Taylor Sheridan On His Remarkable Start With ‘Wind River,’ ‘Sicario,’ And ‘Hell Or High Water’

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It really is remarkable that Taylor Sheridan’s first two screenwriting credits are Sicaro and Hell or High Water – two scripts that went on to be successful and critically lauded films (directed by Denis Villeneuve and David Mackenzie, respectively.)

With Wind River, Sheridan is taking the director’s chair himself – but it’s been a rough road. Wind River ran out of money, so the production company submitted it, unfinished, to the Sundance Film Festival in an effort to raise the money to finish the feature, which they did. (I saw the film at Sundance and didn’t even realize it was unfinished.)

Wind River begins with the ghastly death of a young Native American woman who’s found frozen to death on the plains of Wyoming. Jeremy Renner plays Cory Lambert, a local Fish and Wildlife agent tapped to investigate the murder alongside a green FBI agent, Jane Banner, played by Elizabeth Olsen. The two must navigate the tricky rules and laws of a murder that happened on a Native American reservation while also dealing with government appointed oil workers who may know something about what happened.

Ahead, Sheridan explains why this was the movie of his first three scripts he felt he had to direct, and he also touches on the serious subject of depicting sexual assault on film and the difference between trying to advance a story and being gratuitous.

After Sicario and Hell or High Water did you come to a realization you should just be directing these yourself?

You know, I think I always knew I was going to direct this from when I wrote it. I had some good friends in Indian country that I leaned on to make sure that I got this right. And there was some concern: How am I going to get that lucky again with directors who see my screenplay the way I see it? I couldn’t risk that if someone had a different vision than I did for this particular film. So that’s really the reason behind making the decision to direct it.

Why did you feel that way about Wind River and not the other two?

Well, realistically speaking, just to talk about it from a business standpoint, nobody at that point in time would have trusted me with their money to go direct it. So it’s a moot point even if I had wanted to because I didn’t have anything that had come out. So once Sicario came out and did well, then people started to trust me. Then with Hell or High Water‘s success, they’re like, “Okay, we trust him.” So there’s that element.

Do you feel that Sicario and Hell or High Water captured your vision?

Well, there’s always going to be a unique imprint when another filmmaker directs your words. That said, it’s interesting because if you look at the screenplay of Wind River – you saw it in Sundance, so it wasn’t finished then…

Really? I didn’t know that.

Well, no one knew it. I was in a pickle and I was having an issue trying to get things worked out with the distributor, so we submitted it because we were out of money to finish. And then once Harvey Weinstein picked up the film, then he let me back in to finish the film, which I’m deeply grateful for. So I would love for you to see it again.

Are there major differences?

I mean, there were some areas in the film where I felt the transitions were clunky because I didn’t have the money to fix these things. There were some scenes that needed to be further edited. There were visual effects I couldn’t afford. It’s just more refined. It’s a sleeker, leaner version of what you saw.

You mentioned friends in the Native American community. What stories had they told you where you decided you wanted to tell a movie set there?

You know, I am from the school of hyper-realistic, hyper-naturalistic. I exhaustively research. But really, from the perspective of trying to create an authentic sense of the reservation – and I’ve spent enough time on the reservation to know anyone that’s not familiar with a region is going to have stereotypical beliefs about that region, because that’s what’s been portrayed in the past. And I really wanted to show an authentic sense of it and break those stereotypes.

You seem to like the Mexican standoff. This happens a lot in your movies.

You know what I love doing? I love magnifying tension. I’m going to tell you for 15 minutes the big fight’s coming, as opposed to having it come from nowhere. And I love that powder keg feel. When I watch a movie, I love getting to that place to where I’m like, oh my God, what’s going to happen next? Such an exciting moment. And if you look at some of the masters of doing it, Michael Mann is a master of it. If you’ll look at the bank heist, and ultimately the shootout after they rob the bank at the end of Heat, it’s one of the most masterful things I’ve ever seen.

The whole story centers around a brutal murder of a woman and involves a rape scene, and there are many online discussions about the portrayal of rape on film, the line between gratuitous and serving the story. I want to get your opinion on that.

Well, it’s a great question. And if you’ll think about this, and here is my approach, because I 100 percent agree. I have seen rape depicted in film that looks like it’s glorifying it. And I’ve seen the opposite version of that. If you look at that French film, Irréversible, where it’s shot as such an act of violence and I’m forced to watch it for so long, it’s so uncomfortable. If we’re going to take cinematic responsibility out of it for a second – and that’s a choice, and that director has every right to defend that choice, because he showed it. This is what it is. His intention was my intention. Hey, guys, this is not an act of love. This is not a sex act; this is an act of violence. And I wanted to convey the exact same thing. And people have told me how graphic and how shocking this scene is in my film, but if you go back and actually watch it, you’ll see, you never see it. There is no nudity. I hold the camera on her face. I let the actress convey the terror. I put the camera on his face to let his face convey the violence. There is no nudity. We never see it.

Did you have an internal debate whether you wanted to shoot that scene or not?

No. I knew exactly how I was going to do it from day one. I was more clear about how I was shooting that than probably anything else in the film. It’s the cornerstone of the film. The way to tell the story is dependent on that sequence, and now we know what we’re investigating. That’s the traditional way to tell the story. To me, what it does uniquely is we don’t know what happened to her. We’re trying to discover it. But on the way to discovering what happened, we’re watching the real effect of loss and how it permeates through a family. Then I show you her at her most hopeful in life: in love, a young woman trying to forge a future and finding someone she wants to forge it with. And you get a sense of the person. You never actually see her die in the movie.

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