Getty Images/Cybelle Codish
EXCLUSIVE“I’ve told stories about my community and all that, but this is, this is my story,” says Fried bread face and me director Billy Luther from its executive Taika Waititi produced a feature debut.
Premiering tonight on SXSW, the long-running drama from Miss Navajo Helmer is a 1990 coming-of-age tale about Benny being raised in San Diego and the summer he is sent to live with his grandmother and another family on a Navajo reservation in Arizona. Summer becomes all the more important for doll play and Benny-obsessed Fleetwood Mac as the city kid gradually befriends his cousin Dawn aka Frybread, and not only learns his own family history through her, but also that of her native culture.
Spawned Sundance Institute Laboratories and funded in part by Charles D King’s Macro, plus River Road and REI Co-op Studios, teamed up with Chad Burris’ Indion Entertainment, the Luther wrote and directed Frying sets expectations at almost every turn.
With Luther in Austin, TX and Oscar winner Waititi in Los Angeles for Sunday’s Oscars, old friends chatted with me about the pandemic making of Keir Tallman and Charley Hogan. Frying, the specifics of its history and its universality, and the power of Indigenous storytelling in Hollywood today. In his only interview for Frying, Reservation dogs EP Waititi also spoke succinctly about his potential involvement in the Star Wars universe and offered some insight into what audiences really need in Tinseltown.
DEADLINE: Billy, this movie has been in the works for a long time, now you’re about to premiere at SXSW. What are your expectations?
LUTHER: You know, I took the time with this. I took the time with this film, 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 it a festival. Make your movie, you’ll be fine.
I told stories about my community and all that, 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 stuff in there, you know. So that’s just something I kept in mind as we were filming in a big pandemic. Where I had to do all my rehearsals and casting via Zoom, which was weird. The truth is, the first time we met, we all landed in Santa Fe, New Mexico. And now Frying is here in Austin, weird.
DEADLINE: Taika, you were on board with Frybread from the jump, and over the years you’ve spoken loud and clear about Indigenous children and communities telling their stories, creating their art, using their voices, but what about did the final cut of Frybread and the Navajo community depicted in the film surprise you?
WAIT : Oh, I think what really struck me, especially in the finished film, was how much language was still being spoken. A lot of people still speak Maori in my community, but it was really nice to hear it.
DEADLINE: You mentioned your community in New Zealand, is that Arizona Native Community in Film sound familiar?
WAIT : Yeah, basically it was a similarity and something that I recognize for me growing up with the Maori speaking elders, like in the Navajo Talkie. So there was a familiarity there, but it was something that felt very different to me because obviously a different language and also the landscapes are different in the desert and all that. Where I grew up was on the beach, and all that food and shellfish and seafood and it was just living off the sea. It was a very different environment to Fried bread.
DEADLINE: Speaking of different environments, Taika, we also talk a lot about what you’re working on, now it’s writing and maybe starring in a Star Wars movie…
WAIT : (LAUGHS) Yeah, that rumor is about three years old. All I’ll say is God forbid I make a star wars film about people sitting on mountains playing the flute…
DEADLINE: Well, they kind of went there with the latest Star Wars movies starring Luke Skywalker.
WAIT : Alright, then I won’t do that, that’s for sure.
DEADLINE: Billy, no culture is a monolith, but you’ve been in the business for a while, do you think Indigenous stories are having a moment or really becoming mainstream?
LUTHER: I don’t know, but I watch shows like Reservation dogs, and I know that was a huge step. I think it’s high storytelling. Now there is so much in development, and there is already so much in terms of Indigenous representation. So whether it’s a time or it goes mainstream, I think it’s pretty, pretty good.
resembling, Resolution Dogs, which exploded quite quickly. Then you have Rutherford Falls, dark winds and you know, there are other projects to come. So I feel like there’s just a solid patch of unusual storytelling in the Indigenous world and that doesn’t mean we all have to tell Indigenous stories either, you know? I mean, I would like to write for hacks. You know who else I’d like to write for? white lotus. And we can write for those shows, because the talent is there.
