NEW YORK ? Tenacious is the key word for the Rolling Rez Tour's cross-country screening of Chris Eyre's new movie "Skins."
"Interestingly enough," says director Chris Eyre, Cheyenne-Arapaho, "We as Indians rent movies. I was always making jokes about the 'untapped audience' out there, when Miramax kept showing me the numbers for Smoke Signals, and saying, 'they're still not going to the movies,' I said, 'Oh yeah, that's right, I forgot. They rent.'"
So what did Eyre do for the "untapped audience?"
Theaters on wheels. People can't get to the theater so theaters now travel to the people. They call it the Cine-Transformer. The first-ever mobile theater unfolds like a gigantic butterfly. Out of the chrysalis state of a well traveled, red and black International semi-truck, a hundred-seat theatre opens out, with a concession stand and bathroom, no less.
Who is the first to enjoy the road test? Indian country, thanks to cast, crew and First Look Media.
"If you think Indians aren't progressive," Eyre said, "That's not a battle I care to fight. I want people to see what's lost behind the poverty, to see real people. Indian people aren't relegated to period pieces anymore. Pine Ridge came out in full support, not only allowing us to make a difficult movie there, but sharing the spirit of the people. That tenacious humanity is what is meant when they say in 'the spirit of Crazy Horse.'"
And make no mistake, this movie is a heartbreak. But the sorrow rolls a deep bead through a fabric of humor.
"It's a job for me. It's what I do. I'm a working man." Greene explained, "I don't particularly go into any film looking to put a message. It's just, 'Is that what you saw when you watched it? Good, good, good. For you, that's what you saw, and you saw something else, great. I've told three separate stories here.' Everything works off everything else, that's quantum mechanics."
And New York rolled out the red carpet for the premiere. The entrance of the elegant old marble Customs House, home of the National Museum of the American Indian, was blanketed by a black suited crowd out to honor "Skins." Later in the upper mezzanine of the Museum, Eyre, Greene, and Eric Schweig wandered like kings into the reception. Through the buzzing crowd, they gracefully greeted their fans, signing autographs for politicians and students. The crowd sipped carbonated beverages and chatted movies, art and politics. Meanwhile, Greene paced the perimeter like a big, cagey cat in a striking cream-colored coat.
"I couldn't hear anything in that room," Greene says the next day, relaxed in a big chair. "I have rock and roll ear. People'd talk and I could just see their mouths moving. I kind of had a headache."
For Greene making "Skins" was good fun. His wife Hilary Blackmore said that Greene "is not a political man, but he really admires Chris's work and feels the film is remarkable."
"We had laughter every day." Greene said. "We just laughed the whole time we were there. Sure, some people are going to say ? da, da, da, damn film ? but I don't care; people have said that before. I don't give a shit what people think about my work or the film. They don't know what goes on behind the camera. They don't know the amount of stuff it takes to put a show together. They think, oh, a little half hour here and there and you shoot that thing in just one day. I say, no, no, it took awhile ? It takes awhile ..."
"Skins" is as complex and lyric a movie as you can view in modern cinema.
"With that comes responsibility to show the work to the people first," Eyre explained to the whirr of reporters' rolling tapes. "If the movie went into general release without that protocol, it certainly would have been disrespectful. I wanted to take it into Pine Ridge and screen it there, but there is no economy and certainly no movie theater. Like Dorothy said, there is no place like home; there is no place like Pine Ridge ? literally. Pine Ridge is a character in the movie. We didn't do much set dressing. Mogie's house in particular, Graham just walked in and said, 'are those linens production?' I said, 'ya,' and that's all he needed to know. The rest of the place was as is."
Greene's take? "I just want them to sit down in front of the screen, see a good story and walk away. There's no message to anything I do. It's just film, for God's sake. I'm a working man ? Death is a part of life. My character is a guy on a downhill slide and he can't stop it. So, he just accepts the fact that it's the end."
Eyre sums it up, "'Smoke Signals' I would call charming. This movie is powerful. I'm so tired of weakness. I wanted to make 'Skins' because it has balls. You can't reduce Indian country down to one film or one writer. When we went to Pine Ridge last week to screen the movie, I was really afraid of the reaction. But to see a hundred people at the Sioux Nation Shopping Center, standing there getting soaked to see the movie, it was everything I needed. They walked out the other side, shook our hands and they actually gave us quilts and did a prayer for us. It felt like a complete circle in a certain way. That's some of what we do best in Indian country is honor people. I've never had them take anything away from me once they gave it to me, so I guess it's a good sign."
Eyre questions Greene: where his humor for the character Mogie comes from?
Greene answers; "From tragedy and mishaps. Sometimes, all you have is the ability to laugh. I've died in a lot of movies; on stage too. Death is a part of life. My character in the show, Mogie, he lived his life. He couldn't get out of the rut. He screwed up, he knows he's gonna die, he's afraid of that fact, but he's going to die anyway. And, he still makes a joke, "I don't know if I'm going to heaven or hell. Anyway, I've got a fifty-fifty chance.' So, see, it's all telling stories. Take away what you want from what you see. If that's what you are going in for, a message, well, dig deep my child, you may find some inspiration. If you are just going there to be entertained, so be it."
Greene lends the movie the bedrock of a fully three-dimensional man, while Eric Schweig, Inuit, Greene's co-star, brings a blue electrical storm of ferocity and direct action.
Schweig, who plays the younger brother Rudy in the film, said, "We're all tough, we're still kicking after 500 years under the weight. But the fact of the matter is, we have all had our hearts broken.
"I was adopted when I was six months old. I didn't have the luxury of growing up with my mother. I don't know what any of that is and in order to get over that I have to be more human than human. We all do. That's were it starts. It's a real individual, personal thing no amount of money or sweat lodges in the world can heal.
"I went straight from growing up watching my adopted mother being punched out by my adopted dad, and even worse. Then, to someone else's house, to watch their dad beat up their mom. There was nothing I could do about it," Schweig remembered. "When I grew up, I needed to empower myself. I was living on the streets of Toronto and an alcoholic. I lost 31 years. I had to go back and find them."
"When I sobered up four years ago, the best way I could honor my mother for giving me the gift of life was to take care of myself physically, emotionally and spiritually. And then, to do anything to get a message out there about what's going on in our communities."
Journalists at the round table with director Chris Eyre wondered; what had taken so long for Indian Film making to soar?
Eyre responded, "These movies are just the tip of the iceberg. There is such a rich canvas and untapped wealth in terms of Indian stories and characters who just happen to be Indians. There's a whole world out there and it has taken so long because we haven't had the money to make the movies. It is difficult to get anyone to trust you to make the movie. That's one of the battles. The actors have had their time to a certain degree, driven by non-Indian writers and directors. But now, we are in the drivers seat."
Is this a movie about disaster? Is it a movie about destruction of a people?
Eyre is emphatic; "This is not a movie about Indians and dysfunction. It is a movie about human beings respecting each other. It is about that tenacious love of ourselves and our communities and the bigger world. It is part of healing, of owning who we are. Certainly that Graham's character, Mogie, could be me. I understand that."
"I certainly know people like Mogie. I made this movie because I love Mogie, because I want to honor that person's life in a realistic, personal, respectful way. That's why I made 'Skins'."