BAMF Interview Archives – Sherman Alexie

This installment of the BAMF Interview Archives features my 2002 conversation with acclaimed writer, poet and filmmaker Sherman Alexie. Best know for his novels and poetry, Alexie ventured into making his own film with The Business of Fancydancing, which at the time of our interview he had just started self-distributing.

DAVID WALKER: The Business of Fancy Dancing is very non-linear—almost experimental—and at times has a poetic flow. Was one of your goals as a filmmaker to capture some of the rhythm and feel of your poetry?
SHERMAN ALEXIE: Yeah, that’s what I was trying to do. I was trying to be poetic and also sort of be self-reflective about the poetry too. It’s my poems put in the mouth of a fictional character. But I try to also examine the poetry itself and its place in his career and what it means. I tried not only to be poetic and to represent the poems poetically on film, but also be critical of that process.

DW: Was it strange to hear another person other than yourself saying those words, which in many ways are deeply personal?
SA: It was always really fascinating. I picked poems for certain reasons, a couple of them because they’re sort of funny, a couple of them fit the scene. As I saw them in context, they changed. I was able to step outside of them a little more, and look at them a little more objectively.

DW: When you were working with Evan, was there a point where you were like, “Now you’ve got to be a little more like me?” Did you have trouble divorcing yourself from this obviously fictional character?
SA: I knew that was going to be an issue for both of us. The character is also very autobiographical for him too. Evan also grew up on a reserve in Canada, and moved to the city and is very successful. He is in residency right now—he’s a doctor. We had both gone through similar life journeys. So, I didn’t have to tell him to be me or not be me. It was sort of a meeting point between us.

DW: You’ve enjoyed a great degree of successes both as a novelist and a poet, so now you’re branching out into film. Is this an area you want to explore more fully?
SA: Funny, I got asked that question today. I had a hard time answering it and afterwards I was thinking about it. And I thought, “You know I’ve got a great career going in the book world. If I stay where I’m at for the rest of my life, it’s a great career.” In some sense I guess the movie world is about a combination of the challenge of it—starting a new job, so to speak. But also part of it is ego. You know, I wanted to be good at something else too. And part of it is too that you’re reaching a much larger audience. This tiny little movie in the end on video and DVD will probably get seen by more people than read my books. So it’s a combination of the challenge, my own arrogance, and the size of the audience.

DW: Did your experience as the writer of Smoke Signals have anything to do with your deciding to direct?
SA: I didn’t like the struggle between writer and director. I’m not a collaborator.

DW: So you’re a control freak?
SA: Well, I mean, they’re my stories. What I didn’t like—it had nothing to do with (director) Chris Eyre in a sense—was the response to the work, that is sort of the typical way people look at movies. It’s all about the director, the director the director. And so they kept making it into some personal film for Chris.

DW: But it was still your story?
SA: Right. I was the one who went on a trip like that to help my friend get his dad. You see these reviews and interviews where they’re giving Chris this story. It bugged the hell out of me.

DW: I think that’s a common thing that a lot of writers deal with. I mean when last year they were talking about the Writer’s Guild Strike, one of the bones of contention a lot of people had was when it would say “a film by,” and it’s the director’s name but not never the writer’s name. I’m usually very quick to point out the writer’s name because if a movie sucks, chances are pretty good that it was the story that was bad to begin…
SA: But that’s not the writer’s fault necessarily either. In the development process, the development process almost always eliminates oddness in the effort to appeal to a large number of people. And you don’t even know that it was the final credited writer who did all the crap.

DW: That’s true, especially when you see something when there’s three different names on a script or in the final print of the film, you know “story by” “screenplay by…” When there’s four people, you know there’s probably fifteen.
SA: I mean it’s collaboration. Good movies are the collaboration of a lot of people and bad movies are the result of a lot of people too.

DW: As a filmmaker, are you looking at staying specifically with stories about Native Americans, or are you looking to branch out?
SA: I was going to say it’s not like the world is filled with Indian movies or books. Every story that exists in the world exists in tiny communities. Human beings are endless.

DW: I remember there’s a poem in one of the books about Billy Jack. So I gotta ask you about Billy Jack. Did you read that Keanu Reeves is interested in playing Billy Jack
SA: And Danny DeVito is producing it…

DW: So I gotta talk to you about that because I love Billy Jack, but Keanu Reeves as Billy Jack? Do you have any thoughts about that?
SA: (laughs) Well Keanu Reeves is what, half Hawaiian? That’s American Indian. I mean Hawaiians are Americans and they’re indigenous to Hawaii so they’re American Indians. So I don’t have an issue with his ethnicity in the casting. I think he and Tom Laughlin are probably equals as actors. So I think it’ll work. It could be really interesting. The thing is that the power of Billy Jack isn’t as low budget and it’s decidedly non-commercial, anti-establishment tone.

DW: I don’t know if a movie like that can exist. I don’t know if the political climate that gave birth to that film exists anymore.
SA: Well the movie would have to be about fighting corporations. If I was going to make Billy Jack right now, the story I’d be writing is that he was a Gulf War veteran. Who is discovering how screwed he was by the military during the Gulf War. All this testing experiments and blah blah blah. And some of these corporations dumping shit all over the res, yet again, so they’re not going to make that movie.

DW: The thing that’s intersting to me about it is that—and I see with this of movies they remake today—the politics that defined a lot of the films of the 60s and 70s are gone. So you look at a movie like Rollerball
SA: I know, oh my god

DW: The thing that I find interesting, especially in terms of cinema, is that Native Americans don’t have that many pop culture icons. Sure, there’s Billy Jack, and maybe Jay Silverheels as Tonto, but that’s it. I know in your books you’re touching upon some of that stuff. But in terms of creating new cinematic icons, does that hold any interest for you?
SA: You mean making an Indian action movie? Oh, yeah, hell yeah, I’d love to make one.

DW: Do you have any plans on doing anything like that?
SA: You know I would love to make a down and dirty film noir, Indian action movie. I would love to make a down and dirty, film noir, Indian superhero movie. The thing that these superhero movies are all missing is that they’re not film noir. All superheroes are these people in existential crisis.

DW: They’re the people who have lost they’re parents or a significant other and inner turmoil and all that stuff.
SA: I mean Kafka should be writing every screenplay. And that’s what they’re all missing. I would love to make that movie. The thing is you could make an existential superhero movie for a very low budget. It’s a plan in my head.

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