- By Rob Capriccioso
- Arts and Culture
Filmmaker Sterlin Harjo is on a streaming binge — from behind the camera — and he’s “pretty cool” with it.
“TV streaming, I mean, it’s my career now,” he tells Tribal Business News. “It saved me.”
After years of keeping at it in the entertainment business, creating, writing, producing and directing independent films and Youtube videos on shoestring budgets and making comedy with the ever-popular 1491s troupe, Harjo is now making major progress in mainstream Hollywood.
The Seminole citizen with Muscogee heritage always envisioned it would happen. It just took the La La Land powerbrokers catching up to him, rather than the other way around. Harjo stayed where he was most comfortable at home in Indian Country, always creating, somehow knowing that culture would arrive at the point where Natives were going to get a real seat at the table — and possibly a lasting one and two or three or more seats — thanks in part to growing streaming opportunities and societal shifts.
Harjo’s biggest break to date came via his friendship and then business partnership with Taika Waititi, the directing god of the Marvel Thor movies who has New Zealand Maori roots. That relationship, developed through camaraderie and collaboration via the Sundance Institute, is ultimately helping make Harjo an overnight sensation, first with the buzzed-about Reservation Dogs, premiering Aug. 9 on FX on Hulu. The comedy series zeroes in on a group of teenage Native friends living out their complex, funny, sad, real on-the-rez lives. In short, it’s a buddy series with a Native heart and brain and bodies, in front of the camera and behind it.
Harjo serves as co-creator, executive producer, director and writer of some episodes, as well as the showrunner.
The show’s burgeoning success placed him at the center of attention — not his most secure position, he says — during its red-carpet premiere in Los Angeles on Aug. 5. He was surrounded by attractive young Indigenous acting talent, some of whom got their first big breaks starring in his new series, and he’s proud of them. He’s also proud of the Native writers and directors he’s bringing along for this ride, as he fosters a community that he hopes will be part of his legacy.
On the same day as the glitzy Reservation Dogs L.A. showcase, Netflix announced that basketball star LeBron James would be producing Harjo’s next writing effort, the Native-focused Rez Ball, on its platform. The drama will portray the fictional Chuska Warriors, “a Native American high school basketball team from Chuska, New Mexico, that must band together after losing their star player if they want to keep their quest for a state championship alive,” according to the series’ description. “It’s an all-American underdog story about Navajo kids and coaches told from the inside-out.”
The project was co-written with and will be directed by Emmy-nominated film and TV writer-director Sydney Freeland. A Navajo citizen, she also wrote and directed portions of Reservation Dogs.
It’s all so much, so fast, yet Harjo, 41, said that it’s not overwhelming. He spoke with Tribal Business News about how he’s trying his best to stay grounded.
My older kids watched the first three episodes of Reservation Dogs with me and have really enjoyed it so far.
That’s great! My kids watched it, too. There’s a couple of moments where it definitely gets less appropriate down the line, but I usually let my kids watch whatever.
That’s how we kind of do it in this house, too, but we’ll beware down the line. What did it take to get this show up and running with FX on Hulu?
Honestly, I feel like it was something I always knew I could do. It took everything — it took my whole career to do it and a good amount of luck. But it also took me not stopping. Like I never stopped. I’ve seen a lot of people in this industry hit roadblocks and let that get them down and give up. I don’t have that in me, for some reason. When I hit a roadblock, it kind of fuels me and makes me keep going.
There were a lot of years where there was no hope for a Native project to get good funding. There were a lot of times I would sit in meetings and people would say, ‘Yeah, this project is not Native enough’ or ‘Yeah, this project is too Native’ or ‘Native things just don’t sell.’ I heard that so many times and I could have gotten frustrated and stopped, but I didn’t. I just kept going.
You did your earlier films in Oklahoma, right?
Yep, I stayed in Oklahoma, and I made my films for very low budgets because I knew that I just needed to keep creating work, and I kind of took a bet that I thought this industry would change. And luckily it did. All of a sudden, people want to hear new voices, and diversity is cool, and I was ready. I had all of these ideas, I was hungry and I started taking meetings in Los Angeles. Through my friend Allison Anders, I got hooked up with managers and agents and a lawyer. And I just kept working.
