EXCLUSIVE: “I talked about my community and stuff, but this is, this is my story,” statement Frybread Face and Me director Billy Luther of his Taika Waititi executive produced feature debut.
Airing tonight on SXSWthe long gestating drama from Miss Navajo The helmer is a 1990-set coming-of-age story in San Diego where Benny is raised and during the summer he is sent to live with his grandmother and other family on a Navajo reservation in Arizona. Summer becomes more meaningful for playing with a doll and Fleetwood Mac becomes obsessed with Benny as the city boy slowly befriends his cousin Dawn aka Frybread, and learns not only his family history through her , but also of his native culture.
The Sundance Institute labs spawned out and funded in part by Charles D King’s Macrosalong River Road and REI Co-op Studioscooperated with Chad Burris‘ Indian Entertainmentwritten and taught by Luther Frybread defines expectations at almost every turn.
With Luther in Austin, TX and Oscar winner Waititi in LA for Sunday’s Academy Awards, old friends chatted with me about the making of the pandemic starring Keir Tallman and Charley Hogan. Frybread, the details of its story and its universality, and the power of native storytelling in Hollywood today. In his only interview for Frybread, Dogs on the Reservation EP Waititi also spoke briefly about his potential involvement in Star Wars universe and offer insight into what audiences outside of Tinseltown really need
DEADLINE: Billy, this movie has been a long time in the making, now you’re about to premiere at SXSW. What are your expectations?
LUTHER: You know, I took my time here. I put my time into this movie, and we shot it a few summers ago. And, as Taika told me, don’t rush the movie. Don’t cut your film to make a festival. Make your movie, they will be fine.
I talked about my community and stuff, but this is, this is my story. I’ve always said, it’s loosely based on my life, but, honestly, I mean, there’s a lot of it, you know. So that’s the only thing I kept in my head aw we were shooting in a big pandemic. Where I have to do all my rehearsals and casting through Zoom, which is weird. Truth is, the first time we all met together we all just arrived in Santa Fe, New Mexico. And now Frybread is here in Austin, weird.
DEADLINE: Taika, you’ve been on board with Frybread from the jump, and over the years you’ve been loud and proud about indigenous children and communities telling their stories, creating their art, using their voice, but what about the last Frybread slices and the Navajo community depicted in the film surprised you?
Waititi: Oh, what really struck me, especially in the finished film, was the amount of language that was still spoken. A lot of people still speak Māori in my community, but it’s really interesting to hear it.
DEADLINE: You mentioned your community in New Zealand, it did Native community in Arizona on film sounds familiar to you?
Waititi: Yes, basically, it’s a similarity and something I recognize for me growing up with Māori speaking adults, like in the movie speaking Navajo. So, there was a familiarity there, but it was something that felt very different to me because obviously different language and also the landscapes are different in the desert and stuff. Where I grew up was on the beach, and all the food, shellfish and seafood and it only lives in the sea. It’s a very different environment to Frybread.
DEADLINE: Speaking of different environments, Taika, there’s also been a lot of talk about what you do, now it’s writingd maybe staring in a Star Wars movie…
Waititi: (LAUGHTER) Yeah, that rumor is about three years old. All I can say is that God forbid I do a Star Wars movie about people sitting on mountains playing flutes…
DEADLINE: Well, they kind of went there with the last Stars Wars movies with Luke Skywalker.
Waititi: Okay, then, I won’t do that, sure.
DEADLINE: Billy, no culture is a monolith, but you have been in the business for a while, do you think that Indigenous stories are having a moment or really become mainstream?
LUTHER: I don’t know, but I look at shows like that Dogs on the Reservation, and I know that’s a big step. I think that’s elevated storytelling. Now, there’s so much in development, and so much there in terms of Native representation. So, whether it’s a moment or being mainstream, I think it’s pretty, pretty good.
Like look, Dog Res, which blew up pretty quickly. Then you have Rutherford Falls, Dark Wind and you know, there are other projects coming up. So I feel like there’s just a strong plate of extraordinary storytelling in the Native world and it also doesn’t mean we all have to tell Native stories, you know? I mean, I like to write for Hacks. You know who else I want to write to? White Lotus. And we can write for those shows, because the talent is there.
