For Sherman Alexie the challenge was never getting his 1993 book of short stories, “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” made into a movie. The challenge was getting it made his way.
“When the book came out, I got a lot of interest from white producers,” explained the acclaimed American-Indian author of 10 books and now filmmaker. “They all wanted to possess it and change it, usually with changes involving white characters or change an Indian to a white. It was the colonial process all over again.
“I decided it was going to have to be an Indian-originated process,” he added.
The result is “Smoke Signals,” a Sundance Film Festival award-winning film which was written and co-produced by Alexie and was directed by and stars American Indians. The film opens tommorow.
“The primary motivation was to give our own voice to our culture,” said Alexie, a Coeur d’Alene Idaho Indian, who grew up on the Spokane, Wash., Indian Reservation.
“Smoke Signals” is a leisurely “road movie” as two young Indians, the angry Victor (Adam Beach, who starred in Disney’s “Squanto”) and his nerdy, but sweet, pigtailed childhood buddy, Thomas (Evan Adams), leave their reservation.
Victor’s father, who had been estranged from his family for years, has died and as Victor goes to pick up his truck, the past intermingles with the present and offers a panorama of Indian history and life.
Unexpectedly, Alexie mixes humor with “Northern Exposure”-style wackiness. There is a lone Indian who sits in a virtually deserted country road intersection giving reservation radio traffic reports, as well as an Indian woman whose car drives only backward.
“It’s slapstick,” Alexie explained. “Non-Indians will say, ‘What the hell is that about?’ while Indians know. We have a long, illustrious history about Indians and their cars.”
Is the no-traffic reporter real or imaginary?
“In my world it’s real – but I’m a sick man,” he answers.
Humorlessness, in fact, is one stereotype “Smoke Signals” demolishes, the notion that Indians are stoic, grave and nonverbal.
“In my experience, Indians are the funniest, most congenial people I’ve been around,” Alexie said.
Alexie co-produced “Smoke Signals” with director Chris Eyre, a Cheyenne-Arapaho who graduated from New York University’s film school. The two attended the Sundance Filmmaking Lab, which has had a major impact on how the outside world viewed their project.
“Sundance had been interested in both me and Chris and as soon as they heard we were working together, they dragged us there. That gave us the Sundance Seal of Approval, which is like the Good Housekeeping seal or UL.”
But what’s been most surprising for Alexie as he tours the country to promote the film is its emotional power. “The big shock was at the Nantucket Film Festival.
“After we screened it, a middle-aged upper-class white woman came out crying. She said to me, ‘I’m going to call my father. I haven’t spoken to him in 12 years.’
“Think of that. Our movie caused her to reach across 12 years and talk. It has a power in ways I never thought of.”
Alexie, who’s married with a 13-month-old son, has no fear of ever running out of material.
“It’s impossible. Every moment in Shakespeare, every story in the Bible, every movie, every sculpture is all contained in my tiny little reservation. Hamlet, Candide are there. You can bet King Lear lives there.”
If “Smoke Signals” is the success industry buzz predicts, moviegoers haven’t seen Victor and Thomas walk into the sunset just yet.
Alexie’s 1995 first novel, “Reservation Blues,” has Victor and Thomas forming a rock ‘n’ roll band. Says Alexie, who’s already written the screenplay, “It’s optioned and ready to go.”