Sherman Alexie revisits ‘Smoke Signals’ for One Heart festival

September 30, 2016

“Smoke Signals” was advertised as the first movie to be written, produced and directed by Native Americans, and few films since have been able to make the same claim. The film, shot in Spokane and the Coeur d’Alene Reservation, will screen at the Bing Crosby Theater on Friday as part of the One Heart Native Arts and Film Festival, a showcase for Native American actors, artists and filmmakers.

Based on a story from Sherman Alexie’s book “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven,” the 1998 film stars Adam Beach as Victor Joseph, who lives on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation with his mother. He learns of the death of his estranged father, Arnold, who left the family behind when Victor was young, and he travels with the quirky, bespectacled Thomas Builds-the-Fire (Evan Adams) to collect the cremains in Phoenix.

Directed by Chris Eyre, “Smoke Signals” was a critical and commercial success upon release, earning $6 million off a $2 million budget. Alexie, who was born and raised on the Spokane Indian Reservation and who also wrote the film’s screenplay, will moderate and participate in a post-screening panel discussion on Friday night, and he talked with The Spokesman-Review about the legacy of “Smoke Signals,” his brief stint as a director and why Native Americans are still underrepresented on multiplex screens.

The Spokesman-Review: When was the last time you saw the movie?

Sherman Alexie: In full? In one sitting? Sixteen years.

SR: So have you just seen it in pieces?

Alexie: Yeah. At various places where it’s screened, I’ve watched parts of it. My son has watched it in its entirety. He’s younger than the movie. Generally I watch the beginning and the end if I feel a need to return to it.

SR: Why is that?

Alexie: Those are the most beautiful parts to me. … I think the filmmaking is at its best in the first five minutes and the last five minutes. It was one of the beautiful things in editing and shooting, to portray a reservation community in a way that it hadn’t been before.

SR: Do you plan to watch the whole thing at this upcoming screening?

Alexie: You know, I think I will, because it’s going to be such a homegrown audience. I haven’t been in a crowd watching since probably the year it was out, so I have to see it. Although I remember we screened it in Minneapolis in ’99 and the sound kept going out, but there were enough people in the crowd that had seen it enough times that they started filling in the dialogue. It was like “The Rocky Horror Indian Picture Show.”

SR: Based on your memories of the movie, do you think it still holds up?

Alexie: Oh, I know it does. It’s pretty timeless. … It doesn’t rely on any contemporary tropes, or tropes from that era, so I think it works really well. The thing is, Indians always look like Indians – the same Wrangler T-shirts and jeans forever.

SR: Do you have any memories of the production?

Alexie: My son was born a few days into filming, so I missed most of filming.

SR: And where was it shot? I recognized a couple locations.

Alexie: It was in Spokane and Soap Lake, and Dry Falls stood in for Arizona. So you put some red tint on the film, and Dry Falls suddenly looks very mesa-like. Some of the things I really love are the incongruities. When they pull into the Phoenix bus station, which is the Spokane bus station, there’s a maple leaf hanging down into the frame. You know, the world famous Arizona maple trees.

SR: What do you remember about the movie coming out and the reception it received?

Alexie: Well, it was really revolutionary. It’s still revolutionary. It remains the only Native written and directed film to ever receive a national distribution deal. I mean, it was in 800 theaters. That was by Miramax; it was Harvey Weinstein. It was a cultural phenomenon.

SR: Speaking of Native American representation in film, do you feel like anything has changed since “Smoke Signals” came out?

Alexie: Nothing has gone mainstream again. I thought it would usher in an era of mainstream Native films, but it didn’t. I’m still hoping that it happens. One of the issues is simply economic. There’s not enough Native people to guarantee a box office. There’s only a couple million of us, so it’s hard to think of that in terms of making money on a movie.

SR: That’s too bad, because that suggests people aren’t willing to see films centered on characters whose race isn’t their own.

Alexie: Everybody needs to look at their group of friends, and they’ll see their moviegoing habits. If your friends are not diverse, I’m sure your movie and reading habits are not diverse, either.

SR: What do you think it was about “Smoke Signals” that made it so popular at the time?

Alexie: It was funny, laugh out loud funny, and I think that was a brand new way to look at Indians. And amazing performances. These were Native actors who are great and still are great, but who fully got a chance to invest in a role.

SR: Do you think a movie like this could get made and distributed today?

Alexie: (laughs) I’ve tried for 20 years, so no. I’ve tried to make films off and on. There’s a deal pending and brewing, so perhaps I will change that.

SR: Is there any more you can say about that project?

Alexie: No.

SR: You also wrote and directed “The Business of Fancydancing” in 2002. What was that experience like, actually being behind the camera?

Alexie: Oh, God, I only was a director so I didn’t have to deal with a director!

SR: Being the main ego on the set is probably the best position to be in, right?

Alexie: Yeah, because I have a writer’s ego, which is not like a director’s ego.

SR: How so?

Alexie: Directors think they do everything. Directors actually believe they’re the cinematographer and the editor and the actors. I mean, movie directors are like Fidel Castro. Movie directors are Third World dictators.

SR: I can print that, huh?

Alexie: Donald Trump is a movie director!

SR: But was it a good experience otherwise?

Alexie: Oh, yeah, it was great. It was really fun.

SR: Let’s talk about the screening at the Bing. Who’s participating in the panel?

Alexie: Evan Adams, who plays Thomas Builds-the-Fire; me; the producer, Larry Estes; Monique Mojica, who plays Grandma.

SR: Any idea what you’ll be talking about?

Alexie: It’ll probably be memories, maybe a Q&A. I have experience with this, so I’ll probably be semi-moderating as well as talking. But I imagine it’s going to be a nostalgia-filled trip and about “Smoke Signals” legacies. Evan has all sorts of hilarious stories about the thin line between reality and fiction and the way he’s been treated like Thomas Builds-the-Fire over the years.

SR: People assume he’s the guy in the movie?

Alexie: Yeah. They end up treating him like he is Thomas rather than this powerful and successful medical doctor in British Columbia. People still treat him like he’s a highly eccentric res kid. Which, in real life, he’s also that. (laughs) I remember he told me at one point it makes him feel like he’s Scarlett O’Hara.

SR: You mentioned that “Smoke Signals” is timeless, but what do you hope modern viewers will take away from it?

Alexie: Just the complicated nature of being a human being, as well as being a Native American, and the way those things interweave.

SR: Anything else about the film or the festival you think people should know about?

Alexie: Well, the thing for me that’s definitely going to be tough is the only moving pictures we have of my mom and dad are their cameos in “Smoke Signals.” There’s no other video footage of them that I know about, so it’s going to be hard to see them alive and talking and moving and being themselves onscreen.

SR: Where are they in the movie?

Alexie: They’re at the party scene dancing, and then my mom is the cashier in the grocery store at the beginning. It’ll be really tough and also beautiful.