War Pony is the stunning feature debut from Riley Keough and Gina Gammell. It's a raw look at hard lives, following two young Oglala Lakota men on the Pine Ridge Reservation as they try to make money and find accepting families. The film won the Camera D’Or at Cannes 2022.

Set mostly on the reservation, it's a film that required several different interior and exterior locations, sometimes in the middle of harsh weather, that authentically reflected modern Indigenous lives.

As one of the film's production designers, Terry Watson was responsible for helping create these environments, while also ensuring that many of the film's first-time actors were comfortable. It's a role that needs research and sensitivity.

We spoke with Watson just after the film's wide release to learn more.

WAR PONY - Official Trailerwww.youtube.com

Editor's note: The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

No Film School: I would love to know more about your background and how you got into production design.

Terry Watson: I think since I was a kid I was always a drawer and always anything I could draw. I was never a Barbie girl or any of that. I was always just drawing on anything I could.

I remember in fifth grade they asked you questions like, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" I actually said interior designer. I grew up in a small town in Arizona, so everybody was like, "What is going on? What does she know about interior design?"

Then, slowly I started putting together that someone has to design and interior design films because I loved watching films so much. That was such a way for me to connect with my family, it was a treat for us to watch movies every Friday. So I remember doing that.

When I went to college in Arizona, I took theater. I have a background in theater. I dipped my feet into everything, which was the stage manager and painting the sets. My professor and my theater coach, basically he was like, "You're focusing too much on the details." He's like, "Maybe you should do film." The theater was more of a grand scheme of things. When he told me that, I kind of put two and two together and haven't looked back.

NFS: What, as an overview, is your process as you start a project?

Watson: Definitely research. I think I'm very research-heavy. I think research comes from everywhere, not just you sitting down, but I think also just talking to people.

With War Pony, that was very much what I did. It was very much talking to the [Indigenous people] there and seeing how they lived because it was so secluded. We were also shooting during COVID-19. I realized that they're not so accessible to get Amazon packages and furniture, so I always asked how they were able to get all their house items, and I think from that process, that's how I started designing.

It always starts with research, and I always make sure to listen to everybody. I mean, you never know when your next piece of information for research is going to come in, whether that's the actors' or the director's needs or just in general, I think that's where I start. Then, I kind of let that speak for itself.

You receive so much information, but at times you also have to let that go and really see what fits the story. Not everything you can apply to what you're doing, so I think it's really picking and choosing and I think that really takes you just really diving into a lot of projects and making mistakes.

Four boys sitting at a bench in 'War Pony''War Pony'Credit: Felix Culpa/Momentum Pictures

NFS: Because you mentioned it, one question I do like to ask people is, what are those mistakes you would advise against making?

Watson: I love doing period pieces and I remember I did a... What is this? A period piece, an '80s period piece. I remember sticking everything '80s in there and just making it look very '80s.

But I also realized later on that we get furniture from different periods, and we also do not always design our homes to be what the period is. That was a mistake I had to make to learn to know how to design for a character on screen and also a period.

I learned that we grab all our furniture from different areas and sometimes hand-me-downs and things, and that was I think a very important mistake I had to learn very early on. I did that when I did the short.

NFS: I know that a lot of what you do is reflecting a character's experiences. So how did you bring that into this film?

Watson: The cool thing about this is previous to me coming into War Pony, there was a production designer, his name's Scott Dougan, and he basically had already designed the film and I was brought in to do additional scenes and I ended up doing a little bit more than additional scenes and going from there.

But what I noticed really well is that he captured South Dakota and Pine Ridge. At the time I didn't know what I was feeling when I watched it because like I said, I watched the first cut at home in Los Angeles, then I remember going to finally do the rest of the film and I remember feeling what I felt when I was watching the film and I think he captured that very well.

