“There’s an interesting thing about this business,” says Taylor Sheridan.
“It tells you what you’re supposed to be doing. A lot of times you don’t want to—or can’t—hear what it’s telling you. But it’s telling you.”
After 20 years in the trenches as a journeyman actor on everything from Walker, Texas Ranger, Star Trek: Enterprise, and NYPD Blue to Veronica Mars and Sons of Anarchy, Sheridan had come to see that his muse was leading him across the production floor, to the other side of the camera.
“I learned what I was—why I was only so successful as an actor: Acting wasn’t really my gift,” he says. “I was pretty good. But I wasn’t Tom Hardy or Christian Bale. If I had been Tom Hardy, someone would’ve figured that out over the course of 15 or 20 years, because that doesn’t go unnoticed. I realized that the reason I’d had any success as an actor was because I had understood what the writer was trying to say. I understood stories.”
That hard-won awareness, and the burgeoning body of work it fostered, has positioned Sheridan as one of the most exciting and passionate “new” voices in American cinema. And what a voice. The pen behind the critically acclaimed features Sicario (2015) and Hell or High Water (2016), Sheridan now completes a trilogy of the American heartland with Wind River, a commanding directorial effort, for which he took home the Un Certain Regard Best Director prize at Cannes in May. Wind River pairs Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen as a game warden and FBI agent, respectively, investigating a murder on the titular Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, where they find a society haunted by demons of drug addiction and destitution.
When your previous two scripts were directed by the likes of Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) and David Mackenzie (Hell or High Water), it’s a somewhat surprising decision to step into the director’s chair yourself, but that was always Sheridan’s intention with this installment of his trilogy. “That’s why I got into this: to control the vision. The most control you can have is to direct as well as write.” Wind River isn’t technically his directorial debut, though he considers it to be, for all intents and purposes—he’s credited as director on 2011 horror film Vile, but says he stepped into that as a favor for an acting student. “They had no money and no time. At one point we couldn’t pay for a dolly, so we got a bunch of PVC pipe and plywood and built a dolly. I learned how to improvise on the spot and not compromise what I wanted visually. I didn’t know I’d learned that until I got onto Wind River and had to make a film in 30 days in the snow, feeling also like I had no money. Because, basically, we didn’t.”
A Texas native, Sheridan moved west when he came of age with dreams of becoming an actor. His 20s were, by his own admission, a bit of a wash. Lost and rudderless, he eventually met someone who wanted to help set him straight—and took him to a Native American sweat lodge ceremony. The only white guy there, he was a fish out of water. The experience left a mark: “I found it to be a very cleansing, simple way of prayer that somehow made sense to me.” Finding refuge in the Native American community led to lasting bonds of kinship and affinity, and “the revelation that every stereotype you learn in school is a lie.”
“I saw racism [against Native Americans] in a way I had never really experienced,” Sheridan recalls. “It’s so ignored, because it’s so remote.” For a period, he was almost completely homeless, bouncing around from Indian camp to Indian camp. “One of the promises I made to myself,” he says, “was that if I ever got a chance to tell these stories and break these stereotypes, I was going to do it.”
Sicario, Hell or High Water and Wind River are all set in areas—Arizona and Texas for the first film, Texas for the second—where assimilation and settlement are relatively recent, going back no more than a 130 or so years. “How are the consequences of that still effecting the population?” Sheridan asks. “How much have we evolved and how much haven’t we? We are such a young country; New York is almost a European city at this point, whereas the West still has elements that have changed very little.”
The stark ironies of life in many parts of the West make for powerful contrasts. The Wind River reservation, which is in one of the poorest counties in the country, sits less than one hundred miles from one of the richest: the seat of Jackson Hole. That, coupled with Sheridan’s own personal narrative, created a provocative alchemy of themes and preoccupations.
“A film is going to be loosely biographical, with characters processing something you’ve loosely experienced, or a fear,” he says. “My child was very young when I wrote all of these films. Fear of failing as a father was very present in my mind. I had quit acting to start writing and I hadn’t sold any scripts; I wrote all three on spec.” Sheridan sees all three films as stories of failed fathers in one way or another. Themes of abandonment and loss echo throughout, and in Wind River, they are brought into sharp relief by the film’s inciting incident—what Sheridan describes as “one of the most brutal and immediate crises in need of being discussed and resolved: rape and murder on reservations.” A teenage girl, Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Asbille), is found dead in the snowy wilderness, after having run for miles to escape an unknown attacker.
