Filmmaker Dan Jones vividly remembers his first movie experience. He was only four or five years old at the time. “My older brothers and sisters dragged me to see Frankenstein when I was a child,” he says. The classic horror film left an indelible imprint on him. “It scared the bejesus out of me,” recalls Jones, a former tribal chairman of the Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma. “I was made quite aware of how powerful the film medium can be.”
Today, Jones is an accomplished artist, poet, producer and director with 30 years of filmmaking experience. A member of the Producers Guild of America, he received the Muse Award for filmmaking from the American Association of Museums in 1993. Over the years, the power of Indian images on film also made their mark on him—from savage to noble warrior, to the clichéd themes of the Western narrative in films like Dances With Wolves, to what Jones sees as the current trend of less flattering topics. “We’re seeing a lot of that negativity coming from our own filmmakers,” Jones says. “It’s not something I care to do.”
Now he is teaming up with actor, producer and director Carlisle Antonio, Northern Cheyenne/Lakota, founder of Red Man Films, a production company he founded in 2010 that specializes in making films that cross international borders. Antonio, who was raised in Great Britain and trained at the BBC, has worked with Disney Television, Miramax Films, Turner Network Television and the American Indian Film Institute. His award-winning 2008 documentary, Coloring the Media, is now being shown across the world.
Jones says the goal of Red Man Films is to make story-driven, commercially viable films with high production values written, directed and starring American Indians. “Hollywood is a tough business,” he says. “Very few people make it, not just American Indians. They have no open doors for anyone.”
Frustrated with the limitations of Hollywood and seeking a new avenue for Native Americans to take control of their own stories, Red Man Films has signed a multimillion-dollar deal with the Latina Film Commission to make three feature films shot primarily in Latina, a provincial capital in central Italy. Ultimately the filmmakers want to open the doors to establishing trade and commerce between Italy and the American Indian nations. The filmmakers are also seeking investment and support from the Indian nations who have the means to do so. “The number one obstacle is money,” says Jones. “It’s really important that our own people support this.”
Their first feature in Italy will be a comedy, The Indians Are Coming, written by Jones. It will be the first major film feature by an American Indian writer-director to be filmed in Europe. The film’s plot revolves around Indian filmmakers making a movie about Hollywood making a movie about Indians. “Humor is just so important to our culture,” Jones says. “I’m getting to say what I want to say, and I’m saying it with satire and humor.”
Jones and Antonio say that with just a few million Indians in America, Hollywood doesn’t see big dollar signs when it looks at American Indian films. “That’s always the argument,” says Antonio. “Who are you going to sell it to?” Jones has a rebuttal to that argument, pointing out that there are some 30 million to 40 million people who claim some Indian ancestry.
Despite a precarious U.S. economy, Antonio noted that the entertainment industry consistently performs well during economic downturns, and Hollywood had some of its best years during the Great Depression of the 1930s, as people sought a respite from their troubles in movie theaters across the country.
As the United States (and the rest of the world) struggles with yet another not-so-great Depression, the filmmakers sat down to talk about what Europe has to offer American Indian films, and how they want to change not only what stories are being told in films, but how the stories are told.
Indian Country Today Media Network: Was the move to Europe made out of frustration with Hollywood or was it simply grabbing an opportunity?
Antonio: For me, it was a bit of both. America has never realized the significance of its true history. I mean mainstream America. Europe opens the door to an exciting future and a world audience that can be the celluloid bridge that connects people from all four directions and in so doing, enables the telling of stories from a Native perspective. What could be better?
Jones: It was both for me as well. I have long realized there was more interest in Europe for American Indian content than there was in America. I just didn’t have the means to do something about it. Working with the Latina Film Commission has opened those doors. There has always been a frustration in America when it comes to making and distributing of films made by Indians. The movie people in America assume the films are made just for Indians and that is such a small market for them that we don’t even count. That’s what they think, even though history has proven them wrong many times.
For every American Indian, there are one hundred people who have some sort of connection to American Indians—I’m part Indian, my great grandmother was Indian, my father fought in the war with an Indian, my sister ran off with an Indian—just joking. That is a huge potential audience worldwide. It is ironic that the first images recorded on Edison’s new invention—the camera—were of six American Indians dancing. You would think we would be a part of this industry by now!
