Check the Gate is a reoccurring column where we go one-on-one with directors in an effort to uncover the reasoning behind their creative decisions. Why that subject? Why that shot? In this edition, we chat with Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. about how he jammed years of creative thought into a seventeen-day shoot for Wild Indian.
Your first film takes years to percolate in your brain, never mind the years spent scribbling your script into fruition. Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. felt nearly consumed by Wild Indian as he pushed it through both the Sundance Screenwriting Lab and the Sundance Director’s Lab, tinkering on the details until they felt right on the page. Then, the production was a go, and he had only seventeen days to realize his story.
Can you imagine the stress? It would crush some, maybe most. Instead, Corbine found relief in the process. These are the days he had. These are the days he used. Nothing complicated. Shoot, and shoot quickly.
Wild Indian is “a dark cinematic dance that explores the harsh effects of colonization that are still evident in modern Native communities.” During the 1980s, we meet two Anishinaabe cousins, Makwa and Ted-O (Phoenix Wilson and Julian Gopal). One day, they’re shooting bottles in the woods, and a classmate wanders into their sights. A final shot is fired.
Thirty years later, Makwa is now Michael (Michael Greyeyes). He’s married to a California blonde (Kate Bosworth) and dominates at his corporate job, much to the amazement and passively aggressive resentment of his co-worker (Jesse Eisenberg). Life should be glorious, but throbbing violence bubbles from within, and when an adult Ted-O (Chaske Spencer) returns to his life, Makwa must confront his seething rage once more.
Corbine deeply appreciates the time he spent at the Sundance labs shaping Wild Indian as an idea. He wishes all creation experiences were as thoughtfully and anguishedly considered. The time spent there cemented the film in his head, allowing him to move like lightning when required.
“I’d spent six years writing it,” Corbine recalls. “I developed it at length with my mentors through the Screenwriters Lab and the Director’s Lab. Then at the end of that, I went through the Screenwriter’s Lab again. So, I did that lab twice. I spent so much time, weeks, and months getting the minutia of each scene right. And then, walking into a location, hearing you have forty minutes to set this up and shoot it, this thing that’s been in my head for a couple of years – It was tough, but we got it done.”
Step one in accomplishing such an intense pace is to surround yourself with an accomplished crew. Everyone involved with Wild Indian had already absorbed the script and its mission. They also understood that the number of days you have on set doesn’t really matter. Whatever the case, you never have as many as you’d like. Working with this assumption relieves anxiety.
“We didn’t really have time to be stressed,” he says. “At some point, it was just like you had to pack up and be like, ‘Man, I hope we got it.’ And most of the time, we ended up having it in the editing room, which was great.”
Making movies is an exercise in optimism. You put your faith in your script, in your actors, and in your crew. All three have the creator’s back. Help them do their thing, and a movie will be made. Discovering its quality comes later.
“We never knew if we had it,” Corbine continues. “Half the time, we were crossing our fingers and hoping we did. And a lot of times maybe we didn’t, and we had to figure out a creative way to cut out a scene and bridge either a narrative gap or a story gap. We had to cut a lot of scenes and production because we didn’t have the time or the resources to be able to capture them. There’s a lot of creative steps that needed to be taken to make that work. And I think, for the most part, we were successful with it.”
You sense none of that speed or doubt or hope in the visual language of Wild Indian. The frame is a measured one, delighting in a slow, omnipresent linger. Yes, Corbine and his cinematographer, Eli Born, had to figure each other out quickly, but they moved with rapid precision once they did.
“By the time we were on the ground,” says Corbine, “we were already close friends. I would walk around where we were shooting and would stand at a place and just point from here, and he’d be like, ‘Yeah, totally.’ Then, he would set it up. There was definitely a sense of trust in Eli to light it. I completely trusted him in lighting and completely trusted him in framing.”
Most of the time, when Corbine and Born were walking on set, it was the first time seeing it. Decisions were made instinctually. But they were based on extensive conversations and those years of thought that occurred during the Sundance Labs.
“We discussed a lot about movement early on,” he says. “Eli and I have the same kind of understanding of how movement works in movies. We had to say very little when we were on set, but we also did a lot of planning, and we almost had a rule book in terms of how to approach each scene.”
Wild Indian is an incredibly personal film for Corbine. He’s put everything of himself into the script, and his very being seemed to explode out of him during those seventeen shooting days. He wanted to make something honest. As much hope as he put into the filming process, he puts just as much into its reception.
“The intention was always that it was a meditation,” says Corbine. “It’s a tonal piece about a specific person, maybe an archetype of a Native, of a lost Native man. That was my intention. I didn’t want to go into moralizing or give any answers. It’s just about exploring these larger questions without attempting to answer. And the people who’ve looked at it seem to have really responded to it as far as I can tell. It’s going to be interesting to see what the larger audience thinks now that it’s out there.”
With Wild Indian a reality, Corbine wants to get back into the trenches and pull another film from his person. Right now, he’s chasing genre. As much as this film operates as a thriller, Corbine wants his next one to crank the excitement level to eleven.
“I’m an Ojibwe man,” he says. “I still live on reservations. I can’t deny that that’s a piece of who I am, but as a filmmaker, I don’t want to make films only about Native people. I often will, I’m sure, just given that that’s who I am, which tends to be who I write about. But I want to make films about things that interest me, whether they’re Native or not. Maybe I’ll write another Wild Indian personal piece at some point down the line. But for right now, I really want to explore genre and audience-pleasing kinds of films.”
Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. is itching to make that next feature, and as a master of hope, thanks to Wild Indian, he’s fantasizing about a shoot that extends beyond seventeen days. Maybe eighteen? His fingers remain crossed.
Wild Indian is now playing in select theaters and is available on VOD.
Related Topics: Check the Gate