When I first received the script for Te Ata, I wondered how I might connect with a Native American woman from the early 1900s.
Te Ata, whose eponymous main character is played in the film by Q’orianka Kilcher, tells the true story of a renowned Chickasaw storyteller who had an illustrious career that spanned more than sixty years. It didn’t take long for me to realize that this story transcends both race and gender and is very relevant to our political climate today. Te Ata entertained at the White House, befriended First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, performed for European royalty, and realized her dream of appearing on Broadway.
I realized that I myself could never do the story of Te Ata justice without the guidance of the Chickasaw Nation. After all, it’s their story, their history, and their legacy. I flew to Oklahoma and met with the producer, Paul Sirmons, and the team that comprises Chickasaw Nation Productions, who uses the medium of film to share the enduring legacy of the Chickasaw people. They had developed the script for Te Ata with writers Esther Luttrell and Jeannie Barbour, the latter of whom is Chickasaw and works for the Chickasaw Nation. They made it clear they wanted a film that would connect with the world, not just the Chickasaw people. I shared my thoughts on the script with them, and told them how I connected to Te Ata’s journey. Te Ata is a storyteller, and that’s my vocation as well. Te Ata had a story that she wanted to share with a world filled with obstacles and adversaries that wish to silence her story. As a storyteller, one must tirelessly perfect your craft and fight so that someday your voice may be heard, giving your story a chance to move people. That is how I connected with Te Ata. I told them I’d be honored to direct Te Ata side by side with them. I wanted to be a vessel for their story. They brought me on board and four months later, we were in prep.
The filming location was in Oklahoma, where most of Te Ata’s story took place. Our production offices were in Ada, home of the Chickasaw Nation Headquarters, and in Sulphur. Once we were settled, the crew and I immersed ourselves in all things Chickasaw, the highlight of which was attending a traditional Chickasaw stomp dance, which lasted all night long. The Chickasaw have tremendous cultural centers, museums, and educational programs.
On the production side, one of our main challenges was that our story took place over a span of forty years and in numerous locations, including Oklahoma and throughout the Midwest, Pittsburgh, Washington, DC, and New York City—the script had over 70 locations. With the incredible team comprised of VFX artist Jarrod Davis and production designer Andrew White, we took the quaint little town of Guthrie, Oklahoma and made the streets look like 1920s New York. In the middle of this small town is an enormous Masonic temple—movie gold! Ornate and sometimes gaudy, it served as our backlot for all things New York, DC, and Pittsburgh. These incredible locations allowed us to stretch a penny bigger than Texas.
Finding the Oklahoma locations was easy as the state is rich with beautiful landscapes, rivers, and vistas that served as our backdrop. Nature was a key element to our story and to Te Ata’s childhood. DP Ben Huddleston did a fantastic job capturing the rugged beauty of Oklahoma.
It was of utmost importance to the Chickasaw that as many roles as possible be filled by Native Americans. The Chickasaw, along with our casting director Beverly Holloway, held casting calls throughout the Chickasaw Nation, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and California. We saw hundreds of exceptional Native American talent, both professional actors and non-actors. While sitting in on some of the casting calls, a few of the people auditioning would inform us of how special Te Ata’s story was to them and how much it meant that we were bringing her story to the big screen. It was incredible to hear firsthand how much of an impact Te Ata made.
It was also very important that we involve Chickasaw people as much as possible, both on camera and behind the camera. We filled numerous roles with members of the Chickasaw community, many of whom had never acted. I had worked with non-actors before, and there are some methods you sometimes have to implement to encourage them into reacting, not acting. But in this case, most of the time it wasn’t needed. They came prepared, knew their lines, took direction and nailed it. Chickasaw Nation Governor, Bill Anoatubby, agreed to participate in a cameo.
I thought casting the lead would be the most difficult role to fill. Beverly did an extensive search and I had the impossible task of choosing between three amazing Native American actresses. In the end, we decided on Q’orianka Kilcher, who, aside from her acting chops, also had an extensive background in dance, music, and Native American culture. Te Ata was a performer who incorporated Native American instruments into her storytelling, so it was important that the actor was familiar with Native music and traditions.
Once Q’orianka was cast, she met with a Chickasaw storyteller and historian. She soaked up all things Te Ata. The vast knowledge the Chickasaw people have preserved served as our guide and gave Q’orianka the background she needed to feel comfortable in Te Ata’s skin.
We rounded out our cast with some already-established Native American actors, including Gil Birmingham as Te Ata’s father and Graham Greene as Chickasaw Governor Douglas Johnston.
Authenticity is vital, from wardrobe, to props, hair and makeup. If something is false, it’ll take you out of the movie. We made sure the Chickasaw Nation signed off on everything. My right hand on set was Jeannie Barbour, who would call foul if the wrong feather was brought to set. Having that kind of backup was so freeing. Most directors feel a burden if producers get too close to the monitors, and I can attest to that as well, but on this film it was different. They brought insight and authenticity—things only people that have lived the culture would know—that went far deeper than outside research could go.
Our 25-day shoot began in September. Our first AD, Mike Finn, a schedule master, made it all work, despite having over 70 scripted locations, hundreds of extras, and temperamental Oklahoma weather to deal with. It was boiling hot in September and freezing in October. Oklahoma also offered up a plethora of animals that could kill or injure, including wild boars, spiders, and little tiny devils called chiggers. All of them, it seemed, were determined to get in the way.
I remember shooting a scene at a serene river surrounded with lush greens in which Te Ata and her fiancé are sitting on the rivers’ edge, feet dangling in the water. On camera it looked like a Thomas Kinkade painting, but in reality, it was scorching hot, bugs were digging into us and poisonous cottonmouth snakes were slithering through the water. My DP was working the MOVI, a camera stabilizing system, knee-deep in water. My actors were soaking their feet, and I was standing on a rock close to camera. During a take, I kept hearing a “swish, swish” noise and I looked back to see our location guide standing on a rock upstream with a giant stick, casually flinging black snakes out of our way. Just as we got the scene, lightning began to strike in the sky. The crew did a great job covering everything that needed to be covered, and we had to hike back to basecamp through the forest in a driving rain.
On our budget, it was unrealistic to have as many extras as the script called for. We had New York City streets to fill, audience members at Te Ata’s performances, and a women’s college to fill with students. But the Chickasaw were up to the task. Using their existing database of citizens they were able to bus out hundreds of extras. It was extremely important that each extra was treated with the utmost respect. Most film sets treat extras like cattle, with separate food lines and waiting areas—but that’s certainly not the case on a Chickasaw Nation production. During a stomp dance scene, we were able to use an actual Chickasaw stomp dance group. There was no acting; they did what know best, and it paid off.
Music is a big part of the film and I wanted a score that was classical to the genre but infused with Chickasaw traditional music. Our composer, Bryan E. Miller, did an incredible job blending the two. He worked closely with a Chickasaw band called Injunuity, and together they created an epic score that serves the genre and the tradition of the Chickasaw people.
Working with the Chickasaw Nation, learning their culture, and creating lifelong friendships has opened my eyes to the Native American people. The Chickasaw Nation knows who they are and where they’ve come from, and they are using their resources to tell the stories of their people. One of my favorite lines in the film is from Te Ata’s college drama instructor: “What stories do you have to tell? What can you show me that I haven’t seen before?” I believe the Chickasaw Nation has answered it with Te Ata. MM
Te Ata opens in theaters on October 13, 2017, courtesy of Paladin. Photographs by Macy Gray courtesy of Paladin.