If there’s anything that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, it’s the sovereignty of joy. And how for so long our stories have been relegated to a time period and to a certain traumatic response baseline. I think it’s just time for us to realize that we can live in trailer parks and be happy. We can have successful jobs and still be indigenous. Joy is just so important. I’m so excited to see so many indigenous artists out there starting to explore what it means to be a modern happy indigenous person.Erica Tremblay
We kick off 2021 with indigenous filmmaker Erica Tremblay, who represents a new kind of filmmaker for a new kind of world. 2020 broke us down and rose us up. We saw more clearly through an epidemic the injustices in our culture, which brought us closer together as humans.
The quarantine has also forced the industry to step back from the glitz, glamor, and the box office numbers and really take a look at what’s missing in story and representation. This year, a diverse array of scripts have been written by underrepresented artists, along with initiatives like #StartWith8Hollywood that are connecting these underrepresented storytellers to top level executives in the industry. The ways of Old Hollywood are starting to fade and it finally feels like we’re coming to this place where they are allowing the experiences of these underrepresented writers to inform the characters that we see onscreen. They truly embody the voice of the people.
I’m excited about filmmakers like Erica Tremblay because her stories come from a place in her heart, and she brings indigenous stories to the screen that celebrate the culture of the modern day indigenous people. I first came across Erica Tremblay and her work at Sundance 2020, which premiered her short film “Little Chief” that stars Lily Gladstone (“Certain Women”, “First Cow”). The film is about an indigenous woman who teaches at an elementary school on a reservation. Over the course of a school day, you see how her life intersects with that of a nine-year old boy. The film touched me, and when Erica came up in my recent research of indigenous female filmmakers, I was reminded about the unique and heartfelt nature of her story.
In our interview, we talked about Erica’s road to filmmaking and to her short film project, “Little Chief”. We also discussed future projects, and her thoughts about indigenous filmmakers and storytellers bringing their stories to the screen.
Regarding her future projects, I’m very excited to follow “Fancy Dance”, recently accepted into the Indigenous Black List, and a Sundance Lab. “Fancy Dance” synopsis: Following the disappearance of her sister, a Native American hustler kidnaps her niece from her white grandparents and sets out for the state powwow in the hopes of keeping what’s left of their family intact.
REBECCA MARTIN: What got you into filmmaking?
TREMBLAY: I’ve always been drawn to storytelling as a way of communicating. One of my favorite things when I was a kid was listening to my uncle tell all of these crazy stories and they would always change, and we were like, “Ok, uncle, that was not what you said last time.”
Also, I think when you grow up with a lot of indigenous folks around, there’s this use of creativity and humor that helps you get through some of the trauma that everyone is experiencing collectively. For me, growing up, I loved going to the video rental stores. I was obsessed with Shirley Temple, and the Little Rascals, and we would watch those tapes over and over again. I just fell in love with the idea of telling stories.
When I got into high school, I convinced my mom to buy a VHS recorder. I think it was a used one from Goodwill. I started recording little films and little movies in the neighborhood. They were mostly these little plays and musicals. They are completely awful [laughing], and I don’t even know if we have a lot of them still, but I would edit tape to tape, and create these little stories. When I went to college, I knew that I wanted to do something in that realm. I didn’t go to a formal film school, but I took all of the production classes that I could get my hands on.
Shortly after graduating college, I just packed everything that I had in my car and drove to LA. Looking back on it now, I was very naive in thinking $800 was going to be enough to live in LA. But I think if you put your mind to something, you can just work your way through it.
It took a lot of years to get here. I was in advertising for a while, and I worked on the publishing side of things in New York City. I was doing doc work on the side. Finally, a couple of years ago, I realized I just needed to try and make filmmaking my sole focus. That’s what I’ve been doing, really pushing and trying to make films, and have my own career, as its own sustaining job.
MARTIN: Did you grow up in an indigenous community?
TREMBLAY: I grew up half in Missouri and half in Oklahoma in a town called Seneca. I’m from the Seneca-Cayuga Nation. We have a reservation, but it was not like a reservation that you think of, and that you see in the movies, as one tribe on a reservation. I grew up in a very patchworked community with a lot of indigenous as well as non-indigenous people around. Certainly my mom was on council. She was always a part of tribal politics and we were deeply embedded in that community growing up.
MARTIN: What brought you to “Little Chief”?
TREMBLAY: Growing up, my mom taught at the Wyandotte school, or the Turkey Ford School, which is where we shot the film. My sister is older and she has also been working in the Oklahoma school system. I’ve never been a teacher, but I’ve just been in the schools and around my mom and my sister’s classrooms for so long.
They say write what you know, and I sat down and had a cocktail napkin full of different ideas and I was like, “you know what, I’m going to write a love letter to my mom and my sister, and really all of the other matriarchs that are in our community that are really struggling to push through their own traumas to provide safety and education to our youth, and also bring love and joy to the youth community.”
A lot of people talk about “Little Chief” being this really sad film, and it is in a way because it tackles some complicated topics. But I also think there is such joy in seeing this woman provide a moment of quiet meditation for this young boy. And I witnessed that in my mother’s classroom, everything from her pushing the button and saying “teachers, we’ve got a runner” to her running after a wayward student. I think this relationship is really strong in the indigenous culture between adults and youth. It’s great to see people like my mom and my sister and so many others do the best that they can to be there and teach our kids in culturally specific ways. And it was cool because every single kid that’s in the film is a member of a Haudenosaunee nation.
MARTIN: That’s great!
TREMBLAY: Yeah, we got to bring them all in and collaborate with each other. We were able to have this really awesome day. And I didn’t realize until we were on set that it wasn’t just that these kids were going to be a part of this film, but they got to see a professional film set. They got to know what it looks like to be behind the scenes. It hadn’t occurred to me that even that was going to be something that was going to be leaving an impact. And now they can all imagine being a member of a crew, or can imagine telling their own stories, and seeing themselves as filmmakers.
MARTIN: I first became aware of Lily Gladstone when I saw her in “Certain Women”. My immediate reaction to her performance was, ‘she is amazing and why haven’t I seen more of her?’ I love that you had her in that main role. How did you connect with Lily and get her to be a part of this project?
TREMBLAY: All along the way, I was busting through these imposter syndrome walls that I had built up inside of myself, and I was like, “Oh I’ll never get into the Sundance lab, and oh I’ll never do this, or I’ll never do this.” I have been such a huge fan of Lily’s, she’s such a talented actor.
I emailed her and gave her an impassioned plea. I said, “Please read the attached screenplay, it’s a love letter to my mom. We have a very small budget, but we would love to have you come to Oklahoma and do this film with us.” And she did it. She read the script and she took a chance. She’s at this place in her career where she does not need to do short films, but she took a chance, and she gave me such a great feeling of confidence going into it knowing that I would have her there. She worked so graciously and generously with all the other actors. She’s great and my goal is to keep writing parts for her, and to keep working with her if she will have me.
MARTIN: Any advice for emerging female filmmakers?
TREMBLAY: I still feel like I’m learning so much. But I think that my big advice is to just learn, read and write, and to just practice, and do as much as you can, and find mentors. Look for people in your community, and people around the community that are doing something similar to you, and get together, and make things.
I think if I could go back and tell myself anything, it would have been to just get started sooner. Just make things and get your voice established. You don’t have to have the best camera, you don’t have to have the best lighting. But what makes a difference is if you have a real story that is authentic to you that comes from a new place like Old Hollywood’s establishment has not seen before. They are finally starting to carve out some space for us.
Another thing is to just be collaborative and to be generous. If you see someone who is doing something and you come and hand out water, or volunteer, they are going to show up for your projects. Collaboration is just a huge part of it.
I can’t say enough about all the mentorship and lab experiences I’ve had. Whether you’re a native artist or you identify as some other way, just google what that is and look for resources. Through the NACF, through Sundance, and through Visionmaker Media, for me those organizations have brought so many amazing opportunities, because I didn’t have a formal film school background. So apply to those opportunities, and you’re going to be told “no” over and over and over again, but then you’ll get into one, and you’ll build a baseline of networking but also just your own education. That’s been crucial for me and my growth.
MARTIN: What’s coming up for you?
TREMBLAY: I’ve got three projects that are currently formulating and percolating that I can talk about.
First, “Fancy Dance” is a narrative feature film that I wrote. It’s an aunt and a niece road trip story. I really wanted to explore the relationships between aunts and nieces because in our indigenous culture, that is really strong. We don’t see those kinds of relationships on screen. I just wanted to lean in.
I’m also a queer indigenous filmmakers. I want to see queer indigenous filmmakers on screen and in stories that aren’t necessarily based on their sexuality. In my mind, Lily in “Little Chief” was queer. But we don’t see any of that. So it’s kind of like just placing people in their world. “Fancy Dance” just made the Indigenous Black List. It’s also a part of the Sundance Indigenous Intensive, and the script made it into that Sundance Lab. It’s really exciting to have the momentum behind this feature film that I co-wrote with another indigenous writer.
A second project that I’ve been working on for 3 years now is a feature doc called “Sisters Gone”, which documents the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women in Alaska. The epidemic is really horrific all across North and South America, but I’m focusing on Alaska because of certain challenges. It’s extremely horrific with what’s happening there because of the safety of indigenous women. So I’ve been working on that project, but obviously because of COVID, everything has been shut down.
And a third project that I’m working on is another feature doc called “Wave Guides”, which documents female indigenous musicians. It shows how through corrupt ethnography and historical depictions, we’ve lost our connection to female indigenous folks and the power of the music that they create. It’s really awesome to see some of these modern artists taking that power back and using music as a guide to communicate.
MARTIN: Any final thoughts?
TREMBLAY: If there’s anything that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, it’s the sovereignty of joy. And how for so long our stories have been relegated to a time period and to a certain traumatic response baseline. I think it’s just time for us to realize that we can live in trailer parks and be happy. We can have successful jobs and still be indigenous. Joy is just so important. I’m so excited to see so many indigenous artists out there starting to explore what it means to be a modern happy indigenous person.
And that’s what I’m trying to do too. Familial bonds and community ties are so important to all of us. It’s great to see projects come out that celebrate us as communities and cultures.