Randy Redroad , the acclaimed Cherokee filmmaker from Lubbock, Texas, has continually caught the attention of the independent film scene ever since he picked up a 16 mm camera.
The release of “The Doe Boy”, Redroad’s first feature-length film, did not go unnoticed when last year the writer/director picked up the NHK Filmmaker’s Award at Sundance Film Festival and Perrier’s Bubbling Under Award at the Taos Talking Pictures Film Festival. Redroad’s previous winning shorts are “High Horse” and “Hair Cuts Hurt”, two provocative films that examine issues of assimilation and acculturation.
Walking down the street in one of Vancouver’s funkier sections, we duck into an unassuming restaurant where Redroad searches for a secluded table in a dark corner. Tonight he’s unwinding. For the past five days, the New York based writer/director has been in town conducting directing and scriptwriting workshops for aspiring native filmmakers.
“What I try to convey to people in our community who want to be filmmakers but don’t think they have the material is that they do! They need to be aware that they are not only inherent storytellers but they have stories within themselves based on the people who have moved in and out of their lives. Not everyone will succeed as a filmmaker, but we all have stories. We need to make our own legacy. We’re mythmakers. We need to know it could be us-it should be us,” he says with bewitching intensity.
With only 24 days of principal photography, a paltry budget of $1.6 million and lots of heart, “The Doe Boy” is a testament to the rigors of independent filmmaking. The four-year making of “The Doe Boy” was a labor of love and a story all by itself.
When it finally looked like all the pieces were in place and the film was given a green light, the production suffered a crushing blow. Just weeks before Redroad was ready to go to camera, the Broadway producer who was funding the film pulled out. Determined to find another backer, Redroad found an investor through the Sundance Film Institute willing to invest $1 million in the picture. After pooling grant and award monies, 90 percent of the budget was locked into place. Redroad was elated when his director of photography, Laszlo Kadar, coughed up the remaining $300,000 that was needed.
“We challenged four line producers to bring in the script under $1 million and they couldn’t. This was made lean and mean,” he said proudly. “In a low-budget situation, we didn’t have all day to get a shot. If I had had more money, I would have rehearsed longer. As it was,” he continued, “we only had two days. More rehearsal allows for better performances and gives you more opportunities to try different things, more takes. But,” he added reflectively, “I don’t think there’s ever been a filmmaker who got just what he wanted. I can’t imagine that happening.”
Besides dealing with monetary constraints, Redroad as the director had other daunting factors to contend with, such as having to go back four months later to do reshoots since at the time of filming, the deer had just shed their antlers. This factor couldn’t be overlooked, for the story’s central theme revolves around the symbolic rite of passage of shooting a buck. At one point Redroad said they even considered fitting a deer with a toupee and fake antlers to “butch up” a castrated buck.
Redroad’s personal commitment to shoot in the Cherokee capital of Tahlequah, Okla., also meant the added logistics of having to send gear and crew from Los Angeles, some 1,800 miles away. “Telling it in Tahlequah was a part of it. There is an ambiance there that can’t be reproduced. I’ve been gone a long time, and this film is something I wanted to share with that community,” he says.
With no formal education in filmmaking, Redroad has followed the words of wisdom dispensed to all aspiring writers, write what you know. He has learned his craft from the ground up. Everything, he says, starts with the story and then adapting the storytelling to suit film.
“My family was my film school,” shared the filmmaker. “I learned how to write dialogue by listening to my father’s speeches when he was drunk. I’d memorize every single word, and the next day when he was sober, I’d repeat back to him word for word what he had said the night before. He wouldn’t be able to argue with me, because he’d know that I was telling the truth. He knew they were his own words and it freaked him out.
“What that did was train my ear. I make the analogy to the retention of reading-a memory for the oral. It’s a ridiculous talent. I think what causes me to memorize is not so much what people say but the way they say it-the accent, the rhythm, the pauses. It’s the guttural vibrations that I remember. I guess it’s like learning to listen to different notes. My great passion is music, and I think there’s a simple lyricism I impose on whatever I’m working with or on.”
Redroad adds that beside a good ear, one also needs focus and discipline to succeed. However, obsession, he stresses, is the most vital element. That alone supersedes everything else. The Doe Boy was in its fourteenth draft when the camera began rolling. Redroad confessed, “you never finish writing-you just stop because you’re shooting.”
On telling a story in film, Redroad knows the value of character arcs and resolution. “I see dramatic structure everywhere ? it’s about building and releasing tension. It’s about how you resolve it, to what degree, and when do you give audiences certain information. What’s great about a character is what you don’t know about him or her. You get the essence of someone, but those most interesting characters to me are the ones that have a lot of mystery to them.”
Wearing both the director’s and writer’s caps can be a difficult balancing act, but for Redroad there was no question of divided loyalties ? to him, the ultimate goal and focus was to serve the story.
“I don’t think of them [writing and directing] as separate. I have no allegiance to words or lines that don’t work once I come to shoot. That’s what you do in rehearsal; you find what works and what doesn’t. I’ll lose them, change them, I don’t care.
“There are certain things you hate to lose or give up, but there comes a certain point, and it doesn’t always come quickly, when you realize you’re not serving the whole. I love writing and editing. In the writing process you’re dreaming. In the editing process you’re forming the images, and when you’re on the set you’re at the mercy of the weather and the momentum of this huge thing you’ve undertaken. You’re making fiction in spite of reality. Reality is a powerful thing and you have to shut it out.”
