“There is a way to responsibly collaborate or collaborate with love, because I think that — historically — these sorts of collaborations have been done as transactional, not sustainable and, frankly, hurtful.”
So says Gina Gammell of the efforts behind the making of War Pony, the feature she co-directed with her close friend, the Max Mad: Fury Road and Zola star Riley Keough (marking both their directorial debuts and produced via their own Felix Culpa banner).
Set to make its world premiere in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard competition, the film is a rich, complex, heartfelt and at-times painful coming-of-age story set within the vast Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, following two young Oglala Lakota men as they struggle with identity, family and adulthood, while also dealing with heavy burdens of society. Two indigenous local writers, Franklin Sioux Bob and Bill Reddy, co-authored the script together with Keough and Gammell based on their own experiences growing up in the reservation.
Although Gammell is at pains to acknowledge the many hands that went into the film’s creation, she says that War Pony is a film “made by the community for the community.” Collaboration and honesty throughout wasn’t just absolutely key, but ran through the entire fabric of the film’s development.
“Making sure the film went out of its way to stay authentic to who these native voices are and what they were experiencing in this time frame was crucial from the start,” explains Sioux Bob.
Indigenous filmmaker Willi White, who served as a producer on War Pony, claims that Pine Ridge has seen several non-native filmmakers come and go over the years, with few positive experiences.
“They generally tell the same story, because what they see is only at the surface level, it’s poverty, it’s hardship and challenges,” he says. “And that story has been perpetuated over and over again and has actually been very damaging — it’s led to a lot of prejudice and stereotypes against our community from white towns on the periphery of the reservation.”
White asserts that many filmmakers essentially perform a smash-and-grab in Pine Ridge: extracting a story, making a movie that purely advances their own careers and leaving. “There’s no reciprocity,” he says.
For Sioux Bob, there was simply no way he would lend his voice to anything like this. “I wasn’t going to co-sign a story that talks about natives but is told by an outsider. We’ve already seen that plenty of times.”
But for Keough and Gammell, this couldn’t have been further from their minds. In fact, when they first arrived in town, they had absolutely no plans to make a movie at all.
Keough’s first trip to Pine Ridge, and the unexpected starting point for War Pony, came back in 2015 when she was shooting American Honey, Andrea Arnold’s epic road movie about teenage door-to-door magazine sellers (which, coincidentally, bowed in Cannes the following year). A segment of the film was shot in the reservation, and both Sioux Bob and Reddy were given small roles, while White helped Arnold with locations. Keough, then just in her mid 20s, quickly struck up a friendship, not realizing at the time how life-affirming it would become.
“We were just in a little motel room waiting to shoot and started hanging out and talking, and that’s kind of how it all started,” she says. Gammell recalls a message she got shortly afterwards. “I just remember getting this text from her saying that she’s just met the most incredible boys and the most incredible storytellers.”
Keough returned to L.A. after the American Honey shoot, but kept in touch with her new acquaintances, linking Gammell with Reddy (“At the time, I was into gardening and he was building a garden — he makes the best tomatoes!,” she notes). They both visited Pine Ridge — two short plane rides from L.A. — in the summer of 2016 for a two-week vacation, the first of many to come.
“We just went and hung out with them, and it was a start of a really amazing, deep, connected and fruitful friendship,” says Gammell. The visits would get more creative, the group making music videos together (Sioux Bob is also a musician), and writing scenes that would become a virtual reality short film shot in the Badlands, the striking national park that protects a maze of rugged canyons and rocky pinnacles. But it was all very relaxed.
“It wasn’t super cohesive, we were just messing around, making art and hanging out in our 20s,” says Keough.
By this stage, the two had already met Pte Cante Win Poor Bear, often referred to by her nickname Babe, a local educator and advocate for Pine Ridge youths and families. Helping bring them further into the community, Babe had introduced Keough and Gammell to the ancient cultural protocols of the Lakota, inviting them to sit with the elders and make a traditional offering of red willow tobacco.
“When you make that offering, it kind of acknowledges our ancestors and that our ancestors are witnessing this take place,” she says. This culturally appropriate step, even before there was any talk of putting the stories of the Lakota on screen, was hugely appreciated by the elders, thankful to be given the chance to approve of these two outsiders (which they did). One even invited them to share a meal in a ceremonial sweat lodge.
“It was really important, especially because as Lakota people we have been all but obliterated,” says Babe, who adds that it was all about creating an allyship. “’Lakota actually means ‘allies’.”
But a creative turning point came after a few years of visits to Pine Ridge, when Reddy’s beloved dog, a Pitbull called Beast, passed away. Hit hard by the loss, the group went to the nearby Black Hills mountain range, where Babe said a prayer.
