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Hold Me Closer, Fancy Dancer: A Conversation with Sherman Alexie

The Business of Fancydancing, like Sherman Alexie’s writing, challenges audiences to negotiate multiple identities, to deal with an intersection of struggles. The film marks Alexie’s debut as director, a role that he came to after wading through the frustrating process of trying to make a film through usual Hollywood channels. filmcritic.com shares Alexie’s unique perspective on how being ‘communistic leader’ could be so much fun.

filmcritic.com: How was The Business of Fancydancing made, and how did that allow you to do what you wanted to with this project-things that you maybe weren’t able to do before?

Sherman Alexie: Well, after Smoke Signals did so well for Mirimax, I did a lot of work in Hollywood trying to get a movie made. I worked on my own projects, I did a lot of assignment writing on other people’s ideas and none of it really came to anything. And I just got frustrated with that. Everybody goes out of their way in that town to say ‘No.’ And, frankly, nobody is really all that interested in Indians. So I stepped back and tried to figure out a way to make a movie. And the model of people making movies that appealed to me most-not just economically but aesthetically-was on digital. You know, with Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg and all those Dogme guys… and I saw that an increasing number of American filmmakers were working on digital too. I just thought, ‘Well, I can do this. Somebody give me $12, I’ll make a movie,’ and that’s where it started from. So I took a video class at 911 Media Arts, a co-op here in Seattle, and it’s there that I met Holly Taylor, who ended up being the [cinematographer] and editor. And most of the crew came from 911. They all had mostly documentary experience, and hadn’t worked on a feature before, and so we all started off together. So it was quite the socialistic experience.

Why do you want to make movies?

Of course part of it’s just simple ego. It’s fun. (laughs) I like the attention. But, the biggest thing for me was, with Smoke Signals we screened it in Minneapolis at the University of Minnesota. This was I think a year and a half after its initial release. I was speaking at the university and they screened it while I was there. I just watched a little bit of it and the sound kept going out. It must have been an old print. I was getting really angry. But there were enough Indians in the crowd who had seen the movie enough times that they started filling in the dialogue. It was like the Rocky Horror Indian Picture Show, and it was stunning. You know, I’d never experienced that before. It’s not like I could start reading a poem at a reading and everyone in the crowd starts reading it with me. It’s not like I’ve written ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ But for a brief moment in Minneapolis, I felt like I had written ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ and that was where the sort of enormous cultural power of movies really hit me on a personal level. So it was a combination of those things. I love making movies because you become a long part of history of moviemaking. I mean, I’m no Martin Scorsese or Woody Allen or any of those people, but I get to make movies. (laughs) And I get to write books. So it’s joining an artistic tradition and creating an art form that I just love. I love to be part of the gang.

Wow, what a great moment that must have been.

Oh, it was! You know, it’s a great life I live and there are moments that transcend how much I love my life on a daily basis, and that one was just-when I’m on my deathbed and thinking of, you know, the five or six great moments in my life, that’ll probably be one of them.

Talk about being a first-time director and what you learned in the course of making The Business of Fancydancing.

Well one of the reasons I was the director is because I’m not interested in being a director. (laughs) I hate the sort of cult that surrounds the idea of the director. I mean, it’s a hard job and it’s a difficult job, but it’s not the only job on the set. So, I really wanted to create an atmosphere where everybody was sort of equal in the process. So by being the director, I got to, you know, be communistic leader. I guess in some sense I treated it like film school. I went in with a screenplay, but I went in with a screenplay that was very strange to begin with, very loosely connected. It was more of a series of scenes, images and poems than a typical narrative, and on the set I allowed myself to be as free as possible. I would throw the script away, I would let the actors improvise. And, being a performer myself, I could improvise as the director, and give them new lines and interact with them in new ways, and create situations that hadn’t been thought of in the screenplay. So I essentially tried to do everything I could think of to test myself, and to shoot every kind of scene imaginable. You know, I was never sure anybody would see this, so I didn’t worry about it.

