Sending Cinematic Smoke Signals: An Interview with Sherman Alexie

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Date: Fall 1998
From: Cineaste(Vol. 23, Issue 4)
Document Type: Critical essay; Interview
Length: 4,287 words

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[(interview date fall 1998) In the following interview, Alexie discusses his screenplay for the film Smoke Signals and comments on a variety of topics including stereotypical film portrayals of American Indians, the autobiographical elements of the movie, and the film's motif of fatherlessness.]

[Cineaste:] You have called your screenplay [Smoke Signals] "groundbreaking" because of its portrayal of Indians. Why?

[Alexie:] Well, it's a very basic story, a road trip/buddy movie about a lost father, so I'm working with two very classical, mythic structures. You can find them in everything from The Bible to The Iliad and The Odyssey. What is revolutionary or groundbreaking about the film is that the characters in it are Indians, and they're fully realized human beings. They're not just the sidekick, or the buddy, they're the protagonists. Simply having Indians as the protagonists in a contemporary film, and placing them within this familiar literary and cinematic structure, is groundbreaking.

Do you think Powwow Highway (1989) was one of the more worthy previous efforts?

When it came out, I loved it, and I saw it three times at the Micro Movie House in Moscow, Idaho. But I saw it again on Bravo recently and, after working on this film, and seeing what we could do, Powwow Highway now seems so stereotypical. The performances are fine, but it trades in so many stereotypes, from standing in a river singing, to going up on a mountaintop to get a vision, and the generic AIM political activism. Every stereotypical touchstone of a contemporary Indian art film is there. Two scenes especially really made me cringe. When Philbert goes up on a mountain, he's supposed to leave something that means so much to him, and he leaves a Hershey bar! Then there's the scene with A Martinez, as Buddy Red Bow, where the police car's coming, and Buddy has a piece of metal or something in his hand. He jumps in the air, and there's this brief flash shot of him dressed in the full costume of an Indian warrior, throwing a tomahawk, and I just thought, "Oh God!"

Our expectations of movies about Indians were so low then that we embraced a movie like Powwow Highway simply because there was no other option. Looking back, Thunderheart is a far superior movie, just in terms of its representation. I mean, it's a generic white guy saves the day movie, but I think it's better in terms of its representation of contemporary Indians. Except for John Trudell changing into a deer [laughs]. I've never seen an Indian turn into a deer. I mean, I know thousands of Indians, I've been an Indian my whole life, and I've yet to see an Indian turn into an animal! And I know some very traditional Indian folks.

Would you comment on your fundamental approach in adapting your collection of short stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, for the screen?

I've never been one of those people who compared the book and the movie of the book. That's never interested me because I've always separated them as two very distinct art forms, so I never got mad if the movie wasn't the book, or vice versa. I knew from a very young age that it was impossible to do that. I mean, you're talking about a 300-page novel versus an hour-and-a-half or two-hour movie. It's impossible to convey in a movie the entire experience of a novel, and I always knew that.

Knowing that going in, I didn't have any problems with mutating my own book. I treated my book of short stories in adapting the screenplay as though I didn't write it. Right from the get-go, I said, "OK, Sherman, you're going to do composite characters, compress time, take bits and pieces from stories you need for this screenplay, and you're not going to care." The narrative integrity of any one story was never the point, it was all about taking situations from the twenty-two short stories--it actually ended up being adapted from four short stories--taking the best you can find in this book to make the screenplay.

How did you think about structure?

The cheapest kind of independent film to make is either people in a room talking ...

My Dinner with Andre?

Yeah, or Clerks. It's either that or a road movie, and I didn't want to make a talking-heads movie, because that's tough sell to begin with. It's hard to reach a large audience with a talking-heads movie and, if you put Indians in the talking heads, only four people are going to want to see it. But I knew the road movie was a very time-honored structure, and also very cheap to do. Put two guys in a car or a bus, get a camera rig, and you're fine, it's easy to film.

