Riding in Cars with Boys: Gina Gammell, Riley Keough, Franklin Sioux Bob and Willi White on War Pony
Gaining access to an underrepresented community comes with a great amount of responsibility. There are countless examples of a director visiting a site for a few days, getting what they need, then hightailing it out only to use their subsequent press tour to emphasize the “raw grittiness” they observed while filming on location. It’s crucial to question who benefits from this exchange. Does the filmmaker gain authenticity for their work merely by virtue of who they put in front of the camera? Does the portrayed community benefit from being used to confirm an outsider’s predetermined perception?
Gina Gammell and Riley Keough, longtime friends and first-time directors, have clearly thought through each of these issues, and their narrative feature, War Pony, is more a story from within a community rather than just being about one. Set on the Lakota people’s Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, the film follows two boys—one, Matho, not yet a teenager, the other, Bill, struggling with the demands of adulthood, through the various travails involved in their trying to get by. Co-written by Bill Reddy and Franklin Sioux Bob, themselves active members of Pine Ridge, the film is primarily comprised of first-time actors.
Having premiered in the Un Certain Regard section of last year’s Cannes Film Festival (where it was awarded the Caméra d’Or), War Pony now makes its way to theaters and VOD platforms, courtesy of Momentum Pictures. I recently spoke with Gammell, Keough, Sioux Bob and producer Willi White about the friendship that lead to the project, avoiding stereotypical portrayals and much more.
Filmmaker: I’m somewhat familiar with the project’s origins. While filming Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, Riley, you met [War Pony co-screenwriters] Franklin Sioux Bob and Bill Reddy of the nearby Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. You befriended each other on set and eventually ingrained yourself within the community, but in a way, I assume, that was very organic.
Keough: Yes, it was the first experience like this [that I’ve had] with the friends we made that very special summer. I’ve never experienced anything like this, personally. This was the first movie I’d written—well, co-written, and completed, for one. I’ve started writing things lots of times, but I’d never finished a script. I’ve never created art this way. I’ve never made friends with people and then written a movie with them, so it was very unique. Now I can’t imagine doing it any other way, and I’m having a hard time (and Gina is too), trying to think of other ways to write another film, because the previous [approach] inspired the way this film was created.
Filmmaker: Franklin, what were those initial meetings like for you? Perhaps not “meetings,” in the professional sense, but what were your initial thoughts about collaborating on a film? I’ve heard you speak about being turned off by previous portrayals of your community, so I was curious if you had any reservations about getting involved here.
Sioux Bob: Like what Riley was saying, this film was a very singular [experience]. It was really divine timing and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We just happened to all become friends beforehand, and, no, I never knew that a film was going to come out of our friendship.
Previous [media/film] portrayals of [our community] have mainly shown us in the usual poverty porn kind of way, where things are shot very handheld. If I was going to be a part of a movie, it needed to not be that. It needed to stay true and sound like it was coming from a Native voice, not like it was being made by two white women. For me, it was about trying to keep everything authentic to the area and its people. That was everything to me, personally, because, I did see those films that would come in, exploit our land, exploit our people, then just leave, and then you see the movie on the screen a year later. This film was not that. It was much more collaborative and came out of a friendship. I wouldn’t want it any other way and I don’t really know any other way [to do it], so this was perfect timing.
Filmmaker: Did you feel as though you had to be an authoritative “representative of your culture?” Not that any one person could ever be such a thing, but did you feel an extra weight or burden on your shoulders in that regard?
Sioux Bob: I don’t even necessarily think of that stuff, to be honest. I’ve always just been myself, and being myself got me to this position, right? I remember having a conversation with Willi [White], like, “What the hell did I do that was so special to put me in this position?” Honestly, I’ve just been myself. I don’t know how to be any other person, nor do I want to try, but somehow I’ve gravitated toward some good people around me, and it’s worked.
Keough: I feel the same way, like, “How am I so lucky and special to have these people in my life and to have this experience?” Every time I’m in Pine Ridge, I feel so blessed to have the friends and family I have there. It goes both ways.
Filmmaker: At what point did it become apparent that you were going to collaborate on a feature film?
