An Interview with Taylor Sheridan, Oscar-Nominated Screenwriter
Taylor Sheridan, Writer and Director of ‘Wind River’ says 'this story needs to be told'
Taylor Sheridan is an actor, screenwriter and director who made his directorial debut with his most recent Sundance award-winning film Wind River. He is well-known for his role as David Hale on the Sons of Anarchy, and his screenplay Sicario which starred Emily Blunt. He is also known for Hell or High Waterstarring Gil Birmingham, Chris Pine and Jeff Bridges in which he received an Oscar nomination for best screenwriter.
His latest film, Wind River, which takes place on the Wind River Reservation, is a suspense thriller that tells the story of a young native woman who is found dead and the interactions between federal agencies and tribal authorities to solve the crime. The movie stars actors Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye in Avengers,Bourne Legacy) and Elizabeth Olsen (Scarlet Witch in Avengers and Captain America: Civil War), and features a list of supporting all-star Native actors, including Gil Birmingham, Tantoo Cardinal, Graham Greene and Martin Sensmeier.
In a conversation with Taylor Sheridan, he told ICMN about his decades of self-proclaimed valuable education while living on native reservations, seeing racism first-hand on Pine Ridge and his process of working on his film Wind River.
First let me say what a brilliant job you did on Wind River**.**
Thank you sincerely. This is exactly why I made this movie. I didn’t make this movie for 400 million people, I made it for 4 million and to educate the other 396 million. That’s why I directed it. People will call me out and say, ‘They should’ve let someone else direct this,’ and who knows, it might’ve been a better movie, but it would not have said what it needed to say in the way that it needed to say it.
I think that the film has authenticity and the ability to showcase the world as I have seen it with my education and life experiences on the rez. When I was on the rez, I did not realize I was going to be educated.
You lived on the reservation?
Yes, I’ll tell you my story. When I was in my twenties, I was in Los Angeles trying to be an actor and I found it so superficial. It was just a really lonely place. For me, you drop me in the middle of the Wind River range, 50 miles from another person, and I am alone, but I don’t feel alone. You put me in New York or LA and I’m surrounded by million people and it is the loneliest place in the world.
As an actor in Los Angeles, I was feeling really lost. I thought, ‘What am I going to do with my life, Windex commercials?’ I went to a Catholic church, I was trying to find something to heal me. I didn’t buy it. I went to the Krishna Center, I didn’t buy it. I kept trying to find answers and I just thought, ‘I just don’t buy this, this isn’t for me.’ A woman I knew brought me to an Indian encampment about an hour and a half north of Los Angeles. A native man walked me through doing a sweat in a sweat lodge.
This was the first time in my life I felt connected. I spent a lot of time in that encampment. It became an emotional and spiritual salvation for me. I couldn’t afford an apartment, I was couch surfing and they said, ‘Come stay here.’ So, I did. It was a multi-tribal nation encampment with Algonquin folks from New York, Cherokees from Tennessee, guys from Pine Ridge.
I was reading a bunch of writers who were native, such as Vine Deloria and others who were an introduction to ‘All in life that you’ve been taught is wrong.’ I just felt a need to go connect. I drove to Pine Ridge but it was unannounced. A native writer that I knew told me what I did was very stupid, he told me there was a woman to contact.
I met with two Native guys there, and one of them was named Cory, (the name of Jeremy Renner’s character) which is a tip to the hat in this movie to them. But I told them I appreciated the way they looked at things. They brought out the drum, we had a sweat, I spent the night and I kept staying. I told them ‘I’ve got nowhere to be.’
Did you have any interesting moments at Pine Ridge?
There was this gas station right outside the rez. And I had been there many times. It was the most convenient place to go get snacks and food because there was no place or any other grocery store on the rez near me. I went there one time, with the car filled with Indians. I ran into pay cash and a blonde woman behind the counter said, ‘That pump doesn’t work.’ I said, ‘It works fine, I was waiting right behind someone.’
She said, ‘I don’t think you understand. None of those gas pumps work.’
She was like ‘Yeah, nothing works.’
The fact a white guy brought these Indians and had befriended them, she refused to sell anything to me. It was the first time I had experienced real racism.
One time we were out of money and we were out of food. So, these guys were like, ‘We’re out of money, we don’t have food, we might as well quest.’ So, we went on a vision quest. We went to the woods and it was a real eye-opening experience.
Everything about my time in the rez woke me up.
What kind of impact did living on the rez have on you in terms of making your film Wind River?
Well you know, after hearing story after story where native people told me, ‘This is how my brother died, this is what happened to my sister; this is what happened to my mother and my cousin.’ After 15 to 20 years of hearing about this, I just realized I’ve always wanted to tell the story. I wanted to tell it in a way that it showed mercilessly the realities.
Obviously, there is not enough time to show all the realities, but I also wanted to see the Native stereotypes I could shatter. I love the fact that at the end of this film, I had one character who is a completely stereotypical cowboy, sitting next to Gil’s character which is Hollywood’s perception of a grieving Indian. And I wanted to just let these two men be fathers suffering the loss and be friends.
gYou showed people’s homes on the Wind River reservation in a non-stereotypical way. This was an accurate portrayal of reservation life in many aspects. What did you feel was important in this aspect?
I was on the rez, I sat in nice living rooms. They may not have been Beverly Hills mansions, but that only exists in Beverly Hills anyway. It is a home and there is a reality to it that exists in reservation life.
I wanted to show that there are varying levels everywhere. There are levels of poverty, there are levels of wealth. But specifically, on the Wind River reservation, how are you supposed to make a living? Your options are pretty slim.
What did you learn in the process of making the film Wind River**?**
Having spent time with so many native people over the years, I have been lucky to have been steeped in the culture. Maintaining native culture is in the lifeblood of native people. And yet we are in the midst of languages that are dying. The highest honors in my life have not been winning awards, it was being invited to Sundance. I was a white guy asked to participate and it was a tremendous honor.
How was it working with such a diverse cast?
All the actors are amazing. Including the new generation. Martin Sensmeier is a movie star. People keep asking me, ‘When am I going to see a Native American where the star is a Native American, when is that going to happen?’
I explained we have to make a Native American star, then we can put him in the starring role in a movie. Martin Sensmeier, Kelsey Asbille are on their way to be these stars. These actors are on the cusp and what is going to happen, just like I’ve seen with other ethnically diverse actors that evolve in a way that their role is not tethered to their race, this is very close to happening. It very well could be Martin he is that talented and he is the perfect age.
That will be a massive step and when that happens, it will lend itself to more exploration.
Overall, what is the message you would like people to have after watching Wind River directed by Taylor Sheridan?
You know, the former chairman of the Eastern Shoshone Arapahoe came to Los Angeles and he told me that he really did care about one review of my film. That was yours.
He also said this story needs to be told. And that was my goal.
Read ICMN’s related articles on Wind River by Oscar-nominated screenwriter and director Taylor Sheridan: