Sterlin Harjo on the Importance of Oklahoma in ‘Reservation Dogs’

On this episode of the Filmmaker’s Toolkit podcast, showrunner Sterlin Harjo talks about why he could only make (this version) of “Reservation Dogs” in his native Oklahoma, and what opportunities open up to a series when rooting it in a specific place that TV hasn’t really seen before – and certainly not from a Native perspective. That, plus the steps in teaching an audience how to laugh at survival humor, the benefits of taking an epic approach to outwardly small stories, the trouble with manufacturing hail, and why the show’s mythological elements live very matter-of-factly alongside its teen comedy.

Listen to the full episode below, or read on for excerpts from our interview.

Partial Transcript Below:

Harjo on the show’s, and his own, richly dark humor: I’m a big fan of Hal Ashby and you know, these films that walk that line [between comedy and dark comedy]. And I talked about that a lot. I think it’s naturally there, you know, like I think that that is an Indigenous Native sense of humor, which is humor that is about survival, always budding up against tragedy and drama. That’s what makes it funny. And that’s what gives it, its rhythm, the back and forth. Sort of lulling you in between these two things, which I think is hypnotic for an audience. It was honestly kind of effortless in the way that like, it wasn’t thought out, it wasn’t like this grand scheme or like plan, like, you know, it’s the way that I write.

And especially if I’m writing – like I did the first draft of the script and especially if I’m writing sort of in me and Taika’s sort of collective voice together – is one that we’re always telling funny stories and hanging out. That’s just how we get along. So the tone is like he and I together, you know, it’s funny, but like, I don’t know. That’s what makes it Native. We find humor even in some of the darkest times or circumstances. It’s about being able to laugh. And I think that was key to survival. And I just think that it’s ingrained.

I mean, like, I’ve always tried to capture the way that my family tells stories, just over coffee at a kitchen table. And the older people in my family, you know, it was a tight community and y’all hang out. And as a kid growing up, I would always just absorb these stories and have them tell me these stories over and over and over. And they were never a huge, like, they weren’t like epic stories. They were small, like going to the grocery store. But the way that they described it, the humor in it, what happened inside of it was so big and epic. And I always wanted to capture that in a show, you know? “Reservation Dogs” is just about kids that want to leave their town and go to California. And they lost their friend, which on paper can sound small, you know, but it’s about how we tell it. It’s about the fact that spirit William Knifeman’s there and like, and the balance of this humor and joy and sadness and trauma.

Harjo’s on upending Hollywood tropes about Native people through its spirit character, William Knifeman: It feels like it was planned out because I think it was quite a good idea to have. This character that is a very familiar, iconic character, someone in buckskin, someone talking like that, someone on horseback: that is what we think of. That’s what most non-natives think of when, if you were to say, “Draw me a Native American,” most people wouldn’t draw me. They would draw William Knifeman.

The character helps bridge that gap of like, “here it is. This is the stereotype that you believe in. And yes, there is a lot of truth in that, but isn’t that silly that that’s what you still think we are now? Let’s all laugh at it together and let’s keep moving through this show together as we just spent the last 10 or so minutes showing you these contemporary kids that you’ve never seen before. [The series] opens with, “I Want To Be Your Dog” by The Stooges and it drops you into this world and you kind of have to catch up, but then there’s this moment where William Knifeman comes and it’s like, “okay, I get this, I know what this guy is because I’ve seen ‘Dances With Wolves. I’ve seen all of these Westerns throughout history. So I know at least what he is.”  It helps ground people, but then also bring them into that sense of humor and just, you know, I sort of recognize that by watching with audiences and hearing people’s response to that pilot episode and seeing William Knifeman for the first time.

 

Harjo on the challenges of manufacturing hail and a tornado for the finale: I mean, what a nightmare, by the way. Like, you know, you write these things and it’s like, oh yeah, what’s something I haven’t seen that much of? Well, okay, a tornado episode and also hail. And it’s so funny. Cause like we start having meetings. For this to really work, for like VFX and everything really work, the four days that we’re shooting, it has to be cloudy outside, but not raining or lightning. Like it’s that specific what we need. And then also we needed to manufacture hail. Our special effects guy was looking for hail. He was calling veterans of the trade and all of them told him “we don’t do hail” because it’s impossible. It’s impossible to do. You can’t do hail. So we’re in the middle of a pandemic looking for fake hail. There’s a company out of London that makes it, and for some reason they had like a couple pounds at some place in the States. Because of the pandemic, we didn’t have enough time to get them to ship more hail from London.

So we just had a certain amount of hail and we only had a small amount to shoot. And then those days we show up to shoot and every day is overcast with no lightning and no ring. And it was amazing. And the hail works and everyone was very happy. I can’t believe it turned out the way. It was one of those things where you prep really hard for an episode and you’re prepping for all this stuff and you’re really worried about it. And then on the day, it was one of the easier episodes to shoot on site.

Harjo on the importance of shooting the show in Oklahoma:  You know, when people think of like rural, Southern states or Midwestern Southern states, they don’t think of Native people. You think of it very differently. And I knew that it was just an interesting way to grow up. You know, like I grew up in this little town and the difference in Oklahoma is that there’s not as much segregation with Native people. So like Native people, black people, and white people all grow up together.  Growing up in rural Oklahoma, that was sort of the three people that were there. You learn from each other, you grow up next to each other, and for me, there was less racism because of that. I felt less racism. And that was just an interesting way of growing up.

Also the landscape being the way it is, like, I think Oklahoma has a very unique look to it and I really wanted to share [it]. And FX, to their credit, like at first they wanted to shoot in New Mexico, but I was just very against that because where Native people live is so important. I think if you’re telling a Native story, it’s like our connection to the land is so important. And also the people that we’re talking about got here by forced removal by the U.S. Government. So that already tells a story and adds subtext to my show. It’s never spoken about, but is there. And I think that adds this level of tension and like a background to this place that I think you don’t get, like, I couldn’t just shoot this anywhere.

So when FX asked me to shoot it in New Mexico, I told my agents, I was like, “Then I’d rather not do the show… or I’ll change the story to where it’s not an Oklahoma tribe. It’s a new Mexican tribe and we’ll shoot it there.” And FX, to their credit –  you know, I went and I took a lot of photos of rural Oklahoma, and I wrote a letter about why I thought it was important shooting here and FX, like Mr. Green, they were like, “Cool. Well then let’s do it.” And I think that they’re very happy with that decision. And I’m also very happy with that decision.

It’s given this place – People are so happy to have us here. The local film community is so happy to have us here and have work here. And it’s building infrastructure and it’s bringing money into really like poor towns, but also just aesthetically.  Like it’s amazing. You just have everything. You have nature, but also the decay of like Western expansion, that’s sort of sitting there, and these kids, it’s like their playground. I just really love it. I love being able to shoot here and it is a character, I think. I think that the setting is a character.

The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, and Stitcher. The music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.

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