Gammell: Frank and Bill are such vivid, funny, and imaginative storytellers, and the film was really led by that. No, [this story] wasn’t always a feature film—it wasn’t even always [going to be] a film at all. It began as exchanging ideas and playing around with various forms and mediums. Once we started the process of formatting the stories into a script, it became clear that the town of Pine Ridge would also be a character. The two stories in the film don’t intersect and the boys don’t really intersect, until—well, not to spoil the movie for anyone, but until the end. However, both boys are in the same world throughout—they’re in the same gas stations, they frequent the same streets, they live mere blocks from each other. In the process of crafting the script with Frank, Bill, Riley and myself, that [proximity] always made the story feel less sprawling than it could potentially be perceived as. It’s so local. The decision to follow these parallel storylines came from an abundance of stories provided by Bill and Frank, even a bit too many! It came from an awareness that their youth and childhoods had really influenced their manhood, and that the stories from their teenage years were applicable and necessary to contextualizing their adult years. We had too much [material] to put it all within one character, so that’s when we said that these two boys are embodiments of the same person, but separated.
Keough: Over the years, we had many different versions of the script, especially regarding the intersections [between the boys] and also [potentially keeping them] as totally different stories. There were so many different stories that it was challenging for us to commit to only one path, so that’s why there are ultimately two [leads].
Filmmaker: There are these very specific plot strands that seem to sprout up nonchalantly and then develop further along the way. For example, the first time a poodle is mentioned, I thought, “Oh, that’s a funny line,” but then that poodle becomes an integral part of the narrative. It’s not the only animal we see in the film—the film finds an almost [spiritual] way of having different animals come in and out of these boys’ lives.
Gammell: The dog is a really good example of how the film, while rooted in truth, comes with these parts that were adjusted or embellished. There was a dog named Beast that was Bill’s dog, and we were there with him when the dog died (or was killed, rather). But Beast was a pitbull, and in the scripting phase of pre-production, we were like, “There’s a lot of pitbulls around on the reservation and and a lot of people are breeding them, so how do we make this one stand out?” It became an exercise of what made Bill, Frank, Riley and myself laugh the most, thinking of [the funniest type of dog] Bill would genuinely be trying to hustle. He was like, “Well, if I could get a $1,000 for a poodle, I would for sure be trying to [hustle] poodles.” [laughs]
Keough: And Gina and I were in L.A., just sitting around, and the boys were in Pine Ridge (I can’t remember where Frank was at the time), and we were sitting around and Gina has a poodle and….well, a kind of poodle. Gina, what is your dog?
Gammell: She’s a mix. She’s got some poodle in her.
Keough: A poodle mix [laughs]. And she just looked down and asked, “What if Beast was a poodle?” I was like, “That’s crazy, but I like it. Let’s call Bill and Frank.” I remember Bill was like, “What? Why? I would never have a poodle.” That line where Jesse [Schmockel] goes, “I would never have some white-lady type dog like that,” I think that came from Bill. Then he told us, “But if I was going to make a lot of money, I would get [the poodle] but would pretend it was my girl’s dog.” We all thought it was funny, so we ran with it.
The movie used to be called Beast, as that was the name of Bill’s dog. Obviously, there’s a lot of movies called Beast out there in the world, so we changed the title at the last minute. However, for many years, everyone referred to the movie as Beast. The whole story was inspired by that moment, when Beast, Bill’s real dog, died. It impacted all of us and was a really intense day. We went up to the Black Hills and prayed, I believe. That started the idea of a film, that moment with Bill’s dog.
Filmmaker: What type of feedback did you receive from people who had read the script? I believe some colleagues requested that there be an “outsider’s perspective” or an outsider character brought into the story for viewers who may not be familiar with Pine Ridge and its community.
