This Is What it Means...
A Conversation with "Smoke Signals" writer Sherman Alexie
by Mike Jones
“Smoke Signals” Irene Bedard and Evan Adams.
Photo Credit: Randall Michelson
Mention a “Native American Film Movement” and the mostly ethnographic images
you’ll pickup still cannot be pinpointed to a specific time or, in some cases,
even to Native American filmmakers. Outside the PBS specials and investigative
docs like “Incident at Oglala” — the one that may come to mind the most with
American audiences is “Dances with Wolves“. Author and poet Sherman Alexie,
and director Chris Eyre, hope to demonstrate otherwise, and as their film
“Smoke Signals” premieres in Sundance with national and international
distribution in place (Miramax), they already have a leg up. In addition,
one of the Sundance Film Festival programs titled “View from the Center:
Native Vision in America” will further the call by screening a collection
of Indian films from Indian filmmakers based in both the U.S. and Canada.
This could be a golden era of First Nations moviemaking,” states the ’98
Sundance film guide.
Although Alexie, author of “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven“,
says “Smoke Signals” is one of the few film written and directed by
American Indians, he is careful to distance the film’s story from politics,
but not completely. The film follows two friends, Victor and Thomas, who
travel from Idaho’s Coeur d’Alene Reservation to Phoenix, Arizona to pick
up the ashes of Victor’s dead father.
iW: The predominant image of the American Indian that theatergoers know,
and from television as well, is the dispossessed Indian and the awful
conditions on the reservation.
Sherman Alexie: You might as well be in Ethiopia or something for all we see of
Indian reservations. And that’s not the case here. The reservation is
beautifully shot, and it’s a gorgeous place and that’s how we shot it,
that’s how Chris and Brian Capener chose to shoot it, too. It’s beautiful
and it’s green and lush. And not only to show the beautiful reservation,
but it contrasts directly with the barrenness of Phoenix where his father
went to and died, so the whole barrenness contrasted with the lush greenness
of the reservation.
iW: I was thinking of other recent films whose stories are based on
reservations, I thought of “Thunderheart”, you know…
Alexie: It’s all white created, white directed, white produced. It’s a
good movie, but…
iW: But it still lacks an authentic element. How did you find the films unique
voice? Did you use any other films?
Alexie: Actually, there’s a character, Thomas Builds-the-Fire, 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. They’re funny.
And sometimes you’ll get images of what he tells in the stories. Often he just
sits there and tells the story and talks, talks, talks. So he was the vehicle
by which everything happened, and there’s some voice-over that he does, but
he was really the vehicle, he’s the natural character in order to make a movie.
I never thought he would be cinematic, but he is. We sort of subvert the whole
convention of “show, not tell” and he’s sort of “tell it.”
iW: Were you ever tempted to go out of those static, voiced-over stories.
Alexie: We did a little bit, but just images. His voice-over works over the
story so, I think in some original drafts of the screenplay, he would start
the story and then the story would happen. But as we went along with the
screenplay, I started realizing his role in the movie — his voice in the
movie is really the wheel that keeps the movie rolling. “This is What It
Means to Say Phoenix Arizona” [the title of the short story the film is
based on] — that’s the story line, they go to Phoenix to pick up Victor’s
father. It’s a road trip buddy movie, and then I take in the elements of
three other stories into the screenplay and then there’s stuff created
specifically for the screenplay.
iW: Smoke Signals uses some the ideas of the seamless transitions John Sayles’
“Lone Star” is famous for. Time didn’t alter except at a moment when you didn’t
see it. Suddenly a younger version of the same character would come into the
Alexie: We were calling them magic cuts, not only to make the transitions
smoother and to make the story move along, but to make the flashbacks
integral to the narrative of the film. The way time works in Indian culture
is more circular. There’s a lot more culture on the screen than time.