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PARK CITY '07 INTERVIEW | Sterlin Harjo: "I wanted to make a film about Indian characters that suffe

By Indiewire | Indiewire January 8, 2007 at 8:53AM

[EDITORS NOTE: indieWIRE is publishing two interviews daily with Sundance '07 competition filmmakers through the end of the festival later this month. Directors with films screening in the four competition section were given the opportunity to participate in an email interview, and each was sent the same set of questions.]
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[EDITORS NOTE: indieWIRE is publishing two interviews daily with Sundance '07 competition filmmakers through the end of the festival later this month. Directors with films screening in the four competition section were given the opportunity to participate in an email interview, and each was sent the same set of questions.]

Director/screenwriter Sterlin Harjo's "Four Sheets to the Wind" is described by Sundance as a "wonderfully crafted first feature [that is] a fresh and delightful film about healing and the ties that bind peopple together." In the film, a young man finds his father dead and fulfills his dad's wish to be unceremoniously sunk to the bottom of a family pond. In order to meet the expectations of their community, however, the family stages a "fake" funeral.

In the midst of the mourning, the young man decides he must make his break from the reservation he calls home, and accepts an invitation from his sister, who lives in Tulsa, to join her in the "big city." The move opens him to a whole new world. "Four Sheets to the Wind" is the first full-length feature for Harjo, who directed the short, "Goodnight Irene" in 2005. The film will screen in the Independent Film Competition: Dramatic at the upcoming Sundance Film Festival.

Tell us about yourself...

I'm from a small town in Oklahoma called Holdenville. My former jobs include: Coffee Shop, Waiter, Construction Worker, and writer for The Seminole Nation Of Oklahoma's newspaper, Cokv Tvlvme. The town that I grew up in has a population of roughly 6,000 people. I graduated with a class of 80 students. I knew every one of them. It's a small, rural town, and I loved growing up there. Most of my life, my family and I lived in a house in the country.

I was always encouraged by my parents to pursue art. I started out just drawing pictures when I was a child. I was always getting in trouble at school for not doing homework because I was always drawing. Once I was in high school, I began taking art classes with the art teacher Richard Billingsly. He encouraged me to pursue art even further. So, once I graduated from high school I went to The University Of Oklahoma. I was enrolled in the painting school. At this time I also began writing short stories.

What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker?

I left school for a while and decided that when I went back I would go into the film program. I had always loved watching movies. Me and my dad watched movies non-stop while I was growing up. He never made a big deal about me watching R-rated movies either... so I watched a lot of war movies with him as well as horror films.

During my time off from school I wrote my first script... which was actually pretty bad. I gave it to the head of the program (Film and Video Studies), Dr. Andrew Horton, and I guess he could see enough good in it to encourage me to take an intro to film and video studies. My teacher was Misha Nedeljkovich. His love for film is very contagious... From that point on I knew that I wanted to make movies. So, I just immersed myself in film. I really got into John Cassavetes and Jim Jarmusch... I poured through their films and then moved on to French New Wave films, etc... And I still feel like a student of film. I'm constantly watching and learning from other filmmakers.

I kept painting and still do, but everything took a backseat to filmmaking. I bought a video camera and began making music videos for a friend's band (composer Jeff Johnston) and just learned how to edit and shoot that way... trial and error. Then I moved on to making short films.

"Four Sheets to the Wind" director Sterlin Harjo. Image courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Please tell us about "Four Sheets to the Wind." How the initial idea come about?

I was staying in Brooklyn for a summer and had a few ideas for a script floating around in my head. I was determined to complete a script before I headed back home to Oklahoma. Being away from the place that you're writing about helps because it gives you a different perspective on things. I wanted to write a sort of love letter of a film to my home state at first, but then it turned into something bigger and all together more interesting. I wanted to show this world that I was familiar with... but I wanted anyone and everyone to be able to relate to it. We are all humans and we all struggle through the same difficulties, whether you're from Oklahoma or the other side of the world. When I left my hometown at 18 it had a profound effect on me... My eyes were opened to a giant world. Some of that is in the main character, Cufe Smallhill, but the film isn't autobiographical at all. I'm Seminole and Creek Indian, and I wanted to make a film that I could relate to. I wanted to make a film about Indian characters that suffer through the things that all humans do. We really don't walk around having visions all day, or playing the flute 24/7. We aren't always so serious... we actually do have a sense of humor. It's about Indians, but above all it's about humans and how one gets over loss through connecting with others. It's about finding people that will listen.

What other creative outlets do you explore?

I'm most influenced by music. I get really inspired by a great song. Tom Waits, Waylon Jennings, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, The Roots... I could go on forever.

How did the financing and casting for the film come together?

As with all films it was pretty difficult at first to find funding. After I went through the Feature Film Program at Sundance with the project I met Chad Burris. Chad wanted to produce a short film and I had an idea for one, so he produced my short film, Goodnight Irene. We worked well together so he became producer of Four Sheets as well. Chad lives in Tulsa where I live so I also met up with producers that were based out of LA. That's when I met Ted Kroeber and he also came on board to produce along with Chad. Together they found the funding.

Before the film was financed we began getting taped auditions from actors from all over. I had specific ideas for who I wanted in the parts... and luckily I found great actors.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making the movie?

Once we were making the film everything fell into place. We had a great time... though, it's always hard making a film. It was great shooting in Oklahoma. People aren't used to seeing film crews, so we got some pretty interesting characters wandering around the set. It was great for the LA crew people because they just weren't used to Oklahoma... it was sort of culture shock. One day we were sitting outside of a location in a sketchy part of town and a crack-head came by asking for a job... she said, "I've got experience, I've been a PA, script supervisor, L.A. I've done it all..." I was tempted to hire her. And there were also a lot of great locals that we put in as extras as well. Really sweet people who never got mad that we were shooting on the street outside of their houses... instead they would bring you tea... or ask to take a picture with you.

What do you hope to get out of the festival, what are your own goals for the experience?

I just hope to have as many good screenings as possible... I hope the film touches people. I hope they laugh, I hope they cry. For me, I just want to keep making films. I have another project that I hope to get into the right people's hands.

Tell us about the moment you found out that you were accepted into Sundance, where were you, and how did you react?

I found out that I was in competition at Sundance while at my house in Tulsa... I think that a smile formed and didn't go away for a couple of days.

What are some of your all-time favorite films and best picks for 2006?

Some of my favorite films are "Black Cat White Cat", "Underground", "The Conformist," "Dead Man," "A Woman Under The Influence," and I don't know... there are too many. For 2006, I liked "The Departed," "Babel," "Half Nelson," "Borat," "A Prairie Home Companion," "Little Miss Sunshine," and "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints."

What is your New Years resolution?

Make a new film.

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