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Interview with Steven Heape

DALLAS – Film producer Steven Heape is a veteran of many American Indian-themed projects, including “Walela: Live in Concert” (2004) and “Black Indians: An American Story” (2001). Recently, Indian Country Today reached him in Dallas, where he is overseeing the upcoming DVD release of “The Trail of Tears,” his latest project.

<b>Indian Country Today: </b>Why did you feel it was important to make this film?

<b>Steven Heape:</b> This is a story that deals directly with my ancestry. I am a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. I couldn’t figure out why there hadn’t been much told about it. There were no audio-visuals done on the subject other than 15 – 20 minutes that Ted Turner did. It is the dark side of American history that you’re not taught in school. Yet, there is a pretty interesting story there. Most people only knew the tip of the iceberg.

ICT: Why is your company focusing on American Indian stories?

Heape: Chip Richie and I have worked together since 1981. We have made many corporate films, industrials and commercials. You are constantly going [from] project to project. I really wanted to be able to do something that I would own and that would have a residual to it. We found that there are a vast amount of stories to be told about American Indians. We found a niche market and stuck with it. “Do one thing really well” is how I look at it. We have created nine commercial properties with American Indian themes, plus marketing and public relations pieces and TV commercials for other tribes around the country.

ICT: What was the process of producing “The Trail of Tears”?

Heape: In 1995, I thought it would be a great story to tell. A new administration was coming into Cherokee Nation enterprises. However, I couldn’t get anyone to see the benefit. When Chad Smith was elected as chief, he stressed education. We were endorsed by the Cherokee Nation and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina. They are descendants of the original Cherokee Nation prior to the forced removal.

We went into pre-production in latter 2003 and we started production in May of 2004, ending in July of 2005. We went into a six-month editing process with 150 hours of interviews. We shot in hi-definition video; the film market is almost gone if you’re competing in high-definition and digital. The whole process is much more efficient.

ICT: Where did you shoot the re-enactments?

Heape: We took a crew around the country from Dallas. We shot in Cherokee, N.C.; at various places along the actual “trail,” Andersonville, Ga., and Westville, Ga. – which is a completely re-enacted city from the 1830s – and in Kentucky and Oklahoma.

ICT: How crucial was authenticity in the re-enactments and narration?

Heape: It was so crucial that we feel and sense what we’re watching. We had a confrontation about winter scenes and snow. We didn’t want four feet of snow – just the feel of bitter cold. We needed a dusting, but last year, there was no snow anywhere. Finally, we planned to go to a reservation in Minnesota, but there was the infamous shooting there. Then we went to the Houghton Tribe in Maine for the snow scenes. We were invited while they were making “Into the West” to use potato flakes for snow. You bear the expense for the final product and hope that it pays off for you. So much of this is attributed to our director, Chip Richie – he is a real master in production.

ICT: How important is it for young American Indians to watch this film?

Heape: You can’t know your future without knowing your past. This did not happen to the same degree for the southwest Plains Indians. A thriving populace with a written language, plantation houses, in some cases, slaves and printing presses, were forced off of their land due to the discovery of gold. It’s a dark part of American history. I wanted to get across that the Georgia government who came in to execute the forced removal were not doing the Indians any great service.

Dealing with a subject matter like this, it is so important to have the support of Chad Smith and Michelle Hicks, both principal chiefs of the Cherokee Nation.

ICT: What do you hope viewers who see the film will come away thinking?

Heape: From a producer’s standpoint, and an educator’s standpoint, though I can’t really think of myself that way, it would be my hope that the film would stimulate questions – Why did this happen? How did this happen? Ultimately, you never want it to happen again.

ICT: What is the status of the film?

Heape: It was released on home DVD in mid-March. It is nationally distributed through our standard means. In 30 – 60 days it will be in full retail distribution. We are in the process of negotiating with The History Channel and PBS for broadcast licensing, handled by our TV distributor in New York, M.G. Perin. We will have a premiere and reception scheduled on April 14 at the Cherokee Heritage Center in Tahlequah – the headquarters of the Cherokee Nation and the end of the Trail of Tears.