The road to Utah

Sherman Alexie vows to make movies on his own terms—whatever the cost.

HE’S ALREADY Seattle’s most famous writer. But Sherman Alexie wants more. Acclaimed as a poet and novelist, Alexie is now adding another page to his prodigious r鳵m魭as film director. This week his debut feature, The Business of Fancydancing, screens at Utah’s Sundance Film Festival (Jan. 10-20). If it’s a hit, like 1998’s Smoke Signals (which he wrote and helped produce), some indie distributor like Miramax will have it playing in theaters by fall. In that optimistic scenario, the movie could be seen by more people than have read all his books combined. TV, cable, and DVD would reach even more viewers. Clearly, Alexie is only going to get more famous.

But would that make him mainstream? Would it—after the success of his novels Reservation Blues and Indian Killer, after just receiving his second PEN/Malamud award for short fiction—make him an assimilated, crossover artist courted by Hollywood?

To some extent, he already is. “Reservation Blues is wrapped up in rights issues at Miramax,” the funny, friendly, voluble 35-year-old Alexie explains in his Seattle office, sounding like a jaded showbiz survivor as he plans to next direct Indian Killer himself. He recounts a lucrative but “unhappy experience” during a brief period of post-Smoke Signals Hollywood screenwriting. Those scripts might have helped pay the bills (he’s married with two kids), but the experience only strengthened his determination to call his own shots from behind the camera. “I always got accused of stream of consciousness,” he says of his screenplays. He remembers being told, “‘You can’t write like you think!'”

Laughing off such criticism, Alexie now faces a different sort of challenge with Fancydancing, as he explained in a lengthy chat last month after completing marathon editing sessions on the digital-video film. “The ultimate conflict for an Indian artist is greater than the conflict for other artists,” he says. “Because the Western civ idea of the artist has always been about the individual, the eccentric vision. One man against the world is a good thing and admirable. But in a tribal sense, it’s not. Being the only one is not a good thing. It’s a bad thing. Being a good artist and being a good member of the tribe are often mutually exclusive. I think that’s the primary conflict in my life.”

IN OTHER WORDS, what tribe are you with—the Indians or the artists? In a 1998 Salon interview, Alexie declared, “Good art doesn’t come out of assimilation—it comes out of tribalism.” Four years later, the tension in Fancydancing reflects his competing allegiances to those two camps.

His movie addresses that clash directly and self-consciously. Loosely derived from his 1992 collection of stories and poems, Fancydancing concerns a successful Seattle writer who returns to the res for the emotionally charged funeral of an old friend. Played by Smoke Signals‘ memorably goofy Evan Adams, Seymour Polatkin is a slick, confidently citified figure estranged from his reservation roots. His white lover tells him, “I’m your tribe now.”

Meanwhile, Seymour debates his cultural authenticity with a half-Jewish/ half-Indian former girlfriend and his two old pals from the res, Aristotle and Mouse. Flashbacks to childhood hint at memories both sweet and sour, also recalling Smoke Signals, but Fancydancing is a more internalized and impressionistic affair with fewer of Alexie’s signature comic riffs. (Although the list of 33 non-Indians whom Indians wish were Indians is pretty damn funny, including Judy Garland, Bob Marley, and Xena, the Warrior Princess!)

“This place is a prison,” Seymour laments of the res, but it’s also the wellspring of much of his inspiration, as Aristotle angrily reminds him. What actual responsibility does the artist bear to his sources? In Fancydancing‘s least successful device, a hostile journalist interrogates Seymour and his cronies about such matters (shades of the interview scene in Magnolia), but the movie refuses to provide glib answers or happy endings to the artist’s divided soul.

Of Seymour, Alexie explains, “I used the material of my own life, certainly exaggerated in some cases, altered a bit; I added other elements to the character that made him more interesting to me.” Seymour isn’t exactly an authorial surrogate, adds Alexie (who amusingly acts in the film as a reservation local who grouses that the returning writer is “thinking he’s too good for us”). Yet Seymour awkwardly straddles the same two cultures Alexie tries to bridge.

