GALLUP, N.M. – Traditional Navajo ceremonies guide filmmaker Norman Patrick Brown to make decisions in his personal life and career.
Guided by spirit and vision, he wrote and directed “The Rainbow Boy.” Leland Grass stars as Eagle Catcher, a Navajo man who time travels through a cave from circa 1300 AD to present day. He arrives donning a knee-high loin cloth, spear and shield, and struggles to understand a world bustling with cars, strange clothing, liquor – and the environmental toll of the modern lifestyle.
“It’s a story that came to me in a meditative, prayerful process.”
Brown’s company, Rezwood Entertainment, collaborated with Jenny Pond of 220 Productions to co-produce what began as a 30 minute short film in August 2009. Impressed by the cinematic quality, he decided to expand it to a 90 minute feature film. “When we shot the short we knew that we had something special,” he said.
Private investors poured $30,000 into the nearly completed project. A large distribution company, he declined to name, offered funds to complete the film, but he turned down the offer, saying it was an issue of “control.”
Pond said distribution houses tend to take control of a film, from the research down to the editing. “You sign your rights away.”
Not the right move for a film close to Brown’s heart.
In lieu, he opened an online Kickstarter.com account to raise the $15,000 needed to shoot the final scenes and complete the sound score. Kickstarter enables the general public to solicit help on creative projects. By mid-April, donors had funneled more than $7,330 toward the project with a target deadline of May 11.
Most of the actors hail from the Navajo Nation and possess little if any acting skills. He worked on teaching the budding cast “actor’s etiquette” and preparing them days, even weeks in advance of shooting scenes.
Brown, 50, wanted it this way, “a movie for the people, by the people,” filmed mostly in the Navajo language with English subtitles. Instead of hiring established actors, he prayed for guidance during a ceremony, and was led to his own people that possessed raw, untapped talent. “I knew these characters and I found them.”
In one instance, he singled out Shelby Lynn Jose, while she was participating in the Gallup Annual Inter-tribal Indian Ceremonial parade. The young actress plays Akinabah Tso.
The name, “The Rainbow Boy,” struck him like a flash out of the blue, inspired by the unification that the rainbow represents in Navajo culture. “As humans we traveled the rainbow and walked together,” he said. “That gave [Eagle Catcher] the ability to travel to a different world.”
Born and raised in Chinle, Ariz. on the Navajo Nation, Brown is Tse Nahabilnii (Sleep Rock Clan), born for Biih bitoodnii (Deer Spring Clan).
As a child he dreamed of making films. When his parents fell asleep at night, he covered his head and television with a blanket and watched old westerns. Frustrated by the scores of Natives killed in those flicks, he told his mother that someday they would prevail in his movies.
Childhood dreams often fade into the mist of the past, but his career as an actor kept him on path. In the early 1980s, he left the reservation to pursue an acting career in New York City. He performed in his share of off-Broadway plays before heading west to Los Angeles where he snagged minor roles and worked as a cultural consultant on productions.
“I was offered a few roles to wear buckskin and feathers,” he said.
But he passed on roles that placed Natives in a historical context, and began distancing himself from Hollywood ideology. In 1989, he wrote, directed and produced his first films, “Awakening” and the companion documentary drama, “The Beauty Way of Life.”
“Awakening” premiered at both the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah and the San Francisco, Calif. American Indian Film Festival in 1990.
Showcasing his ability to multitask on the set, in the 1994 film, “Black Day Blue Night,” he worked as an actor, first assistant director, and assistant to director J.S. Cardone.
He also wrote, directed and produced “Horse Song,” a fictional based movie on the impact of diabetes. It premiered at Sundance in 2000. The film was made during his four year stint at IHS, along with numerous other public service announcements geared toward Southwest Natives. Other film credits include the 1998 film, “The Thin Red Line” starring Sean Penn, and “The Doe Boy” in 2001.
In 2006, he co-produced the documentary “Power Paths,” an examination of solar and wind power on reservations, and more recently “Poison Wind,” written and directed by Pond. Native miners share from experience the affect of uranium mining on their health from prolonged exposure to radiation, and the continual fight by Southwest tribes to keep the toxic mines out of their backyards.
Meanwhile, Brown plans to premiere “The Rainbow Boy” in either Window Rock, Ariz. or in Gallup, and possible distribution in Europe, Asia, and select film festivals.
For more information visit www.kickstarter.com/profile/normanpatrickbrown.