Interview by Michelle Svenson, Film and Video Specialist,
MS: Let's start with some general questions first, such
as how you got into filmmaking?
RR: I was in my early twenties. I was working as a bike
messenger and living in New York City. I was kind of roaming around,
wondering what I was going to do with my life, because nothing
had really occurred to me. I had interests in journalism, photography,
music, writing various things, and film just emerged as a marriage
of all those things. . . . And it was just through a process of
politicization as a young, angry Indian [that] I was sort of pushed
in that direction as a way to express this newfound pride and
anger and all those things that we go through when we're young
and we realize that things aren't right or whatever. I was such
a very angry early-twenty-year-old Native person. I'm not anymore,
but it was a perfect way to speak about these things and forcefully.
MS: So how did you get a hold of a camera? Did you just
start writing and then get the equipment?
RR: Well, I didn't go to film school. I took a workshop
at Third World Newsreel. It's here in New York. It cost $350,
and we just learned video and film [for] nine months. Out of that,
I made a ten-minute video called Cowtipping: The Militant Indian
Waiter, which I submitted to a festival, and it won an award.
It sort of kept me going, lifted my confidence that I could actually
do it, and [I] just built on that.
MS: Did you film Haircuts Hurt through Third World?
RR: I made that right after the workshop, just with my
own money and equipment rented by an NYU student who I waited
tables with. . . . That was two days. Then that [the film] won
awards in several festivals, and because of that movie I got a
lot of grants to make High Horse. So it was good.
MS: Did you end up working with Third World Newsreel?
RR: Well, they distribute my stuff, and I would speak
at the workshop every year after that. [By the time] we finished
High Horse, we had bought a camera. We gave it to them
and a Nagra [sound recorder]. They were not only a place to use
a camera and learn editing, etc., but that group of people is
a big part of me mentally, what got me to begin filmmaking.
MS: So how did you get to making The Doe Boy?
What a question. Long story . . . I went to the director's lab
at Sundance in 1994, and I had this other script entirely, and
I didn't get it together. I had this guy option the script, [but]
I just became really disillusioned. I think maybe I was still
a little too idealistic. I mean, it's good to be idealistic, but
it was like, "My friend Hank is going to be the lead"-things that
just end up working against you. And so I took two years off and
went to Texas and played music and didn't even think about film.
Then I came back to New York about three years ago and wrote a
new script and got it together. Kind of just one of those periods
where you have to retire for a little while just to come back
energized . . . asking yourself those profound questions like,
"Is this what I want to do?" And the answer is yes.
MS: Did the story come first, or did you decide that you
wanted to make another film?
RR: No, I came back with the intention of making the same
one, and I just became interested in another story, because I
had been writing [and] rewriting [the first script] for so long
I just lost my creative enthusiasm for it.
I have a theory that because [The Doe Boy] was autobiographical,
the wealth of potential material is infinite. It's everything
you've ever lived and everyone you've ever known that's in your
family or has crossed your path in a meaningful way. So you have
to impose, take a lot more time. . . . I think that something
for me that isn't autobiographical tends to move a little quicker.
MS: To what degree was The Doe Boy autobiographical?
My mother's Cherokee. My father's Irish and German, so the half-Cherokee
element is autobiographical. I'm an asthmatic, not a hemophiliac,
but the sort of environmental vulnerability and how that frustrates
the outdoors kind of dad [is autobiographical], even though I
was an athlete. . . . As a really young kid, asthma basically
formed my personality. To not be able to take air for granted
is really weird. It's a completely different type of existence.
It really is. And I never started giving it profound thought until
I got older, and I realized the process I go through [for example]
if someone says, "Let's go camping." The process [for me] is so
different than their just grabbing their bag. It's like, "Do I
have enough of this stuff [medication] to last?" It's almost as
if my inhaler has come to represent how much oxygen there is in
the world. It's a trip. So I began there.
And then [there's] the story about my father not going to Vietnam,
which was basically [about] him losing his antlers. It's probably
a good thing that he didn't go. And then, having a kid who doesn't
look like you and can't redeem you because he's fragile. Sometimes
you look to your offspring, especially fathers, to go to college
because you didn't. . . . So that's where the story came from.