Ever since “The Doe Boy” screened at Sundance last winter, Redroad has been traveling from Sao Paolo to Galway in hopes of getting distribution. At this time, the filmmaker still does not have a North American deal. But he has locked up distribution in the Far East and some European countries.
In the past few years, the indie scene has been mired in controversy. The term “indie” used to mean a project funded independently of the Hollywood arena, with a cast of unknown actors-literally made outside of the mainstream industry. Nowadays, it’s commonplace to have well-known celebrities gracing the screens in so-called little films where their mere attachment to the project, regardless of the context, translates into instant national theatrical release. Having a Nicholas Cage or Cameron Diaz on a marquee gives distributors confidence and helps give investors a comfort margin, knowing they have a good chance of recouping their investment. The bottom line is star power attracts audiences.
The upside of this controversy may be that film festivals such as Sundance embark on some soul-searching that may take them back, to a certain degree, to their original mission. The downside is that truly great independent films are going to be caught in the crossfire ? overshadowed by the politics of both the Hollywood and indie camps. Redroad feels this may be the fate of “The Doe Boy.”
“I took everything personally until I went to Taos Talking Pictures Film Festival in April and saw these great filmmakers with slamming movies that didn’t get sold. It’s not about a film being good. It’s about a film being weird or having a cast that everyone recognizes. It’s disillusioning that so many good movies didn’t get sold.”
Regardless of whatever attack Sundance has come under lately from the independent film community, Redroad has great respect for the Sundance Film Institute. Hand picked by Robert Redford in 1994 as the first participant in the institute’s Native American program, Redroad says the institute offers tremendous opportunities for emerging native filmmakers.
“I will be eternally grateful to Sundance for that experience. Being out there and living in the mountains and writing. When I went back to New York after that, it took me two or three months to get over it. We’re [native peoples] a small population. We’re not less or more talented, we’ve definitely had fewer opportunities, but we just have a smaller talent pool and that’s just pure mathematics. I believe that Robert Redford had this idea for a native program and it took them a while to find a native filmmaker. The ridiculous thing is they came after me, to give you an idea of the lack of competition at that time. Now it’s more competitive.”
It was at Sundance that Redroad workshopped for the first time his script entitled “Indians and Cowboys.” The story caught the attention of a big-name producer, but like many other first-time filmmakers, Redroad did not circumvent the painful exercise of coming up through the ranks and being burned by disappointment, frustration and unethical Hollywood players.
“He was this big Hollywood guy and he knew after all the work I’d put in on this script, over a year of rewrites, he knew I’d freak out over that contract.” The contract he refers to was a $3,000 payment for the script, with Redroad having no further involvement in the project. Redroad promptly returned the check and held onto his script.
After the setback and losing his “creative erection” for the project, Redroad left New York in 1996 and returned to Dallas for two years, where he waited tables and played music in cappuccino bars, a period he refers to as a “self-imposed exile.”
“I was at that stage where you have to decide, what are you going to do?” he tells me. “I was so disillusioned. I was an extremely sensitive and emotional person; putting all my eggs in one basket and having them all broken took me a while to recover from. I was extremely na?ve, but looking back he was the wrong guy. I didn’t end up making it-I don’t think I was ready.”
“I was very idealistic and I was an angry young man. I hope one day to go back and do something with it.” Redroad returned to New York in ’98 and started writing the semi-autobiographical story “The Doe Boy.”
Redroad agrees that some stories are so personal, it’s hard to find room for compromise or to be able to distance oneself from the project. At this point in his career, he’s unsure whether he could be just a hired gun, where his responsibility and involvement would end with the delivery of a script. The writer/director still feels compelled to see his stories presented in his own voice and according to his vision, and it’s this commitment that is so tangible in his work.
Redroad recounts the hurdles native people face in trying to tell their stories in film. “There isn’t a large talent pool in the Indian community. You’re dealing with a small population, then you’re dealing with gender, then age group and then with who’s good. The circle gets smaller and smaller. We have to be everywhere and that doesn’t just mean onscreen. We need to be producers, directors, caterers. And our actors need to play anything. People like Kate Hudson and Angelina Jolie, from the time they’re aware of themselves, it’s obvious they can do it, be part of the industry. It’s possible for them. That’s not true for us. We have to overcome so much. It’s not even on the menu of potential choices ? let’s see, cheeseburger with fries, pepperoni pizza, career as a filmmaker. For us to even choose filmmaking is a huge thing, and then to build that confidence, it’s like jumping blindfolded off a diving board. We have no Indian celebrities. We don’t represent a market,” he says.
“Take the Indian population, say 1.5 million, which includes men, women and children. The average movie ticket costs $7, and say even if every Indian saw the movie twice, that’s only $20 million. Indians, unlike other groups in this country, are not a market, we have no voice. If you live in Hollywood and hope to make movies for Indians, it isn’t going to happen. It’s that simple. It’s the cold mathematical reality of genocide. You don’t see a Burger King commercial with Indians as their target audience; they don’t ever sell anything to us-ever!”
Redroad is acutely aware of the challenges that face him and other native filmmakers in keeping cultural integrity intact within the reality of presenting stories with a universal appeal. “‘The Doe Boy’ has a lot of Indian flavor but it’s also emotionally engaging; it’s about people and relationships. I’d rather be a guerrilla filmmaker than give up creative control over images. The life of an artist has no net underneath. It’s a constant leap of faith in yourself,” he said. And if Redroad’s creative output and success to date is any indication of what lies ahead, it’s obvious that this filmmaker has transformed free-falling into an art form.