Smoke Signals: 20 anniversary screening tour still feels groundbreaking

By Sandra Hale Schulman
- News From Indian Country(NFIC) -

Twenty years ago the first film to be written, produced and cast with native actors was released. The groundbreaking film, Smoke Signals, had a rocky start, as recalled by director Chris Eyre and actor Gary Farmer at a special anniversary screening at Cocteau Cinema in Santa Fe during Indian Market week this August.

After the sold out screening, Eyre told the crowd how the film started as his first attempt to write a screenplay based on Sherman Alexie’s short story “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona”. Eyre submitted the screenplay to a workshop sponsored by Robert Redford’s Sundance organization and it was soundly rejected. Eyre then sent it to Alexie for critique , who sent back a 75 page completed script a few weeks later that set the ball rolling for the film.

“I had never done this before but just went ahead and acted like I knew what I was doing, telling people I was a director,” Eyre told the crowd. “The day we started filming I opened my hotel room window and saw all these lighting and gear trucks and couldn’t believe I was in charge of this!”

Financing soon reached over a million dollars as Eyre cast some up and coming native actors as well as some that had lengthy resumes. Filming lasted a little over a month with the biggest controversy arising over the ending.

“Initially we had Gary’s father character rising out of the water from the river then walking to the shore to meet his son Victor. It just didn’t feel right and we didn’t realize for over a week that it resembled the scene in Apocalypse Now where Martin Sheen comes out of the water. So we went with the raging river and Adam Beach’s character emptying the ashes and then collapsing on the bridge. Even though it cuts away from him quickly you know what he is going through. The final poem voice over is powerful enough that you don’t need to see anything other than the water and sky.”

Farmer recalls trying to balance playing an unsympathetic character.

“It was important for him to have some humanity,” he said. “Bad wigs and all.”

“Oh you had to bring up the wigs,” Eyre said rolling his eyes as the crowd laughed. “There was also some discussion between me and the producers on what the film was really about. Even after a year of work on it, they thought it was about Victor coming to terms with his absent, abusive father. I told them it was about Thomas closing his eyes and telling the story.”

The film was widely praised by mainstream media and given several awards for acting and directing. It was also billed mostly as a comedy despite the serious undertones.

The cast has mostly gone on to great career successes. At lunch a few days later at the Coyote Cafe, Farmer talked about how he started acting in college and his continued roles in TV and film including Jim Jarmusch’s cult film Dead Man, and films with Johnny Depp, Marlon Brando, Ed Norton and Kris Kristofferson. His band the Troublemakers performed at the Cowgirl BBQ the following night after the screening to an enthusiastic packed house and will be touring with the film at various venues. Playing harmonica, Farmer trades vocals on blues and rock standards. He frequently tours with fellow Canadian Derek Miller and has released 2 albums.

Gary Farmer, Chris Eyre, Thomas Builds a Fire at Smoke Signals screening.

Farmer lives outside Santa Fe, cruising the town in his vintage Mercedes and cowboy hat, taking occasional camping trips in his RV to nearby forests. He has an upcoming role in the film Blood Quantum produced by Jeff Barnaby about a band of natives immune to the zombie apocalypse taking over the white population. Filmed outside Montreal, Farmer promises this to be a whole new take on horror.

Blood Quantum also stars Michael Greyeyes, who had a small supporting role in Smoke Signals as a wisecracking rez boy and now has a leading role in the mainstream release Woman Walks Ahead that screened in Santa Fe during market week as part of the Red Nation Film Festival.

Adam Beach, who played Victor in Smoke Signals, rocketed to mainstream prominence with key roles in Clint Eastwoods Flags of Our Fathers and Suicide Squad among many other TV and film roles. Irene Bedard became the face and voice of Disney’s  Pocahontas; while Tantoo Cardinal continues to play elder Native women in many films. Evan Adams, who played Thomas Builds The Fire, left acting to become a successful doctor.

Eyre has become a leading director and authority on native film, consulting on the widely acclaimed film Hostiles with Christian Bale and Wes Studi, and working on various film and documentary projects.

The Anniversary Screening tour continued on September 26 at Pechanga Resort in Temecula, CA with Eyre, Farmer, Adam Beach, Evan Adams, Irene Bedard and a few others hosted by the National Indian Gaming Association. The Troublemakers are playing after the screening. More screenings are being planned for Florida.


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