Chris Eyre, Cheyenne/Arapaho, award winning producer and director of several films including, “Smoke Signals,” “Skins,” and “Edge of America,” said, “Now I see a whole generation of Native filmmakers who are speaking for and about Indian country. We have been witness to the birth of self-representation in media. It is a movement that’s been a long time coming.”
Called “The preeminent Native film director of his time,” by People Magazine, Eyre got his start early in life, and his daughter, Shahela Eyre, 15, is beginning to follow in his footsteps.
Recalling his own beginnings, Chris said, “Two teachers changed the course of my life. One gave me a camera to take a photography class and the other bought a book and said, ‘You have to read this,’ and it spoke to me. I started to make movies through those two individuals.”
In high school, Chris Eyre worked for a local newspaper and put his new photography skills to use when a train smashed into a truck. When he brought the pictures back, the editor said, “‘This isn’t right for the newspaper. You have to tell the whole story in one image.’ All of a sudden the light bulb went off,” Eyre said. “I said to myself, I’d rather shoot 24 frames a minute and tell the story. I was 15 or 16, and I said, I want to make movies.”
The book the teacher gave Eyre was Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, which was the inspiration for “Smoke Signals.”
More than 20 years have passed since Chris entered the graduate program for film at New York University. IMBD now lists 13 film and television directing credits to his name. Shahela, at 13, acted in her first feature film, “Empire of Dirt” which opened at the 2013 Toronto Film Festival and has played at film festivals in the U.S. and Canada.
Shahela grew up on film sets with her father, but like everyone else, had to break into the business with an audition. For “Empire of Dirt,” Chris made her an audition tape. “They said they loved her. We didn’t hear anything for about a year and then they called. They had found the money to shoot the film and they still wanted her,” he said.
Father and daughter headed for Toronto. “My daughter was completely at home because she had done a lot of that stuff with me when she was growing up.” Shahela agreed, “I was definitely on the set with my dad a lot of the time.”
She may have been on the set, but “Empire” was Shahela’s first acting gig. Eyre’s advice to her was, “Be brave. You don’t have to be the best. All you have to do is know your lines and be brave.”
In one scene, at only 13, Shahela had to kiss a boy in front of a production crew of 30. Eyre was amazed. “I sat there and thought, I couldn’t have done that when I was 13.”
Lori Pourier, Shahela’s mother, said there were aspects of the film that she struggled with. “I even pushed the producers to make changes. I had to let it go and remind myself it was not her, but Peeka, her character,” she said.
“It being my first film, I guess I didn’t have a lot of experience,” Shahela said. She attributed much of her success to the cast, who taught her that, “It wasn’t me, it was me being someone else. I wasn’t that person so it was okay for me to say the things I had to say, and do what I had to do. They showed me it was okay to fall into that character.”
The experience changed Shahela’s life. “By the middle of shooting the film, I realized how important it was to me,” she said, adding, “I think it is important to try out new things, even if it goes completely wrong. Find out what you are good at. Being a teenager is kind of hard, and it is really good to try out things, because they can really distract you from whatever you feel is in your life at that moment.”
“When you open that creative side, you can express anything, whether it’s being an actress or painting or drawing, just a little escape. I think it is important to find your creative side while you’re younger because you don’t get a lot of time when you’re older. It is an important part of finding out who you are,” Shahela said.
Pourier was impressed with her daughter’s ability to stick to the tough 10 to12 hour days on the set and still be responsible for her schoolwork. “Shahela is honing in on her craft at such a young age, and got a good taste of what is required to pursue your dream.”
The young actress is currently focusing on school, but said, “I am not sure where my career will take me, but if it plays out that I become an actress, I would be more than happy to do that for the rest of my life. Artistic people are persistent about what they want to do, and it is really something I want to pursue.”
Looking back at his own career, Chris said, “You know, you can never chart a course in the arts. When I was 15 or 16, I said, I want to make movies. I was getting my associate’s degree at Mount Hood Community College for television directing. I was about 18 years old, flying back to college after Christmas break, and the woman next to me said, ‘What do you do?’ I said, I am a film director. She looked at me skeptically and said, ‘Well, what films have you directed?’ and I said, Nothing yet; but I had it in my head that what I was going to do.”
While Chris’s advice to Shahela was to be brave, it seems to come easily to her. When “Empire of Dirt” premiered at the Agua Caliente Palm Springs Film Festival, the producers from Toronto were unable to make it to the screening because of weather. They asked Chris if he and Shahela could do the Q an A together. “I had been on the set so I said, sure. I got to the theatre and told Shahela that they asked me to do the Q and A with her, and my daughter, said, ‘I don't want you to go up there.’ I said, ‘Are you going to do it yourself?’ and she said, ‘Yeah, I am going to do it all by myself,’” Chris said.
He laughed and said, “I am sitting there going, there’s 300 adults in the audience and this is her first movie, and she is 14 years old, and I was just like, Wow. And that is the birth of a new generation of artists, the ones that go for it, and lead us through, with their bravery and their art.”