Then, through my friendship with Taika, that’s really how FX happened. Because of What We Do in the Shadows, Taika had a deal at FX. He approached me. I always just treated our friendship as a friendship. I never tried to work with him or anything. But he approached me one day and said, ‘Hey, I have this deal at FX if you ever have a show idea.’ And I was like, ‘Let’s do it!’ We came up with it quick, and he presented it to FX, and they loved it. It was like nothing they’d ever heard of before. They asked us to come in and tell the story to them, and the next thing you know, I had an offer to write a pilot. It was quick, but it took a lot of work to get to that point. To be ready for when it happened, it took a lot of work to get there.
When was all that happening?
It was really two years ago. And then we were going to make the pilot. And then we got shut down because of the pandemic. But to FX’s credit, they called us up and said, ‘Hey we’re committed to this show, so how about we hire you to just keep writing scripts, to get ahead of everything, so when everything lifts, we’ll just be able to shoot the pilot and get going.’ So that’s what we did. We wrote the next three episodes and then we shot the pilot. I directed the pilot, and they liked it a lot, and then the show happened.
It was really nice, working with FX. They understand … it’s one thing to tell stories from Native communities, but it’s a whole other thing to let Native people tell those stories — to have the confidence in us to tell the story right and to tell the story in a way that no one else can tell it. That’s the difference, and people are going to feel that on the screen.
You said people are realizing that diversity is cool, that Native stories are cool. You and I know that has always been the case. What’s happening now that’s letting more people in mainstream outlets see it?
This industry has been a white boys club for a long time and that’s been broken down from a lot of different places. Whether it’s a women’s movement, whether it’s ‘Let’s hear more voices because we’re tired of the same old stories,’ there are a lot of things that are helping change that, not just one thing.
Streaming also helped change that. People are staying at home due to the pandemic, and all of a sudden they’re binging TV shows. People at home don’t necessarily care if Tom Cruise is the lead in your show. They like new voices and new faces. They like discovering new worlds. So I think that also helped change things.
And not just that: Standing Rock put us back in the public eye. All of a sudden, there wasn’t just this historical 1800s image of us. All of a sudden, we were in jeans, and we were in facemasks, and we were in bandanas, and we were in T-shirts. All of a sudden we were ‘now.’ And it was cool to be us. They thought, ‘Wow, they are like fighting for this stuff.’ So I think that also helped really turn people’s heads when it comes to Native stories.
Native creatives have long been trying to turn those heads.
We had always been doing it. I think in Hollywood, they are very shortsighted. If people aren’t pounding on their door to try to get money from them to do work, they’re like maybe we don’t exist. But we didn’t do that. All of the filmmakers who are my contemporaries and storytellers and artists, we live in our communities and we create art there because that’s where we love to be. That’s what inspires us. But it’s also where we get our support.
(Hollywood) didn’t go looking for that. They were like, ‘Well, they’ll be coming to us if there’s anyone important.’ But you and I know, the way we are raised in Native communities, we don’t go beating down doors. If you were raised ‘right,’ there’s a humble exchange of getting to know someone. You don’t beg people for things. You don’t go and try to guilt people into things. The people who are doing that who are Native, you don’t tend to want to work with them, and they probably aren’t doing it for the right reasons anyway.
There have been various points during American history, starting with westerns and then Dances with Wolves and Disney’s Pocahontas and Sherman Alexie and Chris Eyre’s film work where it seemed like people would say, ‘This is the true start of Natives in entertainment, and this is how they’re going to get a foothold in the mainstream.’ And then the attention fizzles and moves on. Why do you think that happens?
I think it’s because everybody was trying to play the Hollywood game. I can only speak for how I’m doing it, and how I’m doing it is by hiring two of my Native friends who never directed TV before. Now they are TV directors. That’s a hard place to get in and now they can go off and direct other TV, and that’s going to spread. Then they’re going to pass their knowledge on. I treat this as a community. For me, it’s not top down. I’m no more important than anybody else.
One of the highlights of doing this — it’s what Taika did for me as well. Because we were raised right, we know how communities work, and you lift your people up and you bring them along. All the crew for Reservation Dogs, every department had multiple Native people in every department. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, we have three.’ No, every department had Natives in it, making a difference, being there to watch things in case I wasn’t there to be able to call something out if it wasn’t authentic, or just to lend their voice to something and make it better. That’s important. It’s a community, and you have to treat it like that.
