Richardson Morse, interviewed by Joanna Hearne
House Made of Dawn
HEARNE: Thank you for doing the interview Rick. What was
your initial attraction to Scott Momaday's novel, House Made
MORSE: Well, at the point when I first read the novel,
I owned a bookstore. I knew coming out of college [that] I wanted
to direct. I tried getting into film through the back door of
acting, and did a few parts and found it very frustrating. An
old college friend of mine said "Hey listen, I think you'll
love this book." So he gave me House Made of Dawn.
And something clicked. I wasn't looking for a project to do but
I felt an immediate empathy with Abel, and with the book. It wasn't
that I was into Native American culture or anything like thatwhat
I knew about Indians I basically learned from John Ford. But there
was for me a very strong universality to the story. You know it's
a man who's trying to figure out who he is and where he belongs,
and that is certainly applicable to any part of society and any
human being. Plus, I absolutely adored Scott's use of language.
HEARNE: I do too. So you had had training in directing
MORSE: In the theater. Absolutely none whatsoever in film.
The first day I ever spent on a film set was our first day of
HEARNE: How did you find your way from being someone interested
in drama, and interested in theater, and interested in books and
reading and working at a bookstore, to being the guy who directed
MORSE: As soon as I read the book I got the rights to
it, which was before it won the Pulitzer. When it first came out
it was, I think, terribly difficult for most Anglos to get into,
I think primarily because of its circular sense of time; we tend
to be linear thinkers. There was a lot of initial confusion in
the book, when you read it, as to who is speaking, where they
are, and what time period they're in. That it moves back and forth
so much somehow didn't bother me in the reading, I was really
able just to go with the flow. The immediate emotional impact
was very strong on me.
I had no sense when I got the rights to it that we were bidding
against anybody else at that time. We got the rights, and I think
one of the things that perhaps appealed to Scott, and that let
him give the rights to somebody who was so totally inexperienced,
was the fact that I wanted him to do the screenplay. I'm not sure,
if he had sold it to MGM, whether they would have allowed him
to do the screenplay. It was only after it won the Pulitzer that
all of a sudden there seemed to be a lot of interest in it, and
people wanted to purchase the rights from me.
HEARNE: So you must have seen it as cinematic.
MORSE: It seemed to me our first decision was to make
the film totally from Abel's point of view, rather than bringing
in Francisco's point of view or Tosamah's point of view. I'm sure
it was one of my initial thoughts about how to adapt him in the
book, and I don't remember there being any conflict with Scott
about that. My sense is that that was easily agreed upon. Whether
the idea initially came from him or from me I'm not even sure.
HEARNE: How would you characterize your collaboration
with Momaday, on the screenplay and later in the filmmaking?
MORSE: Basically, Scott did the writing of the screenplay.
And, as I recall, he would bring pages to me, and then I might
have ideas or might not have ideas, and he might try a slightly
different direction or tell me why we shouldn't go in a different
direction. But I have a sense that certainly 90% of what was put
down on paper was originally put down by Scott, with then maybe
some editing coming from me.
HEARNE: He had some participation the casting, is that
MORSE: Right. And even before the casting I went out to
visit Scott in New Mexico, and we went around to different locations.
We went to Jemez Pueblo, which is where Scott grew up. We talked
to the council there about the possibility of filming there. They
turned us down as they did not want filming in the Pueblo. I'd
never been to New Mexico before, so Scott was introducing me to
and showing me wonderful things.
Quite a little bit later on in the story, when we were actually
getting around to casting in Hollywood, I sent out a call to agents
asking to see Native American actors, and was sent a whole lot
of Italians to look over. And I just didn't want to go that way.
And then out of the blue I got a phone call from Tony Bill. He's
both an actor and a producerhe was one of the producers
of The Sting. He had just finished doing a film in New
Mexico about Indians called Flap. I think it was probably
the film that most shows everything wrong that Hollywood did in
terms of dealing with Indians. But Tony had read House Made
of Dawn, and was very enthused with it, and I wouldn't have
been surprised if he'd looked to get the rights for himself and
found out that I had them.
