Even the most seasoned Hollywood talent knows getting a television show picked up is pretty difficult. Securing a second season for a project that some of your bosses don’t even comprehend is harder still. Finding out that the major studio you’ve been working with wants to lengthen the terms of your agreement, however, is even rarer.
For Sierra Teller Ornelas, a self-described “pessimistic Navajo woman,” all of these achievements were her destiny. She’s learning to be a little more optimistic, not just because of her work success, but also because her brother, whom she’s very close to, is recovering from COVID-19 after spending nearly 50 days on a ventilator.
Ornelas, 39, has been earning a living in showbiz for several years. She worked behind the camera on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Happy Endings, Splitting Up Together and Superstore before collaborating with Ed Helms, of The Office and The Hangover fame, and Michael Schur, known for his multiple popular NBC shows, to make her very own Rutherford Falls.
She learned with everyone else in July that the sitcom, featured on NBC Universal’s Peacock streaming platform, earned a second season, which is set to start airing in 2022. She co-created the show, executive produces it, writes for it, and when it began airing during the pandemic, she became the first Native American showrunner in history.
She says that her strong work ethic comes from her Indigenous family members who were hustling to sell art for as long as she can remember.
“I grew up as an Indian market baby in Santa Fe,” she told Tribal Business News in a recent interview, highlighting her positive experiences in an evolving entertainment industry where Natives are increasingly scoring streaming deals.
“So much of why I think I’m good at this job, showrunning and having a show is because of Navajo weaving and my mother’s artform that was also a business,” Ornelas said.
UTV announced on Aug. 4 that it was extending her two-year production deal, allowing her to continue developing new projects for the company, a division of Universal Studio Group.
“Sierra is an incredibly ambitious and passionate writer and producer who brings a sense of purpose and infectious comedic wit to everything she touches,” Erin Underhill, president of Universal Television, said in a statement. “From her time on Superstore to recently as co-creator of Rutherford Falls, she’s been terrific to work with, and we are grateful and excited to continue our partnership with her at UTV.”
While the second season of Rutherford Falls is her top priority, she is also reportedly working on a project with Saturday Night Live actress Maya Rudolph for Apple TV+.
Tribal Business News caught up with Ornelas in a recent phone interview, just after the second season was confirmed.
Congratulations on the renewal of Rutherford Falls. How did you find out?
It always seems to happen through a series of text messages. You think you’re going to get the call that it’s going to come through, and then your assistant notifies you that there’s a call that everyone’s on, like everyone from the network and studio, so usually that’s good news. Usually when it’s bad news, it’s just one person — they don’t all want to be on the call. But when it’s a fun call, everyone’s on. So they called and let us know, and it was just such a great feeling.
Jana Schmieding and several of the cast members were pretty vocal on social media about wanting to get the renewal. Do you think advocacy from the cast in particular was helpful?
In the times we’re living in, every piece of data is being analyzed through every one of these platforms. There’s just so much TV, it’s pretty hard for shows to break through. So I really appreciated having a cast and a crew and fans of the show being very vocal about loving the show and about wanting another season. I loved it!
As the month of June passed, were you getting a little nervous? Jana had said in an interview that June is the month when these streaming renewals often take place.
I’m naturally a pessimistic Navajo woman, so when anything goes well, I’m pleasantly surprised. But we made the very best show that we could and it’s on a new streaming platform. With streaming, there’s no schedule. It’s a weird thing. I come from network television where you know that they’ve got to decide by May because those sets are going to be made available, and it’s just a very rhythmic system to network television. In streaming, they can wait as long as they want, so we just gave it up to the process and hoped it all worked out. We’re so glad that it did.
It’s fascinating what’s going on with streaming for Rutherford Falls and several other Native projects right now. Do you think it’s maybe safer for big media companies to take a chance on Native-led, Native-inclusive projects on streaming platforms?
