Interview: Russell Friedenberg discusses filmmaking, Native Americans in movies, and his horror movie Wind Walkers

"I’ve always believed that horror is a really underused genre when it comes to getting political. I mean you can’t watch a sci-fi movie without it having a political subcurrent. But why not horror?"

Russell Friedenberg is one of those rare filmmakers who has an impressive resume, unique visions for his movies, and a sense of humility that is rare to find in Hollywood. His recent film, Wind Walkers, is one of this years’ 8 Films to Die For. Wanting to learn more about his career and his thoughts on filmmaking, Friedenberg allowed me to interview him for ScifiPulse

You can learn more about Friedenberg’s work by checking out his IMDB page, and you can follow him on twitter at @RussellFriedenb.

Nicholas Yanes: When did you know that you wanted to make a career in the entertainment industry?

Russell Friedenberg: I grew up in a home with artists. My mom is a playwright and my father was among other things a writer and a very scholarly person. It was a home where big ideas were shared. I’m very lucky to have had that orientation. My dad used to always say ‘don’t get into the arts unless you have something to say.’ I always thought that was pretty solid advice and probably why I’m a theme writer. All that said, I never imagined myself sitting in a room alone for days and months on end with only my thoughts as companions. I thought my mom and dad were nuts! I was a very hyperactive kid, so what they did seemed like truly bizarre behavior to me. Ha, but here I sit!

Yanes: Was there a specific film or TV show you saw that pushed you in this direction?

Friedenberg: Not really. I mean, I was incredibly affected by films like Lawrence of Arabia, Jaws, Deliverance, The African Queen, and Apocalypse Now. Films that took their heroes and heroines into unknown lands and saw them rise up against unfathomable challenges. I’ve always connected to this darkly poetic idea of man vs. nature. I’ve always loved storytelling and come from a theatre background. I’m not the SPC FX guy that wants to make movies or the camera geek that wants to try out lenses, I’m all about story. That’s what gets me jazzed daily.

Yanes: On this topic, how did you get your first foot in the door?

Friedenberg: There was a crystallizing moment. I was living in South Carolina and working in a bar when Alan Graf, a seismic character and legendary stunt coordinator walked into the bar and hired myself and the bar manager at the time to work with him on supervising local football talent for a huge Disney production called, The Program. From there, I went from that to being on camera for the better part of a decade to my first script being accepted into the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. It actually just kind of took on a life of its own. I kind of jumped on the boat and headed down river.

Yanes: Your career goes back to the 1990s, what have you learned over the years about movie production that has helped you become a better film maker?

Friedenberg: Yea, I’ve been involved in nearly every facet of film for literally 23 years now. It’s been half my life. I’ve learned a ton from my experiences throughout those years. The most important things I’ve learned I’ve learned outside of the industry. Namely, have a life. Stories don’t come from watching other movies – they come from living. The only thing that makes you a good storyteller is being in life. I find so much of what’s out there to be totally derivative. There is a template now that we’ve digested – its scarily formulaic – we know exactly when the beats and reversals need to occur in the three act structure of a screenplay. The audience is so pavlovian that if it doesn’t happen in the appropriate place, they begin to shut down. You can feel it in the theatre.

But life doesn’t imitate art like that. The beats of life are random, unfathomable, frightening and illogical. Our stories should reflect the beauty and chaos of our lives, not be ripped from the studio’s superhero playbook. So, yea, learn your craft and then toss that shit to the wind and go live.

Yanes: Your recent movie is Wind Walkers and it is part of 2015’s 8 Films to Die For. Could you take a moment to discuss why After Dark Horrorfest’s 8 Films to Die For is so important for indie film makers?

Friedenberg: Stephanie Caleb is a fantastic producer. I’ve had the privilege to get to know her. She runs that ship with integrity. For me that’s everything. Look, there’s a ton of stuff out there and it’s always a coup when you find distribution for these little movies. The 8 Films To Die For brand is a rock solid brand. Film makers and audiences know that the brand is all about pushing the boundaries both in storytelling and in shock value. I like that and think it’s needed. After Dark is like the crazy ass special team player you send downfield first! You know they’re gonna knock some heads and make big plays.

