Director Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. crafts a complex, tense drama in Wild Indian.
We at No Film School have been a fan of writer/director Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. for a long while.
We spoke to him back in 2017 when he brought his short film Shinaab to Sundance. This year, he was selected as one of Variety's 10 Directors to Watch, and his feature Wild Indian was programmed in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. We knew his feature would be one to see.
The film follows childhood friends Makwa and Teddo, who as kids cover up a shocking murder. Decades later, both continue to grapple with the event in vastly different ways.
It stars Michael Greyeyes (who is Plains Cree from the Muskeg Lake First Nation in Saskatchewan), Chaske Spencer (who is of Sioux, Nez Perce, Cherokee, Creek, French, and Dutch heritage), Jesse Eisenberg, and Kate Bosworth.
Corbine, who is Ojibwe, is a quietly confident storyteller, presenting characters who stare tragedy in the face, forcing us to stare it down too. There are long, stretching moments of tension like a taut wire between Makwa and Teddo, Makwa and his wife, Teddo and his sister. And the constant question of the film is, when will it snap?
With Wild Indian, Corbine shares "a raw and personal expression of my feelings of dispossession and guilt and horror derived from the history of the Ojibwe."
No Film School spoke with Corbine ahead of Wild Indian's premiere, and we discussed his experiences with the film's development, its fast shoot schedule, and the importance of Indigenous representation.
Editor's note: the following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
No Film School: So just starting at the beginning, what inspired you to start directing?
Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr.: It was like everyone else's journey. I mean, I was really moved by a lot of films that I watched growing up. It started with Robocop and Terminator 2. But then when I got older, I was really affected by Lost In Translation and Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums.
That era of film was really important to me, and it spoke a lot to just general loneliness. It spoke to me, and it was like from then on, I was just addicted to film and was always kind of seeking that feeling again, that feeling of understanding.
So when I got to college, I was kind of almost resisting the idea that I wanted to be a filmmaker. I kind of thought, "Well, that's really hard. That's impossible." Or it's not as respected as being a novel writer. I was like, "Oh, I'll try to write novels." And I kind of lived under that lie for a couple of years, as a 19-, 20-year-old.
And then I tried to write some scripts, and my local film school buddies at the University of Minnesota liked the scripts, and they started making them. And pretty soon, I was directing them myself. And then I ran the film club. And from there, it was a few more years until I made a short that played Sundance. But then that's when Wild Indian came together.
NFS: And you developed it over several years, as part of the Sundance Screenwriters Lab and the Directors Lab. Can you talk about that experience and how important it was to you, to the development of the story, and how it came together?
Corbine: I mean, it was a dream to be able to do that. As I'm sure you know, it's an incredibly selective program, and a lot of really great filmmakers came out of there, which is why I kind of set my sights that way.
I was young and under the illusion that once I got in, my film would just ease into production, like it would just happen. But yeah, it took a couple of years after that. Working with my mentors there and getting to know people I really had respected well before and being mentored and given guidance by people who just knew vast amounts more about writing and production and telling stories than I would ever know, to be honest.
I mean, people like Joan Tewkesbury and David Lowery, Barry Jenkins. I could keep naming names forever, but all those people are there to help you as a filmmaker tell your story in the best possible way, the way that you want to tell it.
NFS: Having developed Wild Indian over a long period, when you finally got to production, was there anything that surprised you or that you learned as you were going into that step?
Corbine: Production was so quick. It was 17 days, so it was a very quick shoot. There wasn't a ton of room for self-discovery. It was kind of just like, "We have an hour to shoot this scene that you've been writing for three years, go and do that." And then we would do it.
There wasn't a lot of room for reflection. It was really just reacting to things and getting the coverage needed. I mean, it was probably the best learning experience of my life. It was great.
NFS: It's a very thoughtful and accomplished film. So if you were all business on set, that's a tactic that worked for you! Would you consider that the most challenging aspect of the shoot, the timeline?
Corbine: Yeah, the timeline was—we had, like I said, 17 days, but a lot of those days were also like, we moved two or three times. So that takes a couple hours out of the day and can really complicate things, so that was the toughest part.
Thankfully, all the performers that are in the film are incredibly talented and professional and really resonated with the story. So I didn't need to spend a ton of time, or really much time at all, trying to hone in on the right performance.
