is May of 2009, and director Chris Eyre is where all directors dream
of being in demand and busy with a number of high-profile
Shall Remain, a five-part documentary on the Native American experience,
for which he directed several episodes, is playing on PBS to glowing
reviews. He's attempting to launch a new theatrical film and awaiting
an invitation to return to the TV series Friday Night Lights after
directing an episode from the previous season.
on the itinerary, however, is hitting the road for two screenings
of Smoke Signals, the film he directed more than 10 years ago, and
for which he is still best remembered.
don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing," he says,
with a mix of pride and resignation. "On the good side it's
a wonderful story about forgiveness, and I think in 20 years it
will hold up. I've made several more movies since then, and I think
I've done some better work, but Smoke Signals is still the one everyone
remembers best. I wonder if I'll be known better for a movie after
that, but either way, I'm fine."
first impressions go, it's easy to understand why Eyre's feature
directorial debut remains so prominently attached to his name. Smoke
Signals (1998) won the Sundance Film Festival Filmmakers Trophy
and the Audience Award, and it was hailed as a breakthrough film
that transcended stereotypes to capture contemporary Native American
lives and humor. The film received not just glowing reviews but
also major coverage in The New York Times, Time magazine, and other
influential media outlets.
of the stories played up the novelty of a theatrically released
film from a Native American director. Some claimed this was the
first time that had happened, though there were Native American
directors as far back as the silent era.
the point, if not technically accurate, was still noteworthy
after nearly a century of being defined by westerns, here was an
Indian with a different story to tell about the Native American
I read Sherman Alexie's story 'This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix,
Arizona,' I knew that was the movie I wanted to make," Eyre
says. "His writing hit upon something that I related to in
a very deep way."
the sometimes-prickly Alexie with that request, armed only with
a thin resumé and nonexistent track record, was his first
challenge. But Eyre has always been one to visualize his goals before
setting out to achieve them.
remember after high school traveling to the University of Arizona
and a woman asking me what I want to do, and I said that I was a
director," Eyre recalls. "Then she asked what I had directed,
and I said, 'Well, nothing yet.' My thing is you have to say it
before it comes to pass."
was a high school photography class and the historical Native
American images of Edward Curtis that inspired Eyre into
his career behind the camera.
came from wanting to touch those people. I kept wondering who they
were," he says.
desire to connect with his Indian heritage was particularly strong
in Eyre, an Indian of Cheyenne-Arapaho descent who grew up as the
adoptive son of white parents in Klamath Falls, Oregon. At age 25
he found his birth mother.
had 10 years with my biological mother before she died, and afterwards
I was still angry that she left me twice." Hardly surprising
then that a yearning for family and roots has been a prominent theme
in his filmography. "Smoke Signals is a great example of 'home,'
" he says. "It's about a boy who misses his estranged
father, then the father dies and he doesn't get to reconnect with
attending NYU's graduate film school, Eyre wrote and directed Tenacity
(1995), a short film about a confrontation between Indian boys and
a group of rednecks. The film earned him awards and grants, as well
as the courage to approach Sherman Alexie.
had to prove himself," Alexie told the Los Angeles Times of
that first meeting. "I'm one of the biggest Indian writers
in the country, he wants to do a film based on my book, and he showed
up 20 minutes late. I thought, He's Indian."
material from a chapter in Alexie's book The Lone Ranger and Tonto
Fistfight in Heaven titled "This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix,
Arizona," the author adapted his novel into the screenplay
for Smoke Signals.
story focuses on two young Indians, Victor (Adam Beach) and Thomas
(Evan Adams), who travel from Idaho to Arizona to pick up Victor's
father's ashes. Filmed in 22 days on a $1.7 million budget, Smoke
Signals grossed more than $8 million at the indie box office.
felt it was a challenge I was ready for, but I still didn't know
what I was doing to a large degree," Eyre admits. "I'll
never forget waking up the night before we started shooting and
seeing 18-wheelers appear overnight in the parking lot for a 100-person
crew. Millions of dollars were being spent and I was supposed to
be in charge. Just show up and figure it out that's the way
I've always done it."
he figured it out right. The film was screened at the White House
and described by Time magazine as "a shrewd portrait, sly,
casual yet palpably authentic, of the principal ways members of
any minority try to respond to an uncomprehending world."
next film, Skins (2002), was a tale of murder, brothers, and blood.