I also see him growing in terms of the team behind the camera. You know when I watched on set for dark winds, even shoot Frying … I mean, the talent is there behind the camera. There are native film crews, native scripts, and that’s what needs to happen. I want more native editors as well as more native stories.
WAIT : Yes I agree. Also, you always want to see something different with the current state of film, television, especially coming from America, and I think it was something like Res Dogs and Frying and these things. It’s just nice to be able to get away from what you see in Hollywood.
DEADLINE: What do you want to say?
WAIT : There is a need for different ways to tell stories and engage the audience.
DEADLINE: How are you doing that?
WAIT : Audiences are so savvy now with the types of stories and the places where stories have a place in movies, and especially with Hollywood.
They crave something, something different and especially if it’s something that feels this close to home. Something that gives them a unique insight they haven’t really experienced. It feels new to them and I think it’s something that broadens their horizons and their experience of the story. For me, I’m from New Zealand, but the connection I have with filmmakers like Billy and Blackhorse Lowe, and all these filmmakers from here, is that we had the same story. That we all basically grew up in the same neighborhoods in the same communities. Where I grew up in New Zealand is very similar to some of the communities I have visited here.
DEADLINE: What do you think of this Billy?
LUTHER: Look, I’ve known Taika for 20 years…
WAIT : LAW
LUTHER: He’s always supported his fellow storytellers, used his influence for other storytellers, or even just provided a bit of shoutout support or something. I mean, it’s huge.
DEADLINE: I have to ask you now, how did you meet?
LUTHER: (LAUGHS) I was volunteering at a film festival. And he asked me for my Nokia phone charger. I don’t think I will ever get this charger back. But as six o’clock came, he’s like, thank you bro. We started talking and he asked, what are you doing? So after that we were friends, brothers really. Being here at SXSW reminds me of one of the things I love about festivals.
LUTHER: The movie world is so big, but it’s also so small, you know? It can be so encouraging, it’s all about networking in film industry terms. They always say it all depends on who you know, and it’s so true – as Frybread shows.
WAIT : I think it’s also because we all want to be misfits and we all know these stories of people being these misfits. Apart from the indigenous part, there are always people who live on the margins and who struggle to integrate into any society, in any city. No matter what race you are, there will always be those people you or 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 attracted me too, is because I grew up in a very similar environment, and I was the odd one out who wanted to be a clown and tell stories and dress up. It’s very easy to take that away from you growing up in small towns. It’s very difficult to become an artist when you grow up in a small town and find like-minded people. Thank God I discovered art.
DEADLINE: Billy, in terms of art, what’s the next step?
LUTHER: Well, I just finished directing an episode of dark winds, the AMC show I’ve been writing on for two seasons. As you know, I always wanted to develop my first documentary Miss Navajo in a feature script. That’s kind of what I’m diving into now, this world of Navajo women and beauty pageants that I started out in, I started writing this maybe about a year ago, finding the tone what I want and how I want it. The documentary was excellent in paying tribute to women, especially my mother who was Miss Navajo in the 60s. So with functionality, I really want to do nothing.
DEADLINE: Does this feeling sound familiar Taika?
WAIT : For sure.
We had our time with Once upon a time there were warriors in New Zealand, as elsewhere and in the United States where the representation of indigenous communities has always felt very heavy. I have always found in these films a lack of pleasure.
DEADLINE: When you say fun…
WAIT : In the representation of us. Because we are very fun people, Aboriginal people are very fun people despite the years of oppression and injustice that have taken place. We are very positive people and there are very funny people in these communities.
I think we’ve been tricked into thinking that if we’re doing aboriginal history, there must be a lament for a culture that’s gone. I think the cause is still there, but it has evolved. In New Zealand, there was an idea with all our films like whale rider, which isn’t a bad movie, it’s a great movie, but it creates this whole idea of Polynesian and Maori communities in New Zealand that all day we ride whales and talk to trees and play the flute over the mountains and everything. I never saw that shit grow.
We had very normal lives, much like everywhere else, except it’s a very small town with brown people. As in Fryingyou remember the fun times, you remember wanting to go to a Fleetwood Mac concert. It’s also our lives, it’s also our stories.