I also see it growing in terms of personnel behind the camera. You know, when I looked at the set for Dark Wind, even shooting Frybread …I mean, the talent is there behind the camera. There are Native camera crews, native scripts, and that’s what needs to happen. I want more Native editors as well as more Native stories.
Waititi: Yes i agree. Also, you always want to see something different in the current state of film, TV, especially coming out of America, and I think like Res Dogs and Frybread and these things. It’s just nice to break out of what we see in Hollywood.
DEADLINE: What do you mean?
Waititi: There is a need for different ways of telling stories, and engaging audiences.
DEADLINE: How do you do that?
Waititi: Audiences today are very savvy about the types of stories and places that fit stories in movies, and especially in Hollywood.
They crave something, something different and especially if it’s something that also feels close to home. Something that gives them a unique insight that they haven’t really had before. That’s new to them and I think that’s something that expands their horizons and their story experience. For me, I come from New Zealand, but my connection with filmmakers like Billy and Blackhorse Lowe, and all these filmmakers from here, we had the same story. That we all actually grew up in the same neighborhoods in the same communities. Where I grew up in New Zealand has a very similar feel to some of the communities I’ve been to here.
DEADLINE: What do you think of that Billy?
LUTHER: Look, I’ve known Taika for 20 years…
Waititi: That’s right
LUTHER: He always supports fellow storytellers, uses his influence for fellow storytellers, or even just provides a little support in terms of a shout out or something. I mean, it’s huge.
DEADLINE: I have to ask now, how did you meet?
LUTHER: (LAUGHS) I volunteered at a film festival. And he asked me for my Nokia phone charger. I’m thinking, I can’t return this charger. But as six o’clock came, he’s like, thank you brother. We got to talking and he asked, what do you do? So, after that, we were friends, really brothers. Being here at SXSW, that reminds me of one of the things I love about festivals.
DEADLINE: What if?
LUTHER: The movie world is so big, but it’s also so small, you know? It can be supportive, it’s about networking in terms of the film business. They always say it’s all in who you know, and that’s true – as Frybread shows.
Waititi: I think it’s also because we all want to be misfits and we all know those stories of people who are those misfits. The Native part of it, there are always people who live on the edges and struggle to fit into any society, any town. It doesn’t matter what your race is, there will always be those people who you or you grew up with – trying to find their identity or trying to find their place in the world.
I think what’s great about this movie, what also appealed to me is because I grew up in a similar environment, and I was the weird one who wanted to be a clown and tell stories and dress up. It’s so easy to take that away from growing up in small towns. It’s very hard to be an artist when you grow up in a small town and find like-minded people. Thank God I found art.
DEADLINE: Billy, in terms of your art – what’s next?
LUTHER: Well, I just finished directing an episode of Dark Wind, the AMC show I’ve been writing for two seasons. As you know, I have always wanted to make my first documentary Miss Navajo in a feature script. So that’s kind of what I’m diving into now, the world of Navajo women and beauty pageants that I started writing about maybe a year ago, finding the tone of what I wanted and how i like it The documentary is great in terms of respecting women, especially my mother Miss Navajo in the 60s. So with the feature, I just really want to pull no punches.
DEADLINE: Does that feeling sound familiar to you Taika?
Waititi: For sure.
We had time together Once a Warrior in New Zealand, as elsewhere and in the States where the representation of indigenous communities has always been heavy. I always see in those movies a lack of fun.
DEADLINE: When you say happy…
Waititi: In describing us. Because we are such a happy people, Native people are very funny people despite the years of oppression and injustice done. We are very positive people and there are very funny people in these communities.
I think we’ve been deluded into thinking that if we’re going to do the Native story, there has to be a lament for a culture that has passed. I think the reason is still there, but it has evolved. In New Zealand, there was an idea of all out films like Whale Rider, which isn’t a bad movie, it’s a great movie, but it creates this whole idea of Polynesian communities and Māori people in New Zealand that we ride whales all day and talk to trees and play flutes in the mountains and so on. I never saw any of that sh*t growing up.
We had a very normal life, like everywhere else, except for a very small town with Brown people. As in Frybreadyou remember the good times, you remember wanting to go to a Fleetwood Mac concert.. That’s our life, those are our stories.