Being able to give my friends Blackhorse Lowe and Tazbah Chavez their first TV directing (experiences) — like, they’re filmmakers. They’ve been doing this, like me, for a long time. But to be able to give them the boost, that’s all they needed. It’s not about their talent; that was there. All they needed was the boost and for someone to vouch for them and for someone to give them the opportunity to shine. Their episodes are going to blow people away.
What do you hope people take away from the series?
What people are going to learn is that there is no end to this story. If you watch Reservation Dogs, it dips into different genres, each episode. That just shows you where we can take things, where we can go if the industry allows us to. But it’s not about even them allowing us to anymore, it’s about us creating our own opportunities. That’s what I think will sustain us.
You noted streaming as being important to all of this. I’m thinking about Rutherford Falls on Peacock, Reservation Dogs on FX on Hulu and Rez Ball, Firekeeper’s Daughter and Spirit Animals all in various stages of development at Netflix.
Yes, that’s the biggest difference: All of a sudden, they need more content, and they need a lot of it. People don’t want the same old stories. TV streaming, I mean, it’s my career now. It saved me. The last film I made, which was only two years ago, I made for $200,000 for a couple years of work of my life, which means I only get paid a small bit of that. It’s hard to do that. It’s hard to sustain a career like that. … Now I have a career in TV, and it’s because of streaming and TV that I’m finally making a living at doing this job, not kind of just scraping by, going from small budget to small budget.
Do you worry at all that sometimes people can only afford to subscribe to a certain number of streaming services? Is access for Native communities something you think about?
I definitely do worry about it, but it’s so much better than the access we had before, where my films were not getting distributed at all, or if they were, they weren’t getting pushed. The only way I could show Native communities my work was maybe if I was traveling there, maybe for a festival, or a tribe’s screening series. I had to physically go show my films. That was much harder. Because of that, that’s how the 1491s were born. I got tired of messing with the distributors. There was this thing called YouTube, and we were like, ‘We could just make comedy and put it out there for Natives to see for free.’ That turned into people wanting us to do live shows, so we created a live show, and we traveled to all these Native communities everywhere. That was beautiful, getting to shake hands and getting to know all those communities. It actually helped a lot with Reservation Dogs, seeing different communities with different issues and the ways they deal with things. It made me more comfortable telling a bigger story, I think.
It’s not an easy experience you are going through, creating and producing and writing and directing. What’s the scariest part? And is it more nerve wracking or more fun?
It’s more fun. I think the scariest part is probably the press stuff, honestly. I’m just not used to that. My mom called me the other day because she saw the billboard for the show on the Vegas strip, and she said, ‘My God, that gave me butterflies.’ And I know exactly how she feels. It’s not debilitating, but it’s scary. I didn’t grow up rich. I grew up in a small town in Oklahoma, so it’s very gratifying, and I’m proud. But I also have to keep myself from letting it go to my head. I still live in Tulsa, Oklahoma. My family probably worries more about that — you don’t want to lose yourself and hide from whatever. Doing interviews is cool, and all the press that’s coming out is cool, and the premieres, they’re cool, but that’s not where I’m more comfortable at. I’m not most comfortable dressing up and taking photos. Some people, that’s all they want to do. I’m most comfortable making the thing. That’s what I like doing: writing and making the show. That’s what’s satisfying to me, and that’s why I do it. The scary part is also when it comes out and you hope people like it.
You’re obviously proud of the show, but it sounds like the pipeline of Native people in entertainment you are helping build is what you may be most proud of.
It is. You can’t count that in dollars. You can’t hold that in your hand and count it. That is going to splinter off and create so many other opportunities. When you do your work like that and you treat it more as a community, people watch that, and that’s how they learn. I’ve already had actors from Canada tell me that they’re producing new projects, and they’re taking so many lessons from our production. It’s just going to keep going. It feels like something has broken open, and we can all go in now, we can go in together, and we can create this stuff together. There’s so much safety in a community doing something like that, rather than one individual.
What happens next now for Reservation Dogs? Will there be a season two? What do you hope happens?
Nothing’s definitely confirmed, but I will just say that (FX on Hulu is) happy. There are whispers of a season two writers’ room coming together.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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