Keough: In the beginning, we were very open [to everything]. We were sending the script out without knowing if anyone was going to connect to it, so we were very open to people’s opinions. We’d never gone through this process before as directors and writers, so when we started sending it out, we were like, “OK, so now we’ll take notes, right? That’s how this works?” One of the notes we received was that “We would like somebody”—and, in hindsight, it’s so silly and obvious—“essentially, a white character to come in and explore this place so that we can connect with it.” I don’t think we were totally seeing that at the time. We were like, “Oh yeah? Okay.” I think they were asking the question more like, “who in the film is representing your experience, you and Gina’s?” I responded, “Oh yeah, I guess there’s not really anyone in the film representing our voice.” That’s how they were positioning their request, like that, so we explored it a bit but then were like, “What the fuck is this? What are we actually trying to write?” It was so weird. We found ourselves now writing a [version of the] movie that wasn’t what we were initially inspired to make. The film was now becoming something that had nothing to do with Bill and Frank’s story. It still had their characters in the script, yes, but at some point we were realizing that now we were writing a script for the people giving us notes.
Gammell: But that’s where the film got crystallized for us. We had been working on the film for a while and working to remove ourselves from the story. The efforts of our participation on our end came down to, “How do we get ourselves out of it? How do we remove ourselves? How do we make every part of the filmmaking process collaborative? How can we can continue to check with and lean on our actors, co-writers and producers?” That became the core, the foundation, of this project, and remains the thing we’re most proud of. We didn’t want to try and inject our perspective into the story. We wanted to remove it.
Keough: Although we did have one version of the script that, at the end, white people who come in to extract and exploit a story, which was kind of like, “If we were going to do this, then that’s the version we’d do.”
Gammell: That will be War Pony 2 [laughs].
Filmmaker: Franklin, earlier you mentioned the “handheld style” that you were resistant to when other filmmakers would come in and film your community. What is it about handheld that gives you pause?
White: For me, the biggest thing with handheld is that it feels like you’re not really invested in [the subject]. You’re coming in, get what you want and then you’re out. It’s not a good representation of what’s actually there, because you’re just fixated on this one subject. You won’t have anyone around you who lives there be a part of the process (or, no one that lives there is ever going to see any of the benefits the film brings). That’s what I’ve always seen, especially with the handheld style, as I don’t think it captures the whole res[ervation] or Pine Ridge as its true character. That’s my biggest gripe about trying to do handheld.
Gammell: With handheld, there’s a history there. There are so many movies we love that are shot handheld and, while I think it’s a medium that we might embrace in future films, for this one particularly, there was a certain restraint and [hesitancy] toward not going there. In a way, handheld allows you to find your film with the camera, but since we had created a script and style of collaboration that felt communicative and collaborative, we didn’t want to rely on the camera to find things. We made the scary but correct decision, I think, to shoot the film quite traditionally, very composed, complete with shotlistings, coverage, sticks, dolly shots.
The camera only moves, with intention, when there’s a reason for the camera to move. That did two things, the first being that it allowed us to be really honest with our picture. There’s an innate readiness to some handheld footage that Franklin was certainly opposed to and we shared in that opposition. We never wanted to “make a meal out of anything” or add more grittiness to something or, on the other end, make something more beautiful than it was or try to create perception through camera in that way. It allowed us to really lean on the actors, which was scary, as we have a very large cast of first-time performers, but it was something we were really proud of. The faces of our performers carried this film through.
Keough: When you’re shooting handheld, the actors have a lot more room for error, improvisation and freedom. We made a choice to go in [another direction]. We saw the actors we hired, saw their durability and were like, “No, they don’t need it. They can do this. They can learn their lines and deliver them well enough to where we can cover and shoot it the way we want. We don’t have to give them a cheat.”
Gammell: We had nothing to cut to! We made a movie where there was nothing to cut to. If a scene wasn’t working, then the scene wasn’t working, and the scene had to go.
Keough: We virtually had no inserts [laughs]. Our DP [David Gallego] did not shoot an insert.
Filmmaker: There’s quite a bit of diegetic music in the film, often playing on car radios that the boys are listening to during a drive. How did you see those bits of music adding something that an emotionally-heavy score couldn’t match?