It’s a really good question. I think there’s a couple of things (going on). I think that the landscape of television has just changed. That means if you have a show on television now, most likely it’s going to be on a streaming network because there are just so many more options. Whether it’s streaming or smaller cable companies, I think that there are just way more opportunities to pitch places. Twenty years ago, there was like three places to pitch your story and now there are literally hundreds of places. So yeah, I think streaming has definitely helped open up opportunities, but I also just think the television landscape is such that no traditional ways are working anymore. Across the board, people are more willing to take risks and try new things because nobody knows. I think maybe 20 years ago, everyone thought they did (know).
Streaming gives you as a creator more of a chance to prove that Native stuff can be popular, both in terms of audience and prestige, right?
Bird Runningwater (of the Sundance Institute) has talked about ‘who are you on the algorithm.’ There are different algorithms of recognition. Right now, because there is so little Native content, I think that we are very aware that we are trying to establish the algorithm so that we will be a little bit more recognized. The next person who goes and pitches something that has Native content in it, it will be easier for them because we created this foothold. We’re sort of establishing something because the lack of Native visibility translates everywhere, including in the streaming space.
Are you hopeful that the streaming projects in development now lead to better Native representation overall?
I mean, I just want more. I want more of everything. I want us on every channel. I want us on every platform. I want us to have a network TV comedy. I want us to have an NBC drama.
Take us back: How did the show and your creation of it come to fruition?
I was working on a show called Superstore for many years. I decided to take a break from network television because making 22 episodes (a year) is a lot, and I wanted to start developing. I got a call from Mike Schur and Ed Helms, whom I had both worked with previously on different projects. I was with Mike Schur on Brooklyn Nine-Nine. I worked with Ed on a pilot together. They pitched me half of an idea. They said, ‘We have this character, we have this world, we want to make a comedy. We know that there’s probably going to be Native content.’
Having worked at the National Museum of the American Indian and having grown up in museums with my mom being an artist — she’s a master Navajo tapestry weaver — I just had a bunch of stories based on the world they were talking about. I just started pitching different characters, different scenarios, different people, and we just kept talking and talking.
It was a really wonderful collaboration because I think a lot of times Native people are brought in toward the end of a project, where this was like, I was brought in before the beginning. We ended up talking for almost a year before we pitched it, and then it got picked up and we were off to the races.
When they first brought it to you, was it planned to be as Native as it turned out to be?
One of the big questions that we posed at the very beginning was: What is American history? What are the narratives that we’ve clung to, and what are the narratives that have been erased in doing that? As we started talking and saying, ‘Oh, obviously Native people are not a monolith,’ so you would really need to have multiple types of main characters to really get that concept across.
Once that became obvious, then we kept pitching different characters. I pitched the Reagan character (played by Jana Schmieding) based on a lot of experiences that I had had working in majority white spaces and having great friendships with people, but also there being these systemic differences. The Native character count just kind of kept going up and up, for sure.
I was fascinated by the dynamic between the Black mayor and the Native CEO. It’s not the kind of relationship that you see on TV often, if ever.
We talked a lot about there being no heroes and no villains on the show. So just when you think a character is a perfect person, then you have a blindspot. I think we’re all sort of capable of having blindspots. On most shows where you’d have a woman African American mayor and a Native casino CEO, they’d have very flattened personalities. What we really wanted to do with both of them was have them challenge the other person’s blindspots, but also see that they are real people. They have real emotions and romances and inner lives.
You already said that the Reagan Wells character is a bit like you, but where do you fall on the spectrum between the Terry Thomas Native CEO business-minded perspective and the more culturally-focused perspectives of Reagan’s and Terry’s daughter Maya?
I vacillate. I’m not going to lie. I grew up as an Indian market baby in Santa Fe, so I really got a lot of esteem and sense of identity from watching my mom and my aunties and my grandmother be these small business-owning women who worked really hard and negotiated and who really held themselves high up and commanded their worth when dealing with bankers and people who owned giant companies. They were their clients. Through commerce and art, I get so much of my identity. So much of why I think I’m good at this job, showrunning and having a show, is because of Navajo weaving and my mother’s artform that was also a business. But I also have a lot of Reagan, I think, questioning the values of some of the stuff in capitalism versus tribal capitalism and collectivism. That was a huge conversation in the (writers’) room. So I go back and forth.
