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Michael Jones talks with Chris Eyre and Sherman Alexie about bringing the reservation life of Smoke Signals to the screens of America.

Evan Adams and Adam Beach in Smoke Signals Photo: Courtnay Duchin
As Smoke Signals will be the first commercially distributed film written, directed, and co-produced by Native Americans, director Chris Eyre and writer Sherman Alexie have been careful not to slow dance with their skeletons. The advice comes from Thomas Builds-the-Fire, the uncanny, off-center sage of Alexie's critically acclaimed collection of short stories -- "The Lone Ranger" and "Tonto Fistfight in Heaven" -- on which the film is based. Indian skeletons of "memories, dreams, and voices" both define and hinder the characters of Thomas and Victor who, in Signals, embark on a road trip from Idaho's Coeur d'Alene Indian Reservation to bring back the ashes of Victor's estranged father -- found dead in a trailer park in Phoenix, Arizona.

For the writer/director team, the project's first objective was to distance the story from the typical politics that surround reservation life and the American Indian -- skeletons of alcoholism, injustice, loneliness. They were eager to show a different set of standards -- darkly comic, magical, beautiful -- still tragic but subtly viewed from the Indian first-person. They don't need Kevin Costner to suffer for them.

Filmmaker: You developed this project at the Sundance labs. How did that help you?

Chris Eyre: It was great, because the workshop helps you articulate exactly what you want to do. The film is very magical, lyrical. Sherman's material gave me a chance to try certain things that didn't work, and I'm glad I tried them there. I go by my gut, you know, just by my instinct.

Sherman Alexie: We wanted to show the small domestic lives of these Indians being human. I didn't want to make some New-Age film that people could interpret as these "Indian magical creatures" -- this closeness to the earth, talking to birds and animals. I wanted to make something a lot more subversive than that. Much funnier. In fact, the film is very self-conscious about the history of Indians in cinema. Some of the way Chris shot the film recalls certain Indian cinematic images. There are these gorgeous landscape vista shots of these two Indian guys walking along, and some of them are very western looking shots -- very John Ford-ish -- and you'd expect these guys to be on horseback. But no, it's these two Indians in western shirts and JanSport backpacks. So even how they dress totally contradicts all perceived information about Indians.

Filmmaker: How did you two meet?

Alexie: Chris had read my book and liked it and called me. I had other offers for the film rights, but people either scared the hell out of me, or I just wasn't interested. I wanted the first movie I did to be directed by an Indian. I was just waiting for somebody to show up, and he did.

Filmmaker: How did you find the film's unique voice? Did you look to any other films?

Alexie: Actually, there's a character, Thomas Builds-the-Fire (Evan Adams), who is a storyteller, so in fact, a lot of the movie is decidedly uncinematic, because a lot of time the camera stays still and Thomas tells stories. And sometimes you'll get images of what he tells in the stories. So he was the vehicle by which everything happened. I never thought he would be cinematic, but he is. Essentially, it's a road trip buddy movie that uses the road trip as a form for growth and change. And there's a lot of Lone Star-ish flashbacks to their childhood, telling more about the father and how he abandoned the family. It's just something you couldn't do with expository dialogue, it just wouldn't work. But we also didn't want this awkward Wayne's World flashback stuff. Then I saw an episode of St. Elsewhere that used flashbacks -- any time someone walked through a door they went back to the past. And then I saw Lone Star, with the amazing pans and tilts that moved you from past to present. I thought, That's it! The way time works in Indian culture is a lot more circular, so that the past, the present and the future are all the same thing.

Filmmaker: When you took your project to Sundance in order to build it, and you talked about structure with all these different screenwriters, how did you adapt that Indian, circular sense of storytelling to a more linear screenplay?

Alexie: At Sundance it was much more straightforward, Syd-Field, 120-page, three-acter. They talked a lot about basic structure. For me, that was film school in a week, and I needed that. Then, I started to read more and more screenplays, especially the more innovative ones like All About Eve and its use of voice-over at the beginning of the movie -- where the first 20 minutes are completely expository voice-over with three different characters doing the voice overs.

Filmmaker: How did you use that in Smoke Signals?

Alexie: The idea of not being afraid of Thomas doing the voice-over -- of not being afraid to allow his stories to essentially be the action. I like to think of Thomas' stories as being this action adventure, because so much is going on in the language. There's a lot of poetic language in the movie, and in fact in some of the test screenings people really liked the poetry, but there's also been a certain element that's been sort of puzzled by it. And I'm glad about that. There's this national fear of poetry, especially in movies -- everything has to be very clear cut and very forward. I wanted to break that apart. Because I'm naturally a poet -- I've written seven books of poems, so I definitely wanted that to be a part of the movie. I think we have a big chance here. I mean the movie is very funny and very friendly and --

Eyre: Easily digestible. The movie is strong enough without harboring on certain issues.

Alexie: And even though it's very cultural and very specific in many ways, it also talks about some universal qualities -- fathers and forgiveness. I want everybody in the world to see this movie. I'm not interested in making movies that don't appeal to a lot of people. So in some ways Chris and I are in the unique position of having to make this be a very accessible film in order for this to happen. Perhaps now, based on the success of this film, Indian filmmakers can get a little more adventurous and still find an audience. But we simply don't have the luxury right now. This film has to be safer in a sense and we're going to get taken to the rug because of it.

Filmmaker: Were you ever pressured to make it more of a social-issue oriented film?

Alexie: None of the potential producers or anyone we worked with ever did, but I think that's what's going to be the problem within the Indian community -- that's it's not a worthy "political" film. But Thomas Builds-the-Fire is actually very political and very aware of his place as an Indian man in this society.

Eyre: Victor and Thomas are definitely conscious of themselves in the over culture. When they get on the bus to go to Phoenix, their friends who take them to the bus stop go, "Hey, you two guys got your passports?" And they say, "Passports? This is the United States." And the friends say, "You're damn right it is. That's as foreign as it gets. I hope you two got your vaccinations. You're leaving the Res and going to a whole different country."

Filmmaker: How did you like the experience of working the book into a more visual medium?

Alexie: It was hard sometimes, because in fiction, I'm the absolute dictator. I'm the Fidel Castro of my country, and what I say goes. And in movie making, it's much more collaborative, which is great. I felt like I was on a team again. I played basketball competitively for years, and I miss that. But having to give up total control and having to share was hard in many ways. Once you've been Fidel Castro, it's hard to go into a democracy.

Eyre: It's crazy that there's never been a movie that has been the voice of Indians. It's always about how the over culture wants to portray Indians, and it's usually in the romantic vein -- and I definitely don't want to go there. The romantic stuff grosses me out! There's Native America, and then there's America's Native America. America's Native America is this place that mainstream America holds in a romantic place. Indians could be dead and gone and there would still be Indian-head icons on fruit boxes and Cherokee this and Cherokee that. I want to get away from the romantic stuff. Indian people are like anybody -- complicated people.


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