre and Alexie, along with actress Irene Bedard, who plays Suzy, a friend of Victor's father, are in a sterile condo that is light years away from their shoestring movie and their own early experiences. Yet they don't seem cowed by it. In fact, Alexie is a little pained by the youth and naivete he sees among the other filmmakers here.
"Their innocence is astonishing," he says. "I suppose growing up Indian and being politicized with our birth has in some ways made us much more prepared for this. I don't think we take anything for granted. The movie itself talks about how Indians don't like signing papers."
Native American past and present are never very far away in their conversation, though Alexie, 31, a Spokane-Coeur d'Alene Indian, is the only one who was actually raised on a "rez," in this case the Spokane Indian Reservation. Of the three, he's easily the most visible, having published 10 books and been lauded by the literary review Granta as one of the 20 best American novelists under 40, as well as winning this month's Taos Poetry Circus. He's also the most outspoken. Just ask him if he ever intends to write about something other than Indian life.
"That's a racist assumption," he says flatly. "You wouldn't ask a white guy that question."
A big man with a big voice and big hair, Alexie can be confrontational with his own people too. When asked how he hooked up with Eyre, who called him out of the blue from New York, he says, "He had to prove himself. I'm one of the biggest Indian writers in the country, he wants to do a film based on my book, and he showed up 20 minutes late. I thought, 'He's Indian.' "
Everyone laughs, including Eyre. A Cheyenne-Arapaho, he's sort of the bass to Alexie's tenor, brooding and intense, but, as he proved later when giving an acceptance speech after "Smoke Signals" won the festival's Audience Award (it also won the Filmmakers Trophy), he's capable of holding the floor. Unlike Alexie but like most Indians, Eyre, 29, doesn't have firsthand experience of reservation life, having been raised in Klamath, Ore., and having attended New York University's film school. He lives in New York. The reservation is something he feels he's missed, however.
"This cliche puzzles me," Eyre says. "There are so many story lines from non-Indians where Indians want to leave the reservation for a better life. We've been forced into assimilation for so long, it's about self-love. If I don't preserve that or find that place, I'll hate myself or destroy myself."
"These are people who I envy, people who stayed," says Alexie, who adds that his artistic ambitions forced him from reservation life but that someday he will return with his wife, Diane, and young son. (He now lives in Seattle.) It's just a question of where and when. There's no question of why. Alexie is not here to make us feel better.
"We don't want to be like you," he says. "The thing that people don't understand is that we're sitting here at the table with you, we're wearing the clothes you wear, we're speaking English, but we're not like you. We're fundamentally different, and we don't want to change that."
Is Alexie speaking for all Indians? Even the ones who, like Adam Beach, live in an "urban rez" such as Winnipeg, Ontario? Certainly, white Americans have not made coexistence easy. Without belaboring the point, they exchange horror stories about Indian life in this country, especially middle America. Bedard, a lovely woman with long black hair, says she has been called a "red nigger." Alexie has been spat on, punched, kicked.
"I got mad at my producers for jaywalking in Ogden," he says. "I said, 'You don't understand. This is Ogden, Utah, and I'm a 6-foot-2 Indian man. Don't jaywalk.' "
"Just this summer I was driving through Wyoming," Eyre says. "I pulled over to the side of the road and slept in the car. I got to my girlfriend's house in South Dakota, and her mom said, 'Don't do that.' Her son did that, and these guys in Wyoming beat him up."
Both Eyre and Alexie admit they use this fear of the Indian male to their advantage, fighting white hostility with their "warrior face." Of course, this sort of social compact becomes self-perpetuating.
Asked how he expects to change these attitudes if Indians and whites live separately, Alexie says, "We make movies, we write books."
And that is the philosophy behind "Smoke Signals." The filmmakers clearly intend it to reach a wide audience, trafficking in such "cultural touchstones" as John Wayne and "Dances With Wolves" and even testing at a shopping mall in upstate New York. Alexie gleefully reports that "one of the more racist, homophobic, sexist guys in the focus group loved the movie." This guy was probably unaware that the movie deconstructs some of his own attitudes, especially the ones propagated in film.
Author Tony Hillerman has written a dozen best-selling mystery novels steeped in the Navajo culture (he was raised with Indians and went to an Indian school, although he's not Indian, which Alexie may find suspect), and he has an anecdote that vividly illustrates how insidious these attitudes are.
