Nation/World

Local Film Heads For Big Time Native American’s Work Gets Ticket To Sundance

Writer Sherman Alexie’s movie, filmed in the Inland Northwest last spring, may be headed for the big time.

“Smoke Signals” has been picked up by Miramax Films, the Disney-owned distributor of such critical and popular successes as “Sling Blade,” “Pulp Fiction” and “The English Patient.”

And on Thursday, “Smoke Signals” was among 16 films named to compete in the 1998 Sundance Film Festival.

“That means it’s a very good movie,” said Alexie, a poet and novelist who was raised on the Spokane Indian Reservation.

Sundance, he added, “is where independent films get their names.”

Alexie lives in Seattle. As co-producer of the movie, he was in New York this week helping fine-tune it in preparation for the January festival at Park City, Utah.

“Smoke Signals” is the first feature film written, directed and co-produced by Native Americans. Its working title was “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona.”

Alexie’s writing regularly smashes Indian stereotypes. He’s the one who chose the new title despite what he calls the “Indians in blankets” images it calls to mind.

“Smoke signals are also calls for help, and that relates to the movie,” he said. “We wanted something that was kind of funny, kind of ironic and related to the film.”

Besides, he added, “there’s lots of fire in the movie.”

The main characters are Victor Joseph and Thomas Builds-the-Fire. The two young friends leave their reservation on a bus. They’re bound for Phoenix to retrieve the ashes of the father Victor barely knew.

The screenplay was adapted from Alexie’s 1993 collection of short stories, “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.”

It’s a mix of humor and heaviness that Alexie calls a dramedy.

ShadowCatcher Entertainment, a Seattle company, made the movie. Two main filming locations were Spokane’s Riverfront Park and Worley, Idaho, a tiny town on the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation.

Alexie, 31, is half Spokane and half Coeur d’Alene Indian.

Other film festivals have shown an interest in screening “Smoke Signals,” said ShadowCatcher spokeswoman Liza Comtois.

But Sundance is definitely the big time for independent filmmakers.

“It’s a great place for a premiere,” Comtois said.

The Sundance festival is one of the industry’s places to see and be seen.

Alexie will be hobnobbing there along with co-producer Scott Rosenberg (“Home Alone,” “Mystic Pizza”) and director Chris Eyre.

Eyre is a Cheyenne/Arapaho Indian from Oregon.

In 1995, he and Alexie attended the Sundance Institute’s workshop for promising filmmakers.

About 12,000 people will crowd into ski-happy Park City for the Jan. 15-25 festival.

Winners in the dramatic and documentary competitions will be selected on the final night. Sixteen films are competing in each category.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: SUNDANCE The Sundance Institute was founded in 1981 by Robert Redford as a means of developing independent voices and visions in the arts. Recent winners in its annual festival included “Hurricane,” “Hoop Dreams,” “Spanking the Monkey,” “Licensed to Kill” and “Sex, Lies and Videotape.”

This sidebar appeared with the story: SUNDANCE The Sundance Institute was founded in 1981 by Robert Redford as a means of developing independent voices and visions in the arts. Recent winners in its annual festival included “Hurricane,” “Hoop Dreams,” “Spanking the Monkey,” “Licensed to Kill” and “Sex, Lies and Videotape.”



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