This story about “War Pony” first appeared in the Cannes issue of TheWrap magazine.
It was just another day in South Dakota on the set of the film “American Honey” when Riley Keough met two men who would change her life, alter the course of her career and lead to “War Pony,” an intimate and affecting film that screens in the Un Certain Regard section of the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. Keough was one of the stars of “American Honey,” a raucous Andrea Arnold film about a ragtag gang of magazine-selling youngsters roaming the country, and she was scheduled to have a scene with Franklin Sioux Bob and Bill Reddy, Native American men in their early 20s who’d been hired as actors for the day from the nearby Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
“I was sitting in the shade eating some fruit, and Riley walked up to me and asked me if I wanted some water,” Reddy said of that day in 2015. “She grabbed one for the both of us and sat down by me, and we talked a bit about how hot it was and what the plans were for the next scene. She must have known that I felt out of place and needed help getting comfortable with the cameras, the film crew and all the actors.”
But the conversation soon veered well afield of the weather or the day’s work. “We ended up sitting there talking for six hours, because they moved our scene and we had nothing to do,” Keough said. “It was one of those things where you meet a new friend that you just really click with and can’t stop talking.”
Reddy and Sioux Bob, it seemed, did most of the talking. “I can’t recall what exact stories we were telling,” Sioux Bob said. “I assume it was 60/40 true to bulls—. It was stories of our experiences on the rez.”
Added Reddy, “‘War stories’ is what we call them, even though none of them were about an actual war.”
That afternoon of killing time turned into years of just hanging out, much of it with Keough’s business partner, Gina Gammell. And along the way, those war stories turned into “War Pony,” written by the four of them and directed by Keough and Gammell in their feature directorial debuts.
Set in an impoverished community on the Pine Ridge Oglala Lakota reservation, the film tells the casually interlocking stories of Bill (Jojo Bapteise Whiting), a young father who decides that breeding a $1,000 poodle is the way to get enough money to escape a dead-end life on the reservation, and Matho (LaDainian Crazy Thunder), a young boy with an abusive father and a burgeoning drug business. It’s unhurried, naturalistic and heartbreaking, taking its rhythms from the lives of characters in a situation where the lack of options can lead to desperation or resignation. “War Pony” finds some grace notes and never feels facile. It has the intimacy of a story told from the inside, not the outside.
“At first, I was unsure if I really wanted to be a part of it,” said Willi White, an indigenous filmmaker from Pine Ridge who became a producer on the film. “A lot of people have come to Pine Ridge to make movies about the indigenous experience, and it’s very clichéd, problematic storytelling: ‘Oh, there’s poverty, there’s addiction, all these things are wrong with the community, poor Native people, boo hoo.’ With no real sense of the diversity of the community, or the roots of those issues in colonization and the mass genocide of indigenous people and federal laws taking away language and culture and all these things. They never contextualize stories like that. So when they say, ‘Oh, Willi, go see these white filmmakers,’ I become very suspicious.
“And this story is tough and rooted in this space of struggle, too. But as I saw Riley and Gina’s relationship with Frank and Bill and the crew, how they worked with these kids (actors) and how they brought in our community, it allowed me to feel safe. I think they’ve been really intentional about building relationships in the community over a long time. And to hear feedback from some of the young actors who resonated with the story and talked about how it made them feel visualized, that also brought me in. It made me think, ‘OK, this is important. These voices we’re hearing in this film are important.’”
Gina Gammell called “War Pony” “a very organic process that turned into collaboration,” but that process took a long time. For years, she and Keough would visit their friends at Pine Ridge, listen to stories and play music or talk about videos they wanted to make. “Riley and Gina were in my and Frank’s life for close to two years, I believe, before a movie script came into play,” Reddy said.
Sioux Bob agreed: “The film did start with a crew that hung out. We were just looking out for one another as best we could while trying to get money and have fun. It came to fruition very organically, from conversation to flirting with the idea of a script to actually putting ideas to paper.”
For the most part, those ideas came from Reddy and Sioux Bob’s real lives growing up on the reservation. “They were bursting with stories,” Gammell said. “Together, the four of us structured their stories into something that made sense as a film.”
“It was very messy,” Keough added. “We’d be there and go, ‘Oh, my God, this is a funny story.’ We’d put it down in our notes, and then at some point, all of us together started writing a script and Gina and I put it in Final Draft.”
And while the stories are based on hard times, the men who lived through those times didn’t find it difficult to turn their misfortunes into a screenplay. “I don’t think it’s hard to write about trauma,” Sioux Bob said, “because as Native peoples we find humor even in our worst times.”
Keough and Gammell, who had formed Felix Culpa Films in 2017, didn’t originally set out to direct the film. “We started writing together and it was a very natural thing,” Gammell said. “I don’t think there was ever a conscious thought, ‘Let’s go direct a movie together.’”
At the same time, though, Keough had thought about it as a child, before she became a successful model and then acted in projects like “The Girlfriend Experience” and “Mad Max: Fury Road.” “I kind of wanted to direct and write before I wanted to act,” she said. “I grew up making movies, and acting was something I fell into at 17, 18.”
But as the script progressed, they began to think about directing it — not to put their own stamp on the material as much as to facilitate the indigenous voices whose stories it told. “It was important that we didn’t get in the middle of it,” Gammell said. “That our perspectives and our voices were not part of the writing process or the filmmaking process.
