Behind the scenes: ‘Grandma! Sheep is running away’
*This story has been updated as of September 29 to reflect corrections and additional quotes.
A spec is a “made-up” commercial that filmmakers use to showcase their talent and potential. That is exactly what Diné filmmaker Christopher Nataanii Cegielski did when he created his New Balance spec called “For Any Run.”
The video is a product of the Commercial Directors Diversity Program, an organization that provides guidance, exposure and tools for minority directors who hope to work in the industry.
Cegielski, 28, was selected out of more than 300 applicants to participate as a fellow of the program, the first Indigenous filmmaker. So over the course of six months, he attended workshops, shadowed industry employees and created mentorships.
His final project: “For Any Run.”
Experts who study media representation of Native Americans say Cegielski's work is important because of visibility. "Bringing contemporary representations of native people, whether it is through branding or ad campaigns, educates the greater American people about who we [Native Americans] are today," says Crystal Ecko Hawk who is Pawnee and Executive Director of IllumniNative.
For Cegielski, the story began with an idea of a Diné grandmother who chased her sheep and did flips. He worked for three months researching brands, writing scripts, putting together pitch decks, choosing a cast and even budgeting. In total, his one-minute commercial cost approximately $16,000.
In the initial phases the commercial advertised an ASICS shoe instead of New Balance. After further research, Cegielski observed that the tone of the ASICS brand was geared towards “serious” athletes. He saw that New Balance had a more “playful” tone — and that it fit in line with his light-hearted and fun vision.
“I had to think about everything the right way,” Cegielski said.
With this in mind, he says his goal was to create something that Indian Country could watch.
“For far too long there has been non-Native people making Native material,” Cegielski said. “It’s always about oppression... I just wanted to change that.”
The commercial led him to meeting Diné actors Colleen Biakeddy, who played the grandma, and Micah Chee who portrays the grandson. In true Diné fashion, the trio discovered they all belong to the Ta'chii'nii, or Red Running Into Water clan, after they met in person. The commercial was shot in mid-August over two days.
This was Biakeddy’s first acting role. But the fifty-year-old is not new to sheep herding. Her day starts with checking on her cattle near Big Mountain in Arizona, some 53 miles south of Kayenta.
“The role was first brought to my attention as a sheep-herding grandmother,” Biakeddy said. “I said if I don’t land this, I am going to be laughing.” She hopes for more acting opportunities.
The role for her was important because of how it represents Diné grandmothers. She appreciated the attention to detail, noting that grandmothers in her community “really do” cover their feet using tennis shoes, or whatever it takes to get work done.
In a single minute, the commercial shows that a “grandmother goes out there and tells her grandchildren to give it their all.”
This rang true for the 11-year-old actor who played her grandson. Some of Chee’s recollections of the experience include that the filming day was hot, but fun. He stayed well-hydrated and remembers eating sandwiches and pickles on set.
Another highlight for Chee was working with Cegielski. “He was a really fun and nice director… he even ran around the desert with me,” Chee said who wants to continue acting.
In case you wondered, Biakeddy did not do her own stunts (though she notes she had to do a somersault in her casting audition). Her stunt double was Conrad Weitzel, a parkour athlete from Phoenix.
Cegielski highlighted one challenge. Weitzel needed to land his stunts on specific marks in order to stay in the camera’s focus. “He was amazing. He hit his marks all while flipping in the air,” Cegielski said.
The spec has now been seen throughout Indian Country, largely motivated by social media. The video on Instagram alone has been viewed more than 10,000 times since last Friday.
“It is a dream come true,” Cegielski said. “It also makes me really happy because of unexpected timing.” Cegielski was referring to a Dior advertisement that was published a few weeks ago which sparked outrage in Native communities.
“We likely would not see a commercial like this were it not created by someone like Christopher who is Native American,” said Tamika Lamison, director of the Commercial Directors Diversity Program. “And certainly it would not have the authenticity that this New Balance has from that perspective.”
The organization also shared that they are grateful to their partners: REVERIE, Cegielski’s mentoring production company, as well as the creatives at Saatchi & Saatichi.
Moving forward, Biakeddy and Chee hope that New Balance’s marketing team sees the commercial. He said: “I would like to have the right people buy it and acknowledge it.”
New Balance could not be reached for comment.
Aliyah Chavez, Kewa Pueblo, is a reporter-producer at Indian Country Today's Phoenix Bureau. Follow her on Twitter: @aliyahjchavez or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org