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On the margins: A chat with Sydney Freeland

New Mexico actor Jeremiah Bitsui, left, and Carmen Moore act in a scene from Sydney Freeland’s movie “Drunktown’s Finest,” which was partially filmed in Santa Fe.

SANTA FE, N.M. — Filmmaker Sydney Freeland, who grew up on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico, is not into caricatures or stereotypes.

From her early short films, like “Hoverboard,” to her breakthrough feature “Drunktown’s Finest,” which follows an adopted Native woman, a young father-to-be and a trans woman who dreams of being a model, Freeland has avoided one-dimensional characters and taken a thoughtful look at the stories of people from marginalized communities. Her recent directing credits include “Her Story” and “Grey’s Anatomy.” Most recently, Freeland helmed an episode of Netflix’s “Chambers,” a supernatural thriller starring San Carlos Apache actress Sivan Alyra Rose. High Country News recently spoke to Freeland about her career. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

High Country News: What do you look for in projects? Is it character? Story? What are the qualities that pull you in?

Sydney Freeland

Sydney Freeland: In terms of the projects I’m attracted to, it’s definitely if there’s an outsider character or a character that comes from a marginalized background. Those are the projects I really like, because myself I’m Native American, I’m transgender, so I’m a minority of a minority. A lot of times in TV shows and movies, Native Americans are either the wise elder or the noble maiden, or some sort of caricature or stereotype. And the same thing with trans women; it’s certainly changed, but they tended to be more marginalized – caricatures as opposed to characters. So if there’s anything in that space that has to do with an outsider character, I really love working in that space. If there’s any chance to portray a character with humanity that comes from a marginalized community, I love doing that kind of stuff. When I directed an episode of “Chambers,” they were really big on saying, “We’ve got Native American characters, but it’s not about them being Native, they’re just characters,” and that to me was really cool. On top of that, you have someone like Sivan, who brings a groundedness and authenticity to a character like Sasha Yazzie.

HCN: Is that the philosophy that drives your past work and future projects?

SF: I think so. Content with that approach to a character is very interesting to me.

HCN: Prior to this interview, I asked you about a favorite movie of yours. Your pick was Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s film “Amorres Perros.” How did it impact your work?

SF: I don’t know that I’d say it’s my favorite movie, but in terms of having an influence, that would definitely be up there. I don’t know if I have a favorite move per se. When I started work on my first feature, “Drunktown’s Finest,” one of the things that was important to me was I knew I wanted to tell a story about the reservation. To me, the reservation is this super diverse, super dynamic place where you have all these different communities interacting with each other, and I wanted to try and capture some of that. So, initially, when I started writing the script, I had one character and I was basically getting this one character to go to all these places on the reservation. About this time, I saw “Amores Perros” for the first time. For people who aren’t familiar with the story, it’s about three very different characters who all live in Mexico City, and their story lines interact and intersect with each other. I basically shoplifted that template and applied it to Gallup, New Mexico. That’s where I got the three characters from, and they were supposed to represent three different extremes in the community. So, I would say, just in terms of pure influence, that film is definitely up there – and just admiring Alejandro González Iñárritu. I love his work.

HCN: How does directing feature films compare to directing television?

SF: It’s a little bit apples and oranges. With something like “Drunktown,” it’s a feature film. I wrote and directed it. That’s very different than directing for TV. With feature films, you’re casting the film, your location-scouting the film, you’re picking the wardrobe, you’re going to auditions – all the way down to choosing what color the salt and pepper shakers are on the kitchen table. Then, the actual shooting of the film itself, and then afterwards you’re there for weeks and months of editing, and then color correction, and then sound mixing and visual effects, until the film is finished. The TV work is different because you’re sort of coming in for a section of that process. You’re coming into a world that’s already been created: The casting has largely been done, the locations have largely already been picked, and the tone and the visual aesthetic of the show has been established. So, it’s your job to come in and adhere to that process. But it’s also a lot of fun. You’ll come in and then you’ll direct an episode of TV and then, typically, for an hourlong drama, you’ll get, like, four days to do your edit as opposed to a feature film, where you get 10 weeks for a director’s cut. One of the things I really love about working in TV is that it forces me to do things I wouldn’t normally do, and that has allowed me to grow as an artist. TV and film are very different from each other, but they’re both very enjoyable.