Starring Graham Greene and Eric Schweig, the movie was filmed entirely
on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota once
home to Red Cloud and the site of the Wounded Knee siege of 1973.
the comedic moments of Smoke Signals and opening after the zenith
of the independent film movement, Skins did not attract a wide audience,
though it was selected to close the 2002 Human Rights Watch International
Film Festival. It fittingly received its most enthusiastic reception
on reservations like the one where it was filmed. First Look Pictures
created the "Rolling Rez Tour," a series of free screenings
at Indian reservations throughout the country.
of America, about an African-American high school teacher (NYPD
Blue's Jim McDaniel) whose preconceptions about Indian culture are
challenged when he coaches a girls' basketball team at a Utah reservation
school, was selected as the opening night film of the 2004 Sundance
Film Festival and brought Eyre a Directors Guild of America award
for Outstanding Directorial Achievement. Though this touching and
perceptive film didn't reach the audience it deserved, it did find
a fan at NBC, who admired Eyre's handling of an inspirational sports
story and invited the director to visit the set of Friday Night
directed "Keeping Up Appearances," the seventh episode
of the series' 2008 season, and later helmed an episode of Law &
Order: Special Victims Unit.
shot a 48-minute episode in six days," Eyre says of his Friday
Night Lights experience. "It's blazing fast and exciting, and
a great ride when you're working with actors that are stellar in
their performances." The series' loose and free-flowing camerawork
offered an ideal match with Eyre's evolution as a filmmaker. "When
I was getting started I didn't know anything about style. I think
whoever directed Cannonball Run was my hero," Eyre says.
studied film theory at the University of Arizona and had a breakthrough
while taking courses in Japanese cinema.
favorite director was Yasujir Ozu, who made movies like A Story
of Floating Weeds (1934) and The Only Son (1936), which were basically
home dramas shot in a piecemeal style. Ozu didn't use dollies, pans,
or tilts. What he had were still photographs with actors in the
frame. That's where I identified my original style."
Smoke Signals with Eyre's more recent projects, most notably We
Shall Remain, and you might think you're watching the work of a
different director. "If you watch the third part of the series,
you'll see how I've diversified my visual style," he says.
he once said, "The only thing you get in making period pieces
about Indians is guilt," Eyre accepted the challenge of participating
in one of the most ambitious television series on Native history
ever produced, involving a multifaceted story of Native perseverance
that spans three centuries from the battles of the Wampanoags
of New England in the 1600s to the American Indian Movement leaders
of the 1970s.
always thought historical things with Indians were so cliché
and so uninteresting. You had Indians in loincloths running from
a tree to a rock, firing a gun, screaming, and then they die, romantically.
There was something perverse about it," he says. "But
in conversations about We Shall Remain, I found they wanted to have
Native American protagonists who participate in their own history
and weren't merely victims of what happened."
had the daunting task of shaping a balanced portrayal of Major Ridge,
played by Wes Studi. Ridge was a prosperous Cherokee landholder
who decided it was in the interest of his people to give up an independent
Cherokee homeland in the southern Appalachians in hopes of peace
and resettlement in land west of the Mississippi. It is remembered
as one of the most shameful chapters in the history of U.S. relations
with Native Americans.
hope Wes Studi and I have made him into a three-dimensional human
being who was not a noble or a savage," Eyre says. "Ridge
was a man who had to make a choice, and he made the best one he
could for the preservation of his people, but he was damned either
a go-to director for Native American projects has been a boon to
Eyre's career, but he's also gratified when he's invited to take
on a project that does not have an Indian component. After making
Smoke Signals, he was offered the director's chair on the Rob Schneider
comedy Deuce Bigalow, Male Gigolo. He turned it down. Even though
the film was nobody's idea of a classic, the chance to do it still
qualifies as progress for Eyre and for Hollywood.
happy to make films I'm passionate about, and that's what I've done,"
he says. "If the subject is Native American, I think I can
go to a place that's richer than other filmmakers, but it's not
the driving force for me. It's more important to try and transcend
Eyre is developing A Year in Mooring, a supernatural drama that
is not related to the Indian experience, but he also hopes to film
the story of the controversial Native American activist Leonard
that, I'd like to do Dances with Wolves in the style of Blazing
Saddles," Eyre says. Of course, given the current climate of
political correctness, it's doubtful that Blazing Saddles could
get made today. A Native American version could really stir up trouble.
know," Eyre says. "That's why it would be great!"