And my DP [Eli Born] was incredible—I mean, my DP is one of the best working DPs, in my opinion. He shot Super Dark Times, and he's a very good music video shooter. And he's a close friend of mine, and we have this shorthand. We're very close, we're very close friends.
And it was like most of the time, we got used to working so quickly that after about a week of shooting, it was kind of just like, we rarely had to talk to each other. We have these little hand motions, where we just kind of point with two fingers, kind of imagining where the camera goes. And we would just kind of do that really quick. And then he would just not his head, and we would set it up.
NFS: That's awesome. I did want to mention the performances because I think they're so strong. And Chaske Spencer, he in particular was just so compelling to watch that—I mean, I think that he should get attention far into the future for this role because it's just so good.
Corbine: Absolutely. Chaske is the heart of the film. That's how I sold him the part. It was like, I know it's a smaller part than a lead, but it's going to be—people are going to take you away from the film. They're going to think about you. When they think about the emotions of the film, they're going to feel what you were going through. And thankfully, he came on, because I knew he'd knock this part out of the park.
NFS: How did you go about the casting process?
Corbine: For the leads, I had Michael [Greyeyes] in mind, while I was writing, and I Chaske in mind as well. I had Chaske in mind years and years ago, when I was writing. And Michael came later because the Makwa role was a lot harder to envision; he's such a complicated—not complicated person, but such a kind of a terrible person. So it was harder to kind of guess who that could be.
And Michael, he's been around a long time and has these great films under his belt. And I was looking for people within that age group. And he's right in front of me the whole time, and it was meant to be.
NFS: I like when directors have the dream cast in mind, and then they get it, and then everything comes together so perfectly.
Corbine: Yeah. Exactly.
NFS: Our readership is not only experienced filmmakers, but people just starting out and looking to learn. So—
Corbine: Like me. I read it all the time.
NFS: Oh, great! That's awesome. So what advice would you have to our readers then, someone maybe just starting out, or they maybe get inspired by your film? And they're like, "I want to do this." What would you tell them?
Corbine: Oh, sure. I mean, it's probably the stuff that I kept reading on the site. Write about your life and don't really worry too much about what it is. Go out and get a camera and shoot stuff.
I made 20 short films on DSLRs before I ever got into Sundance, or got into any festival. And that was a really valuable experience because I knew what I wanted to make by the time I got an opportunity to shoot with a real crew and real actors.
There's no better learning experience than failing horribly, and I think people need to become really comfortable with that.
NFS: The film also looked beautiful. What did you shoot it on?
Corbine: It was an Alexa Mini, an ARRI Alexa Mini, on Cooke anamorphic lenses.
NFS: I noticed the anamorphic, especially in that first shot of Makwa on the golf course. That was such a beautiful shot. I loved that shot.
Corbine: Oh, where we kind of track back?
NFS: Yeah, where you first see him as an older character. That looked really, really good.
Corbine: Oh, thank you.
NFS: Touching on a point that you just brought up, "write about your life." I think I read in a previous interview where you had talked about how you weren't doing that before, and you embraced it later on, as you were making those short films. Would that be accurate to say?
Corbine: Yeah. So I made a lot of short films before I made Shinaab and Shinaab, Part II. They were personal on some level, but they weren't about my background. It was like, if I was going through a breakup, I'd make a film about a breakup, that kind of very superficial type of a personal [story].
And then I wasn't really getting anywhere with those films, because they weren't super genuine, because I wasn't speaking directly through an actor. And then I met my buddy, Ajuawak Kapashesit. It was after one of those 48-hour film festival things, where you have a certain amount of time, and he was in this film that was a student horror film. And he was one of the first to die.
But I was like, "Oh, that guy's a Native, and he's got like a really good look." He was actually really good in the film. So I stuck around afterward and tracked him down.
I had just gotten this grant. I was like, "I just got this grant to make a short film. We should keep in touch."
And then with him in mind, I wrote this script, Shinaab, this little short film, and then we went and shot it a couple of months later. And that ended up being the Sundance film.
But if I hadn't met him, if I hadn't seen myself in an actor, or seen a way to express myself through an actor, I don't know that I ever would've written a short film like that.
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