To try and remove yourself from having control over the process when it’s something that is very important to you, which is adapting your first piece of published work into a story on film-it must have been an interesting struggle.

Yeah, I’m just as arrogant as the next bastard. But I decided to take my arrogance the other way, right? ‘I’m going to be more selfless than anybody ever has.’ (laughs) So, you know, inverted it. It’s still just as arrogant, but people like you more. (laughs) It was so much fun, though. I guess I just tried to make it fun, and not destroy people’s lives for the time period in which we were working. It can be so awful making films-18-hour days, you know. I guess I tried to treat it like it wasn’t that important, even though I was torn emotionally, because the work got pretty autobiographical. And I cried on the set, and other people cried and we got really close, but I guess-much like an actor’s not supposed to think about the end result of the scene-I tried not to think of the end result of the scene, or a day, or the whole shoot. And that made it so much easier. I went in thinking, ‘this is never going to play anywhere,’ and that freed me. So now when anybody watches it or pays attention, it’s great.

The struggle to be an Indian and be a celebrity-talk about how it’s portrayed in the film and how it’s been in your own life-the idea that success in white culture equals rejection in Indian culture, on the reservation.

On a larger scale, every artist lives that life. You know, what is it in Isaiah? A prophet’s always a stranger in his own land. Every artist, I think, goes through that. And for Indians, who come from tribal cultures, it’s even more intense. In tribal cultures every story, every dance step, every move has an owner. The art has ownership. And you can’t sing those songs or tell those stories unless you have explicit permission to tell them. There are a lot of social rules in an Indian tribe. You know, it’s like an Edith Wharton novel on ‘the rez.’ But the Western Civ idea of art is, you know, sort of bulldozing your way through everything-that you have absolute freedom. And so that’s a serious dichotomy, and there’s always a clash; that being a member of a tribe and being an artist are often mutually exclusive things. And so I was interested in that conflict, always have been, I live it. So I wanted to make a movie about it-because nobody had. It’s easy to make the movie people want to see. And it’s harder to make the movie people weren’t expecting. I tried to make one people wouldn’t expect.

Seymour and Aristotle struggle in their college experience in very different ways. What were your own experiences at Gonzaga University and Washington State University like, and how did you make the transition?

Well I think I had both
of their experiences. At Gonzaga, where I started, I think I was Aristotle: drunk and angry, and falling apart. I was always a high-functioning alcoholic in terms of grades; I got out of there with about a three-point. But I left, because I knew if I stayed there, I’d never finish. I was drinking too hard and was too angry, and ended up at Washington State, where I became more like Seymour: discovered writing, discovered a bunch of writer friends, really found my place, started writing and found my future in that. So at one college I was Aristotle and at the other I was Seymour, and ended up graduating with honors from [WSU], so my college career was really schizophrenic.

Using alcohol and substance abuse is a major theme throughout this film and your work. Did leaving alcohol behind and going forward into writing come hand-in-hand for you?

The night after I quit for the last time: you know when you make that decision, and I quit, the next day I got the acceptance letter from Hanging Loose Press for my first book of poems. So, I was like, ‘Oh!’ So I believe in coincidence, but I also believe in interpreting coincidence exactly the way you want to interpret it. (laughs) So I think it was a wild coincidence-that I decided to let be magic. So since then, they’ve gone hand-in-hand, in good ways and bad ways. I mean, just as much as I was addicted to alcohol, I’m addicted to writing too, and it can be destructive in its own sort of way.

It must be a struggle to have that addictive personality and have a young son who needs so much attention as well.

Oh yeah, so there’s a long history of good writers who are bad parents. I’m working my ass off so that he doesn’t have to write a memoir about me later.

The concept of forgiveness-not just forgiving others, but forgiving oneself-seems really central to this movie. How did the concept of forgiveness shape the story?

