Interview by Daniel Grignon (Menominee).
DG: First of all, thank you for coming and taking the
time to have this interview with me. Can you first start out by
introducing yourself and tell me a little bit about where you're
WL: I'm Hopi and Laguna Pueblo and that's in the Southwest
DG: In my opinion what made Miss Navajo special
was capturing and showcasing the uniqueness of the pageant and
its talented young Native women. What other kinds of issues are
you planning to work on or address in future projects?
WL: First off, I like fun contemporary stories of Native
people. I'm working right now on an Indian marching band [film]...helping
a friend produce the project; also doing some short docs in development.
I'm interested in love stories and romantic comedies....I've always
been captivated by musicals too, so that's a direction I know
I will be headed, definitely.
DG: It was refreshing to watch Miss Navajo and
feel good about what was happening there on the reservation. It
was a nice change from the usual social, economic, political despair
seen in other Native films and documentaries. Is this "feel
good" theme an objective you plan to continue in future projects?
WL: Yeah. For me personally, I don't want to make docs
about the victimization of our people. The thing I liked about
Miss Navajo [was] the fact that she understood everything that
she had and how valuable it was to her, but yet when you look
at her home and what the surroundings are, well, they aren't a
very wealthy family, but she's happy there. That's one of the
reasons why I chose to follow her. But also that she was a tomboy,
too; it sort of goes against the whole beauty pageant type. When
I met her she came in with blue jeans and a baseball cap and I
thought, "That's it, she's great."
I never thought my first film would be a documentary
one day I had this dream about my mother being Miss Navajo, and
I woke up and I was like, "I need to do this;" the story
was right in front of me
"This is it."
My intention of making this film was to explore the role of women
and it totally blossomed into something else. It's about language,
it's about this young woman that I think that people don't see
often; people respond so well to her because she's a character
or subject that [they] haven't seen. She was very quiet, but that
DG: I think people are used to mainstream American girls
on film and TV who love to shop and are very girly. So seeing
Crystal as a real girl is refreshing.
WL: That's what someone mentioned to me after the screeningit
was refreshing to see not only Crystal but the other girls in
the competition, and they're real girls, they're not like the
MTV girls. It was a great year to be there. All of those girls
that competed were great and I could have followed every one of
them if I had enough money, but I knew that I wanted to just focus
DG: Who or what are some of your influences today?
WL: Well, today. it's definitelyfrom the documentary
side is Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato who executive produced
[Miss Navajo]. I went to my first Sundance [Film Festival]
in 2000 and the very first film I saw there was The Eyes of
Tammy Faye. It was so uniquewow! it's funny, it's shockingand
that's what I loved about the doc. I knew that this is the direction
I wanted to go into, their style and topics that they choose that
normal mainstream wouldn't touch. That's something that I could
relate to as a filmmaker. As an emerging filmmaker I should say.
DG: Can you explain and comment on your experiences with
the Sundance Native Initiative, National Geographic All Roads
and Tribeca All Access fellowships for readers who are unfamiliar
with these programs.
WL: From early on Tribeca [All Access] was a program that
believed in the project before I got any sort of funding or any
program support. They were the first ones to accept my project
into their program. There I was able to have one-on-ones with
different producers and executives from different outlets of film
and television. It was neat to sit down and introduce myself and
the project; it was because of that that I formed these relationships
with these people; they know me now, they know my face.
Even though they didn't fund my project or didn't say, "OK,
we want it to be on A&E or Sundance Channel," I have
this relationship now that, down the road, I'll have another project
that I can toss at them. To have that relationship early on is
huge, it's huge and you just can't pay for that; you can't sit
down and meet with all those powerful people in one sit-down in
Whereas, the Sundance Native Initiative, that was completely
different. That was more of like a nurturing of my project, where
they were able to give me feedback on rough samples or [I could]
take part in producers conferences or just have one-on-ones with
different mentors. That was really important for me, because you're
hearing so much feedback from people that sometimes you need to
step back and just listen.
I went over 120 hours of footage for this film and its only 60
minutes now. It was crazy. There were some things I had to leave
out because it just didn't flow with the story, there were great
scenes...I'm extremely proud of it though. I know that I don't
regret not putting those pieces in. I want people to accept and
love the film for what it is. The DVD extras, that's always good
to have later on, but the film is what it is.
DG: Do you have any advice for aspiring directors/filmmakers?
WL: Obviously I
Just apply, put your name
out there as much as possible, Tribeca, Sundance, take advantage
of all those programs
here in New York, Third World Newsreel.
You just have to do a lot of work. There's a lot of research that
you have to do and that's what I did, I was everywhere. For me,
my whole career and my film Miss Navajo is due to those
organizations, those programsespecially when you have no
money, when you're a broke filmmaker and you're doing what you
can to get by. I partnered early on with World of Wonder who lent
me their camera on their off days of making their own projectsthings
that like that, you have to be on top of it.
DG: Sacrifice to do what you want to do?
WL: Yeah, yeah. There was a time I wouldn't apply to some
of those things, like, "Oh, I'm not going to get in,"
and then I got in. You just never know where it's going to go.
I wouldn't change anything I did. And of course there was a lot
of rejection, too. There were a lot of letters and things that
said "No, not this round," or the same thing with the
funding, which I finally got with ITVS. I applied and got rejected
and I applied again the following year, and I finally got my funding.
Same thing with the All Roads Grant with the National Geographic;
they turned me down and the next year I applied and I got it.
You just got to keep going. Keep with it.