He was nice enough to call and say "Listen, you know I just
finished this film, and I met a guy on the set who was one of
the extras and I think he's somebody you should think about interviewing
for Abel, and his name's Larry Littlebird." I think it was
the next day, I got this call from Scott from Santa Fe, saying
"Listen I just met this guy who I think we should consider
very much for the role of Abel." And I said "Great,
what's his name?" And he said "Larry Littlebird."
And I said, Well, someone sent me a message here," so I caught
the next plane to Santa Fe, to set up a meeting to interview Larry
up at Scott's house.
And of course what I found was I wasn't interviewing Larry at
all, Larry was interviewing me, to see how I was going to approach
the story. He certainly didn't want to see this great novel turned
into another Flap. I'm not sure what it was I said or what
it was I did, but I obviously passed the interview. As far as
I was concerned, I read Larry in a few scenes and I thought he
was just terrific. Once I met Larry there was no question in my
mind that he was Abel. I didn't interview anybody else.
HEARNE: What gave you that initial impulse to use Native
actors and not Italians? I think that was a leap that not everybody
was making right then.
MORSE: It was really one of the main reasons I ended up
directing the film myself. Once [House Made of Dawn] won
the Pulitzer, and Scott and I had done our initial screenplay,
I had several chances to sell it to major studios. I remember
specifically going to Universal and talking to somebody there.
I probably could've gone along on the deal as associate producer
or producer or something like that and learned the business, which
might've been a lot smarter, before just jumping into it. But
it was clear that they were going to cast Sal Mineo or somebody
of that ilk as Abel, and it wasn't what the book was about. It
was dishonest to everything that attracted me to the book in the
And, you know, there were places down the road where I did make
some compromises and they were a mistake. For instance, Scott
very much wanted to play Tosamah
.There were several places
on the film where, being so totally inexperienced myself, I wanted
to surround myself with some experienced people, as opposed to
people who had as little knowledge of the business as I did. And
I thought it important that I have an actor-actor doing Tosamah.
Larry was an absolute natural for Abel, and he was going to be
the key to every scene, but I wanted to surround him with as much
professionalism as I could. And so I went with John [Saxon], and
I tell you, it was a mistake. Not that John was bad, John did
a good actor's performance. But Scott would have been much better,
especially in the sermon, which he read brilliantly.
HEARNE: What was the total budget for the film? Did you
fundraise at all or was it pretty much your own resources?
MORSE: It was all my own resources with some of my brother's.
Probably the total cost of the film was about $700,000.
HEARNE: That is a commitment.
MORSE: Yes, I blew the piggy bank on that decision, but
I wouldn't let it be turned over to somebody else. If I'd been
a kind of person who found it easier to ask people for things,
or if I had gotten myself a legitimate producer, who also believed
in the project and believed it should be made not with Sal Mineo
but with Larry Littlebird, I'm sure that person could've raised
the money independently. But it was a time and an erayou're
talking to somebody who just turned 30 at the end of the '60s.
We had a belief then that we could change the world, that we could
do something positive and make a difference, that our own individual
beliefs mattered, and it mattered to hold onto them.
HEARNE: What was the reaction of mixed Native and non-Native,
or of non-Native audiences to screenings of the film?
MORSE: Well, first of all, anybody who had anything to
do with selling the film saw no commercial value in it whatsoever.
I don't want to say it got totally negative reviews from an Anglo
audience because it didn'tthere were a lot of people who
truly loved it even back then. What was interesting was that there
was a correlation between what they thought of the film and what
they thought of Larry. There were a lot of people who would come
up to me afterwards and say "God, Rick, why did you cast
such a stereotypical, impassive Indian to play Abel?" There
were other people who read everything that was going on in Larry's
mind, the nuances and what was happening therewhich obviously
I didand those people were the ones who tended to like the
film. Basically, if the audience was able to understand and empathize
with Abel, they liked the film. And if they weren't able to, then
the whole film pretty much got the written off as slow and just
not very interesting.