And it can be visually interesting.

Exactly. You can let the landscape tell a lot of story. And if it's a road/buddy movie, you're going to have a lot of music, and I always knew music was going to be a part of this. There are specific music cues in the screenplay about traditional music or rock and roll music, or a combination of the two. "John Wayne's Teeth," for example, is a combination of English lyrics and Western musical rhythms along with Indian vocables and Indian traditional drums. I also wanted to use Indian artists, so as not only to make a revolutionary movie for Indians, but also to use Indian artists on the soundtrack, which fits well with the road/buddy movie structure.

There was always a template in my head for this, which was these two odd buddies, sort of Mutt and Jeff on a road trip, Midnight Cowboy on a bus ride. One of the original drafts of the screenplay, in fact, contained many more overt references to Midnight Cowboy. Joe Buck and Victor--beautiful, stoic, clueless guys--are very much alike. At the Sundance Institute, I saw a documentary about Waldo Salt, the screenwriter of Midnight Cowboy, that really affected me in the way I wanted to make the movie. In an interview in the documentary, Salt talked about his use of flashforwards in Midnight Cowboy, so that while the story is going, you learn more and more about Joe Buck and his experiences back home. It was always flashforwards, that's what he called them, that continued the story and gave you more information. Rather than stopping the movie to be expository, they kept the drama going. So in writing the screenplay, I always knew there were going to be flashforwards. Midnight Cowboy was really a template for me in a lot of ways, not only in its structure, but also in the screenwriting philosophies of Waldo Salt.

Would you comment on the screenplay's semiautobiographical elements?

My friend and I took a trip to Phoenix, Arizona, to pick up his father's remains. At the Sundance Festival, quite a few people asked, "Were you influenced by Powwow Highway?," because that film's also about a trip by two Indian guys to the Southwest. "It wasn't really an influence," I said, "unless you can say that my friend's father died because of Powwow Highway." The basic creative spark for Smoke Signals came from the trip I took with my friend. It's not my friend's story, but I placed my characters within that framework of going to pick up a father's remains. That's how the short story came about. It's more about my relationship with my father than about my friend's relationship with his father. My father is still alive, but he's had to struggle with alcoholism, as I have. It's also about the struggle within myself of being this storytelling geek like Thomas, as well as this big jock masculine guy like Victor, so it's a sort of schizophrenic multiple personality of myself that I develop within the movie.

Storytelling, dreams, and visions are key motifs in your book, The Lone Ranger and Tonto, and in Smoke Signals. Would you comment on their cultural and artistic significance for you?

In the book itself, I'm rarely interested in traditional narrative. My beginnings are as a poet. My first form of writing was poetry. While there's certainly a strong narrative drive in my poetry, it was always about the image, and about the connection, often, of very disparate, contradictory images. When I began working on the screenplay, and not knowing anything about screenplays, I started reading all the typical books--you know, Syd Field and all those people--but I was not interested in their formulas for successful screenplays. In fact, after reading them and all the screenplays they admired so much, I realized that the qualities they were talking about were not what made those movies or screenplays great. It was always something that exploded outside the narrative or the structure that made the movie great, so I was always interested in going outside the narrative and traditional formats.

In my books, I've always been fascinated with dreams and stories and flashing forward and flashing back and playing with conventions of time, so in adapting the screenplay, I always knew I would use those elements. I knew there would be moments when the camera would sit still and somebody was going to talk, but I didn't want just talking heads, as I mentioned earlier. I always knew that while the person was talking, we were going to see images from the story he or she was telling. I even develop that motif, and the fact that the story of the movie is told by Thomas, so at certain points he's telling the story about himself telling the story about somebody else telling a story. So I wanted to keep those complicated layers going.

