Taylor Sheridan’s Forgotten America

Published August 7, 2017

ELIZABETH OLSEN AND JEREMY RENNER IN WIND RIVER. FILM STILL COURTESY OF THE WEINSTEIN COMPANY.

As a young child growing up in Texas, Taylor Sheridan says he wanted to be a cowboy. Instead, he became a jobbing actor on television shows like Veronica Mars and Sons of Anarchy. Now, following a career change in his 40s, he’s the Oscar-nominated screenwriter behind Sicario (2015), Hell or Highwater (2016), and Wind River (2017), a taut trilogy of film festival thrillers that examine the frontiers—literally and metaphorically—of American society.

Wind River, which came out on Friday, is the final film in Sheridan’s series, and the only one he chose to direct himself (Sicario is directed by Denis Villeneuve; Hell or High Water by David Mackenzie). Set on a remote Native American reservation during a harsh Wyoming winter, it centers around a brutal rape and murder—the latest in an ongoing epidemic of violent crimes on reservations that the world outside prefers to ignore. Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen lead the cast as a wildlife officer and an FBI agent investigating what happened.

EMMA BROWN: Did you grow up watching a lot of movies?

TAYLOR SHERIDAN: I grew up watching a lot of the same movies. We lived out in the country and we didn’t have cable. My parents were old Texans and on Saturdays, they would play Westerns or films from the ’60s and ’70s like The Graduate and In the Heat of the Night—some of these movies that were really influential on me. I watched movies 10, 20, 30 times, because we only had, like, 15 VHS tapes, and five of them I never wanted to watch. Strangely, it was very helpful, because you get to sit there are dissect scenes, even though I didn’t know that was what I was doing.

BROWN: When did you decide to try your hand at screenwriting?

SHERIDAN: I decided after I quit Sons of Anarchy. It had been germinating for about a year. The idea of Sicario had been swimming in my head. I had not figured out what it was exactly, but it had begun. When I quit the show I was able to do some traveling and research and find that, and then sit down and try to figure out how to tell it.

BROWN: Did you feel unfulfilled as an actor or was it more that you had reached a certain point and wanted to try something different?

SHERIDAN: I was definitely unfulfilled. You look at some of the great actors of the past 15 to 20 years, and I didn’t get those same opportunities. I didn’t get them because I didn’t deserve them, so that’s not me complaining. I recognized that, “This is what I am as an actor and it’s not artistically fulfilling and it’s not very financially rewarding, so I’m going to find another way to storytell.”

BROWN: When you started Sicario, did you envision it as a trilogy?

SHERIDAN: No, it wasn’t until I was about halfway through the process that that started to come to light for me—that there were these themes that I was exploring now that existed in other areas, and that there might be a really interesting cinematic way to tie them together in a manner that I hadn’t seen before. As ambitious as it was, to be perfectly honest, I didn’t think anyone would ever buy any of these things so I felt pretty free to try whatever I wanted.

I wrote the three films in the order that they were released amazingly enough, even though Hell or High Water, which was called Comancheria, sold first. It sold almost a full three years before Sicario. [But] Sicario had already been at Cannes before we finally had a director for Hell or High Water.

BROWN: You’ve described your trilogy as being about American frontiers. What made made you choose the Native American reservation in the snow as your final frontier?

SHERIDAN: I don’t think you could honestly discuss the American frontier without discussing, in some way, the reservation system. I chose Wind River, the Indian reservation, because of the issue of violence and how it’s affecting that region. I chose winter because that’s the most oppressive time of year on the people in that region. Historically, they would have migrated out of that area to a better climate in the winter and the very fact that they are consigned to that region during that time of the year is in and of itself a failure of the reservation system.

BROWN: I know that you had spent some time on reservations before writing the film. What brought you to reservations to begin with?

SHERIDAN: It was personal, it wasn’t to research. It was friends that I knew in the Indian country that I visited and then more friends that I made and stayed with. It was me in my 20s seeking to find myself, find my place in the world, and understand the world we live in.

BROWN: Wind River talks about how underreported crime is on reservations, particularly the disappearance of young women. Is that something you knew about from personal experience?

SHERIDAN: Yeah, I saw it first hand. It’s something that affects the life of every member of the reservation and it’s not discussed in our popular culture, in the public awareness. It’s unknown. It’s ignored by the media. It’s not that the leaders of these tribes aren’t screaming about it, it’s just that no one’s listening. It’s one of the great things about film: We can give a voice to those that are not being heard.

BROWN: In the film, the Wind River reservation is completely devastated by the events that take place. As you were writing, did you go beyond the end of the film? Did you think about the aftermath and what would happen next for the reservation residents?

SHERIDAN: There’s no reason for me to imagine what happens in my fictionalized version of it. It’s much more about my hope for the real version of it—that we start a dialogue and that there’s some attention. Especially at a time right now where the Department of the Interior is having its budget cut by 10 percent, and that 10 percent is going to come, mark my words, from funds that are allocated for reservations. That 10 percent will be felt more acutely there than anywhere else. We shouldn’t be cutting funding from it at all. The one thing about the Native American population in the reservation system is that it is not densely populated—we’re not talking about 30 million people. There’s no way sit here and go, “Let’s eradicate poverty in America.” We have to strive to do it, but the problem is so massive, how do you get your head around it? Look at healthcare, we can’t even get our head around it. But in this case, while the problem is huge, the population it is happening to is not. A slight increase or infusion of funds makes a tremendous difference. It doesn’t cost nearly what it would anywhere else in this country to affect real change, but the opposite is happening right now, where they’re taking money from it, which is going to mean less opportunity, more desperation, less education, more substance abuse, more violence.

BROWN: When did you decide to direct this film?

SHERIDAN: I always knew that this one I would direct. I would rather it not get made than be made with another director. There are countless directors better than me—this is the first time I’ve done this at this scale—but I knew that if I did it, it would be done exactly the way I promised friends of mine on the res it would be done and that the vision wouldn’t be diluted and the message wouldn’t change. That was more important to me.

BROWN: Does it feel more personal than Hell or High Water or Sicario?

SHERIDAN: It’s very personal for different reasons. Hell or High Water is not autobiographical, but it’s about the region where I’m from and members of my family, so it’s about something rooted in truth for me. It’s personal in a very specific way. Whereas this is personal in a way that is a little more difficult to articulate.

BROWN: You’ve said that you’ve never directed on this scale before, and a lot of outlets have called Wind River your directorial debut, but you are credited as having directed before. Does Wind River feel like your debut?

SHERIDAN: The thing that I directed before was a student film that a friend of mine was going to direct. He wrote it, starred in it, and produced it, and when he was about to start, he freaked out because he realized he’d bitten off more than he could chew. He asked me if I would come in and help guide the thing and that’s what I did. He called me the director, but this wasn’t any kind of professional production—it was generous to call me that. I don’t consider that a debut of any sort.

BROWN: Are you very happy with how you executed your vision in Wind River? Does it feel like the movie you first envisioned?

SHERIDAN: It does. Do I wish that I could have had one or two more days to go get this shot, and do I regret I spent so much time shooting this that didn’t even make it to the film? Sure. You learn those lessons. But I’m proud of the work we did. I’m really proud of the actors. I think that Nick [Cave] and Warren [Ellis]’s score is breathtaking, I think Ben [Richardson]’s photography is incredible. What we did with what little we had, I’m extremely proud and grateful. 

WIND RIVER IS OUT NOW IN SELECT THEATERS.