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Sherman Alexie looks slightly out of place in the Four Seasons lounge. It’s not his blue shirt and white pants, which are a little casual for the upscale hotel but hardly conspicuous. It’s certainly not his choice of beverage, which is Diet Coke. It’s not the fact that he’s tall, long-haired, and a Coeur d’Alene Indian. It’s his haircut, the sort of shag that isn’t even worn by heavy metal stars anymore.
Alexie is an author, not a rocker, but like many young people given half a chance, he has used his notoriety as a chance to dabble in rock. He contributed lyrics to several songs in the new film Smoke Signals, which he adapted for the screen from The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, his book of short stories that opens with a Lou Reed epigraph. Before that, he collaborated with Indian singer-songwriter Jim Cole to make a self-released “soundtrack album” to Reservation Blues, a novel in which Smoke Signals’s lead characters “form an all-Indian Catholic rock ‘n’ roll band with Robert Johnson’s guitar.” (It’s a Catholic band, he explains, “’cause I’m Catholic. And any story about the devil has to have Catholics.”)
“I’d been writing lyrics long before I thought about making movies,” Alexie says. “It’s just another way of being poetic. I’m a poet. That’s what I started with. It’s a natural transition for me. Everybody wants to be a rock ‘n’ roll star, don’t they?”
Alexie doesn’t expect to be a rock star, but he is about to become a director, supervising the film he’s scripting from his latest novel, Indian Killer. Although he made his reputation with the written word, the Seattle-based author says that as a kid, he thought more about making movies than writing books.
“Growing up on a reservation,” he says, “nobody ever showed me a book written by an Indian. Never saw it. So the idea of writing a book seemed as foreign to me as curing cancer. It was completely outside my intellectual capabilities. But people who make movies aren’t as smart as people who write books,” he chuckles, “so I always knew that it was within the range of possibilities.
“You watch TV, it doesn’t take too long. You watch a couple episodes of The Love Boat and you realize, ‘This ain’t that hard,’” he chortles. Alexie concedes that lots of dumb books are published, but insists that “it’s harder to write a dumb book than a dumb screenplay.”
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His parents loved movies, he recalls. “That was back when drive-ins were still huge, and they’d play movies from sunset to sunrise. We’d go to the drive-in in Spokane and watch karate movies all night. Or horror movies. My family and I bought one of the first VCRs, when they cost about $1,000 and weighed 400 pounds.”
Westerns had fallen from fashion by the time Alexie was growing up, but he remembers watching plenty of old ones. “Indians love westerns,” he says. “Indians love anything with Indians in it, no matter the quality of it. The worst clichéd western, we’ll watch and love. Like Powwow Highway, which I loved when it came out [in 1987]. I saw it again recently, and it’s horrible,” he laughs. “Our expectations of images of us, ourselves, are so low that we can embrace a movie like that.
“Actually, one of my favorite moviesI carry the video around with me ’cause I’m using it for writing Indian Killeris The Searchers. The most anti-Indian movie ever made. It’s almost like the American Triumph of the Will. It’s such a great piece of art, and yet so anti-Indian, so in love with the idea of Manifest Destiny and rugged individualism that it really is a piece of propaganda.”
Alexie dismisses subsequent revisionist westerns as “liberal parables of Vietnam. If you look at movies like Soldier Blue and Little Big Man, it’s people identifying with the brown people getting bombarded by the imperialistic Americans.”
Smoke Signals, however, is very specific to the contemporary American Indian experience. It draws on Indian traditions of storytelling and sardonic humor to tell the tale of two young men, Victor and Thomas, who travel to Arizona from their Idaho reservation to collect Victor’s father’s ashes.
The film’s distributor is hailing it as the first feature film written, directed, and produced by American Indians. Alexie admits that this claim is technically untrue. “It’s the first to ever receive a distribution deal,” the writer qualifies. “There have been Indian feature films made before, but none has ever shown on more than one screen at one time. There’s never been an Indian feature film that had more than one print.”
When The Lone Ranger and Tonto was published in 1993, Alexie remembers, he hoped it would be the basis for a film. “There was a lot of interest, but from non-Indians. It was all people wanting to make a loincloth movie out of it, or casting white actors as Indians. I wasn’t interested in any of that.
“All they were interested in was the narrative device,” he says. “They weren’t interested in any of the particulars. It makes no sense, but that’s the business.
“In Hollywood in the right light,” he cracks, “I can’t tell the difference between an Armani suit and a Cavalry uniform.”
Since being introduced to the movie biz, Alexie has found that “every actor, producer, and director in Hollywood has a pet Indian project. Now that this movie’s been successful at Sundance, I’m seeing all these screenplays. I’ve seen nine different Trail of Tears screenplays.”
Alexie has also been offering acting roles, which he’s rejected. “I don’t think anybody wants to see me in a loincloth,” he jokes.
Eventually, Alexie met Chris Eyre, a young Cheyenne/Arapaho director who had made six short films. The writer was happy with the partnership, but says making Smoke Signals transformed his notion of directors. “Before this whole thing started, I bought into the auteur myth, that one person makes a movie,” he says. “Oh my God, that’s a bunch of bullshit. There’s nothing more collaborative than filmmaking. The real overlooked people are the editors. We shot a good film, but we had to find it. And without Brian Berdan, our editor, we would not have found it.
“I was involved in everything,” Alexie notes. “And then in the editing room I did a whole lot of work. About halfway through the [editing] process, one of the producers said to me, ‘You should direct the next one.’ I was really reluctant. I didn’t want the hassle. I had a good relationship with Chris. But I know that relationship isn’t going to exist with other directors. I don’t want someone else to mess with the words.
“I just hope that I as a director don’t screw up what I as a screenwriter write. That’s my ambition.”
Making Smoke Signals inspired an anti-auteurist vow. “I promise you this right now: No film I ever make will say, ‘A Sherman Alexie film.’ Indian Killer is going to say: ‘A film by all of the following….’ Directing is just another job. It’s an important job, but I don’t know that it’s the most important. I think it’s somewhere in the top three or four.”
Alexie just spent two weeks “practicing directing” at the Sundance Institute. “I had a real hard time at the beginning. If you’d asked me, seven days into it, whether I wanted to be a director, I’d have said no. There’s a lot of emotional manipulation involved. I bought into that thing that a director has to be in control. There’s a lot ofI don’t want to say dishonestybut a lot of feigned honesty. It was hard for me to operate that way, but then I realized I didn’t have to. All of a sudden everything started clicking for everybody. I realized that a director’s job is not to give orders, but to ask questions. You don’t have to come up with answers, because someone else will.”
One of Smoke Signals’ motifs is frybread, an Indian delicacy that the film renders both mythic and comic. “On one level, it’s just for Indians to laugh at, because we are obsessed with frybread,” Alexie says. “That’s one of the constants in our lives. It’s also this blatant metaphor for bread, as in communion. The only two things that all cultures share are bread and poetry.”
Alexie seems genuinely shocked to hear that a restaurant at Union Station, America, serves what it calls a Navaho frybread sandwich. “Frybread with something in between it?” he asks in wonderment. “I wonder if a Navaho’s making it. If not, then it’s not Navaho frybread,” he laughs.
“It’s like this movie,” he declares. “There’s been no other movie that even comes close to representing how we talk. Or how we think, or what we’re obsessed with. No other movie has ever had a reservation accent like Thomas has,” he says, slipping into the same sing-song mode of speech. “This is really the first one. All those movies they called Navaho frybread? They weren’t Navaho frybread.”