Renner and Olsen (who have appeared together in Marvel’s Avengers movies, which are a far cry from Wind River) were engaged to lead us into the film’s unfamiliar topography and hold its emotional center. Olsen’s city-bred FBI agent, Jane Banner, is, to some extent, the eyes of the audience, coming into the world of the reservation for the first time. Renner, on the other hand, plays Cory Lambert, an interloper with a foot in both the white man’s world and the reservation; he doesn’t feel a part of either. Olsen taps Renner’s stoic, damaged hunter to help her find the killer, under the advice of the local sheriff (Graham Greene). Lambert takes Jane across the river Styx, and stays on as her guide, guarding her flank as they develop a prickly rapport.
For Renner, himself a father, the themes of Wind River struck a personal note too. “I’d just had my baby,” he says of reading the script, in which Lambert has a complicated relationship with his ex and young son. “I was very connected to the relationships between the characters. There is a lot of me, personally, of this character. At times it was a struggle to hold back what I would instinctively want to express. Taylor and I had discussions about how much to show or not, whether to release something emotionally.”
The script’s brutal landscape gave Renner a living reality to engage and resist in his performance. “I played it like a barrel of water with a slow leak. Taylor said he wanted to see what a piece of steel would look like when you bend it against a piece of granite. I saw the character as very steely, very tough, but I learned very quickly I could not—as hard as I would try—withhold a lot of the feelings that came up.”
For Olsen, the challenge was in many ways more physical. Several months in advance of the shoot were spent training—Muay Thai, self-defense—to inhabit her highly skilled FBI agent character, who is more than a little reminiscent of Emily Blunt’s Kate Macer character in Sicario. “I did a lot of physical preparation for this movie, more so than for most roles,” she says. “I didn’t want to distract people by not looking like I could hold a gun. I wanted them to focus on the story.”
Olsen started doing gun training about three months before the shoot, firing off 1,000 rounds a day at a range in L.A.; working with a Green Beret. “We had an entire outdoor range so I could shoot everything we were filming in a real position. I was able to shoot supine or while walking. My Muay Thai guy had also been a Los Angeles law enforcement officer for 10 years. He taught me how to clear a house, how to sight people from behind a wall. So in the movie the blocking comes from instinct.”
The actress enjoyed playing her no-nonsense, unglamorous character. “I’ve been very conscious to not play the girl in the bikini running on the beach. I think I’m an attractive person, but I decided that I wasn’t going to have a career based on what type I might fit. I want to be working for a long time, and it really weighs on actresses who over-rely on their beauty. I think making certain decisions now will impact things later, in terms how directors may perceive me.”
Despite the training, both actors found that some degree of distance and un-knowing was useful. A balance had to be struck. In Utah, where the film was shot, Olsen says, “everything you absorb after life on the res starts to inform how you walk, how you talk, how you approach the role.” For his part, Renner spent time with the two tribes on the Wind River reservation, “but I didn’t want to get too much information. My character is the only white man allowed on the reservation because he married into it. For me, it was more about the individuals in the story, rather than the general condition of Native Americans as a whole.”
Working with Sheridan required some trust, which both stars gave up. “I knew in the first five minutes of talking to him that I had to do it,” says Renner. Sheridan’s relative inexperience didn’t bother him. “I thought, ‘This guy is intelligent; he knows the movie he wants to make.’ Writers can be very sensitive about their words, but he would never tell me no. He would say, ‘You can always try it your way, as long as you let me try my way, too.”
The two-time Oscar nominee compares Wind River to his arguably most famous performance in Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2008). “This movie is like that one, in that it took a lot of growth to own it. On Hurt Locker, I only saw Kathryn Bigelow at the end of the day. I never knew where the camera was or how they were picking up all the details. I had to let it go.” He learned, from that experience, “how to express feeling by doing very, very little. The camera picks up a lot. If I say less, or nothing at all, more can be expressed.”
Olsen concurs with her co-star’s assessment of Sheridan. The Marcy Martha May Marlene and Godzilla actress liked the director’s style of communication: “My preferred way of working is where someone can be brutally honest. It takes two people to be willing to do that. Knowing that no one is getting offended because we’re all committed to communicating directly: I like that. Some people feel the need to dance around giving you a note. But this makes me feel like someone has my back.”
It’s fascinating, talking to Sheridan, how the actor has remade himself so convincingly as a writer-director. Despite all the challenges inherent in the production process—and Wind River had more than its fair share—Sheridan was in his element. “I was given advice by a very respected DP, who said, ‘You want to try and shoot a beautiful movie: Don’t. Don’t be artistic. You won’t ever get the coverage. Shoot the master, the two-shot, the close-ups.’ But it’s a visual art. It’s a painting with pictures. So I couldn’t do that. I just refused to.”
