One of several good reasons in this faux-indie era to admire Minnesota-based filmmaker Christine Kunewa Walker: “ I don’t make films because I think they’re going to be blockbusters,” says the producer of Backroads, American Splendor, Factotum, and the new Older Than America, leaving no doubt that it’s true. “ I try to make films that speak to me, and I try to make them on a budget, so we can get our money back. But it starts with the content–always. I can never think about whether a movie is going to make a lot of money. Anyone who’s concerned with that should be working in Hollywood.”
It’s a day before the Oscars, and Walker–who did her name proud by coming to our interview at Java Jack’s on her own two feet–is prepping to debut Older Than America on opening night of the “ Women With Vision” festival before taking it down to the ever-hipper South by Southwest. In other words, her commitment to Minnesota is genuine. Walker produced Older Than America–about a Native American woman’s struggle to come to terms with a legacy of abuse–for just over a million dollars on the Fond du Lac Reservation of northern Minnesota, booking the entire 50-member crew at the Black Bear Casino Resort for the month-long shoot. First-time director Georgina Lightning, who co-wrote the movie with Walker, had planned to film in Idaho or California, but heeded her producer’s suggestion to make America here, and since then has decided to stay–because she loves Minnesota or Walker, either of which would be understandable.
Q: Does this project mark your return to the territory of Backroads?
A: Making this film really reminded me of the challenges and rewards of independent movies. When you’re working with the Native American community, a community that has dealt with oppression and victimization, and you’re telling their stories, there’s naturally a great deal of sensitivity involved. For instance, there are many [Native] people who feel it’s not appropriate to show sacred ceremonies such as the Sundance onscreen. As a producer, you want to be the person to deal with those sensitivities in the best possible way. But you are also dealing with the realities of independent filmmaking: not enough money, not enough time. You’re struggling to get material on film–or tape, in this case. And when someone says, “ I’m not sure if we should use this phrase for the Sundance scene,” or “ I’m not sure I’m comfortable with your shooting the Sundance scene,” and you’ve got a whole cast and crew lined up to shoot that scene the very next day, and you have to stop everything and smooth over whatever issues there are, then it’s a challenge, you know? So that’s why I’m there. I consider myself a person who understands those difficulties and considers it important. But then there’s also the producer side of me that says, “ We’ve got to get this thing in the can!” We had some of those same issues with Backroads.
Q: On Older Than America, you were also working as co-writer–so you would’ve been in the perfect position to address both the artistic side and the production side, the creative and the practical.
A: Yes, but let me qualify that a bit. The story really came from the director, Georgina Lightning. I was just the person who helped facilitate it. Georgina had met with a number of writers and tried to work with them, and there was some push and pull with regard to how the story should be told. After a few years of that, we both sat down and said, “ Why don’t we just try to tackle this together?” Working on this project, it was very important for me to facilitate whatever vision Georgina had for the film. And I think at the end of the day she’s really happy with what she could accomplish with the movie, and that makes me feel like I did my job well as a producer and co-writer.
Q: What was it about Georgina and her work that allowed you as both producer and co-writer to trust her so completely?
A: I had met Georgina working on Backroads. She was an actor in the movie–as she is in this movie. I had admired her work as an actor and over the years I had gotten to know her more as a friend and as someone who’s working and struggling in the industry. We had long conversations in which she expressed her philosophy of her work, what she’s trying to achieve in this business, what stories she wants to tell. So when she asked me to get involved in a project, I was really excited. I thought about the lessons I had learned on Backroads, and I thought I could bring some experience to the table. I also decided that I had to trust her completely. I respected her work and I liked her as a person, but who knows? She’s a first-time director, and there are no guarantees with first-time directors–absolutely none. I had to take a leap of faith–to trust in her vision, to get her the resources she needed, and then see what would happen. I tried never to second-guess her–which felt like the right thing to do especially because this wasn’t my story. I knew nothing about Native American boarding schools before I got involved with this project. So who am I to tell her how to make this story?
Q: And this project also brings you back to the Walker, with which you have a long history.
A: Yes. I was a publicist at the Walker for years. But the other thing in relation to this project and the Walker is that I worked many years ago on a program with a Native American director named Victor Masayesva. The Walker was trying to get cameras into the hands of Native American youth. The campaign was: “ Okay, there has been a distrust of the mainstream media within the Native American community because of the way the community has been portrayed by non-Native journalists and filmmakers. And so in order for us to change this, we have to take control of the medium and use the technology to tell our own stories.” I was very excited about that campaign. It changed my whole way of thinking about directors and filmmaking. Older Than America brought back that same excitement: being in a position as a producer to empower a community that didn’t have many champions in the media. In my other films, I may have had a bigger role in saying, “ Oh, well, you need to do it this way.” On this film, I just wanted to give Georgina the benefit of my experience, to let that work for her. I didn’t want to become another authority figure to the community, telling them how to represent themselves. I never want to be that. On Backroads, I think the director felt I was playing that role. And it was painful–very discouraging and disappointing. This was my chance to try again and make it work.
