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Kevin Willmott, “The Only Good Indian”: Westerns, Representation and Revisionism

Kevin Willmott, "The Only Good Indian": Westerns, Representation and Revisionism

EDITORS NOTE: This is part of a series of interviews, conducted via email, profiling dramatic and documentary competition and American Spectrum directors who have films screening at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.

From the Sundance catalog: “At the outset, young Nachwihiata lives a peaceful existence with his agrarian family until a band of white marauders attacks their homestead. They forcibly remove him and take him to a white Christian boarding school, where Native children are assimilated into the dominant culture. Renamed Charlie, he chafes under the lie of his new identity and, before long, runs away. He’s soon captured by bounty hunter Sam Franklin, an assimilated Indian who now only aspires to round up other Indians for reward money. The plot thickens when Sam and Charlie are pursued by a cruel, grizzled sheriff, who also wants the bounty on the missing boy. Like a true warrior, Charlie faces repeated tests of his courage and self-awareness, discovering the painful contortions of identity and despair to which many of his race are consigned, and the conflicts that remain even after the Indian Wars have supposedly ended.”

The Only Good Indian
Director: Kevin Willmott
Screenwriter: Tom Carmody
Executive Producers: Hanay Geioqamah, J.T. O’Neal, Dan Wildcat
Producers: Thomas Carmody, Rick Cowan, Matt Cullen, Greg Hurd, Scott Richardson, Kevin Willmott
Cinematographers: Matthew Jacobson, Jeremy Osbern
Editors: Thad Nurski and Mark Von Schlemmer
Cast: Wes Studi, Winter Fox Frank, J. Kenneth Campbell
U.S.A., 2008, 113 mins., color

Please introduce yourself…

My name is Kevin Willmott.  I grew up in Junction City, Kansas.  I am an Associate Professor of Film Studies at The University of Kansas.  I graduated from Marymount College of Kansas and have a graduate degree from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in dramatic writing.

After writing scripts for Oliver Stone, NBC and others, I started making my own films:  “Ninth Street,” with Martin Sheen and Isaac Hayes; “CSA: Confederate States of America,” which premiered at Sundance in 2004; “Bunker Hill”, with James McDaniel, Saeed Jaffrey and Laura Kirk, which was recently completed; and now, “The Only Good Indian.”

My wife Becky and I have five children, and we live in Lawrence, Kansas.

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

I have wanted to be a filmmaker ever since I was a kid.  I went to the theater literally every weekend and was very influenced by the Blaxploitation movies of the 1970s.  I was particularly influenced by Gordon Parks, who also grew up in Kansas.

How did you learn the “craft” of filmmaking?

I went to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, but I think it was my time as a playwright, acting and writing in college, and later writing screenplays that gave me the confidence to become a filmmaker.  My goal was always to be a filmmaker, but I had no money, so I wrote plays instead, and I feel I learned a great deal from that.  When I would write plays, I would always intend to produce the play, so I tried to carry that some concept with me into filmmaking.  That once the screenplay was finished, you were obligated to find a way to have it produced. It never was intended to just remain in development.

How or what prompted the idea for your film and how did it evolve?

I worked with Tom Carmody on Bunker Hill, a film with James McDaniel and Saeed Jaffrey that we have just completed.  Tom came to me with the idea and the script for “The Only Good Indian,” and I was immediately interested.  Dan Wildcat, a professor at Haskell Indian Nations University, had told me about the Indian Boarding School history, when we worked together on my previous film, “CSA: Confederate States of America.”

This story about a young student risking it all to get back to his family really resonated with me, and I think provides a strong framework to tell the true story of American Indian history in a way that has not yet been offered in the classic Western genre.

Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film…

We were trying to reclaim certain images from Westerns that have not been kind to Native Americans.  One was “The Searchers.”  “The Only Good Indian” might be looked at as the anti-Searchers.  Instead of Indians kidnapping a white child, here it is white Americans who kidnap an Indian child, and the story revolves around his quest to get back home.

As well, I used a great deal of point-of-view in the film.  Just as we did with CSA, we’re trying to tell the history that we feel. The use of point-of-view, in trying to tell the story from the eyes of the Native American boy, helps us to feel the conflict and struggle that he is engaged in.

“The Only Good Indian” director Kevin Willmott. Image courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?

At this point, we don’t have distribution.  We hope to sell the film at Sundance, as we did with “CSA: Confederate States of America,” a few years ago.  Developing the film was not that difficult, because of the way we do things in Lawrence.  Tom Carmody, who wrote and produced the film, set out to do it independently.  When you know that from the outset, it gives you a clear course of action.

We concentrated on perfecting the script and finding the right actors to bring the film to life.   That was difficult because we had to find a young man to play the role of Charlie.  We were lucky to find Winter Fox Frank, who was visiting Lawrence at a Haskell University powwow.

J. Kenneth Campbell was also a great find to play McCoy.  I believe McCoy is the perfect villain, because of his complexity.  As much as you might fear him, you understand him.  Ken brought a great deal of depth and understanding to the part.  We tried to make McCoy a modern warrior.  Just as men and women suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome today, so did others during the Indian Wars.  As a Viet Nam veteran, Ken had a profound understanding of those issues.

Wes Studi was always our first choice for Sam Franklin.  We wanted him to be a contemporary hero, uniting the past with the present.  As well as being a great actor, Wes is just downright cool.  It’s about time for us to have a Native American leading man, cool-ass hero. Wes is the one.

And so, bringing this cast to the film was a great help in solving some of our most difficult issues.

What are some of your favorite films?

My cinematic influences include damn near anything by Woody Allen.  I have the guilty pleasure of some of the old Westerns by John Ford and anything by Sergio Leoni, in particular, “The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly.” I will watch “Chinatown” any time it comes on. Michael Roemer’s “Nothing But A Man,” Gordon Parks’ “The Learning Tree” and “Shaft,” Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove, and some of Spike Lee’s films are other favorites.  Blaxploitation films made me believe I could be a filmmaker, because I saw one every weekend of my childhood.

How do you define success as a filmmaker, and what are your personal goals as a filmmaker?

I define success as being able to tell the stories I know just won’t be told any other way.  Those people who may be people of color, or may be poor, or may have other things that keep them on the outside — the more you understand their stories, the more you understand America.  I like the challenge of making their stories into films.

Many times, people believe that these difficult American stories are impossible to tell in a way that audiences will embrace.  I feel that’s the charge we have taken on in many ways.  We continue to bend genres and reclaim images in a way that we hope makes these complicated stories entertaining.

What are your future projects?

We have been developing a film on Wilt Chamberlain called “Wilt of Kansas” about his years at KU.   The story deals with how Wilt was, in many ways, the first modern American athlete, and how he faced and dealt with segregation in 1950s Kansas.

We continue to work on several other complex and difficult projects that we believe are also entertaining and have the potential to be profitable.

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