It’s just 2 p.m., a half-hour from showtime, and Sherman Alexie is nervous.
Not that you would notice.
On this Friday afternoon, despite 30-degree temperatures and a sleet storm that is steadily adding to the slushy drifts lining both sides of Park City’s main drag, about 300 film fans line up to see acclaimed author Alexie’s most recent work - a movie titled “Smoke Signals.”
Standing in the cold, just to see a movie? Well, yeah. This is a regular January occurrence in this mountain town, 40 miles from Salt Lake City. It is the site of one of the world’s most prestigious film events - the Sundance Film Festival.
Which should give you a clue as to the cause of Alexie’s anxiety. This isn’t a new novel he is about to present. It isn’t a short story. It isn’t even one of the Wellpinit-born writer’s trademark poetry readings, which are as much theater as they are literature.
No, this is a movie based on Alexie’s short story “What it means to say Phoenix, Arizona,” from the collection “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.” Directed by Chris Eyre from an Alexie screenplay, “Smoke Signals” represents a first both for Alexie and American Indians.
Not only is it Alexie’s first venture into film, it is, as he says, the first movie directed by an Indian, written by an Indian, co-produced by Indians and starring Indians that has earned the chance at mainstream release. Developed through a Sundance-sponsored filmmakers and screenwriters program, “Smoke Signals” was accepted as one of 16 films deemed good enough to compete for the Sundance festival’s grand prize and has attracted the attention of Miramax, a Hollywood studio.
Other films featuring Indians have earned critical acclaim, “Powwow Highway” and “Dance Me Outside” among them. But neither had the support of such a powerful movie company as Miramax. And, as Alexie is fond of pointing out, “Powwow Highway” was written and directed by whites. It is, he says, about Indians - not by them.
“We’ve got something new here with this film,” Alexie said. “It is the first with this kind of attention and this kind of chance.”
Yet being the first to do anything is seldom easy. And that, more than anything else, has made Alexie a little anxious. So, as is his way, he likens the experience to a basketball game.
“You’ll drain the 30-footer,” he is told.
“Always did,” he replies. “They always gave me the ball with a minute to go.”
To Alexie, basketball is more than simply a game. It is a way of life, and it plays a part in “Smoke Signals.” So do other familiar Alexie themes alcoholism, put-down humor, rage, racism and the struggle to avoid stereotypes, just to name a few.
But the core theme of “Smoke Signals” could apply to any ethnic group.
Alexie’s plot follows two friends, Victor Joseph (Adam Beach) and Thomas Builds-the-Fire (Evan Adams), and their sojourn to reclaim the ashes of Victor’s dead father (Gary Farmer). Having been deserted by the hard-drinking and abusive man, Victor is forced to confront a kind of rage that is almost primal. He does so with the support of Thomas, the nerdy tall-tale teller.
In the end, “Smoke Signals” is a story of father-son reconciliation.
And if the reaction by Friday’s Sundance audience is any indication - a lengthy ovation and even a cheer or two - the film boasts a story that should connect with a wide audience. Particularly powerful is the closing sequence, which takes place overlooking Spokane Falls.
In the lengthy post-film question-and-answer session, one man from the audience speaks for many when he offers his heart-felt comment.
“Anyone who is a son OR a father should see this movie,” he says.
“We’re counting on that,” producer Scott Rosenfelt replies.
Wearing a smile visible from the back row, it’s clear that Alexie is pleased. After all, blending the worlds of hoops and Hollywood, you could say that he’s run, he’s shot and he’s scored.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: A CONTENDER Sherman Alexie’s “Smoke Signals” is eligible to win the audience award or the Sundance Film Festival grand prize award. All winners will be announced on Jan. 25. The jury making the awards is comprised of critics, filmmakers and teachers.