But for either Seymour or Alexie, isn’t a solitary perspective necessary to create art? “Absolutely. Exactly. For Indian artists, we play at it. We talk a good game. We talk like we’re still tribal and we still belong, but we don’t. Every word contradicts that. Regardless of what education I have, or where I’ve been, or what awards I win, what circles I travel in occasionally, I’m still an outsider and will always be an outsider. Because of my ambitions. And because of Seymour’s ambitions, he’s an outsider to the place where he came from. Always on the in-between.”

Does that make Seymour a tragic figure? “I think he thinks it’s tragic. I aimed to make a tragic movie. I think it’s a tragedy in the sense that I don’t think he’s a member of that tribe any more. And that is tragic. That’s what colonialism is doing. It used to be shooting us. With every book I read or every movie I watch, or with every book Seymour reads or every movie Seymour watches, he’s farther and farther away from the Spokane tribe.

“We blend. And because there’s so few of us, because we have such a negligible impact on the culture, we take it in but we don’t really get to put anything out. We do disappear.”

That’s the paradox to his high-profile entry into filmmaking, as Alexie fully understands. The fame has twofold implications that lie at the heart of Fancydancing. As with so many gifted minority artists before him (think of Philip Roth or Ralph Ellison), crossover success carries a cultural cost. Bearing the expectations of so many (and the resentments of a few), the individual who does well, who makes a name in the world, essentially and almost irreversibly leaves behind the shetl, the ghetto, the hood, the barrio, the res . . . call it what you will.

Ethnic dreamers who forsake the outer boroughs for the lights of Broadway or Hollywood are often the subject, and/or creator, of assimilation drama. As opposed to that familiar genre, Alexie calls Fancydancing a “disappearing drama,” where assimilation insidiously erodes the old community. Success chips away at its integrity; prosperity leads to its further impoverishment. In another context, it’s called brain drain. And, pace Thomas Wolfe, you can’t go home again.

THAT SAD TRUTH also tinges Alexie’s cocky, smiling ambition. Unlike the stereotypically reclusive, neurasthenic author who can’t stand light, noise, or actual readers, he’s a refreshingly self-assured overachiever. Making movies is no big deal.

Of his youth, he recalls, “I can’t stand the thought of being limited. You’re growing up poor, on a reservation, Indian kid—who you are and what you’re supposed to be is pretty much predestined. There’s no group of people with more ideas placed on them than Indians—without having the economic-cultural power to combat it. We don’t get to define ourselves. That is always what I’ve been fighting against. As the years have gone on, it’s still the same thing. I don’t want to be defined.

“The idea of making movies, moving from books to movies and back and forth, and working within the genres—being a poet and a short-story writer and a journalist, being a performance poet and a stand-up comedian, being all those thing—is a way of escaping people’s definitions. I guess, in some sense, my tastes in art have been so catholic, so diverse, and continue to be so, that I just can’t stand to be in any one school.”

So how much of a stretch was it from one school, or medium, to another? The movies have been notoriously unkind to writers from Fitzgerald to Faulkner. Some, like Norman Mailer, have had the audacity to direct, then have fallen on their faces (Tough Guys Don’t Dance). So why risk it?

“I know movies were always in my head,” Alexie replies. “I always wanted to make them—or be close to them. I was a TV fiend. A serious reader, but a TV fiend, too. I read movie magazines and watched all the movie-magazine TV shows. I was very much living on both sides of my hyphen [as an Indian-American]. I was very much involved in American pop culture as well.”

Regular trips from the Wellpinit, Wash., reservation to Spokane’s Video Unlimited movie-rental shop were a cherished boyhood ritual for the self-described “VCR baby.” Diverse selections, often recommended by a helpful clerk, were a way of “just seeing the world.” His tastes were (and still are) wide-ranging: horror movies including The Wicker Man and Dawn of the Dead; guilty pleasures like Coach (with Cathy Lee Crosby) and Tuff Turf (with James Spader and Robert Downey Jr.); plus the classics (“Apocalypse Now just freaked me out”). Sent home with The 400 Blows, he remembers, “That just made me cry. I watched it like three or four times. I felt like that kid. I always liked sad ones. I always like the tragic endings. The movies that really got me were about kids trying to survive in an adult world where the adult didn’t give a shit about ’em.”

