In­side Tay­lor Sheri­dan’s fron­tier fic­tion

The Globe and Mail (Prairie Edition) - - GLOBE LIFE & ARTS - BARRY HERTZ

The Si­cario and Hell or High Wa­ter writer sits in the di­rec­tor’s chair – al­though not for the first time – with Wind River

There are a num­ber of knotty sto­ries that need un­tan­gling in Tay­lor Sheri­dan’s new drama, Wind River.

When the film had its de­but at the Sun­dance Film Fes­ti­val this past Jan­uary, there was a cer­tain amount of dis­cus­sion as to why a film re­volv­ing around the mur­der of a Na­tive Amer­i­can woman was be­ing helmed by a white man from Texas. The same ques­tion arose around the lead char­ac­ter – not an In­dige­nous hero, but a white U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice agent played by Jeremy Ren­ner. And then there’s the thorny ques­tion of just where the movie fits into Sheri­dan’s ca­reer.

Nearly ev­ery re­view out of Sun­dance took special care to note that Wind River was Sheri­dan’s di­rec­to­rial de­but, which makes for a great per­sonal nar­ra­tive thanks to the former ac­tor hav­ing re­cently scripted both Si­cario and Hell or High Wa­ter. When Wind River played Cannes’ Un Cer­tain Re­gard pro­gram this past spring, the fes­ti­val called it his “de­but as a di­rec­tor.” In Sheri­dan’s own di­rec­tor’s state­ment in the film’s of­fi­cial pro­duc­tion notes, he writes that Wind River was “my first film as a di­rec­tor.” But like much about Wind River – in­clud­ing its twisty plot – there is a level of nu­ance that’s get­ting lost in the con­ver­sa­tion.

To that end, a few weeks be­fore Wind River’s re­lease, The Globe and Mail spoke with Sheri­dan over the phone from Los An­ge­les about race, rep­re­sen­ta­tion and the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of sto­ry­telling.

Si­cario, Hell or High Wa­ter and now Wind River all take place in these iso­lated cor­ners of Amer­ica, the fron­tier as westerns would call them. What is it about that land­scape that in­trigues you?

Well, I grew up in it, first. It’s my home. And it’s an area that’s so new, if you think about the time­line. There’s a con­se­quence to it that’s still fresh, which I find fas­ci­nat­ing. There are a lot of lives and sto­ries that take place here and be­cause the area is so spare in spots, it trans­lates well to the screen.

It seems that the land­scape can also be used to ex­plore dif­fer­ent kinds of sto­ries. Si­cario is a thriller, Hell or High Wa­ter is a heist film kind of wrapped up in so­ci­etal com­men­tary and Wind River is a mur­der mys­tery.

I love play­ing with gen­res, yeah, and bend­ing them. Whether we can call Hell or High Wa­ter this rogue buddy bank-heist movie, it’s also a med­i­ta­tion on as­sim­i­la­tion and fail­ure and what hap­pens when some­one loses their pur­pose. It’s the same thing I do here with Wind River. We could call it CSI: Wyoming, and there are genre el­e­ments, but it’s not so sim­ple. You can re­ally ex­am­ine the suf­fer­ing and con­se­quences that hap­pen when there’s a loss in a fam­ily. You can ex­am­ine the Byzan­tine rules that re­volve around reser­va­tion land in the United States. If any­one calls this a western … well, this is the only one [of my films] that I would con­sider a mod­ern western, ex­cept I ex­change snow­mo­biles for horses.

For the story it­self, did you con­sult with Na­tive Amer­i­cans in this part of Wyoming?

I’m very close friends with a num­ber of peo­ple who live on var­i­ous reser­va­tions, and specif­i­cally to this story, we sent the script to the [Ara­pa­hoe and Shoshone] tribal coun­cils to get their bless­ing, so we could very specif­i­cally go through how we ap­proach the story. They were ex­tremely help­ful and very sup- portive. I want to tell this the right way. In the late nineties, I spent a lot of time on reser­va­tions and there was a level of poverty and in­jus­tice that I had not wit­nessed be­fore. I was shocked by it. This is fed­er­ally con­trolled land and there was an in­sid­i­ous mix of ap­a­thy and ex­ploita­tion. And it’s not get­ting bet­ter, it’s get­ting worse. The prob­lem be­gins with pol­icy that man­i­fests this type of op­pres­sion.