HCN: I’ve always wondered about the process of being a director on a TV show. It seemed to me that you have to jump into someone else’s world and figure it out fast. Is that the process?

SF: It’s sort of like jumping onto a merry-go-round that’s already spinning around; you’re just looking for that part where you can jump in as opposed to building the merry-go-round and getting on the merry-go-round and pushing the merry-go-round yourself. That part of it is definitely different. But one of the things I really love about TV is that because every show has its own tone, visual style and aesthetic style, it forces me as a director to do things I wouldn’t normally do. Specifically, I just finished a show where they wanted to move the camera all of the time, meaning we have a lot of dolly-moves, and Steadicam and tracking shots, and I’m currently working on another show where they intentionally do not want to move the camera. It’s all about the framing. So there are things I learned on both of those shoots; I learned new techniques and new ways of approaching material on both of those, and it kind of gives you all these cool little tools that you can put in your toolbox. That part of the process is a lot of fun. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a lot of work, but it’s also a lot of fun.

HCN: Who are some of your cinematic influences and inspirations?

SF: I always kind of struggle with this question. I feel like, for a lot of people, it’s always like, “There was this movie I saw when I was young,” like, “I saw ‘ Jaws’ or ‘ Raiders of the Lost Ark,’ and that made me want to go into film.” I didn’t really have that experience. For me, it was more the process: I fell in love with the process of making films. Filmmaking is a collaborative medium, and I love working with other people when you’re all working together with this focus towards this singular goal. That was my primary influence.

I grew up on the Navajo rez in New Mexico, and the concept of filmmaking was completely foreign. I would go to movies and I’d watch, and I’d see all these names on the screen – and it meant nothing to me, because it wasn’t a possibility. But I did have a lot of artists in my family, painters and drawers; I’ve got a cousin who’s a really renowned artist, and my father did a lot of painting and drawing, as well. So I went to school to study painting and drawing, and discovered I’m not the best painter or drawer. But along the way, I discovered all these other things. I took classes in computer art and computer animation, and photography and creative writing, and these were all mind-blowing classes that I didn’t even know existed. My final semester of undergrad, I took a class called “Video” and it basically combined all those things I just mentioned into one thing. And I was like, “I don’t know what this is, but I want to do this.” That’s kind of what got me into film, so that’s what I mean when I say it wasn’t necessarily a movie or a filmmaker.

HCN: Do you have feature projects in the works, or will you keep working in television?

SF: I have a few projects. I have a couple of features, a TV series and a TV pilot that we’re all trying to get off the ground, but it’s been tough to find time because I’ve been working. Right now, we have a block of seven TV shows I’m directing; it started in August of last year with “Chambers” and, right now, I’m directing the sixth of seven shows.

HCN: What do you wish more people knew about you that they don’t?

SF: I wish more people would have the opportunity to watch some of the features I’ve done, like ” Drunktown’s Finest .” That was something I wrote and directed, and going into that film, I had a really clear objective – saying, “I want to tell a story about the reservation, but I don’t want it to be tragic. I don’t want to have a tragic ending, I don’t want to make poverty porn; A: Because it would be too easy; and B: It’s already been done. It’s literally every documentary by non-Natives on Native Americans.” But at the same time, I didn’t want to tell a story where everybody lived happily ever after, because that would also be disingenuous and would gloss over a lot of the issues that are going on back home. So it was sort of like finding this middle ground – this middle ground that wasn’t quite tragic, but wasn’t quite happily ever after. I guess my hope is someone might see that film and something in that resonates with them, or they’re able to connect with some aspect of the characters in that movie.

HCN: Would you say you were successful in exploring that middle ground in that first film?

SF: That’s what is so great about film: It’s not for me to decide. It’s the audience that makes that decision. The goal for me was to try and leave the audience with a sense of hope. Whether or not that happens with an audience member is completely out of my hands. But, man, when something you intended resonates with someone else, that’s the best thing an artist can hope for.

Tristan Ahtone is a member of the Kiowa Tribe and associate editor of the High Country News tribal affairs desk. Email him at tristanahtone@hcn.org or submit a letter to the editor. This article was first published in High Country News (hcn.org) on June 10.

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