By Lindsay Walker
Photos courtesy of First Look Pictures
UA alum Chris Eyre on the set of his film, "Skins."
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday October 17, 2002
UA alum's new movie has Native American characters, but speaks to ╬human beings'
Do you ever wonder what happens to students after they graduate from the UA? Are there any success stories from alumni who have acquired fame in their area of expertise? And if there is success, on what grounds is the success based?
Chris Eyre is a American Indian independent filmmaker whose new movie "Skins" was released last week in theaters. He received a master's degree from the New York University School of the Arts. He has worked with the likes of Spike Lee.
But before his rise to distinction, he graduated from the UA's media arts program.
Before attending the UA, Eyre received an associate's degree in television directing. His reasons for moving from the Pacific Northwest to the Southwest consisted of the warmth and good education that Arizona had to provide.
Eyre finds his experience at the UA to have been very valuable to him.
"I got a broad sense of things at the UA (some of which) I don't use now, but I'm glad that I got the experience," he said. "I learned film theory, and I'd never want to be a critic, but I'm glad that I was able to understand what critics are trying to do."
Eyre believes that something he began to learn at UA and continues to learn today is that the arts consist of an evolution of sorts.
"One of the biggest things now that I've learned as a filmmaker is that it's always a constant process and you constantly learn stuff," he said.
And through this process, "Skins" was created.
"Skins" is a "dramedy" about two brothers, one a cop and the other a chronic alcoholic, on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The movie follows their story of struggle and explores familial relationships and real love.
With his latest release, Eyre has attempted to transcend the boundaries of race.
"Ultimately, when you walk out of the movie, you realize that it's a movie about human beings," he said. "You realize that the characters are not just Indians, they're real people."
Photos courtesy of First Look Pictures
The faces of Chief Joseph, Sitting Bull, Dull Knife and Geronimo (L to R) are imprinted over the U.S. presidents' on Mount Rushmore.
Eyre's first movie, "Smoke Signals," was also a contemporary story that revolved around American Indians. Eyre claims that he directs movies about Indians because he does not believe that Hollywood could accurately portray the enigma of Native America.
"For me, it's important to put Indians in present day movies," he said. "Our demand for movies and for alternate voices shows how repressed we are."
But Eyre also says that it is not necessarily Hollywood's fault that there are not more movies with American Indians as primary characters.
"It has little to do with Hollywood putting out trash and everything to do with what people in Illinois are willing to pay money to go see," he said. "It's a cop-out to blame the industry."
But regardless of his goal to give Indians and their plight a more prominent voice, Eyre does not seek to make movies for just American Indians.
"I make personal movies," he said. "My audience is anybody with a heart and anybody that likes to laugh."
And in order to make the movie as personal and as genuine as possible, Eyre fought for the filming location to be the real Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, despite production protests that it would be more expensive than filming somewhere in Canada.
Eyre views Pine Ridge as its own character in the movie. He believes that it is an essential part because many people have never been to Pine Ridge, so they might not know that it is the poorest county in the United States and that it sits almost directly below Mount Rushmore ¸ facts that Eyre finds vital to the message of the movie.
"It's kind of ironic that it (Pine Ridge Reservation) sits underneath the forefathers of this country and the patriotism that this country stands for," he said. "There's been such neglect and dysfunction between Indian country and America that it is a hypocrisy."
In order to shoot on the actual reservation, Eyre and the producers met with the reservation's Tribal Council to discuss scheduling, rules and subject matter within the film.
Some of the locals even got the opportunity to take part in the filming. Eyre believes that this adds authenticity to the film and the setting.
"There's nothing more boring than having all professionally trained actors who hit the mark every take," Eyre said. "I like to change it up."
He lets the actors "change it up" a bit as well. Academy Award nominee Graham Greene, who portrays the alcoholic brother Mogie in "Skins," calls Eyre a "pliable director" who allows his cast to improvise.
In response, Eyre claims that any good director will permit his cast to invent and create.
"Directing is not about being a dictator," he said. "Anybody who's intelligent understands that Graham Greene is an amazing actor, and if I don't allow him to do his job, I'm an idiot."
And directing takes many other forms than just sitting in a raised chair drinking java and yelling "Cut!" Eyre says that many times he has spent the day driving cars onto the set, unloading equipment and even fundraising for the movie.
But Eyre loves his lot as a filmmaker.
"As a filmmaker, I don't have to have the answers," he said. "I just have to ask the questions."
And "Skins" does ask a lot of questions. It addresses issues ranging from compassion to independence to relationships to what makes us human.
One scene, in which the faces of Mount Rushmore are replaced with the faces of Indian leaders like Geronimo, challenges the paradox of the Indian community in present day America.
But Eyre believes that these issues need to be brought to light and examined.
"Sovereignty is only good if it's exercised," he said. "Patriotism is not sitting on a porch waving a flag, but it is exercising your right to freedom of speech, freedom of art and freedom of expression in an effort to improve the family that we are as Americans."