Q: How did the project get started?
A: Georgina and I actually started by shooting the trailer for the movie in Idaho about four years ago. She was based in Los Angeles at the time. Georgina and another woman had started a company called Tribal Alliance Productions. That company’s mission statement is about creating media that matters, but also about creating opportunities for Native and indigenous filmmakers. I agree with that mission wholeheartedly, so we started working together. When we did the trailer, Georgina hadn’t yet figured out what form the story would take: She knew she wanted to tell a kind of suspense story, a drama that had something to do with a Native American boarding school. We had another director attached to the project at that time. But it became apparent to me that he was trying to facilitate her vision, and the truth of the matter–I tell this to everybody–is that you cannot direct a movie from the producer’s chair. It always fails miserably. So I talked to Georgina and said, “ Look, we’re struggling to try to tell your story, we’re bringing in writers, we brought in a director, but there’s conflict and there doesn’t need to be, because it’s your story. Why don’t you just write this thing and direct it? What’s the problem?” She needed someone to tell her that, to say, “ You can do this.” More than that: “ You have to do this. Or else it’s going to be a disaster.” No one else could do it but her.
Q: Did you and Georgina always want to shoot in Minnesota?
A: Oh, no. At first we took the trailer and a story idea to the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, which is a casino tribe in California. We raised some money from them–enough to go out and develop the project further, write a script, assemble a team, do some location scouting, come up with a budget, and start casting–mostly Native American actors at that time. In the course of writing the script, we realized we were going to need more money–more than a million dollars. So we went back to our executive producer, Audrey Martinez. She put in the rest of the money. The financing came from people who’d had a prior relationship with Georgina, who also believed in her, and wanted to give her a shot. In the end we shot in northern Minnesota, near the end of 2006. It was colder than crap. We had thought of shooting in Idaho. But when I started looking at the budget and thinking about what our resources would be, I asked Georgina to come and take a look at Minnesota as a possible location. When she started learning about the history of the tribes in Minnesota, about the Dakota Conflict and so on, and when she started meeting people in the Native American community who are affected by the boarding school experience, she came to the conclusion that there was no other place to make the film. And creatively speaking, the northern Minnesota locations worked so beautifully for the look of the film. The Fond du Lac Reservation embraced us with open arms. They gave us so much support.
Q: What does it mean for you and Georgina to be in “ Women With Vision”?
A: It’s really exciting for us. We had to think about it before committing, because the screening is actually before our festival run, and festivals want to have the world premiere. But when [Walker film/video curator] Sheryl Mousley came to us and asked if she could open the festival with our film, we had to think about it–just for a little while. It’s really such a great first screening for us. Georgina is definitely a woman with vision–a creative vision, but also a vision of something bigger. My view of female directors in the industry is that they have to be entrepreneurial–sadly so, in a way. You can’t just have a creative vision as a woman in this industry; you have to have a larger vision for your career. It’s not a given that if you make a good movie and get an agent, then your next film will get a green light right away. When you look at Tamara Jenkins, nominated for an Academy Award for writing The Savages, the last film she made [Slums of Beverly Hills] was 10 years ago–and it was well-regarded, well-received on the festival circuit. What I like about Georgina’s approach to this is that she set up a company, brought her own financing, and made connections in various communities that would help support her. For her, that’s just part of the way she thinks. Me, I’m a producer, so I’m entrepreneurial anyway–it’s not that big a leap for me. But all creative women need to think along these lines. They need to be very strategic. It’s a lot of work, no doubt about it. But making movies is hard anyway!
Q: To the extent that Older Than America is about the negotiation between mainstream culture and indigenous culture, between men and women, between haves and have-nots, between Minnesota and the rest of the world, I’m guessing you must’ve thrived on the fact that the making of the film was a mirror of the story of the film. True?
A: Yes! But imagine the challenge–just the writing challenge for starters. Georgina came to me and said, “ I want to tell a story about a mayor and a Catholic priest and a Native American woman and a boarding school, but I want it to be modern, and I want to represent the past.”
Q: Just like as a producer you want to appeal to an understandably sensitive community and at the same time reach out to a larger audience, right?
A: Right. It was as if we had set out to make it really hard, almost impossible. Negotiation is a good word for it. We were walking a fine line–negotiating our positions in the world. That’s what Native Americans have to do every minute of every day: negotiate for a tiny slice of power. The question is always, “ How to go about it? Do you work within the system or outside it?” The answer is different for everybody. Ultimately, Georgina’s answer was, “ We need to go back to a time before our customs and traditions were taken away, before we were told that we weren’t good enough.”
Q: Hence the title Older Than America?
A: Right. We have to reclaim that which was lost to us. Then we can move forward on an even playing field. It’s funny because it was almost like we had the title of the film before the story–like we had built the story around the idea of this title, Older Than America.
