“Wind River” writer-director Taylor Sheridan believes the awards season has become an effective way to give films extra life, that artists aren’t just looking to clear off mantle space for a trophy; this time of year is a megaphone for their messages.
“When you tell a story, you want the story to be heard,” Sheridan says, calling from Utah, where he’s in production on Paramount TV’s “Yellowstone” series.
To say the least, that becomes a challenge when your distributor ends up so embroiled in scandal that it loses the infrastructure necessary to carry a small film like Sheridan’s through the season.
“Wind River” tells the story of a Native American woman’s rape and murder on the eponymous Indian reservation in Wyoming. The Weinstein Co. acquired the film out of the Cannes Film Market in 2016 and set it for an August release this year, where it outpaced expectations, accruing more than $30 million in domestic box office receipts. The distributor then began to pivot its awards strategy away from the critically maligned “The Current War” to Sheridan’s success story as the season geared up in the wake of the Toronto International Film Festival.
The film’s subject matter was important; Native American women have the highest rate of rape and assault, yet their stories are rarely heard. But once The New York Times broke its exposé on the sexual harassment and assault allegations against TWC chief Harvey Weinstein, it appeared that the journey and message of “Wind River” would get lost in the maelstrom. Sheridan couldn’t stomach it.
“I made a movie about people who have no voice, and the cruel irony of having that voice silenced again by a cruel perpetrator — it was just too much,” he says.
Sheridan went to Weinstein Co. chief operating officer David Glasser with a single option and no room for compromise: He and the film’s financier, Acacia Entertainment, a company backed by the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe, would remove the Weinstein name “in every way” and fund an awards push themselves. Furthermore, future profits would be donated to the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center.
“When you tell a story, you want the story
to be heard.”
“We went through the Rolodex of issues,” Sheridan recalls of his conversation with Glasser. “‘The name is toxic. The name is contrary to what film is about. The name is synonymous with silencing what this movie is about.’” In lieu of taking back the film, he says he was prepared to remove his name and attribute it to the anonymous “Alan Smithee.” He would not have let his name appear next to Weinstein’s on a film. “I couldn’t,” Sheridan says bluntly. “If the movie was going to die, I was going to kill it myself.”
Ultimately that wouldn’t be necessary. Glasser brought the demand to the Weinstein Co. board, and it relented. All promised back-end and bonuses have also been forgone to allow the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe to recover expenses, if it can. Those expenses will include a full-bore screener blast to critics groups, guilds and Academy branches. Sheridan has a new form of empathy for that part of the process now.
“We were all pulling out our wallets going, ‘How much do these things cost?’ I don’t think people realize,” he says. “I’ll never not watch [a screener] again!”
Director Ridley Scott found himself in similar waters with his latest movie, “All the Money in the World,” as sexual assault allegations began to stack up against star Kevin Spacey. Not content to see his work and his financiers’ investment flushed down the toilet, the four-time Oscar nominee took the bold step of recasting with Christopher Plummer and reshooting Spacey’s scenes just six weeks out from release. Though the film is expected to miss a number of early voting deadlines, it will no doubt receive a hero’s welcome for the sheer righteous audacity of it all.
Scott and the film’s producers could not be reached for comment as production geared up, again, in London.