Awards Daily talks to War Pony writer/directors Riley Keough and Gina Gammell, screenwriter Franklin Sioux Bob, and producer Willi White about creating authenticity on screen when depicting life on the Pine Ridge reservation.
Straight out the gate, War Pony doesn’t “sound” like a lot of movies. In the opening scenes on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, the sonic environment is textured with barking dogs, music, and wildlife.
“We had the same approach across the whole film,” said writer/director Gina Gammell. “It had to be from that world. The first thing we discussed with the sound designer was that we wanted to hear the birds from South Dakota and the wind, no random birds that aren’t native there. So, we actually sent someone for a week to get all the sounds.”
War Pony follows two young indigenous men growing up on the Pine Ridge Reservation: Bill (the engaging Jojo Bapteise Whiting), a 20-something hustler trying to breed poodles, and Matho (LaDainian Crazy Thunder), a pre-teen looking for a sense of family and support from his abusive father. For much of the film, you follow their lives in parallel, almost like two separate coming-of-age movies, until they cross paths and shine meaning on each other.
Along with parallel stories, the film has dual directors in Gammell and writer/director Riley Keough, who said that having such a unique filming process—working with first-time actors and telling real-life stories—made it hard for her and Gammell to develop a concrete directorial plan.
“We didn’t know what every day was going to be like,” said Keough. “It was a very special experience. Every day, we’d go and be open to what it was. We didn’t really have jobs that were allocated for each one of us. Everyone on the production was doing all kinds of things all day. Whatever needed to be done—it was a group effort that way.”
“We were kind of like a two-headed dragon,” echoed Gammell. “Our brains work quite simultaneously. Whoever was needed—wherever we needed to be—was where we were.”
Creating War Pony‘s Two Leads: ‘You Can’t Tell Bill Without Telling Matho’
The characters Bill and Matho were born out of screenwriters Franklin Sioux Bob and Bill Reddy’s real-life stories on the reservation, their childhoods and lives as young men. Some War Pony reviews have mentioned that Bill and Matho represent the same person, but Sioux Bob doesn’t necessarily see it that way.
“They’re not the same person, but at the same time, Matho’s age is very pivotal,” said Sioux Bob. “At that age, you can either go left or go right and end up as Bill. In a way, they are, but they’re not. You couldn’t tell [Bill’s story] without telling [Matho’s].”
“They are each other’s past and each other’s futures,” said Gammell. “They are both mirrored in being separate coming-of-ages in their lives. Matho is coming into young teenage manhood, and Bill is making the transition into adulthood. There are a lot of mirrors between them.”
In distilling his and Reddy’s lives down to a script, Sioux Bob said that they tried to make it a little more cheerful as opposed to real life.
“We wanted it to be more light-hearted so it could translate to screen,” he said, “as opposed to if we really wanted to get down. It was more of the schemes and hustles as opposed to the shit we’d actually been through or the situations we put ourselves in. It was trying to be more relative to the spectrum as opposed to talking to one specific group.”
An especially emotional scene involves the “snaking” send-off, when all of the cars on a road slide from lane to lane to honor a death on the res.
“In communities, people send off the people who passed away in different ways,” said producer Willi White, “and that’s one way people on Pine Ridge have done it. And it’s their way of celebrating that life that was lost.”
“It was just a normal send-off,” said Sioux Bob. “I’ve seen that my whole life. You know how you have a 21-gun salute when you’re a veteran? That’s it.”
The Significance of Beast, Bill’s Poodle
One of Bill’s hustles is breeding poodles, and Bill’s dog, Beast, plays a pivotal role in the film, as a babysitter, investment, and also a companion.
“Normally, where we’re from, it’s pit bulls,” said Sioux Bob. “But if we did pit bulls, it would be too normal.”
“[We asked ourselves] What’s something that would be different to what you’d typically see?” said Keough. “Something that would be a new business idea?”
When they were brainstorming what to do about the dog plot point, they proposed the change to Reddy, who said he’d never want to be seen with a poodle—and so they changed it to this breed.
“It does have this bourgeois thing to it,” said Gammell.
“It’s a very niche of a hustle,” said Sioux Bob. “But if you can find a market, you can get it. Especially in South Dakota. It’s very different in South Dakota. It’s the Wild Wild West.”
The Gift of Working with First-Time Actors
War Pony is a triumph on many fronts, including introducing us to new faces like first-time actors Bapteise Whiting and Crazy Thunder, who both knock it out of the park. Working with a lot of first-time actors is something that informed the direction, especially for Outstanding Actress in a Limited Series Emmy nominee (Daisy Jones & The Six), Keough.
“As an actor, there’s this thing where people always say working with children and animals is hard, and I have found it to be the opposite. I love walking into a scene and not knowing what’s going to happen. And I think it’s the same with people who have not acted professionally before. They bring this very free energy into the space where you really feel like anything can happen. For me as an actor, I love working like that, but I also love watching it as a director. Every moment, you’re being given these beautiful gifts and moments that you didn’t even write. How quickly they got the hang of it all, too. It didn’t take much.”
“They didn’t really have to act,” said Sioux Bob. “They’re all res. They’re all native kids. It’s more or less they read the script and they had to get the lines, but I don’t think it was hard to channel, because that’s your unks, that’s your auntie, that’s your brother, that’s your cousin.”
War Pony is available on most streaming platforms.