Any shortlist of the best Native American films is bound to include Chris Eyre’s award-winning debut Smoke Signals (1998) and his second feature, Skins (2002). Most recently, he directed three episodes of the PBS series We Shall Remain, and he’s trying to get back together with his old Smoke Signals collaborator, Sherman Alexie.
You’ve been called “the pre-eminent Native American filmmaker.” How do you feel about that designation?
That was a quote that appeared in People magazine and—you know, it’s fine. It’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I’m really happy that Native American filmmaking is recognized at film festivals, and that we have people who love the genre. They’re following who’s making what in Native American films. But I still believe that self representation of Native Americans in cinema is one of the last cinematic frontiers left; what I mean is there’s something called Japanese cinema, African cinema, Italian cinema, but we have yet to realize what Native American cinema is.
What’s the state of Native American filmmaking?
There are more Native American filmmakers and more video film work being done now than ever before—but how do you get this great work seen? It’s likely that if Smoke Signals was made today, it wouldn’t have the impact it had in 1998. It’s so difficult to get an independent film into the marketplace now, to get publicity even to the level of 1998. Smoke Signals came along at the zenith of independent films. That market doesn’t really exist today.
What advice would you give to emerging Native filmmakers?
Just do it. Grab a camera, shoot something, edit it and—above all—finish it. Every piece of work I’ve made I’ve wanted to redo or fix and at a certain point you have to just let that go and say it’s done even though it’s not perfect. Do it and move on.
We hear you’re working with Sherman Alexie again.
Yes, on a film called Whale Hunt. It’s a true story about the Makah whale hunters who in 1999 took a gray whale for the first time in 80 years. Sherman wrote the screenplay about five years ago, and it will be a great movie; we just need to find the money to make it. We need our champion.