It's all based on the basic theme, for me, that storytellers are essentially liars. At one point in the movie, Suzy asks Thomas, "Do you want lies or do you want the truth?," and he says, "I want both." I think that line is what reveals most about Thomas's character and the nature of his storytelling and the nature, in my opinion, of storytelling in general, which is that fiction blurs and nobody knows what the truth is. And within the movie itself, nobody knows what the truth is.

Why does Thomas always close his eyes when he tells a story?

[Laughs] That was in the book, but I don't know.

There is a literary tradition of blind seers, of course.

I really don't know. The first time I wrote that story, he closed his eyes. I wrote, "Thomas closed his eyes." And it stayed.

For me, when I read that, it was as if he were trying to imagine it with such intensity that he had to close his eyes and move into another realm.

It could be that! It just felt right, it just felt like something he would do.

We don't recall smoke signals as a motif in the book. Did you decide on the film's title?

Yeah, I did. People keep asking me, "Why did Miramax change the title?" Well, Miramax didn't change the title, I did. In fact, I never wanted to call the movie, "This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona." That's the name of the short story. I love that title on the story, but it is not a cinematic title. There is an inverse proportional relationship between the length of movie titles and the success of the film. Very few long-titled films do well, because people forget the title.

Even though we were getting some very good Sundance coverage, people kept screwing up the movie title, and that would have killed the film. So, in looking for a title, we wanted something short and punchy, but also something that fit thematically. Smoke Signals fits for a number of reasons, for me. On the surface, it's a stereotypical title, you think of Indians in blankets on the plains sending smoke signals, so it brings up a stereotypical image that's vaguely humorous. But people will also instantly recognize that this is about Indians. Then, when you see the movie, you realize that, in a contemporary sense, smoke signals are about calls of distress, calls for help. That's really what this movie is about--Victor, Thomas, and everybody else calling for help. It's also about the theme of fire. The smoke that originates from the first fire in the movie is what causes these events, and the smoke from the second fire brings about the beginning of resolution. So I just thought Smoke Signals worked very poetically. It's something very memorable, and nobody is going to screw up that title!

Would you comment on the film's theme of the absent father and specifically on the ending of the film? How do you envision the future of your two young, fatherless protagonists?

Well, I'm reminded of this quote from Gabriel Garcia Marquez that my wife has up on the refrigerator. He says something like, "Men have been running the world for how many thousands of years, and look what we've done. It's about time we let women take over." So that theme is in my head, the idea that in Indian cultures in particular, men have lost all their traditional roles within society. There are feminine and masculine roles within Indian society and, in many tribes, men and women played neither role, or went back and forth. But those traditional masculine roles--you know, hunter, warrior--they're all gone. I mean, driving a truck for the BIA is simply not going to fulfill your spiritual needs, like fishing for salmon or hunting for deer once did, so in some sense Indian men are much more lost and much more clueless than Indian women.

I think you'd find the same thing in every ethnic or racial community, that it's fathers who are missing. I was doing an interview yesterday, and it came to me that brown artists--African American, Chicano, Indian, and so on--write about fathers who physically leave and don't come back. White artists deal with fathers who leave emotionally, who sit in the chair in the living room but are gone. It's a theme that resonates. The actual physical presence of the father varies with ethnicity, I think, so the idea of a father leaving is nothing new for me. My father did leave to drink but he always came back. So for me it was a way of exploring that feeling of abandonment.

Is your vision of Indian society less dark in Smoke Signals than in Lone Ranger?

Definitely. If you chart the course of my book, or my literary work, you're going to see that pattern. I always tease literary scholars who interview me, saying, "You know, you should use the title, 'Firewater World: The Idea of Recovery in Sherman Alexie's Fiction and Poetry,' because that's really what's happened." When I first started writing I was still drinking, so Lone Ranger and Tonto and the first book of poems, The Business of Fancydancing, are really soaked in alcohol. As I've been in recovery over the years and stayed sober, you'll see the work gradually freeing itself of alcoholism and going much deeper, exploring the emotional, sociological, and psychological reasons for any kind of addiction or dysfunctions within the community. I'm looking for the causes now, rather than the effects, and I think that's what Smoke Signals is about. The Lone Ranger and Tonto is about the effects of alcoholism on its characters, and I think the adaptation, Smoke Signals, is more about the causes of that behavior. It's more of a whole journey, you get there and you get back.

