I should just get that out of the way right off the bat. I would be remiss to do this interview without disclosing that. That said, I believe this gives me some insight into the Navajo writer/director, whose most recent feature film, Chasing the Light, will screen Friday night of Indian Market at the New Mexico history museum at 8PM. If you’re not familiar with his work you can view some clips on his Vimeo page. He’s been making films for quite awhile, and was named one of the top 25 faces of indie film by Filmmaker magazine back in 2004. Several of his films have gone on to screen at the Sundance film festival. Shimasani not only screened there, but also took home the Best of Show prize at the 2010 Santa Fe Indian Market, the first for the then-new class X film category.
I sat down with Blackhorse on the smoking porch at my apartment building late one night on one of the last hot summers of 2015 in Albuquerque NM, where we shared stories and recorded this very late night conversation. It’s a long conversation between friends and I had to edit out a lot of the interview for time constraints as I am trying to publish this before the New Mexico premiere of Chasing the Light, and also just because we cuss a lot, and are familiar enough with each other to probably not be disclosing every little thing we discuss for publication.
What have you been working on?
Currently, with [Navajo composer] Raven Chacon, on this thing called “Report (for Firearms Ensemble}”, it’s a gun symphony that was made up of multiple types of firearms. We shot that around a week ago, all live rounds. All live cameras. Lots of danger but lots of fun. It’s a gallery piece we’re working on right now for him. It’s a collaboration between Raven and me, and we’re just trying to make it as badass as possible. Raven wrote this piece back in 2001 and some other people have tried to perform it but they never really got to it. He’s the first one who went through and really just performed it.
Have you worked with Raven before?
I’ve used his music in some of my other movies, B dreams, this other thing called Charles Thunder which hasn’t been out yet and my new movie Chasing the Light. His sound and the way that he does his business definitely influences my way of doing things.
A high level of artistry. He never panders to the lowest common denominator. He doesn’t give a fuck about who understands it; he’s just about making it as tight as he can possibly make it. At all fucking levels, whether it’s with [his band] Tenderizor, whether with his noise music, whether with the stuff he does with [the arts collective] post-commodity, he’s always about the tightest possible art that he can make in all different things. It’s beyond “Indigenous” and everything else — it’s up on the level of “other” artists. Not Native, not fucking American, not North American, it’s on the level of international artists and that type of mindset, that type of zeitgeist.
You’re talking about integrity.
Integrity, but also just tuning into that type of mindset as well. Never pandering to the lowest common denominator but having the integrity to say, “I know I have the skill, I know I have the power to reach that level, and I will ride that out.” And he has that and it’s fucking awesome, and I hope to associate with those people, yourself and Daniel [Navajo filmmaker D.E. Hyde] included, just people that understand that level, to just ride it out as long as they can, and they know it, and they feel it and try to stay true. It’s a matter of knowing how to work the system to a certain degree.
This film that you just did, Chasing the Light**, can you talk about what it means to you?**
In terms of what I felt in my heart and soul, it took me to a whole new level. You saw this; it took me to a depression and to a different emotional level that I’d never been spun into. After coming off of this passionate love experience and having it just fall out. Then the free fall from that, and trying to figure out how to put myself together.
So the movie came out of that. The girl, I have no hate for. She was my muse in that way in terms of like trying to understand myself in love and relationships and everything else, what did I do wrong? All these different things that you think about when you’re in a relationship. How did I fuck up? What did I say? What did I do? You know, all the shit. It’s like, well, how do I put that into a movie? How do I explain this thing? How do I explain this longing? How do I explain this heartache? Also, how do I give you hope at the end of that through some sort of experience, and that’s through friendship and other people that you know in your area. Your community that you love and you shared these experiences with, they lift you out of that and take you and [tell you] “we feel that too”, so you don’t feel alone about that. You’re still a person. It’s okay to feel loneliness and depression, just ride it through, and you’ll come back out of it. So I guess that’s what the movie is about. I was able to go from that absolute feeling of love and just depression, and just trying to get your way back out of it and just become whole again.
Was the process that you went through for this film different from previous films?