We had a terrible time selling [the film], as a matter of fact
we weren't able to. We weren't able to get a distributor for it
at all for years
.And the film was not seen, except every
now and then when some festival or some Native American group
wanted to screen it. Other than that it was quite totally unseen
for damn near 30 years here. As you can imagine, from all points
of view, the film seemed to be a total failure, artistically and
financially. I thought that I had failed Scott, that I had failed
the material, that I had failed all the way around.
But the one nice thing is that when it was shown, at different
Indian celebrations or festivals, it always got very strong support
from the Native American community. That made me feel that "Okay
we failed, but at least we failed in a righteous way." That
was very meaningful to me, to have that there throughout the years.
Now there seems to be some revisionist thinking about the film,
that it was ahead of its time-the fact that you're doing this
interview, they've shown it at the Taos festival, the Smithsonian
is interested in trying to save it. It seems now that people feel
the film has value, which delights me.
HEARNE: What do you feel are the most successful elements
of the film?
MORSE: Well I think the main thing is-to come back to
that word again-it was righteous. What we did, even if this scene
doesn't quite work and that scene doesn't quite work, the heart
was in the right place. All the way through it, there is a line
of honesty and of commitment and of caring, from the people involved
and for the project as a whole. That is there. Beyond that, specifically
there are some marvelous performances in itespecially Jay
Varela, who plays Benally.
HEARNE: I thought his performance was quite good too.
MORSE: Yeah, incrediblethe scenes between he and
Larrythe scene on the rooftop where Larry is singing and
you have that 360-degree pan at the freeways of Los Angelesthat
whole scene was basically improvised between Larry and Jay. They
knew that there were a few plot points that we wanted to get across
in the scene. But Larry said "Listen, I have some ideas for
a song," and "Jay and I have talked about some things."
I said "Great, I'll turn on the camera." That kind of
trust was there on the set between Larry and myself. You know,
a whole lot of what is right in this film is because of Larry
Littlebird. I give more credit to Larry than I do to myself.
HEARNE: There are quite complex cinematic moments in the
editinghow were those decisions made?
MORSE: Well, the original editor was Bill Brame, and Antranig
Mahakian was the assistant editor. It was in the whole editing
process where I was the most active. Antranig and I went through
so many different permutations over the years that I can't exactly
tell you where the film was when we finished our first edit with
Bill Brame. I know there were certain scenes like all the scenes
with Angela, who was played by Lee Meriwetherthat are no
longer in the film. And it's too bad because it's some of the
best work Lee's ever done....Basically no matter what step it
was along the way, the editing decisions were mine.
HEARNE: What about the transition from WWII to Vietnam?
MORSE: We did that so we didn't have to spend all the
money getting vintage cars and stuff like that. It was very simply
HEARNE: It seems in that way that your collaboration with
Larry was really crucial to the film. What was your working relationship,
between the two of you?
MORSE: I feel as close to Larry as I do to any person
in this world. And that was virtually immediate. I trust him wholeheartedly,
and trusted him from the beginning, to make sure that I was not
going off the right track. One very important thing, I don't think
we had it in the screenplayit came basically out of necessity,
because Mesa (Francisco) did not speak English all that wellall
his dialogue was done in his native language. I don't know whether
that came from Larry or from me. Once I met Mesa and felt what
a wonderful Francisco he would be, it became obvious that you
had to do it in his own words. But that came about because Larry
introduced me to Mesa.
What was such an incredible thing for me about it being screened
a few years ago at the Taos Talking Picture Festival, is not only
that out of the blue comes a person, Jason Silverman, who I didn't
know, and who loves the film and wants to show it, but that it
became a very cathartic time for me. It was really the first time
in 30 years I was able to look at the film and see what was right
in it. I was able to look at the film and see what Larry Littlebird
had seen, all these years. I was able to see what was right and
not what was wrong.
HEARNE: I really want to thank you so much for your time,
and for making the film.
MORSE: Oh, thank you Joanna.
Image credits: Richardson
Morse - photograph by Peter Morse © 1970