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Sandra Hale Schulman
Special to Indian Country Today

An upcoming Martin Scorsese film about the Osage Nation and founding of the Federal Bureau of Investigation will be an Apple original film.

“Killers of the Flower Moon,” which is based on the 1920s story about the murders of Osage Nation tribal citizens over oil rights, has secured $225 million in funding through Apple TV, where the movie will be streamed, and Paramount Pictures will distribute it in theaters. It’s the second largest movie deal for Apple, Deadline reported.

Due to the pandemic, the film is in pre-production mode with key talent and crew being hired, and work being done on budgeting, preparing and planning of the final shooting script. There is also a delay in starting to film due to rising production costs, Scorcese’s promotion of “The Irishman,” and the COVID-19 shutdown of Hollywood. However, pre-production is proceeding.

This film will likely be the biggest budget mainstream studio film ever made on Native history. By contrast Kevin Costner’s “Dances with Wolves” had a budget of $22 million and made $240 million worldwide — close to just the budget of the Scorcese film.

Time Magazine listed “Killers of the Flower Moon” as one of its top 10 non-fiction books of 2017. Rights were secured for $5 million.

The film and script are based on the bestselling non-fiction book by David Grann, non-Native, entitled “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI.” It chronicles the mysterious murders of Osage citizens in Oklahoma and became the center of an investigation that led to the birth of the F.B.I. involving J. Edgar Hoover.

As the story goes, the newly wealthy Osage citizens became targets for murder due to oil found on their reservation. The sheer escalating number of killings under suspicious circumstances — poisoning, shooting, homes being blown up — overwhelmed local authorities, who were later found to be part of the scheme to kill and steal the Osage’s money.

Eventually the tribe called on law enforcement in Washington, D.C., who sent special agents, now known today as the FBI.

Newsclipping on Reign of Terror. (Photo courtesy of Osage News)

There have been previous books and low-budget documentary films on the subject before Grann, a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine, wrote his book.

Other books include “Sundown” by John Joseph Matthews, Osage, from 1998, which chronicled a Osage protagonist and his struggles to find his identity. Another by Denny McAulife, a Washington Post editor’s book, “The Deaths of Sybil Bolton,” about his Osage grandmother who was reported to die by suicide but was actually poisoned.

Since, in fact, a Native story led to the creation of the FBI, why turn a book by a non-Native writer into a feature film and not one from a Native writer?

Lucas Brown Eyes, an Oglala Lakota TV writer, remembered hearing about the story years ago and thought it would make a great movie.

“I’m surprised it hasn’t been made before. Okay, not surprised, because Native stories are often overlooked,” he said. “Hollywood is an industry dying for fresh stories, yet it ignores Natives, the original storytellers. And because of that, there’s this untapped well of Native stories waiting to be told.”

It turns out that the high profile release of Grann’s book, plus the details of how the overwhelming amount of murders made its way to the nation’s capital that lead to the formation of the FBI is what garnered the attention of Scorcese.

Brown Eyes is developing the first Native family comedy with 20th Century Fox and has written scripts for Fox, FreeForm, Disney, and FNX. He advocates and calls out Hollywood on the regular via Twitter for not hiring Native filmmakers, writers, producers, actors, actresses, and film crews.

He admires Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio and hopes they don’t disappoint in telling this story on film.

“They’re heroes of mine, but I hope there are Native producers or writers working on it, because there are some things that can only be told from the inside. If you’re not being authentic, you’re not telling the whole story,” Brown Eyes said. “This creates a two-punch when Hollywood ignores Native Americans. Not only are they leaving these amazing stories on the table, but they’re preventing the stories they do make from being truthful and authentic. And all good art comes from honesty. But if it’s done right, I’m excited, I think America has been robbed of our stories for far too long.”

To keep with the storyline, filming will take place in Oklahoma in Osage County.

Scorsese met with Principal Geoffrey Standing Bear on July 26, 2019 on the Osage reservation Pawhuska, Oklahoma, to address how the Osage Nation could help with the authenticity of the film's production.