“It was really important that we merely existed as vessels to enable people to tell their own stories. That was baked into the fabric of our collaboration, to consciously and actively remove ourselves as much as we could. It became apparent that it wouldn’t work if we didn’t take that approach.”
Because they needed people with film experience, much of the crew was white, but the cast was almost entirely Native, and almost entirely without any acting experience. The casting process spanned two years — which was fortunate for the two lead roles, since both actors were initially reluctant to participate. Whiting turned down the chance to audition for the role of Bill the first time he was asked, but changed his mind a year later after he happened to watch the 2001 Jackie Chan/Chris Tucker action comedy “Rush Hour 2.”
“There was one scene that was pretty funny to me,” he said, “and I started thinking that when my friends hang out, we do the same kind of thing. So I was like, ‘I can do this.’ I had been offered to be in the movie the year before but I never responded, and I started thinking, ‘Man, I wonder how that would’ve been.’”
When the casting director approached him a second time, he agreed to audition — and an initial reading for a smaller part caused Keough and Gammell to think he might be good for the role of Bill after all.
For the other central role, Matho, 12-year-old Crazy Thunder didn’t hold out quite as long: It only took him a couple of months to reconsider his initial refusal to audition.
“I’d never been in a movie before, and it was just kind of a random opportunity,” he said of his reluctance the first time around. But when he gave in and went to audition, “I felt comfortable in every way, I didn’t feel nervous. It went very well, surprisingly.”
The neophyte actors — which includes almost everyone in the cast — studied with an acting teacher for months. “They just taught us the basics of being an actor, with the fourth wall and stuff like that,” Crazy Thunder said. But neither of the lead actors had trouble finding common ground between their characters and themselves.
“I get similar feelings,” Crazy Thunder said. “I’ve got a lot of anger, and sometimes I have problems with my dad.” Whiting agreed: “It was kind of like me just being myself,” he said. “I grew up with a lot of trauma as a child, so it was easier for me to express my feelings.”
Keough and Gammell expected that their two leads might want to improvise and rework their lines, but they found that they had to push the actors to do that. “It was very quickly clear to us that they liked working on-book,” Keough said. “The pressure of improv was kind of stressful, even though they were very, very instinctive and good improvisers. So we did quite rigorous rehearsals where we’d say, ‘Put it in your own words,’ and then we’d rewrite the scenes with their words. And then they’d re-learn their lines because they wanted to be on-book.”
For Whiting, the hardest part was the night shoots; for Crazy Thunder, it was repeating the same lines take after take. But as he watched those young actors and others, White found their reactions to be the most enjoyable part of the experience.
“The most satisfying thing was watching all of these kids just light up,” he said. “Being able to watch them in the monitor, to see them perform, to see them act, to see them get into character, that was satisfying because you hear time and time again, ‘Oh, there’s not enough Native actors. There’s not enough Native talent.’ But right before your eyes, there are these incredibly talented young people who come from hard family lives and difficult situations, who are suddenly thrust into this moment where they can just be themselves and be free.
“I’m getting emotional because that’s something I don’t see a lot. There’s not a lot of opportunity like that, and I think that’s so important.”
And now that the movie they initially didn’t want to make is finished, Whiting and Crazy Thunder both say they want to continue to act. Whiting’s dream role is Batman; Crazy Thunder just wants to make “more movies and commercials and things like that because it’s really fun.”
For years, the indigenous voices of “War Pony” have been watching Hollywood fail to capture their experience on film. “A lot of times our history and its context are overlooked because people don’t dig deeply into understanding the roots of where these things come from,” White said.
“And so you get this surface-level storytelling that is largely inaccurate. And that leads to a stigmatization of our communities. It perpetuates racism, it perpetuates violence against indigenous people. As someone in this space and someone from Pine Ridge, it does feel like a huge responsibility to step in and say, ‘Hey, are we considering all these things? Have you really dug in and done the work?’
And that, Sioux Bob said, makes this film crucial. “It’s important for stories like this to be told because our voice can ring bells just as loud as any other, given the opportunity,” he said. “A lack of resources and lack of representation in these fields make it harder for Native peoples to break through. I hope this can be the project to break doors down, because it is a Native story told by Native voices.”
But now, as they prepare to debut their film in Cannes, the non-Native voices of Keough and Gammell find that even talking about “War Pony”and their part in it can be tricky. “It is very complicated,” said Keough, whose film is premiering at the same festival that will debut Baz Lurhmann’s “Elvis,” about her famous grandfather who reportedly had Cherokee blood on his mother’s side.
“There was a moment when we thought, ‘This is a little bit scary, and maybe we shouldn’t do it. And so we kind of pumped the brakes on it. But ultimately, we’d put in so much work and our writers had put in so much work, and they’re indigenous and this is about their lives. And so we weren’t going to pull out of it because we were afraid. We are true allies to the indigenous community, and this film was made by many, many indigenous people. Yes, we are the directors, but this film was made for Pine Ridge and the town of Pine Ridge made this film.”
She laughed. “By that I mean just the efforts of the town, allowing us in their homes, giving us their cars to use, their families cooking us food, picking up things for us around town … I think you can see in the film what happened here. But yes, it was very complicated, and not something that we would ever have done had it not happened this way.”
Read more of TheWrap’s Cannes issue here.