An Eyre of Success: Director Chris Eyre Sends "Smoke
by Anthony Kaufman
For his feature film debut, Chris Eyre hits big with “Smoke Signals,” a
Native American road movie about fathers and forgiving that brings the
sensitive and strong storytelling of author Sherman Alexie to the screen.
A mere two years out of film school, Eyre workshopped the film at the
Sundance Lab in ’95 with such luminaries as Stephen Zaillian and Robert
Redford, then shot the assured film in 24 days. Soon after, the film went
to Miramax before it screened at Sundance earlier this year where it
came away with the coveted Audience Award.
Adapted from Alexie’s short story, “This is What It Means to Say
Phoenix, Arizona,” the film, opening today, follows the cynical Victor
Joseph and the goofy Thomas Builds-the-Fire, as they travel from Idaho’s
Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation to Phoenix, Arizona to retrieve the
remains of Victor’s father (played powerfully by Gary Farmer) who left
his family 10 years before. A shy Eyre, speaking softly during a trip
to New York, talks about his directing style, the Sundance Lab
verses NYU, and after some prompting, the whiteness of independent film.
indieWIRE: I was really impressed by the look of the film, the
landscapes and the poetical flashbacks in particular? How close did you
work with your cinematographer? Is this someone you’d worked with
Chris Eyre: No, his name is Brian Capner and he’s a great
cinematographer. It was pretty much a conventional situation. We just
took every scene and thought about how to do it in the easiest way and
it wasn’t about trying to be flashy. It wasn’t about trying to impress
people with this and that. I didn’t want a glossy or a flashy type of
film. The film is about good storytelling. This film warranted a
straightforward approach and also because of the budget. I just
basically set about making it straightforward.
iW: Were you tempted at any point?
Eyre: No, not really. The flashiest is Arnold on the basketball
court. And the D.P. wanted to cant the camera. I said, I’m not going
to cant the camera, I’m like, “What the hell, this isn’t MTV or
something?” It prostitutes the story. That’s about as glossy as I
would let it be. It’s a beautiful shot and it warrants it with that
monologue. It’ll tolerate that. But the intention was to keep it
simple. The music was very simple. It’s a great soundtrack, it’s very
simple. That’s the kind of movie it is. It’s a small movie with a huge
heart. It’s very warm and sincere. I even had a 40-piece orchestra
that did music cues, and I think we ended up using only two of those
cues. We didn’t need them. It was a less is more kind of thing. When
non-Indians shoot Indians, they always make it very romantic, you want
to barf — it’s so over the top. That’s not the movie I wanted to make
iW: I wanted to ask you something that I’ve been bothered by lately —
about how much independent film is just so white?
Eyre: [Laughs] That’s hilarious; that is so funny you said that. So
what do you want to do about it?
iW: I’m asking you, that’s the question to you. What do you think of
Eyre: I really feel like if you’re going to tell me a story, show me
something new. And that’s what everybody’s looking for, something new.
There’s also this sentiment that it’s cool to be oppressed and I didn’t
want to get near that. Because it’s a generational thing. But it’s
more or less an alleviation of guilt. Because what happens is, in the
70’s you had affirmative action and all this consciousness of people
that were in the minority and after about 20 years of that being shoved
down the collective throat of America, they started saying, “Screw
this, we had it bad too.” And then you get little kids from Connecticut
coming down and begging for change on the streets of New York, because
it’s chic. It becomes a chic thing — I’m not talking about trading
battle scars here. But consequently, some movies have taken on that
stance. It started with “Amongst Friends”; it permeates through
independent film. It’s about identity. I believe there’s a lot of
homogenization of people going to NYU and all that stuff. But there’s
also the marketplace for it, because the populace is made up of the same
kinds of people. So, it’s fine. It makes my stuff more interesting.
Because people can’t touch that material. Non-Indians can not make a
movie about Indians today. They can always talk about the Indian wars
and romanticize that, but who’s going to write the script? And who’s
going to say, this is how we are today? That’s our territory. I do
agree with you, you know, that’s funny you said that. It was like, Oh
my god, I can’t believe he just said that. We’re not supposed to say
iW: Yeah we are, people are. I wondered if at NYU, if you felt any
sense of being the only American Indian, if that made any difference?
Eyre: No, not really. The thing that I love about New York is, in
fact, that everybody melts in, that people don’t stick out. That’s what
I love about New York. When I go to South Dakota, I realize I’m Indian
and these people aren’t.
iW: I had a question about the title of the movie. Did it go through
some sort of transformation from “Sherman Alexie’s Smoke Signals” to
just “Smoke Signals”?
iW: What happened with that?
Eyre: I didn’t want it to say “Sherman Alexie’s Smoke Signals.”
iW: How was it working with Miramax?
Eyre: Miramax has been really good. People always want to get dirt on
Miramax and I haven’t had a bad experience with them. Even before the
movie sold to them, I think all young filmmakers in their dreams want to
have a distributor that is that supportive, on the edge and big. Even
before they bought it, I was really interested in the possibility of
them distributing the movie. Larry Estes sold the film. We kept
sitting and waiting and he kept calling and telling us what was going on
and we ended up at Miramax.
iW: Was he shopping around?
Eyre: Nobody had seen the movie. And it’s one of two philosophies:
either try to sell it at Sundance or sell it before. And we decided
we’d take the safer route and not have it be a big huge hoopla thing at
Sundance and not worry about it when it’s there. So, we set up
screenings and then everybody from different companies covered the
movie. And there was interest from three or four companies, and Miramax
iW: Tell me about your trip to Sundance a couple years earlier and
workshopping it at the Sundance lab?
Eyre: That’s where I cut scenes with Redford. We shot four scenes and
cut them all together and they really don’t resemble what I did in the
movie. It’s a great exercise in how to handle certain material. But
you know, even if I went out right now and tried to recreate this movie,
it would never be the same. So, it was great. They tell you, “Fail,”
so you can explore certain things in the story, so without that
workshop, the movie would not be what it is. In four weeks at Sundance,
I probably got as much as I did at four years at NYU. And one was
free. Can you guess which one? [Laughs.]
iW: What did you get out of it that was so great?
Eyre: It was all practical. You’re actually shooting and you have the
best mentors that there are. Steve Zaillian [Schindler’s List] was
helping us with the screenplay and Allen Daviau was on the set, working
with the cinematographer and Redford was in the editing room, talking
about certain things. That’s why it was so valuable, above and beyond
what the mentors were teaching and concerned about, it builds
relationships and that was why it was so valuable.
iW: Was it easier to get film financing because you were at the
Eyre: I won the NHK award at Sundance in ’96 and that was definitely a
catalyst for some financiers to like the project. But the real thing
that got the movie financed was it was a good script. If you have a
good script, you’re half-way there. That’s the biggest lesson is that
aesthetically you can do all sorts of things, but really, you have to
have a good story. My success is purely based on knowing what a good
story is and then you’re half-way there. If you don’t have a good
story, you shouldn’t make it. If you don’t have a good story, don’t
deceive yourself — don’t make it. It’s a waste of time and a big waste
of money. I’m not a writer, you know.
iW: But you wrote “Tenacity” [your short film] and that was
Eyre: But I’m not a writer, you know — where I have 20
screenplays and each one is like 10 pages long — I’ve never finished
one. Writing is a very different discipline, so I’m more of a
director, but I am writing one of my next projects. But writing is very
iW: What are you working on?
Eyre: There are lots of movies that I want to make. I would love to
make Leonard Peltier’s story. He is an Indian who was convicted of
killing two FBI agents in 1976 on the Oglala nation, and a lot of people
don’t think he did it.