Q: The story works so well on an allegorical level–the idea of a Native American woman being hospitalized by white culture for having visions of the past. The mainstream culture is trying to treat these symptoms with medicine, as if they can be separated from the whole history of oppression of Native people, as if those visions of hers are not a product of that horrible legacy. But in the movie it’s never predictable or didactic. There’s great humor for example in that scene where the woman doctor sends the male cop out to get her coffee and a bagel–a funny twist on that burden of negotiating for tiny slices of power. In addition to all those other challenges you set for yourselves, were you also setting out to play with expectations of a politically correct movie?
A: I think so, yes. Traditionally in Native American culture there’s what you call the Voice of the Res–this all-knowing, perfect spirit. I like the idea of having our male hero get to the point of questioning who he is and finally saying, “ You know, maybe I’m not the voice of the res.” And he’s not, because he sold out way back when. That was a little nod of ours to the stereotype of the all-knowing, visionary Native American voice.
Q: That reminds me to say that the movie is so well acted. You can see that the director brought her personal experience to the film, clearly. But her experience as an actor must’ve helped too, right?
A: For sure. In addition to being an actor, Georgina has also worked as an acting coach–on the set of Smoke Signals, for example. And she has three children who are actors. That gets back to your question about how I was able to trust her with this: I knew that she had a firm handle on the acting piece of it, which was so important.
Q: Can we talk about Sundance?
A: Sure. For me, when people raise that question, the answer I give goes back to that experience at the Walker with Victor Masayesva. None of us involved with Older Than America could ever identify anything explicit in Native American culture that said you couldn’t represent these sacred Sundance ceremonies in art. I mean, you do see them depicted in painting and in literature. So why not film? I would ask tribal elders whether there’s something in Native culture that says this depiction would be damaging. And nobody could answer us. So we didn’t feel like we were violating sacred law. If other artists can use their mediums to depict these things, why can’t a filmmaker? On top of that, Georgina is a Native American director who’s very connected to these ceremonies. If she can’t depict these things on film, then who can?
Q: What do you think it is about film as a medium that lends to this apparent double standard? Is it because film is so tied to entertainment–as well as exploitation?
A: It could be that. It’s a good question. I don’t think I’ve fully answered it for myself. I do think part of the discomfort comes from the fact that in film there’s no control over the image. When you have a painting, you can put it in a gallery in a certain place and you can know who’s coming in to see it; on some level you can control the circumstances of how it’s received. You can set the context. But a film can have a mass audience of people watching in a wide variety of unknown situations–at home on a DVD with popcorn, in between episodes of American Idol or whatever. One interesting thing is that the images I found of the Sundance ceremony were on the Internet–which is uncontrolled, too, although I suppose you could argue that a context is created through the website and what else is on it. I think the difficulty we had with this issue speaks to the overall distrust of the media by Native Americans, which is not at all unfounded. Hollywood, for example, has a long tradition of using film to mock us, to alter the historical record. I respect those who say they don’t want anything to do with that tradition. Georgina is much more adamant in saying, “ Look, this is my story, this is my art form, and I’m going to do this. And if you don’t like it, well, that’s your opinion.”
Q: You could say she’s going forward at the same time that she’s going back?
Q: Here’s a funny thing: When I was asking earlier if we could talk about “ Sundance,” I was actually referring to the festival! I’m glad you thought I was asking about the Sundance ceremony, because your answer was so interesting. What I meant to ask was about the fact that you’re starting your festival run of this film at South by Southwest. And that’s unusual for you, right?
A: Oh! That is funny! Yes, we’re at South by Southwest this time, and it’s great. That’s a perfect venue for us, and the timing worked out perfectly in terms of our post-production schedule. Matt Dentler at South by Southwest was so enthusiastic about the movie. I sent him a DVD right after we finished the movie. He watched it on a Sunday, and he e-mailed me that night and said, “ Let’s talk right away.” We talked and he said he wanted Older Than America to be the first film that he booked for the festival. He loved it. His support really made us feel that we were where we were meant to be.
Q: And what about your next project–the one that you’re shooting here in the spring?
A: Well, it’s a comedy called Nobody, written by Rob Perez, who wrote 40 Days and 40 Nights. It stars Sam Rosen, who’s from [Minnesota], but now lives in New York. We’ll start shooting in May. It’s not about murder and mayhem on the reservation, and it’s not about losers. It’s a blatant comedy, very different from what I’m used to doing. I was intrigued by the script. It’s a new challenge for me.
Q: That reminds me: The quote of yours that I like the best from our past interviews is the one from when we met at Sundance to talk about Factotum. I asked whether it was a coincidence that Factotum and American Splendor were both about curmudgeonly artists. You said, “ In one way, it’s a total coincidence. But in another way, I know that I like movies about underdogs–people who aren’t necessarily understood, people who are fighting some kind of battle with themselves or society. I’m really not that interested in likable characters. I prefer unsympathetic characters who manage to redeem themselves.” So does that apply to Nobody?
A: Very much so!