Based on the Leaphorn & Chee book series by Tony Hillerman, Dark Winds follows Navajo Tribal Police officers in the 1970s Southwest as they search for answers in an unsettling double murder case. In this interview with amc.com, we speak with director Chris Eyre (“Monster Slayer,” Episode 1) about telling these stories through a Native lens and why he believes Zahn McClarnon is the perfect Joe Leaphorn.
Q:This is not your first time you’re bringing Leaphorn and Chee to the small screen [Ed note: Eyre directed two episodes of PBS’ Mystery! both featuring Leaphorn and Chee] and it’s also not the first time you’ve worked with Robert Redford. How did you become involved in this project?
A: In 2015, I got a call from a mutual friend that was associated with the Sundance Institute, one of Bob's [Redford] enterprises, and she said, "We should get George and Bob together to talk about Hillerman!" I thought to myself, "Hmm, that would be interesting!" George R.R. Martin is a resident of Santa Fe and I am too, so I knew him. Game of Thrones was just exploding in the world, and Bob and I had been friends for a few decades. Like you said, we’d done Hillerman before.
So we had a meeting in Santa Fe and asked George if he would be interested. Lo and behold, George tells us he was actually friends with Tony in the '80's. They both attended this authors' luncheon in Albuquerque once a month and they were friends — we had no idea! So George said, "Yeah, I'd love to be involved." Even with those two legendary figures behind this, it still took us another six years to get to this point and it was all for the love of it. We just did a premiere for the show here in Santa Fe and Anne Hillerman, who continues the series, was there. She sent me a nice email afterwards that said how much she loved the series and the characters, and she thought her dad would be cheering for us.
Q: You've told many indigenous stories throughout your career and explored many facets of contemporary Native life. What elements were you most excited to bring to the screen with Dark Winds?
A: The thing I love about this mystery is its point of view, which is an Indigenous/Native point of view. When AdaGrowing Thunder goes to grab something off of Bernadette [in “Monster Slayer,” Episode 1]—that's the kind of stuff where some audience members go, "What was that?" and some audience members go, "Oh my God! I know what she tried to do." It's what’s unspoken that I'm most interested in. Bernadette right away just stares at her like, "Did you just try to take a hair off my shirt?" and it’s haunting. We see that from Bernadette’s insider point of view, and we don't explain it. We don't have to explain it, you know what I mean? Some people will pick up on it right away and some people will say, "Well, wait a minute, what was that?"
We’re telling a story, a cultural mystery, in which we don't explain the world because our characters live in that world. I'm not objectifying their world. So when Bernadette smudges herself off, she stops the car and she takes out some corn pollen. I don't shoot close-ups of corn pollen and I don't shoot exactly what she's doing because she knows what she's doing. We find out later that Chee knows more than he says. This is the kind of allowance I love because it's told from an insider point of view. There are so many fundamental elements of the show that were also great to play with, the Western, the Southwest, Monument Valley, the crime, the mystery—and I think they're all familiar to people. They just haven't seen them put together like this before, but they're all familiar elements.
Q: Leaphorn and Chee are such intriguing characters in their own right, but with Dark Winds viewers get so much more. We get the expansive beauty of the Navajo nation, we get the mystery of the two major crimes, plus we get to see relationships blossom between our leads. What was most thrilling for you to bring to life in this first season?
A: I think Zahn [McClarnon] is rather incredible in this because he doesn't make a false move. He owns the character so well. You see Leaphorn's history in his face. You see his knowledge and his understanding of culture, his understanding that his wife comes from a matriarchal society, that his wife leads. You just see so much in his appropriation of this character and the depth of experience in his face. I just can watch Zahn take after take doing little things differently every time.
I think that's one of the golden parts of this entire experience, we really found Joe Leaphorn, and it was never a question for us. While we were developing the show after Graham wrote the screenplay we talked a lot about, "Well, who is Leaphorn?" Zahn was at the top of the list and we never thought about it again. We said “it's Zahn,” and we made the right choice completely. I could watch Zahn in Season 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6, and just try to understand the depth of his character. So one of the things that I'm most excited about is just getting to know these people. I'm just in love with these characters most of all.
Q: Six episodes is just too short! As someone who really knows Leaphorn & Chee, if the show is picked up for a second season do you already have a sense of which stories you’d want to tell?
A: We are heavily in discussions about which stories we would tell next. Tony wrote 18 novels and Anne Hillerman is about to release her eighth, so there are 26 books. We're talking about what we’d do next, even though we don't have a green light for a second season. But hopefully people will love it enough that we'll get a second, third, fourth, fifth season to see these characters really evolve.
New episodes of Dark Winds air on Sundays at 9/8c on AMC. Full episodes are available to stream on amc.com (with a cable provider login), the AMC apps for mobile and devices, and a week early on AMC+. AMC+ is available at amcplus.com or through the new AMC+ app available on iPhone, iPad, Android, Fire TV, Apple TV, and Roku. AMC+ can also be accessed through a variety of providers, including AppleTV, Prime Video Channels, DirectTV, Dish, Roku Channel, Sling, and Xfinity. Sign up for AMC+ now.