When I spoke to writer/director Taylor Sheridan on the phone, he was having a very good day. You see, the day previously, Sheridan landed an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay for Hell or High Water. On top of that, his highly anticipated directorial effort Wind River had just premiered to positive response at the Sundance Film Festival (read Matt’s review here). Having also written the phenomenal Sicario, Sheridan has quickly become one of the most exciting talents working today, and Wind River marks the beginning of a promising directing career.
The film is the third chapter in a thematic trilogy of sorts that ties to Sicario and Hell or High Water. It stars Jeremy Renner as a U.S. Fish & Wildlife agent living near the Wind River Indian Reservation who stumbles across a body in the rugged wilderness. The FBI send in a rookie agent, played by Elizabeth Olsen, to investigate the scene, and the two venture deeper and deeper into an unforgiving, treacherous landscape to try and solve the case.
Wind River is evocative of Sicario and Hell or High Water in that it plays with Western tropes, features richly drawn characters, and draws thematic resonance to the world we live in today. It’s also one hell of a good yarn.
Fresh off the premiere and Oscar announcement, I spoke to Sheridan while at Sundance for an extended conversation that covered everything from the hellish experience of actually making the movie in the snow, the challenges of telling a story about Native Americans as a white filmmaker, and when the idea for the film first materialized. We also discussed Soldado, the Sicario sequel that’s now filming, and how that follow-up came about. Sheridan teased some tantalizing plot details while also discussing the parallels between Sicario, Hell or High Water, and Wind River. We even touched on the prospect of writing and/or directing a large-scale superhero movie, as Sheridan singled out Deadpool as one of his favorites of 2016.
It was an entertaining conversation from my end, and I hope you find it just as fascinating. Read the full interview below. Wind River does not yet have a release date.
COLLIDER: Is it crazy having the Oscar nomination for Hell or High Water today after you premiere Wind River at Sundance?
TAYLOR SHERIDAN: Yeah, yeah, it is, it’s a lot. Are you here, are you at Sundance?
I am, just wrapping up. We leave tomorrow.
SHERIDAN: It’s been an interesting festival. It seems like every year for some reason –It probably won’t snow again for two months, but every time it’s Sundance, it attracts a blizzard. Have you noticed that?
It’s been insane this year, definitely more than I’ve ever seen before.
SHERIDAN: Yeah. Crazy.
I really enjoyed Wind River, and I hate to start with something so broad but I’m genuinely interested. When did you write this, how did this story first come about? Because it’s very different, at least aesthetically, from your past few scripts.
SHERIDAN: I finished Hell or High Water and started writing Wind River literally the next day. Yeah, literally the next day. It had been a story that I wanted to tell –I had actually started it and then kind of was hit with this thunderbolt that was Hell or High Water. I had the elements in my head and then one day I was just walking and it just struck me, so I started writing Hell or High Water. And as soon as I finished that then I went right back into Wind River.
How did the story evolve, is the finished film pretty much what you had in that first draft or your initial nugget of an idea?
SHERIDAN: Yeah, I shot the first draft. I think when you’re the writer/director it’s a lot of freedom, in some ways maybe too much. The movie came together, there was a window to shoot it, and the actors came into place, and we had to move so fast. I swear it was over before I realized it had started. It was a pretty intense experience.
When did you guys shoot?
SHERIDAN: We started shooting in March, and I was chasing snow. It was constantly melting, it was Spring time. So, I’d continually move locations and change locations and kept going higher, and higher, and higher and it kept getting harder, and herder to get the equipment to it. What’s traditionally a twelve-hour day to shoot would be four and a half hours of getting equipment in and then six hours of shooting. It was a really difficult shoot.
What was kind of the overall shooting experience like? You’re coming off Sicario and Hell or High Water and here you are directing Wind River. Did the weather just make it impossibly difficult?
SHERIDAN: Impossibly difficult. Snowing on days when I needed it to be sunny, sunny on days when I needed it to snow. Yeah, impossible. And it’s funny because those things turn out to not matter, the audience doesn’t actually really care. That it’s snowing now and not snowing later, they don’t care. But you think that they will and so you panic about it.
What was truly great is that I honestly felt like I was watching Jeremy [Renner] do something really special, and I still believe that, I think his work was really, really rare in this and very nuanced. And so it was really fascinating to sit there and watch him take this journey and it was very easy to film, very easy to film him. And Lizzie [Elizabeth Olsen] as well, I just felt that the acting –I wish I could take credit for it. But I cast it really well and I just thought that they brought these characters to such depths.
You are an actor yourself, and the performances are terrific all around. Was it kind of daunting working with actors of this caliber, what was that experience like directing these people? Especially since Jeremy and Lizzie already had a working relationship before.
SHERIDAN: It was really easy. Jeremy is a pro, and a real giving actor, as is Lizzie, very open and no ego. Lizzie’s done a lot of –She’s kind of an indie queen, she’s worked with a ton of first-time directors, and I think Jeremy didn’t make me feel like one. He was extremely respectful and anything I asked him to try, he would, and I just can’t say enough good things about him.
You’ve obviously worked with a number of directors before as an actor, and then with Denis Villeneuve and David Mackenzie as a screenwriter. Was there a particular director that influenced your own approach to directing this the most?
SHERIDAN: Not that I’ve worked with. I spent most of my time as an actor in television, so directors in television—it’s such a machine that’s already in place that I don’t think you notice the direction as much on the set. But obviously there are filmmakers who have deeply influenced me, Michael Mann was very influential on me, Peter Berg on particular in Friday Night Lights and The Kingdom in the way he uses the camera was very influential on me. Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven I think might be the most influential of all on me.
They all have something in common which is that you’ll have moments of really tense action and then you have very big moments where people just talk and reflect. Some of the most fascinating scenes in Unforgiven for me is that scene with Gene Hackman where he’s talking about the Duke of Death that Richard Harris played and he’s basically demolishing this myth of this man very unwesternly, not what you expect in a western. And I think I tried to do the same thing.