While the world is consumed by greed, hate and other unnecessary things, those who deserve attention are passing almost unnoticed, including Native Americans. They are often invisible, and so is their suffering. In the United States of America, one of the richest countries in the world, Native Americans have suffered, well, since the day colonists came from Europe. They have endured hundreds of years of genocide, discrimination,  and horrific abuse imposed on them by those who stole their lands like forced labour in uranium mines that has led to many getting cancer. Although the Indian Removal Act (1830) “authorized the president [Andrew Jackson] to purchase land from tribes east of the Mississippi and grant them perpetual title to land west of the river,” Indigenous people have been cast aside and become mostly ignored by the rest of the country. 

Image © Vertical Entertainment

Art, whether it’s film, theatre, paintings or fashion, has become a means for the voices of those who have been silenced for hundreds of years to be heard. While Hollywood only added to the suffering of Native Americans with their grotesque depiction in films, the time has finally come for Indigenous people to shine — and this is where I start cheering out loud. 

When I got the chance to speak to Native American filmmaker Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. at this year’s BFI London Film Festival I could not let the chance pass. Taking place at the Mayfair hotel, as usual, Lyle, although very jetlagged, greeted me with a warm handshake and a big smile when I arrived. We sat down for a quick chat about his directorial debut, Wild Indian, which is inspired by his childhood living on a reservation. At first, I wasn’t sure if my designated 10-minute slot would be enough for us to talk about everything I wanted us to discuss, but, luckily, Lyle wasn’t bothered about the time limit, so we got comfortable in our chairs [well, not so much as they were wooden] and began our conversation.

Image © Vertical Entertainment

There is no secret that Lyle spent years writing the script for Wild Indian. While perfecting his work, he went through both the Sundance Screenwriting Lab and the Sundance Directors Lab. Although it took Lyle a while for the script to be finished, it only took 17 days to make the film itself: “I know, right” the filmmaker laughs when I remark on the short shoot. “We probably had half of the money we should have had to make this movie, there were things that were [difficult] to do.”

“We had only 45 minutes to shoot some scenes that had a 3-page script. It was a crazy shoot, but we got through it with Eli Born [the film’s cinematographer]. He is such an incredible DP and, in general, all my collaborators and the cast did a great job.” 

Making Wild Indian was a personal project for Lyle: “I wanted to write a story inspired by my upbringing, writing about my relationships with different people in my family and the resentment on both sides. Even details such as Teddo’s [played by Chaske Spencer] tattoos were inspired by one of my family members, my cousin who also has tattoos. All those details, very personal ones, have become a part of the [storyline].” 

Image © Vertical Entertainment

For decades Hollywood portrayed Native Americans in a stereotypical, and sometimes even grotesque, way. However, Wild Indian, and many other films for that matter (Smoke Signals by Chris Eyre, On the Ice by Andrew MacLeon, Shimasani by Blackhorse Lowe, just to name a few) brought a necessary change to this narrative. I have always wondered how one could change a viewer’s misconceptions of Native Americans and their history, or how one could improve the audience’s understanding of the past. Is there even a right answer? 

“Well, I don’t know. I am afraid I don’t operate on that level you know. I come from a very specific place, from a reservation. Perhaps, finding more people from [our] community who have a desire and talent for making movies, and telling their own stories, would be a way to [enhance] one’s understanding and knowledge.”

Wild Indian is a socially complex and hard-hitting debut. To me, the film showed that the filmmaker didn’t necessarily seek redemption for his characters, but for them to reconnect with their soul and roots. But was there a specific message that Lyle tried to get across to the audience? 

“No, I just wanted to express what’s going on with me when I was growing up; [I] wanted to tell the story by using a contemporary narrative.”

Image © Vertical Entertainment

While the film featured two Hollywood actors, Jesse Eisenberg and Kate Bosworth, it was Michael Greyeys and Chaske Spencer that truly caught my attention. While Greyeyes gives a powerful, multidimensional, and almost sinister performance, Spencer’s impassioned yet tragic portrayal of Teddo brings a new look at how trauma can affect one’s persona. Getting such talents on board must have been a challenge, especially knowing that the film had a limited budget. 

“I wrote the first draft in 2014 and, at first, it was a story about people in their mid 20’s, but then I decided to make them older. I knew Chaske’s work and I wrote with him in mind after seeing him in Winter in the Blood, and I have seen all the Twilight movies too.” Lyle chuckles then adds “[Chaske] is such a special performer, and I knew he would be great as Teddo.”

