Who: Sterlin Harjo is an Oklahoma-based filmmaker who has written/directed several films shot in the state. They include his short film, Goodnight Irene, which premiered at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, and two feature films: Four Sheets to the Wind, which premiered at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival; and Barking Water, which premiered at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. Harjo’s involvement with the Sundance Institute began in 2004, when he was selected as one of five inaugural Annenberg Film Fellows. This provided financial support and for his participation in Sundance professional workshops. Harjo later served as a jury member for the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. His above three films focus on Oklahoma’s Native American community, reflecting Harjo’s own Seminole/Creek heritage, and produced by Chad Burris — whose Indion Entertainment Group helps to finance films by utilizing State tax incentives.
How important are tax incentives when courting feature projects to film in Oklahoma?
If we lose the tax incentives, it’s already hard to get people, because it’s a flyover state. And people think, “Oh, Oklahoma, how’s that different than Kansas?” And so, it’s really hard to convince people, first of all, to give you money to shoot in Oklahoma. So, without the tax incentives, there’s really no reason to shoot here. It just takes more convincing on the filmmaker’s part.
Would a film like Four Sheets to the Wind be any different if you had shot it in, say, New Mexico?
Anyone that has met an Oklahoma Indian or been to Oklahoma, and they’re an Indian from another area, they’ll tell you there’s a difference. There are 38 tribes in Oklahoma, and we’re packed into this area. There are just so many different cultures, and we just know a lot about each other’s tribes. So that, in turn, turns into like a slang. Also, the biggest difference is that there’s not really closed reservations in Oklahoma. They’re open, and we live next to non-Indians. So growing up in eastern Oklahoma — and I’ve heard different things about western Oklahoma — but growing up in eastern Oklahoma, I felt like there was less racism because it wasn’t segregated. We all grew up together, and the non-Indians were used to having Indians around. As opposed to a place where it’s a closed reservation, and you basically live in two different worlds. I just find it laid back and interesting. It is very different if you go to New Mexico. I mean, the story could be told probably anywhere. But there are slight differences, and also the language that’s being used is specific to that region.
At one point there was a company that talked to us about making it for a really good amount of money — the original budget that we were trying to get — but the only sort of stipulation was that it had to be shot in or around Austin, Texas. And it was really hard to say “no,” just because we probably could have made the film, but for me, my films and stories — they are the place that they’re set in. They don’t exist outside of that. For me, almost on a supernatural level, the places that we shoot really help tell the story, because where I grew up in Oklahoma, it was a different world. I live in Tulsa right now, but the area that I grew up, it’s a small town called Holdenville, Oklahoma. It’s only an hour and a half drive, but it’s a very different place than Tulsa. I grew up in the country, like a normal kid, but also we had superstitions and stuff that were sort of ingrained in us, and it was just a cool magical way to grow up. So, for me it’s really important to shoot here, and I was telling somebody the other day I don’t know what I’d do if I had to shoot a film outside of the state.
How have you utilized Oklahoma Indian architecture in your films?
Well, we have Indian homes, basically, like HUD housing and homes that the tribes have built a lot of us — especially the older generations. You can tell an Indian person’s home in a movie, I think, just right off the bat. There’s a certain aesthetic to it, but also just structure. In Four Sheets to the Wind we actually used my grandma’s Creek home that was built by the Creek Nation. And you see them, and you know what they are if you’re from around here. They’re just little brick homes. And it was funny because I didn’t touch the inside of the house. We just shot inside, because it was perfect, and it was already dressed to look like it should look. Then also Creek and Seminole people have graves a lot of times that there’s houses built on top of them — like little wooden structures that look like houses, that have shingles on the top. And it’s just a sort of cultural thing.
What did you learn from Four Sheets when shooting your second feature, Barking Water?
Four Sheets to the Wind was my first (feature) film. We tried to film it almost like a Hollywood production with 50 people, and didn’t know what half of them were doing. It just ended up slowing us down. We shouldn’t have done that. I think Chad [Burris] and I were both unhappy with the filming of Four Sheets. So with this film, we made a conscience decision. We said, “I think filmmaking can be a joy, and be fun. And you can still get your work done, and keep the creativity at the forefront and set up a schedule.” So with this film — and we had long conversations about this — we decided to keep the crew small to about 10 or 12 people, and just really embrace rewriting the story, and ad-libbing and bringing things into it. Because it was a road movie, and trying to capture the spontaneity of a road trip. It paid off, because it was a really fun shoot. And at the end, it was like, “Wow, we went on a journey together. I don’t care what happens to the film after this.” And to our luck, people liked it, and it’s traveled all over the world.
