Riley Keough: Director and actress 'struggled' to get War Pony funded

3 months ago 49

War Pony director Riley Keough and star Ladainian Crazy Thunder posing for pictures at the 2022 Cannes Film FestivalImage source, Getty Images

Image caption,

War Pony director Riley Keough and star Ladainian Crazy Thunder posed for pictures at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival

By Emma Jones

BBC Talking Movies reporter

She's the granddaughter of Elvis and the star of one of the most talked-about series of the year, Daisy Jones & The Six.

But when it came to directing, actress Riley Keough says that she and her co-director, British-Australian Gina Gammell, "struggled" to get War Pony, their first film, funded.

"There's a lot of talk and I think there's some great effort, but I don't know if the people who are making those decisions are totally there yet," she says.

"I don't know if some have caught up on the concepts that women can be in positions of power and can be trusted."

War Pony is the story of two young Native American men trying to find their place in the world that doesn't offer them much opportunity, and was filmed on Pine Ridge Reservation, the lands of the Oglala Lakota, in South Dakota, using a largely local cast and first-time actors.

It won the Camera D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival last year - the prize given by the festival to a best debut feature film. But at points, Keough wondered if the film would be completed.

"You have two females making their first feature with a completely indigenous cast of, quote unquote, no value in terms of the marketplace and no movie stars," Keough explains.

Image source, Picturehouse Entertainment

Image caption,

War Pony was filmed on Pine Ridge Reservation, the lands of the Oglala Lakota, in South Dakota

"We see this a lot because Gina and I have a production company and we see the money that's given to men versus women, first-time filmmaker or not. And it's really an issue still. At the end of the day, we had wonderful financiers who understood the vision and came together and supported us, but prior to that it was really depressing, you know."

Gammell adds: "We'd be finishing a week of shooting and we were making phone calls trying to get the next week of shooting paid for.

"And we were really lucky that we got through it, and we only just managed to get through it. It was incredibly tough."

The film is now getting released in the UK as well as elsewhere in Europe and the USA, with an overall score of 91% on movie review site Rotten Tomatoes, with Empire calling it "restrained but promising stuff from Keough and Gammell, who exhibit strong world-building and lightness of filmmaking touch".

Keough has suffered personal losses this year, with the death in January of her mother, Lisa Marie Presley, who suffered a cardiac arrest at the age of 54, three years after her son Benjamin, Keough's brother, died. Keough and her grandmother Priscilla Presley reached a settlement over Presley's estate in May.

She started acting as a teenager, with her first prominent role in 2010's The Runaways, a Joan Jett biopic starring Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning. She also starred in 2015's Mad Max: Fury Road.

Keough's profile has an actress has risen further with the release of Daisy Jones & The Six, based on a novel set in the LA music scene of the 1970s - but she says she always wanted to direct and write as well.

"With acting, I just got really lucky," she says. "I booked my first audition and that lit a fire under me to continue. But had I had the opportunity, at the age of 18, to direct, maybe it would have gone in a different direction.

Image source, Picturehouse Entertainment

Image caption,

Riley Keough, pictured on-set directing Ladainian Crazy Thunder, alongside fellow director Gina Gammell

"I love writing too," she adds. "I'll write for anyone who would have me if they don't have deadlines. I'm a bit of a stream of consciousness kind of gal."

War Pony started during a break in filming 2016's American Honey, an independent film by British director Andrea Arnold which Keough starred in. While shooting in South Dakota, she met two extras in the movie, Bill Reddy and Franklin Sioux Bob.

Keough and Gammell later went on to visit them at their home on the Pine Ridge Reservation, and a friendship developed, before the idea of making a film. Reddy and Sioux Bob are credited as co-writers, and the narrative of War Pony is based upon their life experiences.

"They are the storytellers here, and Riley and I are, I think are the vessels that help them capture the story. But it's very much their story," Gammell says.

Franklin Sioux Bob believes that unlike other creative projects suggested to Native Americans living on Pine Ridge Reservation, he believed this one was authentic.

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"A lot of things go through our reservation, just like this scenario, and it's mainly one-sided. They came, they saw, they exploited it, they left, and this wasn't the case. People will go, and the difference is Riley and Gina came back, they gave us their word and they consistently came back. These are my two friends, it's not just a work relationship," he explains.

"Native Americans are starting to become trendy in film, but this is different too because even when we started this film years ago, we had no idea it would ever even come to this point."

War Pony openly shows the poverty and lack of opportunity many people living on a reservation experience, which Keough condemns as a result of "the indigenous people of our country having to live like a capitalist".

"They have to live in non-traditional ways in order to fit into their own country," she says.

Image source, Getty Images

Image caption,

Keough started acting as a teenager and recently appeared in Daisy Jones & The Six

"One of the things Gina and I admired most about these boys is how creative they have to be. There's not much job opportunity, they have to be creative and hustle and come up with new ideas, just to survive. Then there's just their resilience and ability to live this way that's also very traumatic and chaotic.

"You don't get this in school in America, unless you're raised in an area that's in close proximity to a reservation, but you don't really know where indigenous people are in the country, what their life looks like. It's so far removed. And isolated, on purpose."

"It's the broken ideals of that 'American Dream' that I think affects them profoundly," Gammell adds.

After War Pony, Keough says that she and Gammell want to direct together again, but she explains that "nothing yet has totally grabbed us".

"I think that for us, the standard War Pony set in terms of how much we care about who we collaborate with, it needs to grab us in the same way emotionally. We've had such a profound collaboration I think it's hard to go backwards from that."

War Pony opens in UK and Irish cinemas on 9 June 2023.

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