Known for writing and directing such feature films as Crazy Heart (2009), Out of the Furnace (2013), Black Mass (2015) and most recently Hostiles (2017), Scott Cooper is an American director making a serious name for himself.
In Scott Cooper’s latest film Hostiles, starring the likes of Wes Studi, Christian Bale, Adam Beach and others, he addresses the American frontier and a budding Industrial Revolution that existed in 1892. Though the film is not directly a ‘Native American’ film, Cooper says the authenticity of Native representation and the accompanying accurate story was critical.
In an interview with Indian Country Today via telephone, Scott Cooper discussed why he decided to do a Western film in a world where cultural awareness is increasing, why he chose the name ‘Hostiles’ and why he says, “I have never learned more on any film that I have on this.”
Thanks so much for speaking with Indian Country Today. Have you read any reviews of your film Hostiles?
I generally try not to look at reviews. People treat films like blood-sport, which they don’t quite do with book novels or music. Sometimes people are in search of a different film then you are making, and they let you know it.
Although this film has been heartily embraced by some, it hasn’t been so much by others. My work tends to be a bit divisive.
I wrote a positive review in Indian Country Today.
This is much more important to me by the way, as opposed to a review written by someone who is not Native American and what their thoughts are on the film.
I also wrote that your film was a film ‘with respect for native culture,’ yet it was a ‘gut punch of reality.’
There is a lot of truth to that. How have the readers of Indian Country Today taken to that?
A lot of folks in Indian country have stated on social media they were waiting for a review from a Native perspective on whether or not they would watch the film. The response from the Native community has been overwhelmingly positive.
That is so great to hear.
I believe this to be one of Wes Studi’s best performances.
I am so happy to hear that. That means a lot to me. This is what Robert Duvall told me as well. Duvall is a long-time admirer of Wes Studi’s work.
The film lives up to its name Hostiles and wastes no time in getting into the action. What motivated you to complete such a film?
It was important for me to explore and remind people of a dark and unforgivable past and the genocide of Native American peoples. This historical trauma is continuing today.
I just showed the film to the Northern Cheyenne people last week in Montana. I spent the day at the Lame Deer reservation. To see and hear the stories of historical trauma continuing today is heartbreaking. I will never be able to shake the images and the feeling I had of being in the company of the Cheyenne. I tried to understood as much as I can as a white man, what they are dealing with on a daily basis.
In this film, It was critical for me to understand what our past as Americans was and how it continues to be an influence on Native people today. That is why I wanted to make this film.
Why did you choose this genre? Westerns are not often well-received in today’s culturally-aware climate.
I have said, that almost any self-respecting American director at one point or another in their career probably wants to make a Western. This is simply because, as Robert Duvall once said, ‘the English have Shakespeare, the French have Molière and we as Americans have Westerns.’
Westerns are very difficult to make. They can be expensive, and people say there isn’t an audience for them. I hope our film proves that to be wrong, as so many others in the past have. It was important for me to understand where we came from quite honestly.
Distinctly, this film is not about Native Americans, nor did I make a film about the US Cavalry. I made this film about America in 1892.
What makes things difficult, is when you make a film like Hostiles, which can be much more open to criticism than most films, given the lineage of Western films, to include the politics, the racism and dealing with one of the best genres ever made, automatically have a target on your back. I’m sure I’ve taken quite a few since making this movie, but as long as people can find a bit of themselves in the story, and the truth in the story, I’ve done my job. Oscars or no Oscars …
Out of curiosity, is this film based on any sort of true story?
No, not that I am aware of. I just peppered it with things that I have read in the past that are based on truth but this is not specifically a true story, no.
Director Chris Eyre and Dr. Joely Proudfit were two Native consultants on the film. They expressed to me your concern in telling the Native aspect of the story with authenticity.
It was important for me to not pull punches in any way regarding the very real oppression the US Cavalry inflicted on Native Americans. I also did not want to shy away from how murderous some of the Comanche people could be toward American soldiers, settlers and even other Native Americans.
The title of the movie Hostiles, a reference to the United States government’s regard for incarcerated Native Americans as hostiles, the fact is, everyone in this film is a hostile in one way or another.
Native people seldom see such a level of cultural consideration and dedication to be authentic, why was this important to you as a director?
When you look at so many films that are considered to be some of our great American films that deal with the American West and Native Americans–most specifically the 40s and 50s–they are not populated with Native American or Indigenous peoples. They were populated with white, Armenians or Italian actors portraying Native Americans. That is just unforgivable.
If there is anything I strive for in my work, it is authenticity. Some people tend to like this authenticity, while others tend to like an idealized version of their art. I really have no interest in the latter. It was critical for me to gain as firm of an understanding about Native American culture as I possibly could, as a white man telling the story.