Then there were heroes. “Bruce Lee was huge to me. Huge! Billy Jack! That was huge. At that early age, I could do that whole damn movie word for word.” Blaxploitation flicks also held an appeal. “The ones that are coming back to me are about the underdog, about the dark-skinned underdog. That was what I was always looking for.”

FLASH-FORWARD to 1997 when he first stood on a movie set as Smoke Signals was made. How did that reality mesh with his ambitions? “I thought it was so, so nonconducive to creation,” Alexie says. “Being on film sets felt no different to me than visiting my friends at law firms or at Microsoft. Every decision based on money. Every decision! The whole process itself being so conservative. It was always about fear! Everything seemed to be based on some sort of negative energy.”

By contrast, working fast and light during Fancydancing‘s 20-day shoot last May, Alexie tried to make the process as open and collaborative as possible. (He also cites the influence of The Celebration and other Dogma films.) “You can do anything with that damn video camera because you have 30-minute takes! We had a 21-minute take. And the scene is not even in the movie! The actors would get exhausted, not because they’re sitting in a trailer bored, but because they’re in a scene alive having to be active.”

Alexie also put to use his brief Hollywood screenwriting stint, if only by negative example: “I learned the formulas. And I had to resist falling into those formulas. You do something and think, ‘Oh, wow, that’s great! That’s really touching.’ And then you watch it again and realize, ‘Shit! I just did what Spielberg would’ve done!’ It’ll take 10 movies to unlearn everything I know from having watched 10,000 movies.”

Then came the editing, which Alexie recalls with a chuckle. “It was terrible! I know there’s an incredibly great movie in there. But there’s no way to find it, unless you had a year. The first edit could’ve been five hours, easy. And on the DVD, I’m gonna do it, I think.”

For now, the Sundance version of the film—which we can hope to see at SIFF and in theatrical release this year—runs 84 minutes, a pragmatic, short-term compromise, Alexie explains. “I think this is the version that has the best chance of getting seen in theaters. I think in the editing room is where I chickened out. There are some scenes I got talked out of that I’m desperate to put back in. And I will. There are versions that will play best at home.”

With Fancydancing‘s business plan including possible self-distribution (built into a sub-$1,000,000 budget raised from a few local investors), Alexie is aware he could essentially peddle the finished film—at any length—along with his books at author appearances, readings, and signings. He’s not shy about selling. “It is part of the job,” he says.

ALEXIE LOOKS on the job of directing with a similarly confident sense of mission: “You keep moving. In my writing career, in some sense, where do I go? I’m winning the awards, I’m selling the books, I get critical and commercial attention. If I’d gotten to this place 20 years from now, it would’ve been an amazing, incredibly successful career. And I’m 35! And I’m already here. In part it has to do with ambition, with ego. How do I keep getting better? How do I keep challenging myself, challenging the world? How do I keep asking questions? And all too often you see with art and artists, they just stop! Artists have shelf lives. And I guess I’m trying to fight it as much as possible while I’m still fresh.”

Is he, in a sense, extending the Sherman Alexie brand name in our multimedia era? “Yeah. It’s all about being the kind of artist your time demands. There’s a lot of competition. People can talk about what Hemingway would or would not have done or what Melville would or would not have done or Dickinson or whoever. But the fact remains is that they weren’t dealing with cable television. They weren’t dealing with this ultra-quick, ultra-fast culture. We who work with words [today] are. My involvement in as many aspects of the culture as possible is a way to survive as an artist—and to stay relevant and present. It’s our job as artists to respond to the world. Not to sit quietly in rooms obsessed with ourselves—which happens anyway—but to engage.”

Thus engaged with not one but two cultures, Alexie is busily working in at least two media. (He also contributed songs to the Fancydancing soundtrack and maintains his own official Web site, A Seattle resident for some seven years, he now travels far from the res to film festivals and literary conferences across the nation, proudly writing and directing his own destiny.

Accordingly, Fancydancing is a rueful, self-reflexive yardstick of his own successful yet conflicted journey. He may frame the distance traveled with a lens or describe it in verse, but his perspective as an artist has undeniably changed—and probably changed him as well. Yet other conflicts remain constant. Alexie recalls how an actress suggested, “‘What you’ve done is maybe made a movie that’s too Indian for white people and too white for Indians.'” He says, “Everything I make is going to have that same essential struggle,” determined that he alone will decide where he finally belongs.