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The language was the first thing brought up by Chief Standing Bear.

"We offered them stays in Osage Casino hotels," Standing Bear said. "We'll offer them the services of our craftspeople, those who make our traditional clothing. We want to make it where it makes sense to them (to film here)."

Production representatives went to two cemeteries, White Hair Memorial in Fairfax and Gray Horse Cemetery, where many Osage are buried, under the chief’s directions.

After, they ate a traditional Osage dinner in Pawhuska where they spoke with descendants of the victims.

Tribal citizens liked what they heard regarding how Mollie Burkhart, an Osage woman whose family was targeted, will be portrayed. Her sisters and mother were murdered, and Burkhart survived being poisoned.

William Hale and Mollie Burkhart. (Photo courtesy of the Kansas City Library)

While the main roles will be filled by A-list movie stars, the production strives for an authentic portrayal of the Osage Nation and Indigenous peoples.

The production has visited the tribal nation many times, held a series of casting calls locally for Native talent, and has publicized several job announcements for Osage citizens, seeking a variety of artisans and crafters, construction workers, culinary specialists, and much more.

Rene Haynes Casting held multiple casting sessions last November in Pawhuska for all the Osage roles to be filled.

The casting notice asked for all ages, with women to “not wear false eyelashes or heavy makeup” and for both men and women to “grow out their hair and facial hair and eyebrows” to fit the time period.

“Killers of the Flower Moon” will be the first major studio motion picture in this section of Oklahoma. Major studio films bring substantial economic impact to the states in which they film.

Early estimates for the movie indicate a large economic impact for Oklahoma. The production could employ thousands of local crew and background talent, contracting with local businesses, and millions of dollars that will be spent on local labor, lodging, transportation, hardware, food and other in-state products.

“We’re thrilled that this unique story will be filmed where it took place, in Osage County, and welcome the production to experience our innovative communities and imaginative people to bring this story to audiences around the world,” said Oklahoma Lt. Governor Matt Pinnell, secretary of tourism and branding. “I couldn’t be more proud to have our state showcased through the lens of this film.”

The Oklahoma Film Office courted this project to film in Oklahoma immediately following the announcement of the novel’s film rights acquisition. Through the collective efforts of state, tribal, city and community leadership, plans solidified for “Killers of the Flower Moon” to base operations in Oklahoma after the production briefly evaluated other states as an option for filming. There is also a rebate program available, though it is capped at $4 million.

“Landing this production in our great state reaches a huge milestone for our growing film industry and can be credited to tactical strategy by state officials to court higher impact productions that provide new opportunities for short and long term economic impacts in the state,” said Oklahoma Film Office Director Tava Maloy Sofsky. “The opportunities this film will provide for continuing the development of our local workforce and infrastructure are tremendous as we continue attracting independent film and television productions around the state.”

Pawhuska City Manager Dave Neely said crews have rented out a large industrial facility factory to build sets and keep supplies. He says they’re also renting out other places in the Pawhuska community as many of the storefronts, hotels, some of the old homes are still the size they were when the original events took place.

Neely said of the crew, “They’ve been very great people. Martin’s been here visiting with people in the streets, hiring a lot of locals."

Besides the Osage cast and location, music for the film will be produced by famed Mohawk musician Robbie Robertson, who has worked with Scorcese on several films.

The film features the Academy Award-winner director Martin Scorsese who is known for “The Irishman” and “Goodfellas,” and actors DiCaprio and Robert De Niro. DeNiro will play William Hale, a white man who marries into the Osage family of the Burkhart sisters with nefarious deeds in mind, while DiCaprio, originally slated to play the FBI agent assigned to investigate the murders, will now play Hale’s nephew who marries one of the sisters for love, not money.

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Sandra Hale Schulman, Cherokee, has been writing about Native issues since 1994. She is an author of four books, has contributed to shows at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian and has produced three films on Native musicians.