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Director Taylor Sheridan on race, representation and storytelling

Taylor Sheridan describes Wind River as his directorial debut.

Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP

There are a number of knotty stories that need untangling in Taylor Sheridan's new drama, Wind River.

When the film had its debut at the Sundance Film Festival this past January, there was a certain amount of discussion as to why a film revolving around the murder of a Native American woman was being helmed by a white man from Texas. The same question arose around the lead character – not an Indigenous hero, but a white U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent played by Jeremy Renner. And then there's the thorny question of just where the movie fits into Sheridan's career.

Nearly every review out of Sundance took special care to note that Wind River was Sheridan's directorial debut, which makes for a great personal narrative thanks to the former actor having recently scripted both Sicario and Hell or High Water. When Wind River played Cannes' Un Certain Regard program this past spring, the festival called it his "debut as a director." In Sheridan's own director's statement in the film's official production notes, he writes that Wind River was "my first film as a director." But like much about Wind River – including its twisty plot – there is a level of nuance that's getting lost in the conversation.

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To that end, a few weeks before Wind River's release, The Globe and Mail spoke with Sheridan over the phone from Los Angeles about race, representation and the responsibilities of storytelling.

Sicario, Hell or High Water and now Wind River all take place in these isolated corners of America, the frontier as Westerns would call them. What is it about that landscape that intrigues you?

Well, I grew up in it, first. It's my home. And it's an area that's so new, if you think about the timeline. There's a consequence to it that's still fresh, which I find fascinating. There are a lot of lives and stories that take place here and because the area is so spare in spots, it translates well to the screen.

It seems that the landscape can also be used to explore different kinds of stories. Sicario is a thriller, Hell or High Water is a heist film kind of wrapped up in societal commentary and Wind River is a murder mystery.

I love playing with genres, yeah, and bending them. Whether we can call Hell or High Water this rogue buddy bank-heist movie, it's also a meditation on assimilation and failure and what happens when someone loses their purpose. It's the same thing I do here with Wind River. We could call it CSI: Wyoming, and there are genre elements, but it's not so simple. You can really examine the suffering and consequences that happen when there's a loss in a family. You can examine the Byzantine rules that revolve around reservation land in the United States. If anyone calls this a Western ... well, this is the only one [of my films] that I would consider a modern Western, except I exchange snowmobiles for horses.

For the story itself, did you consult with Native Americans in this part of Wyoming?

I'm very close friends with a number of people who live on various reservations, and specifically to this story, we sent the script to the [Arapahoe and Shoshone] tribal councils to get their blessing, so we could very specifically go through how we approach the story. They were extremely helpful and very supportive. I want to tell this the right way. In the late '90s, I spent a lot of time on reservations, and there was a level of poverty and injustice that I had not witnessed before. I was shocked by it. This is federally controlled land, and there was an insidious mix of apathy and exploitation. And it's not getting better, it's getting worse. The problems begin with policy that manifests this type of oppression.

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Your film has a postscript that notes there are no records available for tracking missing and murdered Native American women. Is it your hope that this movie, then, can effect real change?

One-hundred per cent, that's the reason to do it. The postscript came from me attempting to find statistics. I had three attorneys dedicated solely to find the statistic of the number of missing Native American women on reservations. Any reservation, not just Wind River. They don't exist. The federal government, which is responsible for the reservations, don't keep those stats. How do you solve a problem when there's no way to quantify that problem? When you go on the res and talk to people there, it's clear there's an epidemic.

Why, though, did you decide to have a non-native character as the lead?

There is a reality to film-making that I'm hoping to change, and there were creative choices and responsibility issues that came into play. The reality was that I was financing the film independently, and I had to offset that with foreign sales. Foreign sales are based on movie-star algorithms, where France or Germany or China pay a certain amount to distribute a film in their region based on the movie star. They have some rather accurate equation that tells them what someone is worth. So, you have to find an actor that has value in order to make a movie outside the studio system. There's not a native actor that satisfies that [formula] at this point. Creatively, I wanted to have a hero who has a foot in both worlds but was not fully a part of either – it was important to me that he be of the land, but not of the people. And there's a responsibility, because I didn't feel, as an Irishman, that I had the right to the POV of a Native American. I've been criticized for that in the press, yet even if I'd done it, the reality is that it wouldn't have been the star that would've gotten the film made anyway. Hopefully I'm helping to change that, with actors like Martin Sensmeier and Gil Birmingham, who are getting very close to being recognized for their work, and being respected enough that there is real monetary value to them being involved in the film. That's how you make change.

What lessons did you take away from directing your first film, the 2011 horror film Vile?

[Laughs] Well ... Vile was, it's a little hard. Eric Jay Beck starred in and produced and was going to direct and a week before, he realized how much he had bitten off. He asked me if I would come in and help him, and I did. It's not really my kind of movie. But I interestingly learned a tremendous amount about storytelling with a camera. I learned that you can be very effective with what you don't show, because the audience is always going to come up with something better than I could.

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Is it a project that you'd like to move past? Because in all the press materials, Wind River is listed as your first film as a director.

Look, here's the thing. I'm proud of things we did in [Vile]. I don't think it's ever been released, I'm not sure anyone's ever seen it. I haven't seen it. I don't feel like that's my full directorial debut. I didn't get to cast it or develop the script, a lot of things that I did here. To me, everyone points a camera at something. It's one of those things that people try to make an issue out of, but I don't see the issue.

Since Vile, though, you have had the opportunity to collaborate with some high-calibre directors, like Denis Villeneuve and David Mackenzie. Were you able to learn much from those experiences?

I was very lucky, and although they have very different styles, they come from the same place of creating singular and powerful and very lean products. I would watch them do things and study why these things worked, and I was very fortunate. They taught me a lot.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Wind River opens Aug. 11 in Toronto and Vancouver before expanding to Montreal and other cities Aug. 18.

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