Elvis Presley’s granddaughter Riley Keough acted in George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) and Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience (2016), before she co-founded the production company Felix Culpa with Gina Gammell. The two young women had met a few years earlier at an outdoor screening of Mary Harron’s American Psycho (2000) in Hollywood. Together, they wrote and directed their first feature film, war ponywhich won the Camera d’or award at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival.
Filmed in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, the eighth largest and poorest reservation in the United States, this story follows the daily lives of two teenage boys from the Oglala Lakota Native community, torn between tradition and the American dream. One year after their Cannes triumph and with the film now released in French cinemas, Keough and Gammell look back on their relationship with the people of Pine Ridge and their ambition to give a voice to those who have long been voiceless.
How did this project start?
Riley Keough: In 2015, I befriended Bill Reddy and Franklin Sioux Bob, who were extras in Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, in which I was also cast. Shortly after the shoot, Gina [Gammell] and I decided to visit them in their hometown of Pine Ridge. We went back regularly, in the summer and the winter. When we were there, we developed some of the deepest relationships of our lives, as if they were our second family. We then began writing a screenplay with Bill and Franklin based on their memories and those of their friends from multiple different generations.
Gina Gammell: Also, the skies over Pine Ridge are absolutely beautiful. There are sunrises and sunsets like nowhere else. It gives the place a magical dimension. It’s as if the spirit of the elders is very much alive there, contributing to its power.
Did the casting take place on-site?
GG: Yes, it took a long time and it was a kind of serendipitous process. For example, as we were talking about a scene with Bill and Franklin in the car, we passed some young boys running down the street. The casting directors put Jojo Bapteise Whiting [who plays Bill in the film] at a farm. At first, he didn’t want to be in the film. Then one day, we ran into him again and he agreed. He told us he had thought about it a lot for a year, wondering what would happen to him if he said yes.
The film’s almost documentary look is mixed with still shots and tracking shots that magnify faces. How did you develop your framing style?
GG: We discussed the visual language of the film early on, as soon as the script was written. Bill quickly told us he disliked shots filmed with a handheld camera. He didn’t want the camera doing the work for the actors from the reservation. So our approach was to record what we were filming as truthfully and accurately as possible. In addition, we did not want to insist on darkness; we did not want to present a miserable image.
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