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chapter 12 Cinematic Reservations an interview with chris eyre Yuri Makino (University of Arizona) Chris Eyre, the director of the 1998 independent film Smoke Signals, was one of the first people I met at New York University. It was our first year in the graduate film program, 1993, and I remember being perplexed by our first conversation. Chris’s sense of humor was so deadpan it was hard to know if he was kidding. I soon learned that he was more often kidding than not. In fact, Chris’s humor is a big part of his films. Even the most tragic of his characters, the alcoholic Mogie in his feature Skins (2002), finds things to joke about as his health deteriorates and death is imminent. Chris is an optimist, and this is evident in the characters he creates. They are resilient and never give in to despondency. They share their pain with family and community, often using humor to lessen the ache, and in that way they persevere—just like their director. Our first year in the program at nyu, Chris made a short film called Searching for Cheese. It was a strange, allegorical film having something to do with a mouse that had all of the answers to life’s questions. Although I never quite understood it, it was clear to me and to anyone who saw it that Chris had talent as a director. The film showed that he knew where to put the camera and how to move it dynamically. Visually, the film moved forward effortlessly. In his second year Chris found his subject matter with the film Tenacity. It was his first work about Native people and the first of many of his subsequent films to take place on the reservation. In Tenacity, two young Native American boys playing with BB guns find themselves in a game of chicken with a rowdy group of white kids in a 4×4 pick-up truck. One of the Native American boys stands his ground and is hit by the truck. The final shot of the film is from the truck as it speeds away, passing rusted-out cars abandoned along the roadside. The small, dark figures of the boys recede into the distance. Framed by the old cars, set on the reservation, T4989.indb 247 T4989.indb 247 2/27/09 6:57:54 AM 2/27/09 6:57:54 AM 248 this memorable ending is a powerful metaphor for the destruction and desertion of one culture by another. Tenacity screened at Sundance in 1995 and got the attention of Robert Redford. Chris was invited to the Sundance Filmmakers and Writers Labs, where he and writer Sherman Alexie workshopped material adapted from Alexie’s short story collection, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. The project that evolved was Smoke Signals. It debuted at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, where it was awarded the Audience Award and the Filmmaker’s Trophy. Smoke Signals was released to critical acclaim by Miramax and grossed over $6.5 million. It was the first major theatrical feature written, directed, and starring Native people. A couple years after graduating from nyu I began teaching in the School of Media Arts at the University of Arizona, which coincidentally is where Chris received his undergraduate degree. In November 2004 I invited him to talk to our students and to screen Edge of America, a feature he directed for Showtime in 2003. The interview in this chapter is a compilation of three talks. The first was done in person the day after the 2004 presidential election, during Chris’s visit to Tucson. The second and third interviews were done by telephone in December 2004 and May 2007. As a whole, I feel that the interview, in particular Chris’s thoughtful and at times humorous comments, gives much insight into this imaginative director committed to telling stories about Native Americans. yuri makino: A few years ago I was developing a project based on a friend’s story about a young Mexican woman who is a migrant worker and gets deported and jailed. I spent many years doing research on this project. A lot of issues came up about race. For example, can I as a nonLatino person tell this story? Other issues had to do with expectations that people have of me. I often pass; some people think I’m Latina. chris eyre: That’s interesting. You have the same thing I have, which...


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