"I was talking to a Navajo not long ago," Hillerman says. "He was telling me that when he was a teenager, he went to a Tarzan movie. Tarzan and Jane were escaping from the cannibals. They're hiding in the bulrushes beside this river, and here come the cannibals pursuing them in this war canoe. And he said the song, the chant, the cannibals were singing, was one of the prayer chants from a Navajo curing ceremony."
According to Todd Boyd, a professor of critical studies at the USC School of Cinema and Television, Native Americans have lived at the margins for so long that with the exception of one period in our history--the westward expansion--most people know them mainly from on-screen representations. And those representations are limited to the mythology of the American West.
"Look at those old movies," Hillerman says. "The Indians are always going to slaughter somebody or they're running by a wagon train full of women and children and the women and children knock them off their horses. Every time they pull a trigger an Indian dies. They're treated like kangaroo rats."
Bedard, who has appeared in 18 movies and was the voice of Pocahontas in Disney's animated film, describes the usual Native American characters as "the warrior, the Indian princess and the shaman. We've been the bad guys and the social consciousness of America. There is a lot of romanticism that comes from TV. I grew up wishing that I would have a vision and go on a vision quest, that I had a person who would take my hand and teach me the old ways."
"I never had a vision," Alexie says. "I don't know an Indian who's had a vision."
But whites have. Boyd claims that this romanticism has less to do with Indian culture than it has with white guilt. He says that when a group of people have been oppressed, it is not unusual for the oppressors to "ennoble" them, as if to compensate for that oppression. In this case, the Indian becomes the "noble savage."
Says Hillerman, "They've been captured by--how do I describe these people--the super-chic, mostly Eastern, Ivy League, high-caste folks. You've got all kinds of wannabe Indians. Some of them are New Agers. And they run into a culture that's kind of homogenized into a Walt Disney-type Indian."
"When we were interviewing art directors, they were like, 'Here, let me show you my book of dream catchers,' " Eyre says, with a sort of amused disgust. "Like, 'Next!' "
Originally, "Smoke Signals," which Eyre and Alexie developed at the Sundance Filmmakers and Screenwriters Lab, was going to be called "This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona," from one of the short stories in Alexie's collection. According to producer Scott Rosenfelt, whose production company, ShadowCatcher, financed the picture, they always knew that once they found a distributor, they would have to change the title to something less mellifluous. Mellifluous doesn't play.
The movie was first put on its feet in truncated form when Eyre directed a short, "Somebody Kept Saying Powwow," based on the second act of the script. Evan Adams originated the on-screen Thomas, taking over the character so completely that Alexie couldn't think of it without thinking of him. Like Alexie himself, the character of Thomas has become a huge presence in the Indian community.
"I like to tell people that I feel like Vivien Leigh must have felt after they found her for Scarlet O'Hara," Adams says.
Thomas, who uses his storytelling skills rather than a warrior face to make his way in the world, speaks in the sing-song typical of reservation boys from the Northwest.
"It's a mix of a few things," says Adams, who was raised on a reservation in the Vancouver, B.C., area and is now a medical student at the University of Calgary. "Some of our languages are quite lyrical. Also, we were taught English by the clergy, who were very often Europeans. It's not like, 'Me see-um heap-um buffalo.' "
Though the project acquired some momentum after the short was completed, Rosenfelt says the filmmakers were strung along for about a year before they gave the script to ShadowCatcher, which committed to it almost immediately. Distribution rights went to Miramax, famous for its marketing--and, in some quarters, for imposing its will, particularly that of company co-chairman Harvey Weinstein, on filmmakers. When asked if "Harvey Scissorhands" put in an appearance, Alexie shakes his head and laughs.
"It's so funny," he says. "At this festival, everybody has come up to us, going, 'We know what you're saying on the panels and in public, but how has it really been?' They have made some editing suggestions, some of which we agreed with, some of which we didn't. We have not edited the movie in any way we did not agree with."
He says that Weinstein himself came up with an idea that "significantly improved" the movie. Apparently they were having trouble making Suzy "magical" and kept adding more and more of her to the front of the picture. Weinstein suggested that they move her to the back so that the first time Victor and Thomas see her is the first time the audience sees her, "which," Alexie says, "was the complete reverse of everything we've been trying to do."
