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Investigating A Murder In 'Wind River'


"Wind River" opens with a startling scene - a wounded woman runs through thick snow in the middle of the night. It's all white snow, red blood, dim moonlight and desolation.


ELIZABETH OLSEN: (As Jane Banner) How far do you think someone could run barefoot out here?

JEREMY RENNER: (As Cory Lambert) Oh, I don't know. How do you gauge someone's will to live, especially in these conditions? I knew that girl. She's a fighter. So no matter how far you think she ran, I guarantee she ran further.

SIMON: Jeremy Renner plays a tracker for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Elizabeth Olsen is the young FBI agent sent from their Las Vegas office to investigate the murder of a young woman on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. Graham Greene is the reservation sheriff. The movie also stars Gil Birmingham, Kelsey Chow and Julia Jones. It is the first feature directed by Taylor Sheridan, an actor on "Sons Of Anarchy" and the screenwriter for "Hell Or High Water." He joins us now from the studios of KPCW in Park City, Utah. Thanks so much for being with us.

TAYLOR SHERIDAN: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: And I gather this film is based on an actual story.

SHERIDAN: It's based on thousands of actual stories just like it.

SIMON: How so?

SHERIDAN: This issue with sexual assault against women on the reservation - I mean, it's existed since the inception of a reservation system. But, really, in the past 15, 20 years, it's exploded. And it gets no attention, which is the motivation for writing the film.

SIMON: Women who are - to understand it, I guess we have to say bluntly - sexually assaulted, raped and then disappear - sometimes found, sometimes not.

SHERIDAN: Yes, that's correct.

SIMON: At the very end of the film, you say that no statistics are kept on this.

SHERIDAN: Yeah, I wanted to end the film with a statistic to give a number so that people could digest and understand, you know, the magnitude of the issue. And I had two researchers spend three months trying to find a statistic, reaching out to the Department of Justice, CDC, any organization they could. And then they came back and said, Taylor, we cannot find a statistic. No one's keeping it. And I said, well, that's our statistic.

SIMON: Yeah. The Wind River that we see in the film looks beautiful in many shots. But it also looks like a hard place to live.

SHERIDAN: It's an incredibly difficult place to live. If you - you know, if you really study that region, it's a beautiful area for two months of the year. I mean, it's beautiful - starkly beautiful in the winter. And yet, historically, everything migrated out of that region, all the animals, all the people. And the reservation system doesn't allow that migration, obviously. And so here you have people enduring something people were not designed to endure.

SIMON: And we - as I'm sure you did at one point - we - our researchers looked into - according to The New York Times, Wind River has been suffering a crime rate five to seven times the national average. Life expectancy is just 49 years of age - 49 years of age - and unemployment higher than 80 percent. And teenagers are twice as likely to kill themselves.

SHERIDAN: And all of this 50 miles as the crow flies from Jackson Hole in Teton County, one of the richest counties in the nation.

SIMON: How'd you become an actor?

SHERIDAN: You know, I was always interested in it. And yet, you know, growing up in Texas, I didn't understand how there could be an outlet, a path that led to doing that as a profession. It was a dream. But it was just that. And then through a series of events, you know, my parents got divorced, and I was a terrible student and flunked out of college and found myself with literally no options. And so I was in a shopping mall in Austin, Texas, looking for a job. And some talent scout came up to me and said, hey, do you want to audition? We're looking for actors for this agency in Chicago. So I did it. And on the first day, they sent me on a Montgomery Ward commercial audition, and I got the job. And I just didn't leave.

SIMON: And how does a guy who flunked out of college become an award-winning screenwriter and now a director?

SHERIDAN: My education - my Ph.D. in storytelling comes from having worked on it, being a lover of film and watching them, from working with some great writers and some very good TV directors and then working with some who weren't. And so I sat down one day and decided to write a movie I wanted to go see. And that's the one thing I always remind myself. You know, don't try and make a movie for someone else. You have to make it for you and trust that you're not that unique. And that'll matter to other people, as well.

SIMON: Does that sometimes put you at odds with the business which, you know, invests so much money in data and focus groups and that sort of thing?

SHERIDAN: It hasn't yet. You know, the movies I make - the goal isn't a mass audience. They're not expensive films. So the attempt is to reach a much more limited audience - one would say an audience that enjoys films that challenge them emotionally and intellectually. I think that the great challenges for the studios when they make, you know, these massive tent-pole movies, where, you know, in order to recoup their costs they need many millions of people to go see them - and there, you do need to have a broad appeal, which makes it more difficult and challenging to to say something that might be controversial or uncomfortable.

SIMON: What do you hope audiences off the reservation, which obviously will be most theatergoers - what do you hope they'll understand about "Wind River" and the people who live there after they see this film?

SHERIDAN: Well, I hope that they recognize that there's an epidemic of violence on the reservation that needs attention and needs addressing. And I hope, likewise, they recognize that there are people living on the reservation who are no different than people living in a city. And there's such a misunderstanding of the Native American culture in people and such a stereotype. And I hope I shatter that. And I hope that they can recognize that a good kid with hopes and dreams is a good kid with hopes and dreams, no matter where they live and that a caring father is a caring father and that a, you know, grieving mother is a grieving mother, whether she's grieving in St. Louis or on the Wind River Res - and look at addressing the issues that are facing them.

I think my mission, if I could call it that, as a storyteller is to try and find ways to show how similar we are and not how different we are. You can admire the differences and the distinctions and respect them and learn from them. But it's the sameness that will give this country a sense of community that it used to have, I think. Maybe it never authentically had it, but it certainly needs it. And then as a nation, as a society, the problems affecting anyone in that society are a problem affecting everyone in that society.

SIMON: Taylor Sheridan - his new film "Wind River" with Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olson and Julia Jones - thanks so much for being with us.

SHERIDAN: Oh, thank you. I really appreciate the time.


SIMON: Mildred Bailey sang jazz. Buffy Sainte-Marie shook up folk. Link Wray and Jimi Hendrix changed rock 'n' roll. All of them were Native Americans. Stevie Salas, executive director of the documentary "Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked The World," fills in that history for us tomorrow on Lulu's WEEKEND EDITION Sunday.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Stevie Salas is the executive producer of the documentary "Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked The World.” A Saturday spark touting the upcoming interview suggested an incorrect title.]