There's a stunning moment in the film when Victor tells the white police chief that he doesn't drink, that he's never drunk. It seemed a declaration of a break with his father and his father's past, trying to overcome that difficult social problem.

Exactly, that he's going to be somebody different. In my books and poems, Victor's a drinker, an alcoholic, but in the movie he's never had a drop. It's also a big break from my own work, so it's working on a couple of levels there. Not only the difference between my book Victor and my movie Victor, but, within the context of the story, it's also Victor's break away from his father, his creator, who is me.

Would you comment on the two young women driving their car in reverse?

[Laughs] Well, their names are Thelma and Lucy!

To avoid copyright problems?

It was an in-joke for me, playing around with the idea of a road movie. I love that movie, as an anti-road movie which deconstructs the whole macho road/buddy movie, so I wanted to put them in there as an homage to Thelma & Louise. It also has to do with the sense of time in the movie, when the past, present, and future are all the same, that circular sense of time which plays itself out in the seamless transitions from past to present. Within that circular sense of time, I also wanted to have this car driving in reverse. The phrase I always use is, "Sometimes to go forward you have to drive in reverse." So it's a visual metaphor for what we were doing.

It's also an Indian metaphor because our cars are always screwed up. There was a man who one summer drove his pickup all over the reservation in reverse because none of the forward gears worked. It's one of those moments that I think everybody can find amusing, but non-Indian audiences are going to say, "OK, this is funny, but what the hell's going on?," because there is no explanation for it. Indian audiences are really going to laugh, however, because they're going to completely understand it. I call those kinds of things Indian trapdoors, because an Indian will walk over them and fall in, but a non-Indian will keep on walking.

To get back to the music, we understand from the credits that you wrote the lyrics of five of the Smoke Signals songs, including "John Wayne's Teeth." Would you talk a bit about the film's use of music?

As part of my obsessive-compulsive behavior, I guess, I had completely planned the whole movie. I knew exactly where three of the songs that I had written previously for Jim Boyd would fit in. Knowing the catalog of songs that Jim and I had written, when I was writing the screenplay I would be punching them in, knowing exactly where they would fit. I didn't want the music to be an afterthought, but an inherent and organic part of the film. Writing songs is another way of expressing ourselves. Just as I think screenplays are accessible poetry, I think songs are accessible poetry, and while I'm going to continue to write poetry that nobody reads [laughs], that 2,000 people read, I also want to express myself in poetic ways that will reach a much wider audience. For me, writing songs is a way to reach a different kind of audience. Using those songs in the film, however, is also a way of telling the story, of adding more layers to the story, as you see things on screen.

"A Million Miles Away," for instance, a song that plays over one of the flashbacks, was a way of doing that, of bridging the past and the present. The lyrics of that song, sung at the beginning of the journey, are not only about the distance between Phoenix, Arizona, and the Coeur d'Alene Indian reservation, but also about the distance between people. It's a sort of battered and bruised love song. The lyrics are completely atypical of a love song, with lines like, "Some people might think you're graceful, but 1 think you're brittle and bent," but it's still, "Let's get a car and drive it." It's about recognizing human frailty and being in love with a person despite their frailties, so the lyrics were always an integral part of the theme of the movie.

What was your input as a coproducer of the film?

Oh, everything--casting, costumes, sets, editing. I was in the editing room, and a lot of the editing ideas are mine. It was in the editing room, in fact, that I decided I wanted to direct the next one. Editing was fun. The whole process of editing really made me appreciate editors and realize how overlooked and underrated they are in the filmmaking process. Editors are directors and screenwriters all over again. There were many scenes that worked as we shot them, but there were also scenes that did not work, and would not have worked without the skills of our editor. It was in the editing room that I learned more than I had at any other point during the film.

