The West looms large in the world of Taylor Sheridan.
The actor turned screenwriter turned director — who grew up on a ranch near Cranfills Gap in Bosque County, attended Fort Worth’s Paschal High School, and now lives in the wilds of Wyoming — has used the region as a vivid backdrop for his storytelling.
But it’s not the West of Monument Valley and the Mojave Desert, but the West of drug traffickers, economic dislocation and racial friction that populates his fiction.
His first screenplay, for the 2015 film “Sicario” starring Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro and Josh Brolin, was set at the front lines of the cartel war along the border badlands between the U.S. and Mexico. His second, the Oscar-nominated “Hell or High Water” with Chris Pine, Ben Foster and Jeff Bridges, followed the exploits of two bank-robbing brothers in West Texas.
Now, his latest film, the murder mystery “Wind River” starring Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen and opening Aug. 11 in North Texas, is the final chapter in what Sheridan says is his trilogy about the modern American frontier. However, it stands apart from his previous productions as it’s his first time in the director’s chair of a major feature film and it’s set on and around an American Indian reservation in Wyoming.
“I don’t think you can look at the frontier without looking at the reservations, the life on it and the injustices of it,” said Sheridan, 48, by phone from a set in Montana where he is at work on another Western project called “Yellowstone,” the debut series for the new Paramount Network, coming in 2018. “So it felt like a fitting conclusion.
“I’m writing about places that I know,” he continued. “I was raised in Texas, moved to Wyoming and these were areas that I knew. I know these mountains well. I know this place, and it’s an incredible place. It’s an incredibly harsh place at times, just in terms of landscape. And [it’s about] people whose story is not being told and a people who, in a lot of circumstances, are in very dire circumstances.”
The other America
Renner plays a Wyoming fish and wildlife ranger who is asked to help a young FBI agent from Fort Lauderdale by way of Las Vegas, played by Olsen, investigate the rape and murder of a young American Indian woman. Much as in “Sicario,” in which the FBI agent played by Blunt found herself plunged into a nightmarish, morally muddy universe that collided with her middle-class, by-the-book expectations, Olsen’s Jane Banner must come to terms with something about which she’s never given more than a passing thought: the legacy of the hundreds of years of bad blood and broken promises between whites and American Indians.
She is a stand-in for America’s collective consciousness. “There’s no way to describe the reservation,” says Sheridan, who says he has had American Indian friends who’ve lived on reservations and that he has spent quite a bit of time on them. “People won’t believe that it exists. They won’t believe a place with that much inequity exists in the United States, with that much exploitation. And yet, it’s a community that’s fighting; they don’t give up.”
As Sheridan is not American Indian, he says he felt internal pressure to get the portrayal correct. “I know I had to be respectful with their culture,” he said. “I have Native American friends that I can turn to and say, ‘Hey man, give this a read. What do you think?’ I didn’t do this in a vacuum.”
He submitted the script to the tribal council for the Eastern Shoshone tribe, the group that lives in the Wind River area of Wyoming, for its approval. “I wanted them to read it and I wanted their blessing,” he said. “They were very happy that someone was telling their story.”
While Renner and Olsen are the box-office lures, it’s the presence of such American Indian actors as Gil Birmingham (who played Jeff Bridges’ stoic deputy in “Hell or High Water”), Graham Greene (“Dances With Wolves,” “The Green Mile”), and Martin Sensmeier (“The Magnificent Seven”) that’s especially notable. Sheridan says it would be great if an American Indian director with a Native American cast could get a movie green-lighted in Hollywood.
“Here’s the thing. Gil Birmingham is reaching a level of notoriety. Martin Sensmeier, that kid’s a movie star. As these actors get more opportunities, they’ll reach that place,” says Sheridan. “When we truly reach a place of equality — and we don’t have it in society, that’s why we don’t have it in films — it won’t have to be a Native American story [for Hollywood] to hire a Native American actor.”
Terrain and weather also play starring roles in “Wind River.” The mountainous vistas are often stunningly gorgeous, even as some of humankind’s most monstrous acts — such as the murder of a young woman — take place in their shadows.
On the first day of shooting, though, Sheridan was reminded by Mother Nature who’s boss. “My issue was it would snow incredibly hard for 15 minutes and then the sun would come out. So, of course, nothing’s matching,” he recalled. “I had to put a giant shade over everybody when the sun came out and then get a big fan and make fake snow until it started really snowing again. ... It’s like a boxing match. I got beat up in round one but I got used to the pace.”
All of it together — story and geography — paints a picture of a specific version of the West that’s often beautiful yet brutal. But Sheridan says it’s a shared humanity that audiences all over can relate to. “There are assumptions made about people based on the region they live in and they are largely incorrect,” he said. “You can go to New York, if you’re from Texas, and there’s a perception. And I just don’t think that people are that different. ... There’s a shared experience that we all have and the world will be a better place the more we recognize that.”
As with “Sicario” and “Hell or High Water,” “Wind River” is generally receiving strong reviews. Sheridan even picked up the Un Certain Regard/Best Director award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
“That was the most terrifying experience in my life,” he said of the world-renowned festival where audiences are known for not hiding their derision or anger. “I didn’t know how it was going to go over. I thought the Oscars were nerve-wracking but it’s not as nerve-wracking as that red carpet at Cannes. [The studio] pulled me aside and said, ‘These audiences, they boo, they may throw stuff at the screen. Don’t take it personally.’
“They didn’t throw tomatoes at me and there was a standing ovation,” he continued. “It was overwhelming and a tremendous feeling of relief.”
Speaking of awards, Sheridan said he was not at all disappointed that “Hell or High Water,” which was nominated for four Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay, went home empty-handed on Oscar night.
“It was a great year for movies,” he said. “You look at the competition and there were just so many styles of film. You are really happy to [just] be in the room and have the film recognized.”
Up next for Sheridan is the follow-up to “Sicario” called “Soldado,” which Sheridan wrote but didn’t direct. While it once again stars Brolin and Del Toro, Sheridan says it’s a mistake to call it a sequel. “It’s a stand-alone piece,” he said. “It’s hard to call it a sequel as it doesn’t relate to the first one.”
Then there’s the 10-episode “Yellowstone” starring Kevin Costner, which Sheridan calls “ ‘The Great Gatsby’ on the largest ranch in Montana.”
Yet while he admits being a feature-film director is “a really daunting process,” he expects to keep doing it — along with writing and acting (until he wrote “Sicario,” he was best known as Deputy Chief David Hale in the series “Sons of Anarchy” and he has a role in the upcoming Afghan War drama “Horse Soldiers” with Chris Hemsworth).
“One of the beauties of [directing] is I’m not trying to figure out what the writer’s thinking,” he said. “But then I have to go execute it. It’s the most singular vision you’ll ever get onscreen but if it doesn’t work, there’s no one to blame but yourself.”