I want to say a few more things. I started out interning here
at the Film and Video Center and it's pretty cool to be back and
have a film showing here
.because this is where it all began.
I moved to New York just to do the internship and that was the
most incredible experience of my life. It was literally a life-changing
event, especially getting to know a lot of the filmmakers that
I had never heard of before.
But you know, I'm still struggling as a filmmaker. Just because
I have one down there's so much more to do. When you finish your
film it's never done, and you're traveling non-stop with the film.
You see different reactions and it's really cool to be in the
audience. On Tuesday I was like "OK, I've seen it so many
times I don't want to see it again
but I stayed for five
minutes and the reaction of the audience was just so overwhelming
to me; I was like, "I have to stay here and sit with them."
It was great because people responded so well and it was a pretty
diverse audience, too
. It goes up there with my screening
DG: So what's next for Miss Navajo? Are you going
anywhere overseas with it?
WL: I've been to Norway and Australia with it already,
but one of the most important screenings I had was on the Navajo
Nation Reservation. We did a private screenings for the former
.I think they were going in anticipating something
but they walked out [with something] completely different. I think
most were very positive. For me that was a reward and I knew it
was important, because the Navajo Nation provided me with a lot
of resources, too, I got some old clips and a lot from the archives.
This is proof that you can make a film with no money; of course
it did cost some, but you can definitely make a film.
I was going to film school for so many years because I was moving
here and there; I was just getting frustrated because it was so
expensive. But one of my professors told me to stop worrying,
I was trying to finish my project and was thinking about how I
was going to pay for my tuition and return for next semester,
and she said "All you need to do is just find a camera and
just go make your film." That's practically what I did, you
know. I didn't finish film school, I wish I did but
was right. She knew exactly what I needed to do. You need those
people along the way and you never forget that.
The thing about school for me is that I was learning about films
that I wouldn't have been exposed to. Also, I was meeting other
filmmakers; I'm seeing them in the festival circuit now
are a few professors that are really, really great people. It's
because of them I'm doing what I'm doing, just because they helped
me along the way. I think it's just crazy, I'm 32 and ten years
ago if you told me I was going to make this film, I would have
been like "What? No!" But it all happens; you just have
to keep on going.
Once you see the film [with an audience] and you get the response
that you have, that's rewarding. And I like free screenings too.
I like where it's open and people can come in and just enjoy it.
That's why I'm really excited about it being on PBS and Independent
Lens, it's going to be open.
DG: The thing with film festivals is there's only so much
you can see, but PBS would be great, more people will get to see
WL: I know that PBS is working on a big project now, the
We Shall Remain series, but I just don't remember seeing
much programming about Native people on PBS
.I guess it's
like people have asked me, "Is it hard being a Native filmmaker?"
I don't think its hard being a Native filmmaker, I think its hard
a filmmaker in general. You're competing for the resources and
funding, and fewer and fewer places are funding projects. But
I knew I wasn't making a film that was going to be commercial,
People are asking, "What's your next project?" I'm
thinking "Oh my God, I'm still on this one." Its likeI
don't want to say it's the same thing, because it's probably very
disrespectfulbut it's like giving birth. You give birth
to a child, and you don't want to have another one in two months,
you want to wait awhile, you just want to enjoy this moment. That's
how I feel right nowI'm enjoying this moment.
It's only been finished for six months now, I don't want to go
into something [else] so soon, because I want to make sure this
is done and I'm ready, because, I mean, it's a lot of work; it
took me four years to make this film. It wore me out. It was exhausting,
it was frustrating. There were times when I was looking at it
and saying "I don't even know what the story is;" you
just start questioning yourself because you've been around this
material so much.
That's why those projects you take part in, like Sundance, just
keep pushing you along the way, and saying, "Keep doing it,
keep doing it," and sure enough you just keep going. Every
time I watch it I think "This is incredible, I finished it
and people are actually enjoying the film."
DG: I think that's why people are so curious to know what
you are doing next, because Miss Navajo was so good.
WL: Well thanks. Actually going out and shooting again,
I mean the shorts, that takes a lot of work, too. But those shorts
that I'm planning, I know they are feasible. For the larger projects,
that's going to be a few years from now. I don't want to start
thinking aboutgosh, I went through so much making this film,
you just doubt yourself, always doubt yourself. With Miss Navajo,
I learned120 hoursthat taught me a lot. I just couldn't
believe that I shot that much footage. It was a four-hour cut
and I had to make the right choices on what the story was about
was a luxury to do it in four years. If I had gotten funding sooner,
they would have wanted it cut in a year, there's deadlines. I
wouldn't do anything different, but I don't think I would do another
I didn't start filming Crystal, I started sitting down with former
Miss Navajos and filming a lot of those interviews. Crystal came
out later; I didn't even know who Crystal was going to be. In
my proposal I just made up this girl, her name is Suzy and she's
this and that. People were asking to meet Suzy and I was thinking
to myself, "Well, Suzy doesn't exist."
That's something I think is really important: your proposal. As
much as I really didn't want to do itmy producer Duana [Butler]she
kept hitting me, "Billy you need to do it, and even if its
not going to translate and be your form, it's good to have that
mindset of what your film is about." For me, it was like
going back to film school. The basics they taught me was everything
that I used. I went back to budgets, all those handouts they give
to you on budgeting and everything, I went back to those things,
because you need that, you need all of that stuff that you learned.
It really helped out with my budget and proposals, because if
people are going to give you money, they want to make sure you
know how to handle a check and they expect you to deliver your
Image credits: William
Luther - courtesy of the filmmaker