When last we checked in on Drunktown’s Finest, a film about Gallup, New Mexico starring such young Native talent as Jeremiah Bitsui, Carmen Moore, Morningstar Angeline and Kiowa Gordon, the movie was at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Drunktown’s Finest reaped positive reviews at Sundance, and is now finding its way to other film festivals. The first two stops were Denver’s Women + Film Voices Festival and the Visionmaker Media Film Festival in Loncoln, Nebraska. Drunktown’s Finest plays April 3, 5 and 6 at the Ashland Independent Film Festival in Ashland, Oregon, and has its east coast premiere at the concurrent Boston LGBT Film Festival on April 5. In a few weeks, it will screen at the Sundance London Film and Music Festival, and it has booked spots at the Santa Fe Film Festival (May) and the Albuquerque Film & Media Experience (June).
Things are going well for Drunktown’s Finest. Things are also going well for director Sydney Freeland, who’s seeing the payoff from a project that took her six years to make. Post-Sundance, she spoke with ICTMN Santa Fe arts expert Alex Jacobs.
A Navajo director and lead actors, with so many Native actors and actresses, a large Native crew, on location in Gallup and the Navajo Rez, where so many Hollywood films were shot. You have to love this project just from the sound of it. Please tell us your version of this story of how the movie project started?
Growing up, I never felt that I saw any of the people or places I knew represented on film. On a really basic level, I wanted tell a story about that.
However, I also wanted to show how diverse the reservation is. That led to the creation of three main characters. They all represent different communities on the rez and we get to see how they all interact and intersect with each other.
How did you navigate and negotiate your way through this Sundance Institute accreditation process?
I submitted a feature script for the labs back in 2008. It wasn’t really a Sundance film, but Bird Runningwater from the Sundance Native Lab asked if I had anything else. I had just finished a first draft of Drunktown’s Finest that was 181 pages — equivalent to a 3-plus hour movie. To his credit, he read the entire script and felt it had potential. He encouraged me to submit to the Native Lab and I was fortunate enough that they accepted the project. From there I was able to do the Screenwriter’s Lab, Director’s Lab, Composer’s Lab, and the Producer’s Summit.
As Native people, we all have heard these stories about Gallup, the Navajo Rez, the 4 Corners as boonies and wasteland, the border-town mentality of Indians and non-Indians. So we can imagine our own script playing out, but we would probably fight stereotypes with other stereotypes. What does it take to properly tell a story about all that history, all these generational issues, to an outside world that really doesn’t care … mostly because they think they already know?
One of the most valuable things I got out of the Sundance Labs was the idea that story is paramount. Because of this, I really tried to put my focus on telling a good story and making relatable characters. My thinking is, if I can get people to relate to these characters and their respective struggles then all that other stuff will work itself out.
That was the overall goal, but there were smaller ideas that I tried to play with. For example, it’s always struck me that a lot of films tend to portray Natives as just sitting around doing nothing, almost waiting for Western or Non-native people to show up. One thing I tried to do with this film was to drop the audience into a world that was already “in progress”, and force them to catch up (instead of vice versa). Hopefully, this adds a little bit of dimension to the community and its characters.
Was there a constant feeling of, “we have to get this right, for everyone”? When and where was the fun part?
It was important for me to not go into this with an agenda. I feel strongly that if I can tell a good story, then all the other stuff will sort itself out. I’m very grateful to my producer Chad Burris, who respected this approach and really gave me the space to tell the story I wanted to tell.
As far as the fun part, I would definitely say it was at the Sundance Film Festival. Specifically, we had a screening in Salt Lake about midway through the fest, and the audience was maybe 80% Native. I really felt like they were having a good time and that gave me a much needed energy boost. I was like “okay, people are getting it.” From then on, I was able to enjoy my festival experience.
What can you say about yout three leads: Jeremiah Bitsui, Morningstar Angeline and Carmen Moore?
Jeremiah, Morningstar, and Carmen are the glue that holds this story together. I did the best I could in writing the script but once I handed it over to them I learned I had to allow them the space to breath life and add their own interpretation to each character. I couldn’t be happier with the results.
I noticed our old friend Richard Ray Whitman has a part in this film, and the cast is littered with names familiar to those who follow contemporary Native cinema. Who stands out from the supporting cast?
Richard has a fairly big supporting role. I thought he brought a gravity and charisma to a character that could have easily become a caricature.
Every speaking role was important. There were no speaking parts that were there just for the sake of being there. I was really impressed with Dion Vandever and Lynisha Dishta who play the characters of Roscoe and Tracy — a gangbanger and his girlfriend. They came into an open call we did in Gallup, NM. They had never acted or been on a film set before but the both jumped into their roles headfirst. Luis Bordonada and Elizabeth Frances also did a superb job of breathing life into their respective supporting characters.
Hopefully, these characters will represent the audience’s parents, siblings, friends, et cetera.
The movie’s poster says “Without Balance, We Cannot Endure” — what does that phrase represent?
It’s the one thing all three characters have in common. They are all looking for balance in their lives. Through them we see what happens when they are able to find balance, but also what happens when they are not.
The film’s original title was Dry Lake — did your decision to change it to Drunktown’s Finest cause any controversy?
The title has a lot of personal meaning to me. I was in elementary school when 20/20 did the “Drunktown, USA” expose. But I remember wondering “why is this big film crew coming into town and they’re just filming the drunks? Why don’t they film my dad, or my friends, or my auntie and uncle? They’re all doing good stuff and they’re not drunks.”
What’s next for you as a director?
I have a sci-fi, time-travel film I’m working on. It’s pretty much a 180 from Drunktown and I’m looking forward to jumping back into the writing process. I also have a TV pilot I’m developing with a writing partner, Steven Paul Judd.
In one film you are now representing Native Americans, the reservation culture, Navajo culture, and the LGBT community, and as the director you’re also a professional Native woman — all these groups have been misrepresented and under-represented. You must’ve felt all that at the Festival and afterwards, and what was that like?
I am proud to say that I am a member of both the Native community and the LGBT community. That being said, it is very important to me to not go into my films with an agenda. It was especially difficult with this film because the content is so close to me. However, I find it much more rewarding to try and create good stories with honest characters than it is to use filmmaking as a soapbox to espouse my own personal beliefs. I feel like I should clarify this because my goal is not to be a spokesperson or an activist. My goal is to be the best filmmaker I can be.
Alex Jacobs, Santa Fe, 2014