In the room, Jana is an incredible beadwork artist, and she would often give away her pieces because she really sees that as a sort of meditative process that she really enjoys. She does a lot of raffles and giveaways. The Indian market baby in me just could not handle it. I was like, ‘But you could make so much (money)! [Laughs.] I was just always trying to work the numbers in my head the way Terry would. There’s an episode that is a little bit inspired by that. I cannot say that I am the Maya version, but I’m working on it, because there’s so much value in that.
Was it difficult to find the Native leads that you did?
I’m going to say no because we had just an abundance. When I first moved out here (to Hollywood) pitching Native stories, you would get told, ‘Oh, that will never happen because there’s no infrastructure, there’s not enough talent behind and in front of the camera.’ We just never found that to be true. We met way more talented Native writers than we could hire. We had way more Native actors and actresses available than we needed. I’m actually very hopeful about the Native projects that are coming down the line because I think there are so many available people who are ready to take on these roles and tell these stories.
What’s the scariest part of running the show, and is it more nerve wracking or more fun?
We made the show during COVID, and that was the most nerve-wracking part of this process. I had family members who were in the hospital and were battling it while I was also show running. The need to really keep the staff and the crew safe was paramount for us. That was the first thing I thought of when I woke up and the last thing I thought of when I went to sleep. It was disproportionately affecting our people, and we all felt this deep responsibility to keep everybody safe. It was fun, just to be clear. We did have a good time, but that was the biggest challenge for sure.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Ornelas shared on Twitter on Aug. 7 that her brother had spent nearly 50 days on a ventilator after contracting COVID-19. He is still recovering, having had to relearn to walk, and his lungs are still affected. ‘My brother still can’t do as much as before, a day of errands takes him out for two days,’ she wrote, while encouraging everyone to get vaccinated.)
You have many Native folks in your writers’ room. Did they feel a burden of responsibility, and did they ever feel like they had to dumb down the Indianness of the show to appeal to a more mainstream audience?
We talked a lot about leaving it all out on the field. We weren’t fully sure that we were the first, but we just didn’t want to be the last. We were really aware of working our tails off so that the next Native person who does it, it will be easier for them. I think we all had different unspoken responsibilities to deliver. We felt so fortunate to be in that room and telling those stories.
In terms of watering things down, I don’t think so. The show’s pretty Native. A lot of times in comedy, you have this thing called a one percenter, which is like, you pitch a joke, and you get the feedback, ‘Yeah, maybe one percent of the country will get that.’ As the showrunner, you get to keep those in, because it’s your show. Because we had Native people in the room and a Native showrunner, it was easier to say, ‘No, if we all think it’s funny, we will put it in.’
How difficult is it to translate ‘Indian humor’ to the mainstream?
All you can really do is write the funniest joke that you can think of. Come up with a situation and be honest and truthful about the experiences you’re trying to depict. You just hope people get it. You roll the dice, and you do your best. Once you start talking about some of this stuff, I think a lot of it is relatable. The stuff that isn’t maybe relatable, it’s still interesting and entertaining.
Ed Helms’s character talks about ‘getting it’ in the last episode of season one. So when he and Michael Schur came to you and you started bouncing your ideas off of them, did they ‘get it’ right away in terms of what you wanted to do for Native representation?
I think so. Ed has talked a lot in interviews about how humbling this experience has been for him. He really went in thinking, ‘Oh, I mostly get it.’ Then talking to us and really depicting these stories, he really realized, ‘Oh, I have more to learn.’ I think that’s really an incredible thing to admit, especially for someone of his stature. When you get to be that famous, you don’t have to ask questions or be self reflective, you know? And he really is, and he really wants to make the smartest, funniest, most interesting show.
If you have people working from that place, it’s just really going to always be a great collaboration because they’re not only thinking of themselves or their own characters, they’re thinking about the show as a whole. We push each other in different ways and ask different questions, but they were never afraid to follow a story, even if they had limited experience with the ideas of it or didn’t totally get it in the moment. They trusted the room to find the story.