"What they really needed in a movie that's dramatic and comedic, it didn't give the audience permission to laugh upfront, to allow the comedy that comes afterward to play, because people were confused," says Weinstein, who makes clear by citing his company's 120 Academy Award nominations and five Palmes d'Or that he's getting tired of this "Harvey Scissorhands" routine. "And that's what Sherman talked to me about. It's not my inclination to do anything you don't have to."
According to Rosenfelt, Suzy energizes the last part of the movie. Not the least of her contributions is that she drives a new car.
"You've never seen an Indian in a new car," Alexie says, adding that a white director would never have made a reservation as beautiful as they've made it.
Suzy also continues the film's ongoing love affair with fry bread, one of the many details about Indian life that give the movie an almost anthropological appeal.
"Fry bread is a commodity," Bedard says. "Basically, we had flour, water and some lard. So we were put on a reserve and weren't allowed to do the things we normally did for food, and fry bread became traditional."
"Making the best out of what we have, which Indians have been good at," Alexie says.
Although, according to Alexie, this is more true of Indian women than of Indian men. He says he's taken heat from feminists for saying that Indian women still have a role--albeit the traditional one of child rearing--while Indian men do not. Their role of provider has been taken away from them. They are lost. They are absentee fathers, wandering sons. "Smoke Signals" is largely about these dislocations, which Alexie feels Indian and white audiences will relate to because the condition is endemic to both cultures. Needless to say, all of this is a lot more probing than a vision quest.
"The one thing I've learned from this process is how my expectations were so low for what I consider to be a quality movie about Indians," Alexie says. " 'Powwow Highway'--99% of the Indians in this country have seen 'Powwow Highway'--the first 20 times I saw it, I loved it. A few weeks ago I saw it again, and I was flinching through the whole thing, realizing how stereotypically trite the images were." (For more on what Alexie thinks of "Powwow Highway" and other depictions of Indians on film, see commentary beginning on Page 10.)
Now that Alexie and Eyre are on top of the mountain, or at least the Hollywood Hills, "every dusty old Indian screenplay that's been sitting on a shelf for 15 years is being offered to us for development," Alexie says. "I've been handed three separate 'Trail of Tears' screenplays. Every loincloth movie in Hollywood has been resurrected."
Not surprisingly, they are developing their own projects. Eyre is working on a film called "Riverhead," about a guy in an Indian fishing village in Alaska who spontaneously combusts. Alexie is going to direct a movie based on his novel "Indian Killer," which he is developing at Sundance with Adams and features a serial killer in modern Seattle. There are other projects they hope to get around to. Perhaps a classical tragedy ("King Lear lives on my reservation," says Alexie, "and his name is Roscoe or Lester or Junior or Jimmy") or an Indian romantic comedy. And certainly a revisionist western, which Alexie sees as nothing less than "taking on the country."
Beach has more modest, but in a way equally radical, aspirations, which Alexie might dismiss as assimilationist.
"Sherman is the kind of man who's really focused on keeping native stories alive," he says. "But I am really trying to push toward creating a native character with a career, meaning a teacher, a lawyer, which my wife is, a native lawyer. Look at Evan. He's going to be a doctor soon. That's the kind of image I'd like to bring out."
But it all goes back to "Smoke Signals." Alexie calls it "our 'Great Train Robbery,' " meaning it's that seminal, a sort of Native American big bang, though he says there are others in his generation doing the same kind of work such as Valerie Redhorse and Shirley Cheechoo.
"I think this is a new voice, it's a voice from our oldest culture, and it's about time," says Weinstein, who is in the enviable position of doing, and marketing, the right thing. "It gives an insight into people we've never really understood. I guess we needed them to tell us a story, and we needed to hear it in their words."
According to Alexie, this movie will also encourage other Native Americans to tell their own stories.
"There are 7- and 8-year-old boys and girls out there who are going to see this film, who are going to see publicity about it, who are going to see themselves on screen, who are going to know that Chris and I directed and wrote it, who are going to know that Irene and all the actors in it were Indians playing Indians, and it's going to change their lives, it's going to hand them dreams," Alexie says.
"I want to change the world," he continues. "For one minute, for an hour, forever, and I'm not afraid to say that. I want to write books and make films that will change the world's perception of Indians. And a tiny goal, a more specific goal, I want it so that Indian actors never have to put on a loincloth again."
"Leather and feather gigs," Bedard says. They all laugh.