In particular, it made me realize the importance of storyboards, especially in independent film, where you don't have the money to make mistakes. I started reading all these books about storyboards, catching up on the scholarship about them. Then, looking at films by directors who storyboard and those who don't, I realized how wonderfully consistent the storyboarders are and how wildly inconsistent the nonstoryboarders are. Even though the nonstoryboarders often have greater reputations, they have made some terrible films. Robert Altman, for example, has made classics and truly terrible films, films of such divergent qualities that it's awe-inspiring. A consistent storyboarder makes good films every time, I think.

Writing a new screenplay now, I'm very aware of editing possibilities, of transitions, so I'm really writing the screenplay as a director, whereas I didn't write Smoke Signals that way. I'm really conscious of scene transitions, but also about the possibilities of something not working, and trying to imagine other ways of telling this story within the editing room. So I'm editing visually, I'm doing storyboards as I'm writing, and trying to write as visually as possible.

In your opinion, what are the greatest challenges facing Native American societies in the U.S. today?

The challenges to our sovereignty--artistically, politically, socially, economically. We are and always have been nations within this nation and any threats to that are dangerous. Not only in terms of the government trying to take away our sovereign rights to have casinos, to take the most crass example, but also in cultural appropriation, you know, with white people crawling into sweat lodges, and buying our religions.

Speaking of cultural issues, is mainstream U.S. popular culture an influence on your artistic creativity?

I'm a thirty-one-year-old American, as well. I always tell people that the five primary influences in my life are my father, for his nontraditional Indian stories, my grandmother for her traditional Indian stories, Stephen King, John Steinbeck, and The Brady Bunch. That's who I am. I think a lot of Indian artists like to pretend that they're not influenced by pop culture or Western culture, but I am, and I'm happy to admit it. A lot of independent filmmakers would look down their nose at their own pop influences, or at my pop influences. It's a cultural currency. That's something that Tarantino has certainly benefited and learned from. In the best moments of his movies, he's talking about a common cultural currency, and the ways in which his characters talk about it really bring out their personalities.

U.S. popular culture as a lingua franca?

Exactly, and, in the same way, I use that as a way to bridge the cultural distance between the characters in my movie and the non-Indian audience. It's a way for me, as the writer, to speak to the audience through my characters in a way that will give them something to hold onto as they're hearing and seeing something brand new.

There's a line in the film, and in your story, which is, "It's a good day to die." Do I recall that line from Little Big Man?

Yeah, that's a Little Big Man reference. In every book and movie since then, it seems, the Indians always said that and I wanted to make fun of it. We used it twice in the movie, in fact. Once we said, "Sometimes it's a good day to die and sometimes it's a good day to play basketball," and another time, "Sometimes it's a good day to die and sometimes it's a good day to have breakfast." That notion has so little meaning in our lives that I wanted to make fun of it. It's never, ever, ever, a good day to die. There's always something better to do.

The film employs this sort of humor very often.

I think humor is the most effective political tool out there, because people will listen to anything if they're laughing. The reason why someone like Rush Limbaugh is so popular is because he's damn funny. Even I--a dedicated liberal/communist/socialist kind of guy--listen to him once in a while, because you gotta know what the enemy's up to, but he makes me laugh in spite of myself. He'll be spouting this racist, homophobic, sexist, neanderthal stuff, and I'll be laughing, and thinking, "Oh God!" It's because he's funny that people respond to him. I think one thing that liberals have a decided lack of is a sense of humor. There's nothing worse than earnest emotion and I never want to be earnest. I always want to be on the edge of offending somebody, of challenging one notion or another, and never being comfortable not only with myself, or with my own politics or my character's politics, or their lives, but with everybody else's. Humor is really just about questioning the status quo, that's all it is.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100040030