It was critical that I had Chris Eyre, Dr. Joely Proudfit, Chief Phillip of the Northern Cheyenne and his wife Lynette Two Bulls, who helped me better understand their culture, their values, their moiré, their language, their dialect, symbols, gestures and behavior. I learned as much as I possibly could to help tell the story.
Even though I’m telling the story from the point of view of a US Cavalry officer, (played by Christian Bale) my hope is a young Native American filmmaker can tell the story from Wes’s point of view, from Chief Yellowhawk’s point of view, so that we can understand where they came from, their historical trauma and speak to that story
I am telling the world a story about the United States in 1892 at the onset of the industrial revolution, and these men who were becoming obsolete, and the rise of reservations in all of these sort of things.
It has been heartening to see so much Native influence in your film.
I could not have made the film without the help of Chris Eyre, Dr. Joely Proudfit, Wes Studi, Chief Phillip and Lynette Two Bulls. I wrote the film specifically for Wes Studi, Adam Beach, Q’orianka Kilcher and more. Tanaya Beatty I had not yet been aware of, but another actor whom I greatly admire, Casey Affleck, recommended her to me.
When we auditioned, I met this young actor, Xavier Horsechief who lives on the Navajo Reservation, who plays Little Bear. He was fantastic and as far as I am aware, he has never been in a film. He is a wonderful kid, just soulful. He really has a beautiful soul.
It’s no secret I appreciated the film as I wrote in my review. I literally sat on the edge of my seat during this film.
In theaters nationwide now. pic.twitter.com/MvPm7PZNZU
— Vincent Schilling (@VinceSchilling) January 26, 2018
I am so happy to hear that because this film is very subjective. You have your ancestry. Then there is Chief Phillip, Chris and Joely and other indigenous peoples that have seen the film. For them to embrace the film — and yourself included — means more to me than anyone quite honestly.
I think people will see the film this weekend as it goes nationwide, I have a good feeling that it will reach a wide audience. I hope that they embrace this as you have. It would mean so much to me.
What was something you learned about Native culture in the process of making this film?
I learned a great deal, and I have never learned more on any film that I have on this as it relates to Native Americans. I learned how compassionate, understanding and supportive of each other Native people can be.
We all know that Native Americans have been an extremely large part of the development of this nation and civilization we call America. I hope Native people feel as though this is a tribute to what They’ve gone through in terms of the world that we live in today.
I could not have done that if I did not understand the compassion of the Native American peoples, the historical trauma, that is so often not taught in American textbooks — and rarely talked about in television news unless it’s stolen land. Such as the incidents occurring at Standing Rock.
Quite frankly I learned how to be a more open person, I learned to be a more compassionate person. I learned to be more at peace with my thoughts and gained an understanding of who I am. I wanted to understand what brought us to the world of 2018. I have never learned anything more than I learned from this film.
How important was the cultural consultation from Dr. Joely Proudfit, Director Chris Eyre and Cheyenne speakers?
Chris Eyre, Joely Proudfit, Chief Phillip and his wife Lynette helped me better understand, the culture, the language and more. Every day before filming began, Chief Phillip would gather us together, the entire cast and crew, and he would bless the production. That meant a great deal to me on a personal level, it showed people, what we were making wasn’t just another film.
We were making something that could speak to the trauma of Native people and how we could make for a better life for those we’ve afflicted for so long.
How was it working with the likes of Wes Studi, Adam Beach, Rosamund Pike and Christian Bale?
Christian Bale is one of my closest pals and we work closely together. He can say so much non-verbally with one look or one glance that many other actors can’t do with dialogue. Wes Studi is I believe to be a national treasure and he was so open to help me tell the story.
Rosamund Pike completely gave herself over to the character and the grief and the tragedy she endures. Adam Beach has been so wonderful for so long and Q’orianka Kilcher have all taken these characters and completely transformed them from the page to places I never dreamed they could take it to.
That is as heartening as it gets to a filmmaker.
You say Hostiles is not specifically a Native film, but rather a picture of the U.S. in 1892, but what is the overall message you wish to share?
I would say Vincent, that the message is that we need to better understand one another. We need to overcome our prejudices with one another, we need to search for personal enlightenment and we need reconciliation because I fear that our country is headed down a very dark and dangerous path.
Unless we can come together and better understand one another and offer reconciliation and healing to one another … this racial and cultural divide, this fissure that is now breaking America, is only going to get wider.
What would you say to young aspiring Native actors and directors about becoming a successful artist?
Tell your story, understand your history, tell it as authentically as you can. Don’t take ‘no’ for an answer. Continue, continue and continue believing in yourself, because you will meet ‘no’ at every turn.
Fantastic, hopefully we will see more respectful portrayals of Native people from you in the future.
You can definitely count on it.
Hostiles is playing theaters across the country now.
Indian Country Today’s Vincent Schilling (Akwesasne Mohawk) on Twitter