Your film has a post­script that notes there are no records avail­able for track­ing miss­ing and mur­dered Na­tive Amer­i­can women. Is it your hope that this movie, then, can ef­fect real change?

One-hun­dred per cent, that’s the rea­son to do it. The post­script came from me at­tempt­ing to find sta­tis­tics. I had three at­tor­neys ded­i­cated solely to find the statis­tic of the num­ber of miss­ing Na­tive Amer­i­can women on reser­va­tions. Any reser­va­tion, not just Wind River. They don’t ex­ist. The fed­eral gov­ern­ment, which is re­spon­si­ble for the reser­va­tions, doesn’t keep those stats. How do you solve a prob­lem when there’s no way to quan­tify that prob­lem? When you go on the res and talk to peo­ple there, it’s clear there’s an epi­demic. Why, though, did you de­cide to

have a non-na­tive char­ac­ter as the lead?

There is a re­al­ity to film­mak­ing that I’m hop­ing to change, and there were cre­ative choices and re­spon­si­bil­ity is­sues that came into play. The re­al­ity was that I was fi­nanc­ing the film in­de­pen­dently and I had to off­set that with for­eign sales. For­eign sales are based on movie-star al­go­rithms, where France or Ger­many or China pay a cer­tain amount to dis­trib­ute a film in their re­gion based on the movie star. They have some rather ac­cu­rate equa­tion that tells them what some­one is worth. So, you have to find an ac­tor that has value in or­der to make a movie out­side the stu­dio sys­tem. There’s not a na­tive ac­tor that sat­is­fies that [for­mula] at this point. Cre­atively, I wanted to have a hero who has a foot in both worlds but was not fully a part of ei­ther – it was im­por­tant to me that he be of the land, but not of the peo­ple. And there’s a re­spon­si­bil­ity, be­cause I didn’t feel, as an Ir­ish­man, that I had the right to the POV of a Na­tive Amer­i­can. I’ve been crit­i­cized for that in the press, yet even if I’d done it, the re­al­ity is that it wouldn’t have been the star that would’ve got­ten the film made any­way. Hope­fully I’m help­ing to change that, with ac­tors like Martin Sens­meier and Gil Birm­ing­ham, who are get­ting very close to be­ing rec­og­nized for their work, and be­ing re­spected enough that there is real mon­e­tary value to them be­ing in­volved in the film. That’s how you make change. What lessons did you take away from di­rect­ing your first film, the 2011 horror film Vile?

[Laughs] Well … Vile was, it’s a lit­tle hard. Eric Jay Beck starred in and pro­duced and was go­ing to di­rect and a week be­fore, he re­al­ized how much he had bit­ten off. He asked me if I would come in and help him, and I did. It’s not re­ally my kind of movie. But I in­ter­est­ingly learned a tremen­dous amount about sto­ry­telling with a cam­era. I learned that you can be very ef­fec­tive with what you don’t show, be­cause the au­di­ence is al­ways go­ing to come up with some­thing bet­ter than I could.

Is it a project that you’d like to move past? Be­cause in all the me­dia ma­te­ri­als, Wind River is listed as your first film as a di­rec­tor.

Look, here’s the thing. I’m proud of things we did in [ Vile]. I don’t think it’s ever been re­leased, I’m not sure any­one’s ever seen it. I haven’t seen it. I don’t feel like that’s my full di­rec­to­rial de­but. I didn’t get to cast it or de­velop the script, a lot of things that I did here. To me, ev­ery­one points a cam­era at some­thing. It’s one of those things that peo­ple try to make an issue out of, but I don’t see the issue.

Since Vile, though, you have had the op­por­tu­nity to col­lab­o­rate with some high-cal­i­bre di­rec­tors, like De­nis Vil­leneuve and David Mackenzie. Were you able to learn much from those ex­pe­ri­ences?

I was very lucky, and al­though they have very dif­fer­ent styles, they come from the same place of cre­at­ing sin­gu­lar and pow­er­ful and very lean prod­ucts. I would watch them do things and study why these things worked, and I was very for­tu­nate. They taught me a lot.

This in­ter­view has been edited and con­densed.

Wind River opens Aug. 11 in Toronto and Van­cou­ver be­fore ex­pand­ing to Mon­treal and other cities Aug. 18.

Tay­lor Sheri­dan is seen on the set of Wind River, which is about the mur­der of a Na­tive Amer­i­can woman. Sheri­dan was shocked to find out the gov­ern­ment does not keep track of miss­ing and mur­dered Na­tive Amer­i­can women.

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