“It was a really intense moment. He had a real connection to the dog, and it really affected us all,” says Keough. “And I feel like that day kind of inspired the whole film and we were like, let’s make a story about Beast.”
Beast, of course, was the original name of the feature, but changed to War Pony shortly after it was selected for Cannes (Keough suggests it was always intended as a working title, given that there are “so many” films with Beast in the name).
Using the death of the dog as a starting point, the group of friends — who had been trading stories since they first met — now began actively taking notes and discussing the potential for something bigger. Reddy and Sioux Bob’s own rich life experiences became a heavy part of the mix, alongside assorted tales that they had seen or heard, and some sort of linear plot was gradually pieced together. Reddy had once actually bred Pitbulls to make a living, which was included (although in the film, the dog Beast is actually a Poodle), while elements, such as the robbery of a turkey farm and a Halloween party on a white ranch that turns sour, were added. “Most of the life experiences that are in the film came from my group of friends and I living them,” notes Sioux Bob.
“At some point we started using Final Draft, writing scenes down and collecting our notes,” says Keough. “But it was still just fun, like a hobby. There was no real timeline, it was just a fun thing we were doing. But then we ended up with a script and started taking it more seriously, and we were like, wow, we actually have kind of a story here.”
Actually, they had “too much” of a story, so the decision was made to split it into two characters.
At the heart of the amalgamation of tales, that sometime in 2019 became the script for War Pony, are two Pine Ridge boys. Bill (played by Jojo Bapteise Whiting), is a quietly charming 23-year-old trying to make something of himself and hustle his way into some money (breeding Poodles is one of several schemes), while juggling the responsibilities of fatherhood. Meanwhile, Matho (LaDainian Crazy Thunder), is a 12-year-old whose determination to become a man pushes him into increasingly harsh realities that he’s unequipped to deal with (and lacks a support network to catch him when he falls). Both are gentle, good souls at heart, but find the odds almost endlessly stacked against them.
Casting these two leads roles was a lengthy process, almost beginning as soon as the team started writing. Early on, Reddy himself looked set to play Bill, who he’s largely based on, but Gammell says he became too old for the part during the years of development and figured he was better off behind the camera. Eventually they found their man in Whiting, meeting him at an annual fair (actually twice, the casting exec having failed to get his details the first year).
“We did a mix and match where we had a bunch of guys playing roles, and at the very end we kept Jojo back and gave him Bill, and we were like, oh my fucking god… he was such a natural leader, and you felt it when he was in the room,” gushes Gammell.
For Matho, Gammell initially spotted youngster Crazy Thunder in a photo. “I remember being like, I need to meet this kid,” she says. Although he initially turned down the opportunity, they persisted, and he eventually agreed to audition. “We knew after the very first take that that was him, it was clear,” she says.
All bar one of War Pony’s cast members are first-time actors, including the two leads. And every indigenous role — which is the overwhelming majority — is played by an indigenous actor. Pine Ridge provided the backdrop for much of the film, although other locations in the area, including the Black Hills, were used.
“But they were still on Oceti Sakowin territory, or as most people know it from the history books, Great Sioux Nation territory,” says White. Two scenes — including one on the turkey farm — were shot in L.A. (As the producer notes, “it’s hard to find a turkey farm in South Dakota.”)
With War Pony — and an estimated 18 members of the cast and crew, according to Keough — now set to descend upon Cannes, those involved in the seven-year journey behind the film have been able to reflect on what it represents to them.
“I actually get really emotional every time I watch it,” says Babe, who also served as producer (and, before filming, gave a cultural competency training course to the incoming non-indigenous crew). “For me, along with many other Lakota mothers and aunties and grandmothers, through this film we get to experience our young people’s live right along with them. It’s all so relatable — nothing in the film is foreign to us.”
White, who claims he’s never worked on a film that collaborated and invested in the community as much before, underlines the importance of the stories told within War Pony.
“It’s definitely different to how I grew up on the reservation, but it is the experience of a lot of my relatives and cousins. They grew up with those kinds of challenges, and for me, that really resonated,” he says. “And there’s a whole system and history that led to it, so for me it’s really important that these kinds of stories are told, even though they’re sometimes hard and may invite a lot of conversation.”
Keough describes making War Pony, and the friendships it was drawn from, as one of the “most profound” moments of her life. “A lot of the people who’ve worked on this film are like family to us, and always will be. We’ve been together through marriage and death and loss and babies. … It’s been extremely emotional.”
And there’s very little chance that, now the film is finished and getting its glitzy premiere at the world’s most glamorous festival, she’ll ride off into the sunset, never to be seen in South Dakota again.
As Keough notes: “The reason it took seven years is because we never wanted to leave Pine Ridge.”