How did shooting on-location in Oklahoma affect the performances of your actors?
Four Sheets to the Wind had a few people from out of state — a couple of Canadian actors. But I also sort of ingrained them with Oklahoma when they got here, and we just hung out. But with Barking Water, almost everybody was from Oklahoma, except for one actor. It really does help. The places we go when we shoot, we spend time there, and we meet the people. With Barking Water, we weren’t trying to be Hollywood, and do our thing and stay separated. We really integrated ourselves into peoples lives and the community, and used them as actors and extras. And when you go to an Indian community, they want to feed you, so we let them feed us. When we went to Ponca City, one of the actresses — Casey Camp-Horinek — she’s Ponca, and her whole family turned up at this Indian community center. They fed us, and talked to us, and got up and said speeches. And we talked and made speeches, and hung out. So it’s in the actor’s preparation, but it sort of kills all vanity. You’re here telling these stories about these people that are real, and let’s get to know them a little bit. And it sort of humbles you in a way. In White Eagle, there’s a lot of really bad things going on as far as the city and some of the factories and some of the pollution. There’s a carbon black plant, which is the stuff that makes rubber tires. It was set right next to where they placed the Ponca people in housing. It’s really bad for you, and it causes sickness. And the black powder’s so fine, that you throw it in the air and it stays there for three days, they say. The dogs in that area have black tongues. The dirt roads are blackened. And it’s not just the carbon black plant that’s the problem. There’s other issues as well. When we were in Ponca City, we just let them talk to us about it at this dinner. We let them talk to us about what they’re going through, and it was a beautiful thing.
How much did you utilize the Oklahoma landscape for a road movie like Barking Water?
The landscape for sure is a character in Barking Water. I wanted the landscape to change. It’s a very subtle change that happens in the film. They start out in northern Oklahoma, and it’s very flat plains. They end in Wewoka — and they’ve also taken some detours, and visited some people. By the time they get to where they’re going in southeastern Oklahoma, it’s oak forests, hills, little small towns and big country.
The landscape played such a big part in the whole film, because I’d write the film to that. One of the best examples is there’s this great scene — one of my favorite scenes now, people love it. In the script, it’s after the main character Frankie is dead, and (Irene)’s just trying to decide what to do. And she pulls up to an intersection in the car, and she’s just thinking, “Well, he’s dead in the passenger seat.” She stays there for a second, and then she comes to this sort of realization and drives away. And it’s just that subtle. Well, while we were filming one of the final scenes, this scene that I was just talking about was gonna be next. We were sitting there drinking coffee, and I was talking to the lead actress, Casey Camp-Horinek. Everything was dead when we were filming, but this one Redbud tree started blooming. And so you have this gray and black dead tree, and then you have these beautiful pink-purple blossoms coming off this tree. So Casey was staring at it, and saying, “look at that Redbud tree.” And I was like, “yeah, that’s really pretty.” And she said, “too bad we couldn’t use that in the movie.” And so, I just right then re-wrote the scene there. So she pulls up, parks the car, gets out, walks and stands by the fence where this Redbud tree is and sort of gives it a glance, and then takes a deep breath, and gets back in the car and drives away. And it’s like a really meaningful moment now. And so, throughout the whole script, I would let the landscape help write the story a little bit in a way that I would just look for things constantly. Because it’s a road movie, and I wanted to try to find stuff that helped capture what was going on inside the character. There was a fight we were filming where the main actress, she gets really mad, she gets out of the car and she stomps off and needs a breather away from him, because they’ve been in the car for a while. Finally, she turns around and gets back in the car and she cools down. And in this field they were burning these different piles of trees, and so I saw that, and just decided to stage the fight right there on the road where they pulled over. So when she’s standing there, there’s this wide shot, and there’s this smoke rising from the field behind her.