Wilds of Wyoming: Oscar nominee Taylor Sheridan goes behind the camera for taut thriller 'Wind River'

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The first outlaws Taylor Sheridan rode with were motorized—the Sons of Anarchy, a cyclist club that stirred up much dust on the airwaves from 2008 to 2014. He played a charter member but didn’t feel he got his proper due, so he started shopping around for greener paying pastures and eventually landed in the treacherously chancy field of screenwriting on spec. He’s done three scripts so far. All sold—plus he got to direct the last. That’s what happens if you know what you’re writing about.

“One could say Woody Allen is from New York City and makes movies about the world he knows,” Sheridan says, pointing to the opposite extreme. “I seem to be doing the same thing. I’m from the West. I live in the West—Wyoming, California, Utah. I can’t say that I have a fully fledged plan here, but the West is what I know.”

This lean, intense, craggy-faced man of 47 seems to wear his roots. Home was a ranch outside of Cransfills Gap, Texas (pop. 281), an hour west of Waco (which could account for why the men in his movies are so unassailably male). “There’s a certain sense of masculinity that exists there. It’s distinct from the definition of masculinity in some large urban centers where a different skill set is required to be successful.”

His first three flicks out of the chute constitute a trilogy of sorts on the modern American frontier: Sicario (2015) explored escalating drug wars along the Mexican-U.S. border; Hell or High Water (2016) told of two brothers who rob banks in rural Texas to save their farm from foreclosure; Wind River, opening on August 4 from The Weinstein Company, is a snowmobile police chase into the Wyoming wilds for the rapists of a Native American woman.

The first film won Sheridan a Writers Guild of America Award nomination, the second an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay, and the third Un Certain Regard for Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival. This is certainly progress. Will the trilogy have any postscripts, or will he do a romantic comedy?

“I don’t see a lot of romantic comedies in my future,” he drily cracks. “I was looking specifically at three regions and the consequences of settling those three regions.”

Wind River begins with that licensed-to-kill cautionary warning, “Inspired by Actual Events,” but Sheridan is quick to clarify the truth of it: “The story itself is fiction. I made it up, but it’s not hard to find rape and murder on an Indian reservation. I lived close to a ‘rez’ and would read stories all the time of girls missing, then turning up dead. It’s not an unusual story. It’s a daily story. It’s an epidemic. That’s the most common story on the ‘rez.’ What’s uncommon is for Indian women to die of old age.”

Tragically—as Sheridan duly notes in the closing credits—there seems to be no existing demographic for Native American women who disappear. “There’s no telling how many are missing,” he notes. “I discovered that fact when I tried to find the statistic. I called the Department of Justice—everyone. No one keeps track.”  

In charge of this particular investigation is a rather improbable FBI agent: a twenty-something blonde from Fort Lauderdale (the perfectly cast Elizabeth Olsen). When she realizes she’s way out of her element on these slippery, snow-blanketed slopes, she teams up with the grizzled game trapper who patrols the area and found the body (an effortlessly brilliant Jeremy Renner), and, together with the local sheriff (an unrecognizable Graham Greene, wonderful as ever), they pursue the bad guys.

With Renner and Olsen top-cast in a high-altitude thriller, it’s not unreasonable to expect a kind of sexual chemistry to kick in, but this is where writer-director Sheridan flashes his integrity badge. “It’s not about that,” he argues. “People might perceive that. Maybe I trick the audience into thinking it’s coming, but I never came close. From Jeremy’s standpoint, his character is still in love with his estranged Indian wife—and the last thing a 25-year-old girl from Florida wants to do is to marry some 46-year-old game tracker. Those professions couldn’t be farther apart. I don’t think there was ever anything but a mutual respect for what the other does.”

The sense of place in the film is the driving constant. “It was a brutal location,” Sheridan notes. “When Lizzie signed on, she told me, ‘I gotta be honest with you: I don’t like the cold.’ I said, ‘It’s really not cold. The funny thing is, it feels like spring. There’s really a lot of heat coming off the snow.’ I just flat-out lied. I wanted her that bad. She got there and yelled, ‘You’re a lying son of a bitch! It’s really, really cold.’”

At one point, the actress even experienced snow-blindness. “That’s what happens when sunlight keeps reflecting off the snow and into your eyes,” Sheridan explains. “It’s like staring at the sun too long. We were doing a snowmobile scene, and all of a sudden she couldn’t see. I told her, ‘You don’t need to see anything in this scene. You’ll be fine. Jeremy’s driving. He doesn’t have snow-blindness. Don’t worry.’”

Renner was Sheridan’s first choice for the lead. “He’s a wildly talented actor and a very skilled actor as well—those things can be mutually exclusive,” he notes. “At the time, he was not available. He was doing Arrival, so Chris Pine was suggested. I knew his work—obviously, Hell or High Water—so I tried to put the film together before he had to go and do Wonder Woman. It didn’t work, but when he left to do Wonder Woman, Jeremy became available. We sat down and saw the film the same way.”

By the time Sicario and Hell or High Water were finished, the Hollywood brass knew Sheridan had a voice and trusted it. Directing seemed like a logical progression.

Having been both actor and screenwriter definitely dovetailed into a directing skill set. “I understand what an actor goes through. I know the difference between good dialogue and bad because I’ve been paid to say both. I’ve an edge on understanding dialogue—from the perspective of the person shooting it and the person speaking it.

“Also, I write like a director. When you read a script I wrote, it feels director-driven. Obviously, my producers trusted me, and this time out one of them actually was a filmmaker, Peter Berg, who did Friday Night Lights, a true depiction of Texas life.”

The 40-day shoot was based in Park City, Utah, where the film later premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to a generous share of hosannas. “It’s reaffirming to know you’ve created something that’s entertaining and, hopefully, insightful. Then you’re off to the next one, and it’s the same panic of being able to serve a story well.

“I don’t think we actually shot in Park City. We shot along the Wyoming/Utah border, and 50 miles to the east. The Wind River Indian Reservation is in Wyoming, but the reality was that it’s not feasible to shoot there. I didn’t have enough money to go shoot in Wyoming. I didn’t have a rebate. I didn’t have the resources. I didn’t have a crew. I shot a little in Wyoming—as much as I could. The realities of filmmaking are budgeting. There’s a crew base in Utah. There’s a rebate. There are stages. It’s a very film-savvy state. And, weather-wise, it was far more film-friendly. To shoot it on the ‘rez’ would have been ideal, but we couldn’t afford it.”

Television will be keeping Sheridan home on the range for a while. He’s writing and directing a limited series of ten episodes for Kevin Costner called “Yellowstone.” It’s about a Montana ranching family fending off those who’d encroach on their turf.