Interview: Filmmaker Sterlin Harjo

Sterlin Harjo at Sundance in 2007

Sterlin Harjo is an Oklahoma filmmaker with two extraordinary feature films under his belt. His first, Four Sheets to the Wind, is about a young man struggling to connect to the world after the loss of his father; Barking Water tells of two elderly lovers on a last road trip. Both are set against the background of Oklahoma Native Americans (Harjo belongs to the Seminole and Creek Nations), but they’re not special-interest films at all; they’re universal stories about feelings that we all have, against a unique and vivid cultural background.

Here’s the trailer for Four Sheets to the Wind:


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One of the things that impressed me about the films was the tightness of the stories; it’s one thing to do a tight script, it’s another to do a tight one that feels loose, the way reality feels loose. Both Harjo’s films seem to have a leisurely pace, presenting the unhurried minutiae of the characters’ lives, but by the end it all matters and it all has weight. It’s also significant that, whether due to budget or aesthetics,  the movies are filled with the look, sounds and locations of real life.

Here’s an example of the kind of realistic detail you won’t find in mainstream commercial cinema.  In Four Sheets to the Wind, a character is awakened by a noise; now, strictly speaking, it could be any noise, from a barking dog to a coffee maker. But Harjo uses a truck’s squealing fan belt. Most mainstream filmmakers would have no idea what this sound even is, let alone what causes it, or what its presence says about the socioeconomic position of the family. It’s a tiny real-life detail that conveys an awful lot in a simple noise.

See the trailer for Barking Water:


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Sterlin was kind enough to answer some questions for me about his approach to writing.

AB: Your two feature films have the common story element of people struggling to communicate. In Four Sheets to the Wind, Cufe is desperate for someone to really listen to him, and in Barking Water, Frankie and Irene are trying to repair a lifetime of miscommunication. Why is that theme of such interest to you?

SH: Not sure. There are a couple of themes that I deal with: communication/language and death. They always seem to find there way into my work.

I know you share a cultural background with your films’ subjects; how much of the actual stories also come from real life?

A lot of the characters are based on personalities that Im familiar with. Cufe in Four Sheets is based off my cousin, with a little bit of me in the mix. All the films have scenes or stories that have been adapted from real life. That’s really the only way I can write. That’s why my stories are culturally specific and set in Oklahoma.

One element that gives your films such impact is that, for the most part, everything is underplayed. There’s not a lot of histrionics, which is one reason the climax of Barking Water is so powerful. Do you know it’s going to have that tone from the moment you envision a story, or does it arise out of the material?

I always take the low key route. I just like subtlety. I am always striving to be truthful. I love how older Indians in my family tell stories. It can be about anything… about nothing, but the way they tell it makes it compelling. I love the films of John Cassavetes and Jim Jarmusch. Very different filmmakers, but neither care much for false reactions or theatrics. Both seem very real, in very different ways.

You mentioned Cassavetes: his films feel like they’re improvised, yet they’re not: pretty much everything is scripted. How do you use improvisation in your films?

I do improv, like Cassevetes, in rehearsal. But most everything is written.

One of my favorite comments about writing comes from screenwriter/director David Koepp, who was urged to eliminate the heavy Chicago accents in his film, Stir of Echoes: paraphrased, he says that the more specific you are with your characters’ reality, the more the audience will see the universal in them. As a reader/viewer, I’ve found that to be true, and I try to embrace it in my own writing. What do you think about that idea, and how does the concept apply to your work?

I agree. I think the more specific you get the more universal your story/film is. I always try to write from the characters perspective. Not the audience perspective. Because if you create a world where people can go into they will get into the film more.

Currently Harjo’s work is regularly featured at This Land, an Oklahoma-based arts project that includes a TV series of short documentaries (I’m partial to Indian Elvis).  I appreciate him stopping by to answer some questions, and look forward to his future work.

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