And the doe part I lived. I shot [the doe] while my dad was asleep.
That was true. But it didn't really occur to me to put it in a
story until a few years ago.
MS: Do you think that The Doe Boy is a culmination
of the work that you've done in your past films?
And a departure. I mean it's so beautifully photographed,
and the level of craft is there because we had money, so it's
beyond anything I could've done [before].
MS: Why did you decide to shoot in Oklahoma?
RR: The Cherokee Nation is there. It's that simple. That
place means a lot to me spiritually and culturally. And I want
to go back. I still have more to do, like one more film in that
area, at least. And when I'm there, it's like the center of the
MS: How do you feel about The Doe Boy now?
RR: I've seen it about seven or eight times on the big
screen so far, and about who knows how many times in the editing
room. . . . I love The Doe Boy. I think it's the movie
I wanted to make.
MS: Do you find filmmaking a satisfying medium?
That's a really good question. It's interesting because I
play the guitar and I find that more satisfying. . . . The moments
of artistic resolution are few and far between as a filmmaker.
The tension-building process is long and drawn out, months and
years, and the moment you wrap is a good moment. Or the moment
when you get the money-that's a sigh. It's not like picking up
your guitar or paint. It's not singing-all that stuff that's immediate
and gratifying at any given moment when you're doing it. That's
not film. But it's satisfying in a completely different way. It's
like a huge thing to do. It's almost not just the art but the
economics and the physicality of what a film career is. It's just
a big, clumsy, gargantuanlike parade that makes it uniquely satisfying
and unsatisfying. So that's a good question, but [filmmaking]
is not satisfying the way you write a song and you love it, [and]
you know if you wrote it that day and played it ten times [you'd
still love it. Filmmaking] is not like that, but it's worth it.
MS: Is there anything you're working on now?
RR: I'm working on two things. I'm finished with the second
draft of the first script. I don't want to say what it's about,
but it's a fable. And then, I just started this other one that's
a dark, sort of comic satire of Texas mentality . . . in Texas-which
is, I think, perfect timing for such a thing.
MS: Perfect timing for what?
RR: Just to get on Texas's case.
MS: If you weren't a filmmaker, what other career would
RR: I'd be a pop rock musician. And I still might.
Natives in Media
MS: In general, how do you see Native media today?
RR: I think it's in great shape. [When] Smoke
Signals came out, it was a very historic thing, but there
was something just as historic that happened with two other movies-Tushka
and Naturally Native.
The Pequot tribe was the executive producer of Naturally Native.
They put in the money. That's historical. It's like you had [films]
written, directed, and produced by Chris [Eyre] and Valerie [Red-Horse],
with Valerie's film funded by Indians. And with Tushka,
you had this totally guerilla young guy [Ian Skorodin] that's
going out and doing it in Oklahoma. So that was three different
Indian films that were made in completely different ways. And
the next year [there's] Backroads
by Shirley Cheechoo, which is totally in your face, which I think
is great, and then mine came out.
And I'm probably leaving something out, but that's in the last
few years. That's more than ever before, and we need to be able
to make all different kinds [of movies], and we need to be able
to mess up. We need to be able to make a great movie and then
have somebody come out and make a bad one and then still get to
make another one because everybody else gets to make failed movies.
Nine out of ten, we've proven that people will go see it. Smoke
Signals did that.
Now we've got to show them that the audiences won't be as bare,
and it's not necessarily Indian audiences, because that's simple
math. If every Indian saw it twice, it wouldn't make any money.
Indians aren't really seen as a market because there are so few
of us, whereas with African Americans, that's thirty-five million
people. There's no money in Indian country, so the audience is
going to be mostly non-Indian for any commercially successful
film, and Smoke Signals was a smash hit. I think we're
making different types of movies in different ways, of varying
degrees of artistic and commercial success, and that's what we
need. We need a whole group of us that are just doing it differently.
But yeah, it's sort of kindred feeling.
MS: How would you ideally like to see Native films, say
in ten years from now?
