“The heart of the film is suffering, suffering and enduring, collectively and deeply personally.”
Writer Taylor Sheridan (Sicario, Hell or High Water) is talking about his latest movie and directorial debut, Wind River, on the occasion of its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.
“Maybe there’s a catharsis to it. I hope there is, that’s the goal, not to upset an audience but to take the audience on a journey and at the end of that journey, for them to glean something from it and get some understanding of who we are as a people and what we’ve become and what we can become.”
The film holds special significance for the Utah audience.
“We shot all around here, it’s a great place to shoot a movie, a very welcoming community but sophisticated enough to understand the machinery of making a film and the inconvenience that can be placed on the community. Film is a big part of this area.”
Sheridan and DP Ben Richardson made full use of the stunning wilderness landscape with great sweeping views of snow covered mountains and aerial shots that convey the implacable challenge for humans living in remote communities.
“Whether I’m an actor, writer or director, it’s not a question of what I like, it’s a question of the most effective way to tell the story, that allows your vision to reach the screen. For having a measure of control, writing and directing gives you that.
“It’s a really deeply personal story and it’s about subject matter that I was scared that another director might have a different vision for it,” Sheridan elaborates. I felt a responsibility to the people I know in Indian country, to shepherd the vision my way, success or fail. At least I knew it would be presented in a manner in which they’d be respected.”
The story in question is, on the surface, a crime thriller where a young FBI agent is sent to a reservation to investigate a murder. Underlying the crime story is what happens when vicious elements among the outside contractors abuse the situation and its vulnerable residents.
“To really dive into the truth of this situation, sexual assault is an epidemic on reservations,” explains Sheridan. “It’s so common that they’re teaching karate to the seventh grade girls. It’s considered a rite of passage to be raped, it affects everyone so I wanted it in the movie to have affected everyone.
“I was also fascinated with the notion of how to move on from a tragedy without ever getting closure because that’s a convenient thing we came up with in the nineties to help us compartmentalise something that’s happened to us. Yet it’s not real, suffering is suffering and sometimes you don’t get answers so I wanted to watch someone figure out how to grieve and move on without being able to check this box and say ‘OK, I have my catharsis now’.”
To help realise his vision for the story, Sheridan cast Jeremy Renner as the man who has made a choice to handle his grief and pain. His character Cory is a hunter, a white man who married an Indian and thereby acts as a bridge into their world. You can’t fake that level of physical aptitude and centredness and Renner is totally believable as a man who is a skilled hunter, a survivor in the wilderness, not only physically adept but morally strong.
“I didn’t have to prepare much, mentally and physically,” Renner told us. “The character is very close to me so it wasn’t very difficult, but it was emotionally tough. I got to plumb some emotional depths. It was a balancing act, an internal struggle of sadness versus fortitude and strength. I like that struggle. My job as this character is to feel but show very little.
“We had a great time shooting here in Utah, it was a lovely experience, and premiering here, it’s a lifetime achievement to do that, I’m very proud of it. It’s about the laws of man against the unforgiving laws of nature. On the reservation, it’s bleak, a very difficult place to live in winter.”
“We shot in the snow, at altitude and in 30 days,” Sheridan elaborates. “Cameras freeze, actors freeze, but in a certain way it forced the crew and cast to bond and I think all that effort shows on the screen. For Cory, the metaphor is the hunter who’s been hunting these animals with an impotent sense of killing to try and garner some retribution. Now he finally has a way to make a difference.
“I didn’t feel I had the right to tell the story from a Native American perspective. I spend a lot of time on the reservation, I have a lot of friends who were raised on reservations who guided and helped me, but I felt more comfortable writing about a man who had a foot in the world because I feel that I do. But I didn’t feel I had the authority to write an Indian as a protagonist so I chose a method I thought showed respect and that I felt comfortable with. That’s the reason Cory is a white guy, because I am.”
Along with Renner, Sheridan cast Native American Gil Birmingham (Twilight) as a bereft father and Canadian First Nation actor Graham Greene as a wonderfully laconic cop on the reservation.
“When I wrote the character I knew I wanted Graham Greene, but never thinking I would get him. Eventually I called him up and he just said ‘yeah, I’ll do it.’ It was kind of anticlimactic!”
Renner’s co-star is Elizabeth Olsen as an FBI agent sent to the reservation to investigate a murder. She is a parallel to Emily Blunt’s character of Kate in Sicario, a brave and skilled but naive woman who learns about the world she’s thrust into as the story unfolds, and as she learns, so does the audience. It is a rite of passage for both of them and us.
Olsen talked about how she had to cope with a challenging environment and new skills.
“At first I didn’t want to do the movie because I don’t like being cold! Then there was finding the confidence to handle weaponry. It was something I was terrified of, I don’t want to be around even a fake gun, but now I have so much respect for using a weapon and I feel very confident at my ability and that’s a very strange thought.”
Olsen’s breakout role was the Sundance hit of 2011, Martha Marcy May Marlene, so it was especially gratifying for her that she starred in two films at this year’s festival. The other role is of a mentally disturbed fan in Ingrid Goes West, a far cry from the tough, focused Jane in Wind River.
“The change over my career is now I’m becoming more specific about the sort of films I want to make, the stories I want to tell. When you’re starting a career you just want to say ‘yes’ to everything, but it worked out really well for me with Martha, and now I’m feeling more capable, as a human being and an actor.
“I’m very lucky to be on Taylor’s team. When I read the script, I appreciated it was about a woman who had to do her job well, had to prove her capability, and she does do it well. It’s the story about her becoming a woman in a very different way than anyone’s told in a movie before.”
“She’s the alter ego to Kate in Sicario,” Sheridan agrees. “In both you have someone who has dedicated themselves to this career for a long period of time and excelled at it and yet she had to overcome her physical limitations to do so. In Jane you have someone who’s born to do this, she’s extremely physically capable but she has no experience. She’s on the verge of adulthood, 24 years old. I always said I was an adult long before I was a man, when my son was born I became a man, and I had the question here about when does Jane become a woman? I wanted to watch her become a woman in a moment where she finds a strength to diffuse a dozen men willing to kill each other [a key scene in the film]. I thought it was a phenomenal moment.
“Wind River is the third in a trilogy of what I think of as ‘American Frontier’ films. In Sicario and Hell or High Water, I’m exploring these areas in our region that were settled 130, 140 years ago and the consequences of that settlement. I thought it was a rich world to look at – there’s a lot of self-examination that this country needs.”
And to bring it all together, Sheridan enlisted the help of composer Nick Cave.
“Some musicians speak to certain people,” says Taylor Sheridan. “You’re familiar with The Proposition by Nick Cave. I thought that score was the most unique and cathartic thing I’d ever heard and I wanted the same for my film. I gave him a lot of rules before we started, like you can’t use flute or Indian drum. I said I wanted it to sound like we were on another planet and that’s what he came up with. I’m in love with his work.”