No Place Like Home
THERE ARE NO heroes and villains--or "cowboys and Indians"--in Smoke Signals, the film by Native American director Chris Eyre that won both the Audience Award and the Filmmakers Trophy at the recent Sundance Film Festival. Based on a collection of short stories by renowned Native American writer Sherman Alexie (who also penned the screenplay), Smoke Signals instead deals with two endearingly flawed Native American teens--the prematurely embittered Victor (Adam Beach) and his wide-eyed friend Thomas (Evan Adams)--who travel cross-country to pick up the ashes of Victor's father, a man who died with a terrible secret.
Eyre, who was adopted as a child, says the movie is about sons forgiving their fathers, and about "taking everybody back home." Sipping a Coke in an anteroom on the top floor of the downtown Hilton in Minneapolis, the filmmaker exhibits the same combination of outward passion and hard-fought inner peace that you suspect his protagonist will be left with as the final credits roll.
CITY PAGES: Smoke Signals is being hyped as the first mainstream Native American movie. What does that mean?
CHRIS EYRE: What it means is that there's a vehicle for a kind of Indian sensibility in the heartland, rather than all that romantic, spiritual, oppressive stuff about Indians sold by non-Indian filmmakers. Any time you put an Indian on the screen it's political--that's kind of the luggage that comes with the whole Indian package. With this movie I had 100 percent creative control. Then Miramax came along after the movie was done and bought it.
CP: How did you and Sherman get together?
EYRE: Well, I read his anthology four years ago and called him up through mutual friends--you know, two degrees of separation in the Indian world. I'd made a first draft of the screenplay and it was enough to bait him into saying, "Hey, it shouldn't be like that at all," and then he took over the screenplay. Sherman wasn't there for the shoot. I don't know what he thinks about the film.
CP: You mentioned "spiritual, oppressive stuff about Indians"--this idea of typecasting Native Americans as idiot savants or spiritual folk.
EYRE: Yeah. It's been proven that the best investment in making a movie with Indians is period--like Dances With Wolves, around 1860 to 1890, because America will pay to see romantic Indians but not contemporary Indians. What value is there in portraying Indians as normal people? That's why it's so important to give a voice to it.
CP: You said a Native American movie is by itself political. How political is Smoke Signals?
EYRE: It's not a political movie at all, but it is political because I was preserving the fact that these characters didn't have to be stereotyped. During the shoot, somebody might creep over my shoulder and go, "You know, you should heighten this for dramatic effect." But I just wanted to kind of lay it out there, keep it simple and not prostitute the material with stupid camera moves.
CP: Your next movie is for Showtime, right?
EYRE: Yeah, it's called The Carlisle Indian School. It spans about 32 years, from 1879 to around 1913. It's about this general, Richard Pratt, who went to the government and said, "Hey, I know what to do about this Indian problem. I'm going to take all these kids and put them in boarding school and assimilate them before they vanish." So the government took 6- and 12-year-olds out of communities--primarily Lakotas, Cheyennes, and Apaches, because they were the most "dangerous" Indians, the last to come in from the wars. It's really about a good man, General Pratt. Jeff Bridges and Beau Bridges are the executive producers, so one of them will probably play Pratt.
CP: This sounds somewhat political.
EYRE: I know. That's the ironic thing. Political movies are a recipe for disaster. The trick is to find a way to tell the story.
CP: What resonated for you in the Smoke Signals story?
EYRE: Mostly the question of home and the characters' different definitions of home. If anything this movie takes everybody back home, or at least leaves you with a question. The last line of the movie is: "If we forget our fathers, what is left?" That end monologue is from a poem by Dick Lorrie, and he was kind enough to let us have it for the movie. It's just the icing on the cake.
CP: Any interest in Anglo subjects?
EYRE: Absolutely. That's the great thing about film. This movie is a universal story about fathers and friends and forgiveness, and that equation is applicable anywhere. In general, I'd make anything that touches me. At this point it's easier for me to find Indian subjects that touch me just because I think they're uncharted territory and I feel close. Everybody's looking for good stories, and I think Native America has a wealth of good stories that need to be told.
Smoke Signals starts Friday at the Uptown Theatre. City Pages intern Erik Farseth contributed to this story.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.