His formula was to stay true to the characters by knowing that our actors come from the reservation and making sure that when they stepped onto set they felt the same way they felt at home and that nothing stood out too much to them. It was like, well, this is Hollywood, and couldn't really get performances from them. I think that was something very important to Gina and Riley, that they felt comfortable wherever they were, whether they were standing behind the camera or in front of it. We all felt kind of like a family. So that's very much the most important thing I think I learned from that.

Behind the scenes of 'War Pony.'Behind the scenes of 'War Pony.'Credit: Momentum Pictures

NFS: What was the biggest challenge on this project?

Watson: Weather. The weather was probably the biggest challenge. I think we had to adjust a lot of our days because of it. And COVID.

There were days when we couldn't shoot certain scenes, and so it required all of us, including the actors, to be fully present. That's very hard to do for a film crew, especially for the art department because the art department is always supposed to be one step ahead of the film crew, and it's hard to prep while we're still kind of navigating what's going on that day.

We all had to kind of practice being present and learning to just adjust the day off for whether. It was snowing that day and we had to do exteriors and it wasn't matching and things like that. So, that was one thing that I learned from that as well. It was very difficult, but I think we pulled that off really well.

NFS: What was the shoot? How long was it?

Watson: Let's see. Well, I know they shot prior to me getting there, they shot about 45 days, which was a pretty long shoot I think. Then, I think I came on in October of 2020, I think I ended up finishing in April of 2021. From there on I did a couple of re-shoots here and there and whatever Gina and Riley needed when they were cutting.

NFS: That's longer than I expected. I'm glad you got that time.

Watson: It was hard too because I mean, the actors are kids and they're growing and fighting that, so I think it was anytime Gina called like, "Hey, we might need this," we were preparing for that as well.

NFS: You've already mentioned a couple of things, but do you have anything else you learned from this project that you're going to take moving forward?

Watson: The presence. Being very present I think is something that I don't think I've learned in any other film but this one, because again, as I said, we have to jump ahead all the time as an art department. It's OK to come in and be present in the moment and really adjust the day of as well and you're allowed to do that and be present in the moment with all the film crew as well.

NFS: What advice would you give to someone wanting to get into your field, whether it's art department or production design?

Watson: Do all the projects that you can and learn from all the mistakes. I know it's easier said than done because with that we're always thinking financially, but I think even if it's just projects with friends, I mean, I still do projects with no money with friends and those are the projects I learn the most on because we're constantly adjusting to different budgets that I get as well as learning to work with different people. The most important thing is learning how everybody works and their energy around every film I think this is the most important thing I've learned.

Four boys riding bikes at sunset in 'War Pony''War Pony'Credit: Momentum Pictures

NFS: Since you brought that up, what advice might you have for making something that has no budget or a very low budget look more expensive than it is?

Watson: For me, it's definitely time. If we don't have money, we have time. So it's something that I always try to be very clear with one of my friends, directors who are not friends that I know but are getting to know, is just time. Also, just flood me with information on locations and things that they are still thinking about and mulling over. I know there's always a lot of changes in scripts and treatments, but I always like to know everything.

Then, come up with ideas and solutions. I mean, we've shot things where in water and they require a lot of special effects and things, and I've come to be like, "Why don't we do certain shots?" Because I've been thinking about them in the shower.

So I think it's time that really you need to just focus. I think when you have no time and you have no money, it's hard to kind of really sit with the project. And I think once you do that and sit with it, you really come up with solutions.

I always follow this. Guillermo del Toro once said, "I think when you get all the money and all the freedom, rarely do you get a good movie out of it or a movie that you’re proud of." I think that's when you can use the other side of your brain to come up with other ideas and solutions, and sometimes they end up being better.

NFS: Is there anything else about this project that you wanted to bring up?

Watson: I'm so happy it's resonating with people. It resonated from the moment I jumped on board, and I never once questioned it. I thought it was always a beautiful film and I'm so happy it's getting recognition.

War Pony premiered July 28 in select theaters and on VOD from Momentum Pictures.