Sunday, April 2, 2023

"Reservation Dogs": The Interview

Local ABQ Filmmaker Has TV Directorial Debut on Hit FX Series


"Reservation Dogs," currently airing on FX on Hulu, is all the rage—and deservedly so. The series, produced by filmmaker Sterlin Harjo of both Seminole and Muscogee of Oklahoma, has made it through all the hurdles that are in place when creating a TV series. Just getting a green light would be impressive enough for a show by and about Native Americans; but the comedy-drama, which premiered on Aug. 9, is a ratings hit and is already getting award season buzz. The show follows a group of reservation youth in Okie country as they get involved in crazy situations that are above your average rez juvenile hijinks. Rotten Tomatoes gave the first few episodes a "100% FRESH" rating.

Blackhorse Lowe, a New Mexico Navajo filmmaker, is the director of the series and one of the freshest minds in the Indie filmmaking world. My personal relationship with Blackhorse goes back 20 years. I met Blackhorse at the now-defunct Na’alKid Film Festival in Farmington when both of us were showing our first real work at the time. Four months later I got off a bus in Los Angeles for the first FOX Diversity Development class of 2002, saw him at registration, and the friendship was forever solidified. 

Blackhorse has grown as a filmmaker, and Albuquerque has been his base of operations for the last decade or two. I’d considered him a success before "Reservation Dogs" was a hit, having secured a Panavision grant and won a prize at the Indian Market Class X. The old adage is true with Blackhorse, it takes 10 years to become an overnight success. 

When I found out my buddy was moving to Tulsa for a few gigs, I was like “Oklahoma?” But oh man, have the Okies changed. There's a whole Oklahoma Native renaissance going on in the high grass, headed by Buffalo Nickle Creative and the 1491s comedy group. So how was Blackhorse tapped to direct arguably the biggest breakout hit on TV right now? Blackhorse was chosen in Oklahoma alongside some of the other brightest Native directors working today to get this series off the ground. It had been in the works for a while, and producers needed the right person to make it. It all happened very quickly, even while COVID stalled production. They shot the first season in April of this year.

In Goodfellas there is the scene where Joe Pesci's character is about to be “made,” and Henry (Ray Liotta) says Jimmie (Robert De Niro) “was so happy, you think he was being made!” “Look at this guy," beams De Niro's character. "We’re gonna work for him one day. He’s gonna be a boss.” It really feels like, “Holy shit, Blackhorse made it into the DGA (Directors Guild of America). He's gonna be a boss."

I wanted to talk with Blackhorse about his experience working on the show, being from New Mexico and how it feels to have Native productions making it big time.

The Paper.: So what was it like to actually work on something that had money attached to it?

Blackhorse Lowe: Easy man, I didn’t have to pick up shit or people. The cast wasn't getting high or drunk. You're not begging everyone to show up the next day on location, or like you have half an hour or no permit application to get all my shots and get it out, man. It was so easy just because, like, you got the full crew, a DP, an AD to keep it running and production designers and wardrobe people. And all they did was give you choices of, "Well, here's our ideas. Which direction you want to go?" Like, yeah, we'll go with this. Just like, no, that's a terrible idea of a fix-up. So, it was just like they are there to support your ideas. Oh, and everyone was getting paid! WTF right?

Wow, who works like that?

Yeah, and when the show runner is an old homie, it makes it easy to get your ideas taken seriously.

Did you go to Tulsa knowing this?

I had no clue when I went to Tulsa. I went there when I was finishing up the movie Fuckery and trying to get used to my new surroundings. Fuckery was released, but it didn't pick up right away. Then it actually did one physical screening—in Toronto. Then COVID happened, and we went inside. That's when I wrote Lords of Earth, which got on the Blacklist (, which then got me an agent and a manager. So, all that crappiness of the first couple of years just kind of paid off from the screenplay and then kind of just slowly built back up from that. Sterling made the show ["Reservation Dogs"], and it has taken off. And then getting to direct two episodes so far. It's opening up more opportunities for me. Now I'm in the writer's room, and it got me a couple of other TV directing offers and a feature film deal, hopefully.

Do you feel like an overnight success. And is this a cultural phenomenon?

So just, like, how big of a wave this thing has had across the U.S., but also in Australia and a couple of other countries that are playing it now. And then people like Barry Jenkins [director of Moonlight] and Mindy Kaling ["The Office, "The Mindy Project'] and all these other notable creators are taking notice and giving it a shout-out. It's a lot. It's interesting to see how this all just turns out. We're only four episodes in, we haven't even finished the full season yet. It's weird, I don't know if it's a cultural shift, but it's something. It's definitely something happening.

It's not like Pan-Indian. Pan-Indian was basically Smoke Signals, where you're just giving the "effect" of being Native, which is what Native productions were for us at that time. I think Jason Asenap’s review in Variety has the best analogy: "It's almost like an inter-tribal where the tribe, every tribe, is represented all within one story." I was able to sneak in like Navajo words and phrases and jokes in there, like during Gary's bar fight, and it fits in the other little nuances. That's my Navajo side there, still being represented. But then the character is still the Creek tribe, and I have to show that side. All this stuff kind to goes off of and builds a character. And then also we throw in these Lakota jokes. It's not Pan-Indian, but it's not really inter-tribal either. We're creating something new.

What the producers, directors, writers, actors and crew of "Reservation Dogs" are creating is art. Pure in its form. A long time ago Blackhorse and I often discussed the idea that one day creatives like him could leave behind the “Native” prefix belonging to any artist. We don't refer to Scorsese as an “Italian director” or Basquiat as an “African American Artist." They are just artists and leaders of their craft. Blackhorse Lowe is well on his way to being a leader in his craft.

For more check out the rest of "Reservation Dogs" Season 1 on FX, streamed on Hulu.


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