HE INTIMIDATES YOU with the steely, almost accusatory gaze of his book-jacket photos. It's a dare: Come on into my Native America, try to digest the facts. Like his character Thomas Builds-the-Fire in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Seattle writer Sherman Alexie doesn't know how to tell anything but the truth. More often than not, the truth is a bleak existence on the reservation; it usually hurts.
Now imagine that hard stare coming at you on a movie set. Worse, Alexie's now a first-time director. Talk about intimidation—especially when you're one of the specifically white extras he's requested, right? Last month I was sitting on a cold metal folding chair in Wallingford's Open Books, which had been dressed as a set for a poetry reading. We extras were listening to an actor (Smoke Signals' Evan Adams) tell an attentive crowd what it feels like to be treated like a 500-year-old pariah. We clapped vigorously for the camera. We played our parts and we were glad to do it. Would Alexie finally be pleased?
After penning the script for the 1998 Sundance prize-winning Smoke Signals, and before his planned adaptation and direction of Reservation Blues for Miramax, Alexie has opted to step behind the camera on a locally produced, sub-million-dollar feature that just wrapped its three-week shoot. Based on his eponymous 1992 collection of stories and poetry, The Business of Fancydancing is aimed at Sundance '02 (then perhaps SIFF beyond). Filmed around Seattle, Vashon Island, and Pioneer Square, it concerns a group of friends raised on the reservation who reunite for the funeral of an old pal.
Between shots, Alexie, surprisingly gregarious and charming, took time to make detailed, impromptu backstories for each of us patiently seated extras: the middle-aged Caucasian woman who'd taught sixth grade on the reservation, now proudly witnessing the fruit of her labors; the large bearded man who wrote epic poems in rhyming couplets; the gay couple guiltily seduced by the young poet. Alexie wasn't like the author photo at all, I decided. He was clearly having fun; the poker face was gone.
In his poetry collection The First Indian on the Moon, Alexie writes, "I have no words which can save our lives, no words approaching forgiveness, no words flashed across the screen at the reservation drive-in, no words promising either of us top billing. Extras . . . we're all extras."
That understanding showed. Although he now sits on film festival juries, Alexie is hardly some tyrannical Cecil B. De Mille on the set. While Hollywood calls, he's following the indie path. Native Americans may no longer be extras, but that old status hasn't been forgotten.
Bearing our white liberal guilt, we extras offered ourselves up like sacrifices to history. We sat nicely for our anticipated verbal pistol-whipping. It never came. Alexie merely led us to our seats. A tense bargain, a treaty, has been struck.