Yanes: In regards to Wind Walkers, what was the creative origin for this film? Given that the main character was in the military, were you influenced by current military actions?

Friedenberg: This is definitely my war movie. It’s a shame that today movies like Coming Home and The Deer Hunter would never be made unless they had zombies in them. I wish I was joking! A couple things inspired me here. I’ve always believed that horror is a really underused genre when it comes to getting political. I mean you can’t watch a sci-fi movie without it having a political subcurrent. But why not horror?…so there was that.

Secondarily, I’ve always been interested in the theme of blowback. How historically through expansion and colonization we invaded lands, decimated indigenous cultures, took what we wanted and fucked off. Not much has changed. But to me, murder is unnatural. Raping the land is unnatural and there must be some sort of consequences. So the myth of the Wind Walker came from this. The idea of a spirit conjured to take revenge against foreign invaders. A virus shows up and the planets antibodies go to work. It is the ultimate form of blowback.

Yanes: On this note, are there any classic films that you feel inspired you as you created Wind Walkers?

Friedenberg: Oh yea. For sure. The Thing, Predator, Marathon Man, Apocalypse Now…all these movies influenced me. Even my hero’s name, Kotz is a derivation of Kurtz (Brando in Apocalypse Now). He’s traveling down the river Styx, into the heart of darkness.   John Carpenters The Thing was probably the most influential and for me, is a perfect movie because of its theme. That movie was made in 1982 at the apex of the cold war. As Roger Ebert so astutely said, ‘the thing looked and sounded like your best friend but they were infected with a deadly secret.’ The movie reflects the paranoia of the times which is what makes it poignant. So, yea, movies that are entertaining but when you peel back the layers there’s a whole lot of stuff happening. That was always the goal with Wind Walkers to entertain while making you think.

Yanes: A producer on Wind Walkers is Heather Rae. In addition to Rae being of Cherokee descent, the film’s story invokes Native American culture. In your opinion, what are some ways a story can incorporate Native American elements without turning these people into caricatures?

Friedenberg: Ha! Heather Rae is my lovely and dear wife of 17 years!!! So, yea, she has had an influence on me! We’ve done a number of stories together that are native themed or include native characters; Trudell, First Circle, Ibid, and Wind Walkers are a few of them. Her film, Frozen River is a great movie that really highlights a world of indigenous characters that we haven’t seen before. It was nominated for two academy awards. Just goes to show, when you break the mold and tell it fresh, there will always be an audience.

Yanes: Moreover, what are some steps film makers in general can do to better represent Indigenous people?

Wind Walker film

Friedenberg: I’d like to see indigenous folks represented in a modern day context. Indigenous people are here. They aren’t a thing of the past. There’s something like 400 million indigenous people on the planet. I think we need to get them out of the loin clothes and this idea of the savage or the sage mystic. They are just as weird, lovely and troubled as the rest of us. Let’s hear their stories.

Yanes: When people finish watching Wind Walkers, what feeling do you hope they have at the end of this movie?

Friedenberg: The ending is deliberately ambiguous. The feeling one may have is one of surprise. This is not a Hollywood ending. It’s more Kubrickian. Which is much more in line with the theme. As John Trudell says, ‘we won’t destroy the planet, only our ability to live on the planet.’ Take the ending how you will, I know what happens next. And I’d love an opportunity to tell that story!

Yanes: Finally, what are some other projects you are working on that people should keep an eye out for?

Friedenberg: I have a horror/thriller called Woman of the Woods that I’m putting together right now with Lena Headey in the lead. Super excited about that. I recently went out with a TV project called The Greys that I hope to be making in the next year and my wife and I are working on a docu-series about the Foster care system here in Los Angeles. Lots going on… Lots of stories to tell!

Remember, you can follow him on twitter at @RussellFriedenb.

And remember to follow me on twitter @NicholasYanes, and to follow Scifipulse on twitter @SciFiPulse and on facebook.

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