“Michael’s role was kind of tough to envision, however when I was writing the script and thinking of Michael, everything [started] making more and more sense. Micheal suited Makwa’s confidence, he has iconography of it… I think anybody who could see Michael’s face would be like ‘Oh, that’s a Native American’. Overall, he is such a wonderful and powerful performer. And once I started to think of him, [everything] came into place.”

Image © Vertical Entertainment

It is often said that cinematographers ought to visualise a filmmaker’s vision. Although the plans were to shoot in Wisconsin and Minnesota due to financial reasons the production was done in Oklahoma instead. As Lyle said, there was little time to prepare the film — just 2 weeks — and with the crew running around dealing with everything, the filmmaker realised that they were not going to be able to add the right colours and space to elevate the story the way he wanted.

“After we realised that this was the problem, and after some discussions, we finally figured out the visual language for the film,” he said of collaborating with cinematographer Born. “Working with Eli was great. I trust Eli’s lightning instincts, and, as our locations were often new to us, we had to work out the staging, lights, and how to shoot it in a very limited amount of time. Eli surely knew exactly how I wanted certain things to look like. I also trust his judgment.”

Editing has the power to intensify filmmaking from the act of moviemaking into the art of cinema. Ed Yonaitis’s edit on Wild Indian ultimately set the pace, the tone of the audience’s experience, and the atmosphere of the film very well. 

“Ed is a fantastic editor, and his work speaks for itself. He is working on bigger things now.” Lyle says, adding: “We edited in really dark times. We intended for Ed to edit the entire film, but when Covid came Ed wasn’t able to finish editing and I took the edit back to Minnesota and finished it myself.” 

Image © Vertical Entertainment

On top of editing and cinematography, music is also a key component of Wild Indian as it helped shape the emotional response of the viewer. “Ahh, Gavin Brivik,” Lyle remarks. “Gavin reached out to me on Facebook, he knew I was going through the labs and we also have a couple of mutual friends on Facebook. He said he was a composer and asked if I needed one, and you know, at that time, I was already looking for someone who could write the score for the film.”

“Unfortunately, [my] first collaboration fell through, so I desperately needed another composer, so I reached out to Gavin and asked him if he would like to read the script and write what comes to his mind. He came back with a cool 45-minute composition, a year before we even started to shoot the film. It was really wonderful, dark and tense.”

After composing the music, the crew hired a small orchestra and recorded the score for the film. It wasn’t as dark as the first sample that Gavin sent to Lyle, but it was grim enough to enhance the mood. 

While chatting about the technical things behind making Wild Indian, I also touched on the subject of Native Americans and the filmmaker’s own upbringing on a reservation. As I was raised in Eastern Europe we didn’t learn much about the Indigenous people of both Americas. In all honesty, the subject itself was not in our school’s curriculum. So educating myself by speaking to Lyle was particularly important to me.

“I must admit, being a Native American has not always been easy. Living in the US decades ago was more of an issue for the past generation, for instance, my grandfather was a chief of my tribe for many years, he spoke Ojibwe, our language. He went to a Catholic school where they kind of beat the language out of him. I don’t think he spoke Ojibwe when he died, I don’t know, he might, he might not. You know, Catholic schools had those sorts of rules where they intentionally took away [our culture and our Native identity]” Lyle reflects.

Image © Vertical Entertainment

Although the Catholic church no longer has power over Native Americans, the consequences of its mistreatment and abuse of them are still affecting the communities in the USA today, and probably will for generations to come. One can only hope that with more education the lives of Indigenous people can finally improve. 

I could feel that talking about the Native Americans’ issues, including discrimination, isn’t an easy subject for Lyle to talk about, which is understandable. So, I quickly moved on to my last question, asking the director about his future projects.

“I have a couple of things that I am currently working on. [One of them is] a TV series that will tell a story of a Native American casino’s gaming in the late 1980s and early 1990s. My dad has worked in casino gaming for 30 years, so I have seen things inside casinos first hand,” the filmmaker says, adding that he wants to show how “the gaming culture changed the Reservations and Native American culture.” 

Luckily, Lyle was happy to chat for over 20 minutes. I truly appreciated his kindness and honesty. Perhaps talking about the issues that Native Americans still experience in the US wasn’t the best topic to tackle during our chat, but it surely helped me to understand that educating myself is the best way of understanding their culture and also their filmmaking. So, don’t delay your own education and learn about Native American history, it’s worth knowing more.

Written and interviewed by Maggie Gogler

The interview was conducted during BFI London Film Festival (2021).

Featured Image © Courtesy of BFI London Film Festival

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