RR: I just hope we're everywhere. And I hope there's
Native crews on non-Native films. I hope there's a body of work
that is a decade old, and if you look at it and search for themes,
you can find them. I hope an aesthetic emerges. You know, I think
that Smoke Signals and my movie are very different stylistically,
but there's also something lyrical in the themes of redemption
that they have in common. There's something poetic that they have
in common. Yet Backroads is a totally different animal.
So I hope there's a huge body of work by different people who
work differently, and yet you can still, for the sake of public
social perspective, discern themes-things that make them Indian.
MS: How do you feel about films that cast non-Native
actors as Native characters?
RR: My producer and I were talking about that a lot. I
was one of the people who were like, "You shouldn't do that" and
"Indians should play Indians," and I do believe that. But you're
in a situation where, for reasons of genocide, you have the smallest
population in the country, and then the [scarcity of] actors in
that population reduces that tiny population further, and then
the actors who are right for a particular role you are looking
for reduces that tiny population. It's a small group of people,
and sometimes you can't find that somebody in that group.
We could not find a kid [for The Doe Boy]. If we would've
had ten thousand dollars to send our casting director around for
three months and audition total unknowns [maybe we could have
found one]. But you know you're a first-time director, and [you're
dealing with] kids who have never acted, and maybe they have all
the natural ability in the world, but you can't get them to relax.
We need the professional end. So we cast Andrew Ferchland as young
Hunter. And in this movie it didn't matter because it's about
a mixed character, so it's kind of its own disclaimer, but the
situation could repeat itself on every movie.
First of all, you can't just cast a Navajo to play a Navajo,
so it's already okay to cast just a Native to play a Native. I
think that we should be able to play everything. I still think,
whenever possible, you should cast an Indian, and I will always
do that. But people who don't make films don't understand the
situation you get in, where you're going to be shooting in two
weeks and you've seen every single Native actor that has a head
shot that anyone's ever heard of and you can't find your actor.
It saves a lot of time keeping a level of professionalism. Especially
with the kids. But I do believe we should cast Indians as Indians
whenever possible within all those criteria. And that's certainly
how I began thinking.
MS: Do you feel a responsibility to represent Native peoples
RR: I do, and I'm not always going to make films. No matter
what I do I'm representing them, even if it's my aesthetic which
is the result of my being Indian. Or say I had no Indian actors
and it's all blondes, but ninety percent of the crew is Indian-the
DP [director of photography], the producer. There are so many
different areas that we need to be represented in. And it's not
just on screen. Image is one of the most important, but we also
need Indian cinematographers and Indian art directors. Indians
should be able to make the silliest non-Indian romantic comedy
theirs. We should be everywhere, not just as faces or voices and
not just as images of us as people. Our artistic vision should
be everywhere-all over films, all over the place.
MS: How would you advise young Native filmmakers?
RR: It's [filmmaking's] just such a hard thing to believe
you can do. Especially if you grow up in a rural or reservation-type
setting, and what occurs to you as impossible isn't. That's the
challenge-to get over what may seem like an impossible thing.
So remember that you're a storyteller, and don't be intimidated
by the technology because it's just another tool, and it's not
that hard. It's something that you can do. Anybody can do it,
and the people that are doing it that are good aren't all geniuses.
They're just people who are a mixture of talent, luck, and confidence.
And that's just like every other circle in the world. We have
to believe like everybody that it can be us too. We don't have
to be child prodigies or be born into money or be born into show
business or have some legacy of supernatural talent. We just have
to do it. If you're willing to just do things, you can go very
Himself as a Director
MS: Did any directors influence you?
RR: Not in terms of mentors, [but] there are filmmakers
that I like-Mike Leigh, a British guy; Spike Lee was real inspirational
for me when I started; . . . Chris Eyre is a friend. I go way
back with him, so he wasn't [a mentor] for me, because we were
friends, you know. With Spike Lee, I was just moved by his audacity.
And because, even though I'm Cherokee, I saw myself in him in
some way. He was just this small, skinny guy who's twenty-nine,
who I guess I just related to. But he probably had the most profound
sort of poetic influence on me because he's always trying as a
filmmaker. He's always trying new things. And that's one thing
I really admire about him. He's prolific. But at the time, I just
saw this young guy who was just doing it. That was inspirational.