Gammell: I think it adds to their world. It’s part of being in a car with Frank and Bill or with LaDainian [Crazy Thunder] and Jojo [Bapteise Whiting], who play the characters, Matho and Bill. We made a choice in the licensing of the music that, for the most part, while we would be licensing quite a large number of songs, we very heavily featured XXX and NBA YoungBoy. That choice was guided by two things. First, Franklin, earlier today, noted that there was certain artists that [were very popular] when the film was being written, then when we were shooting (in a different year), there were certain artists that seemed to almost be traveling through the years. To emphasize how our collaboration continued to evolve through the different parts of production, Jojo, the actor, brought so much of himself into the character of Bill, and [XXX and NBA YoungBoy] were the artists that he accounts for saving his life, getting him through some very difficult times. Riley and I would drive him to work every day and get to know these albums like the back of our hands. We would just listen to the same songs from the same artists, on repeat, for three hours each day, as it was an hour-and-a-half ride each way, everyday, to and from set. That’s a thing you don’t really see in movies, where there’s an artist [prevalent] throughout [a character’s] life, a musician or a specific album in their lives that they listen to and then rinse and repeat. We leaned into that in the way we handled the music in the film, along with sprinkling in a few other songs and even some of Frank’s, who is a wonderful musician and rapper himself. Frank has a couple of songs in the movie and another local rapper, Nevad Brave, also has a few songs in the movie. But we really went for XXX and NBA YoungBoy and, through the character of Bill, allowed the songs to repeat again and again in a way that was our effort to be honest to what it’s like to drive in a car alone.
Sioux Bob: We spend a lot of time in cars parked outside of our house, for some reason. I have no idea why, but we just spend a lot of time in our cars, riding around.
Keough: And so much of our 20s was spent with these guys in cars. You know, riding in cars with boys…
Filmmaker: Like the Drew Barrymore movie.
Keough: It was [laughs]. It was a lot of traveling back and forth to Pine Ridge, so while a car can be annoying to shoot in (and something we may never want to include in future movies), it was so important for this project.
Filmmaker: Would you say the finished film matched your intentions? In thinking about a story to tell and then a film to make and then finding a way to remain authentic and respectful to the community you wished to showcase, did everything pull through?
Keough: Willi? Have we let you down?
White: It’s been really [something] to see the journey of the project from the beginning, getting to meet Riley and Gina way back when, seeing the evolution of how they built relationships with Frank and Bill, and having the conversations we had around the script. I’m very involved in organizing spaces around how Indigenous people are represented in media today and these are important conversations to have. When we take this project out into the world, especially now in the climate that the film is in today—especially Indigenous film, but also politically how things are going around—I think this film creates a glimpse of the nuance of Indigeneity in the United States. The history of Indigenous representation in cinema, as we know, is completely skewed, completely wrong, and it’s created this [idea of] Indigenous people in this country as being a monolith, that we’re all like Plains Natives that wear bonnets or whatever. But there are over 570 different tribes in this country that have their own communities, so this project showcased the nuance of what it means to not only live as a modern Native on the reservation today, but to also provide a glimpse into a world that I think is really important, especially for a lot of people in this community who sometimes feel silenced, even by their own community. We can do that too, to ourselves, where we choose to only lift up the Native star athlete or academic.
For this story to have a moment is huge for me, and I think one of the biggest impacts this project has had was [via] something Jesse shared with me, how she felt really seen by this story. I remember being in the car and we were talking about this—I think we were outside the house I used to live in in town—and she shared with me: “[With] this story, I feel seen.” Jesse never felt like she was the star athlete or anything like that, so when she said that, it really hit me and reminded me that, We’re always striving for this beautiful representation of our people, because so many stories out of Pine Ridge have been ‘poverty porn’ or a really twisted narrative of who we actually are. But it also reminded me of how important stories like this are for our people, especially our young people. I have a lot of cousins and family members who relate to these stories, and even though my personal existence and timeline of coming up on the res[ervation] may have been different, it’s relatable. Being able to even screen the film here in Pine Ridge, like we did a couple of months ago, and seeing family react to it and cry and feel really empowered, [proved to me] that the film definitely nailed it. I think that’s something that can be attributed to the story that Frank had carried authentically with him throughout this entire process. He never stopped being himself, and I think that really shows.