Did the network ‘get it’ at all?
No, not necessarily. We ended up hiring Crystal Echo Hawk of IllumiNative just to kind of have another Native voice in the room when it came to the marketing or how to Indigenize the poster. They were always open. There’s always these tropes about executives versus writers. But fundamentally, if you are working in this industry, you love television, and you grew up living these shows, and there’s a shared language of television that you all have. While some things might be new or a little unknown, we all want to make the best show, and we’re all trying to make something great. Having a guiding light like Mike Schur where they trust him, it never hurts.
Was there a shopping around process? How did it end up at Peacock?
Yes. When we first pitched the show, Peacock didn’t even exist yet. When it got picked up by them, they didn’t even have a name, so it was all brand new. We were initially at Apple, they had bought us. We (turned) in a draft that we really loved, and they went through the development process and just realized it wasn’t for them and their roster. They passed. We had the script and we had Ed Helms, and we really liked what we made. After that moment, there was this new network that didn’t exist when we started the process. We pitched it to them, and they just really loved it. They loved the script, and they really believed in the project.
Do you worry about issues of access to all these different streaming platforms, especially for Native audiences?
I definitely think about that. There’s so many Native nations that are impacted by a lack of Wi-Fi. It’s such a problem with distance school learning. There’s a joke that happened on Twitter that maybe somehow there will be DVDs of it at the laundromat. [Laughs.] Native people find a way, so I have faith that my folks are going to see the show, but that is not lost on me at all. It’s a little bit of a tradeoff, though, because if we were on, like, NBC or a legacy network, the show would be 22 minutes and we’d probably have to cut down so much of the stuff that we love. It just would have been a very different show.
Where will season two go, and when will you begin working on it?
We’re trying to get the band back together right now, and we’re sorting out some preliminary thoughts. Me and Mike and Ed are sitting on a couch, just like we were a few years ago, to figure out (the) big box, and then we’ll bring everyone in and keep talking and developing and just keep doing what we do.
You have this first season under your belt and you’ve done your initial great ideas. Is it now difficult to have to think of new and interesting scenarios for these characters?
Well, Michael Greyeyes (who plays Native casino CEO Terry Thomas) says that the good thing is that Native people have billions of stories that no one has ever seen or ever heard. The last thing we need to worry about is a lack of stories to tell. I really don’t know. This is my first experience show running. This is my first experience show running a season two. So I’ll probably have an answer to this question in a year. But for now, I’m just doing my best.
Natives have not always had great stories to share about working in mainstream Hollywood. Your experience is turning out pretty well, from what you’ve said. Why do you think that is?
Oh man, if I knew the answer to that. … I think that my experience this year has been incredible, and I feel incredibly lucky to have this job and to make this show and to work with the actors and Native writers that we’ve been able to get, as well as Native directors and composers. Luck is just a huge part of it.
We talked a lot about it in the room as this feeling bittersweet, because we weren’t the first because we were the best, we were the first because we got picked. (Comedian) Charlie Hill should have had a TV show, and there’s so many Native actors you could list. Wes Studi could have been an incredible sitcom actor on some kind of Frasier-like show. There were just so many Native actors and writers who were ready and who didn’t get the shot. It wasn’t because they weren’t good enough, it was because of the system and things being incredibly unfair.
We always want to acknowledge the folks who came before us and the folks who are coming after us.
Finally, you talked about your mom and your family, and I know that weaving is a huge part of your own ‘creation story.’ What have been some of your family’s reactions to what you are accomplishing?
Oh my gosh, they are all incredibly proud of me and very, very kind and very supportive. I cannot appreciate them enough. They are my best friends. I am very close to my family. My aunt and uncle and my mom were able to travel down and come visit us in California. They did a frybread night for the writers and some of the cast, and they were so excited. It was like the first party we had in over a year. They’re so proud of all of us, and they want to adopt Jana.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.