Behind-the-scenes with Sara McIntyre, non-Indian director of Two Indians Talking, about doing the right thing

I spoke, via Skype, with Canadian film-maker Sara McIntyre about her debut as a feature film director of “Two Indians Talking.” The 30th Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival showed it twice.

As I wrote in my review, “‘Two Indians Talking’ gives us two young Native men, cousins, on their way to a meeting where they expect to have a bunch of Cree Indians join them, a dozen or maybe dozens. But their partners don’t show. So rather than watching a cadre of zealous activists prepare an ambitious protest – a stand – we watch Two Indians Talking about what this means.”

How hard or awkward was it for you to make a film about Natives when you’re an outsider?

You’re right; that was a particularly sensitive issue. And I had to sort of get my head straight with the idea of me approaching this particular topic… And I think the thing that gave me confidence is that I was invited. The script was sent to me by a writer, who I had not met yet, although I certainly knew his name. Andrew (Genaille) was a friend of a friend at the time. And he heard that I was looking for feature scripts, and he started e-mailing me things. And because he comes from the First Nations culture (the Canadian term for Natives or Indians), all of his stories come from that community. …And this one just grabbed me; it was unlike anything I had read before; unlike anything I had seen before. It totally drew me in, the story and the characters just caught my attention right away.

So the goofy thing is, he was sending me scripts, knowing that I was looking for something to direct, but it actually took me a couple of days to get up the courage to ask him if I could please direct this.

But the bigger issue was, my approach as a director was never to impose my idea of what the story is or who it’s about so what I did, and I think it’s the thing that allowed trust and doors to open, is that I went in asking to be shown, and I did this with the actors too. I sat down with each of them and just had them tell me what their own personal experiences were, and how those related to the story. And tell me what the script meant; I was never telling them was the story was about. They were telling me what the story was about.

The cousins, Adam and Nathan, chew on the question of doing the right thing, as activists, quite a bit.

How different is the right thing for each cousin? Since each of these cousins has a different or disparate idea of what the right thing is, to your mind, how different is that for each cousin?

Well that’s an interesting place to look, isn’t it?

(She takes time to consider.)

WW: Have I thrown you a curve ball?

SM: No, I like that you’re asking good questions; this’s fun!

SM: So the bottom-line is that they both decide to take the same action, so they’re in agreement on what the right thing is, but they come to it from very different places. So the thing that fascinates me about each of their decisions is… There’s so much complexity; we can’t just say, “oh Adam is doing it for this reason, and Nathan’s doing it for this reason.”

I think that Nathan shows up ready to go; he’s there. No questions asked. He’s gonna go through with it. But when we look a little deeper, the reasons that he thinks he has are actually a little thin.

Like he’s making grand statements about this band or that band, but it turns out that he’s actually inaccurate about some of those statistics. So he needs to get a little more solid in his thinking.

Adam’s journey – he’s full of theory, full of rhetoric, full of statistics and he’s really cerebral about the whole thing. And he really needs to connect to the people, and the community, the reason that we do things like this. And I think a big part of that journey happens in Nathan’s story about the little boy who doesn’t have underwear: where his mom says, “I can feed him or I can clothe him.

(There’s a scene where the cousins clash over whether someone’s mom abused them, or simply did the best she could with what little she had. It was an allegory about the practical realities of activism vs. idealism.)

I think that’s where the shift starts for him. He (Adam) really sees his cousin, who he has hasn’t taken very seriously, and he starts to really get him, that there’s something deeper going on here.


SM: Now. So I’m interested in your take on it. Obviously you’ve done a lot of thinking about this. What does it mean that Nathan only goes when he knows it’s gonna be successful?

WW: This is a new experience for me. (Responding to a subject’s question.)

WW: He’s human. When you think that you’re facing an overwhelming opposition, unless you figure that you have God or the gods on your side, you’re not gonna take it upon yourself to stand at the roadblock. I’m not gonna fault Nathan for having chosen kind of an easy way out. Death, or killing someone is a wonderfully easy topic to consider in drama. But when you’re on the scene and you have to actually consider facing someone down who’s aiming a weapon at you…

SM: That’s a good point; I hadn’t thought about it that way. And that’s why the film feels real. A lot of people have said, “this feels personal;” “this feels real.” And I think that’s because these guys don’t ever trivialize violence.

Ms. McIntyre spoke with Joseph Planta, for a Canadian podcast “On the Line;” they agreed in finding the educated cousin, Adam, obnoxious.

I have to pin you to a wall here, because, in your conversation with Mr. Planta, you both described Adam as obnoxious and full of himself… (I liked him.)

SM: What’s the question; do I still feel that way?

WW: Some part of him chafed against you.

SM: The first time I read it, the first impression I got was “this guy is irritating!” He’s sort of pent up, and he’s angry. He’s so tense that his humor is flat and he just sounds sort of abrasive.

…I imagine he’s the kind of guy whose just felt out of place no matter where he is. Growing up on the reserve, with the community of people largely like Nathan, who had very strong opinions about things. He probably really felt out of place. And he was craving more information…

When Sara spoke again with Mr. Planta, she said that Justin Rain, who portrayed Adam, wasn’t her first choice.

How would the film have been different, for good or for ill, if Justin Rain hadn’t been the one to bring Adam to life?

Justin actually was the first person who caught my attention for this role.

So he showed up at a table reading; just a workshop.

(Ah; the truth)

There are so many different layers to it; sometimes I just tell the abbreviated version.

So he showed up at a script workshop that we did months before the audition process. And he caught my attention, because he just is this character, on so many levels; I mean he really gets it. And I discovered that he actually knew about the script maybe a year before I did. So he was very familiar with it. Then, what happened is, I was offered the opportunity to work with someone who has a lot of experience, and has a fanbase, and also is a very good actor, and was right for the part. Completely different kind of energy than Justin.

(She refused to name him.)

His energy was a lot more calm and innocent and wide-eyed and he brings a very youthful, thoughtful – not youthful “naive” – but that wisdom that young people have: just straight forward and honest, and open. And I could see the story going that way, playing against Nathaniel’s grittiness, and that’d be a really fun dynamic to direct.

So I told Justin, “I’ve been offered ‘this name.’” And it works for the story too. For me as a first-time director, having two pretty substantial actors in the film. It felt like that’d be a pretty wise, strategic decision to make.

And Justin just said to me, “Oh, yeah. You have to do that!

So Justin stepped out of the way. And I went through my preparation process with this other actor in mind. And then, honestly, two weeks before we were supposed to go to camera, the other actor had to pull out for a number of reasons. And I called Justin. And I honestly think it turned out for the best.” So it had been Justin’s from the start. A better known, more bankable actor had interrupted the process.

What’s your next project?

I haven’t yet found a script that lit me up the way this one did. So I’m trying to meet with a lot of writers and just form relationships with people who’ve got stories. I worked with writers for a number of years; I co-produced a script-writing workshop, here in Vancouver that was quite rigorous. And I learned a lot about writing from that; and I learned a lot about writers. The biggest thing I learned is that I’m not innately a screenwriter, which I think is a good thing to know. (chuckles)

So I have a couple of stories, that’ve been very well outlined. But I want to hand them over to screenwriters who can turn them into scripts. So my focus is to meet writers, who either have work ready to be optioned, that I can get involved with, or who would like to take my stories and turn them into scripts.

But it feels a lot like chance, a lot like dating…