But I think it has worked out for the best because Hollywood does not control our image. They tried and failed, so now they
don’t control the potential revenues either. So it is up to American Indians to tell their own stories and there is a whole world waiting to see them.
How did the deal with the Italian Film Commission come about?
Antonio: I received an invitation to attend a conference in London by the Latina Film Commission. I contacted them and really connected with their head, Rino Piccolo, who had worked on some big films such as Star Wars, Mission Impossible and others. Both Dan and I were keen to impress upon him that we have the opportunity to rewrite history by forging a relationship that would be of tremendous value to all of us, especially in dealing with sovereign Indian nations.
Dan, you’ve talked about studying the Western narrative as a screenwriter and how it has affected you as a filmmaker. Can you elaborate on this?
Jones: I am really talking about two separate things here, narrative structure and theme. The Western narrative simply refers to how people of Western Europe and the peoples they have influenced learned to tell a story and more important, how people are trained to hear a story. It typically goes like this: You have a protagonist that an antagonist pushes into a dilemma. You have character development based on some kind of conflict, and in the end, there is a resolution. Generally all of this falls into three acts and that is how the Western mind has learned to not only tell stories, but how they listen and recognize a story as well. But not all cultures use this structure. We want to be able to tell our stories that come from a different structure with the tools that the audience we want to reach understands.
In Westerns the theme has always been civilization versus nature. In most of those Westerns, we [American Indians] have been considered the nature part of that theme, the antagonist or the unfortunates—or even worse, being relegated to irrelevancy, so inept at leading ourselves that we need the white man to step in and do it for us. The recurring theme in a great number of films based on Indians is exactly that: The white man becomes disconnected from his people, moves in with Indians, and the next thing we know he’s the chief. There are several coming to mind now, including A Man Called Horse and Dances With Wolves.
Antonio: We have to move forward. We’re in a new place now. I think we’ll get there eventually. The talent is there.
Filmmaker Chris Eyre was recently quoted as saying, “We have yet to realize what Native American cinema is.” Can you share your thoughts on Native American film as a genre?
Antonio: I think that we have been forced to define our own genre, but we still have to realize our potential by making stories that have entertainment value, free of geographical and creative limitations that people the world over can relate to, regardless of ethnic makeup. Whether this becomes a “Native” genre is yet to be determined. As far as I’m concerned, I am going to make movies that have Native leads, played by Native people that are entertaining and free of race and gender issues.
Jones: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is an Indian film for me simply because of that memorable role, Chief Bromden, by Will Sampson that forever made that film one of ours. Cinema is a powerful tool. Unfortunately Native American cinema has only been made by a few Indians. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a body of work out there. It just needs to grow. Eventually it will take over the placeholder we now have for so-called Indian film, meaning more work, more experience, more Indian people involved and broader markets. Now is the time for tribes with the means to support this natural progression. As ready as the world is to experience the work of American Indian filmmakers telling our own stories, it is as important to our tribes’ sovereign authority to control their own history as it is to control one’s membership or land base and therefore secure their peoples’ future through these tools.
Authenticity is a big issue among Indians. Now we have Johnny Depp claiming to be part Cherokee and set to play Tonto. How do you think this is going over in Indian country?
Antonio: I read that the director of The Lone Ranger, Gore Verbinski, wanted to make the Tonto character more like Sancho Panza from Don Quixote, a quirky character acting as the Lone Ranger’s voice of sanity. From that point of view I can see why he would cast Johnny Depp. This may mean that the Tonto stereotype may be coming of age. I guess we will just have to wait and see.
Hollywood is not a moral bank. Hollywood is an industry, a film-marketing industry, not a filmmaking industry. Their bank is a financial one, so all they care about is making money, and Johnny Depp happens to be their cash cow of the moment. I think the real issue here is not Johnny Depp. The real question here is, How do we take control of our own media?
Isn’t the whole idea of Tonto a negative stereotype, the subservient Indian as the white man’s flunky?
Antonio: Absolutely. I think that the legacy of Tonto is more far-reaching and is probably the Indian image that most people around the world associate with. I cannot even imagine what Jay Silverheels must have gone through playing that role way back then. The name Tonto is almost a verb in the English language now. But with The Indians Are Coming we are not that far from when we can take control of our own media.