MS: What do you like about Mike Leigh?
RR: I like everything. I love his process, I love how
naturalistic his movies are and how he's not a showoff with the
camera. He's a bit of a showoff with his acting, but he's not
a showoff with the camera. He is a visual artist, subtle with
his camera work and art direction and color palette and . . .
lighting things beautifully, but to look like they look, not imposing
other [elements] like blue moonlight and all these heavy-looking
lights that are not natural at all. I love his natural approach
to things. It's great. I just love it. It's like the opposite
of so many American directors who have nothing going on but the
camera flying around the frame, . . . and he's so the opposite
of that. His camera is really, really understated but still very
MS: What about subject matter?
RR: More than directors, movies like The Fisher King
really influenced me. All these guys portraying New York City
as this mythic battleground, and we're damsels in distress or
love, along with dragons, and I thought that was really cool,
and he just shot New York to look that way. So I love the modern
mythology, sort of mythic human drama, like Mike Leigh through
a mythic lens with Kurosawa visuals. It's all three of these things.
I believe this begins the kernal of that notion in The Doe
Boy. It's a small feel, but it's about families. It's still
a mythic journey, and we photographed it really beautifully. So
I would like to get all three of those together. I'm interested
in fables in a fabled context, like The Fisher King.
MS: What other kind of stories interest you that you haven't
worked on or done yet?
RR: Hmmm, I would love to do a documentary. Actually I'm
really interested in doing some music videos for bands I like,
and I would love to do a feature film on Super 8. I'd love to
do a documentary. There are so many interesting people out there.
I just want to grab a video camera and hit the road with somebody.
That sounds really fun to me.
I've got a million ideas. There are so many great stories. People
are so interesting. You don't even have to leave your own life
and you can have ten films. If you really look at how interesting
we all are, you can look at your own little life. I've got five
film ideas from my immediate family. I think we all have so many
stories, and it's just convincing ourselves that they're as good
or as important as some contrived Hollywood non-tale. The characters
in my family are far more interesting than anything Meg Ryan can
MS: What do you look for in actors and actresses as far
as methods go?
RR: You know, I wouldn't say that I have that down. .
. . If you're talking about somebody like Johnny Depp, you write
it [the script], and you want him, and you go for him. With some
people you know what they can do because of their body of work
and you're excited. . . . But usually it's like an audition process.
Part is watching tape, looking for someone who's natural, someone
who takes direction. You can tell right off if someone can take
direction and try something new-that's a big thing. Most great
actors can and also become a lot of different people and have
a body of work that isn't . . . a shtick. Kevin Anderson has played
everything from a priest to Julia Robert's boyfriend to some totally
macho frathead-he just played everything, and then he plays something
totally different. I look for chameleons.
With James Duval, there was a quality about him that I knew would
work, more than a body of work per se, because I hadn't seen that
much of his stuff. There was something in his face that I thought
was perfect, and he did a great job. And I look for intensity
and for people who are collaborators, people who don't need lines.
Because that's where everything really happens. It's between the
lines in a movie. It's in the expressions and the little glances,
the eyes and stuff. . . . The lines are part of it, certainly.
There are great line readers out there, but it just has to be
MS: How would you describe your directing methods?
RR: Wow, well again, you pick great actors, and you rehearse.
And you just constantly have an open dialogue about the material
and how you're both feeling about it, and you got to be willing
to collaborate. All the actors on my set know that if they didn't
like a line-you can tell if an actor doesn't believe in what he
or she is saying-they can come to me and we can figure something
out. So I just work really collaboratively. I feel that I should
know the story more than anybody, and if they need something,
I should be there. Sometimes it's just a word or a little nudge
or just some just confidence-building exchange. You just have
to be really intimate.
MS: Do you think you're easy to get along with as a director?
RR: Yeah. Totally.
Image credits: Director
Randy Redroad - courtesy of Tim Warner; Film stills from The
Doe Boy - Courtesy of Larry Gus