Working with DP Ben Richardson (Beasts of the Southern Wild), Sheridan tried to honor convention with creativity. “We were always trying to figure out things like, ‘What is an interesting way to do this in three set-ups, since we can’t do six?’ We lived a lot in cross coverage. I just took a camera and angled it either way and shot at the same time and racked focus. That’s it: one set up with two cameras.” They shot on the Alexa XT “with these 40-year-old Zeiss lenses from 1971 that were fraying and imperfect and had a little yellow to them, which actually was great.”
Wanting the film, with its cruelly desolate mountain vistas, to have a lot of scope, wider lenses were used throughout: 50mm, 30mm, 20mm or 15mm. “And we divided the frame into thirds,” Sheridan says. “I didn’t want to center-frame the actor and make the actor feel like the most dominant thing in the frame. I always had my actors in a third so two-thirds of the frame is landscape,” Sheridan used any leverage at his disposal to get quality collaborators. “I gave up my housing and everything I could give up in order to get the deals closed. My production designer [Neil Spisak], my editor [Gary Roach] and my DP all took 60-percent pay cuts to do this film.”
With that team in place, the ambitious director searched for maximum visual power and affect. “I’m a big believer in really building a color palette that matches where we are emotionally,” he says. That meant earth tones: “The same color as the landscape. When we did use color, it shows hope, and life, and fragility, and vulnerability. And I wanted any shade of red to represent an act of violence—someone who suffered violence directly or indirectly.”
Wind River is, on one level, a simple crime story, about the rape and murder of Natalie Hanson and the hunt for her killer. At a point late in the film, the audience sees the victim’s room, which Sheridan and Spisak designed to tell her heretofore untold story. That design is a form of narrative. “I told Neil,” Sheridan recounts, “‘I just want you to vomit color into this room: every shade of red, pink, yellow and magenta.” His intention was to take us past our memories of the crime scene, and give the film’s victim a voice.
Like his previous screenplays, Wind River is a story inextricably tied to the murky gray zone that violence occupies in our collective imagination. How do we deal with violence in our societies, and what is its proper role in cinema? It’s something Sheridan’s obviously thought a lot about. “I’m a different director than Denis and David. We look at life through slightly different lenses,” he says, noting that it isn’t “fair” for him to comment on their approaches—which netted those films three and four Oscar nominations, respectively. “Number one for Wind River: I wanted the violence to look real. I wanted the gunfights to look like real gun fights.”
His team watched extensive video of shootings, learning that “when you shoot someone with a pistol, they don’t fall backwards five feet. Some people get shot 10 or 15 times and still run away. Everyone reacts differently, based on where they are hit, their adrenaline levels and other things. I wanted the fight to be dirty, and sloppy, and cruel. And I wanted there to be no justice in it, until there is.”
This is an essential question, for this movie and many others: how to show violence—and couple violence with justice—without celebrating it. Setting these stories out on the fringes of so-called civilization, and all that entailed, was a factor. “The farther you get from concrete, the less the rule of law applies,” he muses. “And the more the law of nature applies.”
Wind River gives us a window into several manifestations of violence, including the unhinged rawness of a masculine herd mentality. When the film depicts the crime in progress—a vicious fight and subsequent assault—it’s difficult to watch. “Many people who have seen the film talked about how graphic it was, but when you think about it, I only show the characters’ faces,” Sheridan points out. “The imagination of the audience is stronger that any picture.”
“Hopefully this film—and Sicario and Hell or High Water as well—are protests against violence. When a bullet is fired, there are consequences. In Hell or High Water, Alberto [Gil Birmingham, who also appears in Wind River] doesn’t get to have final words with Jeff Bridges’ Marcus, and Bridges doesn’t get to apologize for being a racist to his only friend. Alberto’s death leaves behind a family living on a cop’s pension. And what happened to those lives?
“I don’t think I could make a film that glorified violence. I can make a film that studies it, and explores it, but I don’t really have any interest in making a film that glorifies it.”
Camera: ARRI Alexa XT and Alexa Mini
Lenses: Zeiss Standard Speeds, Angénieux Optimo 15-40mm and 45-120mm
Format: ARRIRAW 2.8K, 2.39:1
Lighting: LiteGear LEDs and ARRI SkyPanels and HMIs, assorted smaller fixtures
Color Grading: Mitch Paulson at EFilm on Autodesk Lustre MM
Wind River opens in theaters August 4, 2017, courtesy of The Weinstein Company. Top image photographed by Sandro Baebler. This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Summer 2017 issue.