I think every process for every movie is extremely different from the other. I think if I had to compare it to another film it would probably like 5th World, in terms of the long shots, and how the story unfolded, but with that film we had done two months worth of rehearsing with each of the characters, back to back, like each scene, over and over again, just like word for word, “here’s what you’re gonna say… here’s what you’re gonna say.” When we got on the road it’s like, “alright you know the road map, forget it if you want to but you know the road map. Just live the moment, it’s already embedded in you from the two months that we had, so just go.”
With this movie, it was a process of just beginning from pure improvisations of just my feelings, of just longing, and loneliness, and just being lovelorn. Just like thinking about “her” out there. I could never get over it so I was just like, “Ah, I got to put it somewhere, I can’t leave it in my head for too long,” so I had to just shoot it. But I couldn’t think of any actor, and I didn’t have any money to make it, so — I’ll just put the camera on myself, like I’m feeling the feelings right now. Now it’s just that much more pure so I’ll just shoot it that way.
So I just started shooting myself at first. Then from there it built into the thing we were beginning at the time with the short film, about me running and just trying to get over the girlfriend, and from there it just kept growing, and growing, and growing. Then we shot the short, the running portions, but then as I was running and doing all this stuff, other storylines started blossoming as we were really hanging out. As Daniel and I were hanging out, as Lydell [Mitchell] and I were hanging out, as Sally [Kewayosh] and I were hanging out — shit just started blooming so, let’s just keep it going, let’s see how far it can go. From there it was just like, “Alright, I have an idea for the next scene.” Daniel and I shot it, around this idea for this next scene, which was with you at the library. It was a really organic process because I didn’t know what I was doing. Well, I knew I had a place I wanted to go, I didn’t know how I wanted to get there, but with each scene I knew I had an objective. Like Scott… dealing with limes, and the drugs deals… it was just all these elements of Indian art and whatnot. I got what I want.
As the film progressed and every character became more definitive in who they were, then it became easier for me to write for who they were because the cast grew, and the amount of people in each scene grew, so by that point I couldn’t rely on improv or try and let things happen naturally because it was like I was dealing with time, people, money, food, and everything else, so it was just like, I had to write, actually lines for everyone to fucking say cause I don’t have time for improvs, that takes way to long. As long as I knew I had lines laid out, or Brian was just like wait what am I doing? Who should I be listening to? Listen to everyone? Listen to me? Listen to no one? I don’t give a fuck; just make it make it fucking real (laughter). That’s all I care about just make it real.
How hard was it to adapt to the growing cast?
I think I was fine with it. I knew who I wanted to cast in the movie early on: you, Daniel, Nasheen Sleuth, Patricia Del Rio, Lydell, Sally, Dave Begay, Kelly Mitchell — I knew I just wanted to make all my friends and my family a part of this next movie ’cause that was what my last movie was about. It’s just community and people I love. Albuquerque’s a part of my heart now so I was like, I’ll make that movie next. I knew these people and I knew if I had to act in this movie I knew these people would be there to support me and let me know if I was truthful or not. Let me know if I was being a complete asshole or not — they would check me on it.
How did the city influence you?
It took a long time for it to influence me. I moved back here in 2010. Writing a screenplay and living at Lydell’s house and drinking for probably like half a year, and not even finishing the screenplay, but I’m finally finishing now ’cause I finally have enough emotional depth to understand what the fuck I’m writing.
Chasing the Light is filmed in black and white — you did it with Shimasani you did it again with this film. I know it’s cheaper, but does it go deeper than that?
It feels more timeless to me. A good portion of my films are black and white, that but also budgetary reasons. Just keep the consistency of the image. But it’s just like you can’t get that quality in cinema as if you watched something in black and white. A little differentiation in, like, the ’70s style.
The ’70s — apex of American cinema.
Yeah apex, it’s amazing cinema. If I had done Shimasni in the ’70s I’d probably be a big ’70s director. (huge laughter) Ethereal quality to it, man.
Do you see yourself doing that again?
I would love to. Next period film, I would love to do it all black and white. Just like full on Kurosawa, fucking Tarkovsky, just straight up Ingmar Bergman.
Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in collaboration with the Santa Fe Indian Market presents Chasing the Light screening Friday August 21st at 8 PM at the New Mexico History Museum as part of the Native Cinema Showcase. Entry is free.