It’s funny, I don’t get talked about much in these terms, but I’m very Catholic: grew up Catholic, Catholic father, still am vaguely Catholic (I’m not very good at it anymore). So I think Catholicism and forgiveness and that aspect of Christianity is a really strong influence on me. And then once you place Catholicism in the context of me being tribal and the ways in which the church horrendously oppressed Indians, there is a serious amount of guilt. So, I think it’s a combination of guilt and irony and contradiction and forgiveness that mix up together and become a dominant them in everything I do… And I didn’t call it Catholic in the movie, but I think it very much is. Seymour’s conflict is very religious and very spiritual, and that’s the way I approached it. Evan [Adams] and I talked about that very much: that, in some ways, [Seymour]’s a pilgrim.

Homosexuality, the ‘other,’ and being Indian.

As I’ve spent more time in urban situations and in the art world, I’ve made more friends who are gay. So it’s a huge part of my life. My best friend is a lesbian. So part of it is just that my work is starting to reflect the way in which I live my life. I mean I haven’t lived on the reservation in 18 years, so my work is finally catching up to the diverse urban life in which I live. But artistically, I’m fascinated by the concept of tribes. And Evan and I, again, when I was writing this movie had a conversation about tribes: the idea of Indian tribes, and the idea that gay people are a tribe. And we started talking about social rules, and the way interactions happen, and the way you behave, and the uniforms you wear, and the signifiers, and the ways in which [Seymour] can jump back and forth between the worlds. That sometimes he feels a lot more Indian than gay, and vice-versa. That he’s never really fully one or the other, but he certainly-depending on the situation-feels more like one than the other. And so that was just in my head when I started writing. The idea of what happens when you switch tribes like that. Where are your allegiances? And, especially when you think about being gay-gay people being universally hated around the world, then you’re really leaving your tribe in all sorts of ways. And so I guess I upped the dramatic impact: not only moving to the city, not only being a writer, but also being gay. You know, he’s leaving his tribe physically, and culturally, and spiritually, and sexually. Part of me writing about gay people in this movie was a larger social effort. I knew a lot of Indians will see this move, and there’s a lot of homophobes in the Indian world, so I wanted to slap them in the face a bit.

How do you decide which poems to put in the movie?

Oh man, you know it’s funny. By and large, the ones I put in were the ones that-in my performing them-have gotten the largest audience reaction. But, in Evan’s performance of them-which is vastly different than mine-they became very different poems. So, in some sense, it didn’t really matter which poems I picked, because Evan made them his own, and would’ve made any of them his own, and I could not have predicted what they would have become. That was the great part: I mean I picked them for specific reasons-I wanted this one to be funny, I wanted this one to be sad, I wanted this one to be redemptive, really concrete ideas-and in the context of the film, and the context of Evan’s performance, they became something else entirely. So, looking back, I thought, ‘Oh, it’s funny you didn’t know that.’ In the screenplay you know its turns, but I felt so possessive of the poems, I thought I knew them better than anybody else did. But you realize everything you create is always of its own, and that’s what happened to the poems. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to read them aloud again.

What are you working on now?

A book of short stories that will be out in the spring (it doesn’t have a title yet). A book of poems that will probably be out next fall. I just signed on to do a biography of Jimi Hendrix-a very non-traditional biography…and I’m doing some assignment work in Hollywood, raising money, so I can finance the next film. So, you know, I’m sure you’ll probably see my punch-lines in a really bad romantic comedy coming to a theatre near you (laughs)… I’m not telling you what I’m writing. When there are good movies that come out, I’ll tell you. When they’re not, and my name didn’t get involved in the credits, I’m not telling a soul.

So how long before we might hear about a ‘good movie’ of yours?

(Laughs) Well, I’m really hopeful for this one with HBO. I can’t talk about it, but keep watching for HBO news. I’ve really got my fingers and toes-I’m crossing everything.

Photo credit: Susan Sheridan.

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