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A Conversation with Riley Keough, Pte Cante Win Poor Bear, Jesse Schmockel & LaDainian Crazy Thunder (WAR PONY)

(Note: this is the first part of two. The other conversation will run Friday, July 28.)

War Pony Debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in 2022 and took home the Camera D’Or. The film is written By Riley Keough, Gina Gammell, Bill Reddy and Franklin Sioux Bob. It was Directed by Riley Keough and Gina Gammell. The film stars multiple first time actors and residents of Pine Ridge, an Indian Reservation in South Dakota where the film takes place. Some of these actors include Jojo Bapteise Whiting, Jesse Schmockel and LaDanian Crazy Thunder. Each of them give great performances in the film. The film had many Producers including Willi White and Pte Cante Win Poor Bear. Their contributions to the film were essential to the final product. For Gina and Riley this is their directorial debut. Gina has been producing short films and music videos for quite some time while Riley has made a name for herself starring in excellent features such as Mad Max Fury Road, Zola, American Honey and, The House that Jack Built just to name a few. I spoke with all of these talented people about War Pony in the following two conversation edited for length and clarity.

First Conversation:

 Participating: Riley Keough, Pte Cante Win Poor Bear, Jesse Schmockel, LaDainian Crazy Thunder.

HTN: How and when did each of you get involved in the project?

 Riley Keough: I got involved in the beginning. I made friends with Frank and Bill and at some point we started writing a movie together. We started casually and then it became more serious. I met Pte Cante Win Poor Bear on my very first time in Pine Ridge. She became a big part of our lives and she ended up producing the film with us. We met Jesse and LaDanian both during the audition process. Jesse we saw on Facebook, we had some mutual friends. I saw her posts and her status updates. They made me laugh. I immediately reached out. Either I DM’d her or casting did, but we met later, just through the casting process once we had a script.

HTN: I would love to know about the anatomy behind the car crash sequence. I think it is executed brilliantly. You can really feel that glass break. How was it pulled off?

RK: We did not have a lot of money (laughs). We had to do a version that we could afford. My husband is a stuntman so we had him for free. That was really helpful. He helped with the car crash. We had an art department and they got us broken glass.  It was a night shoot and we were really tired. We did a lot of the interior stuff static while the crew literally rocked the car. For the crash, my husband and the crew put it on a rig and then it was just a gag with broken glass and the actors faking the whiplash. From there, we just cut to the outside of the car.

HTN: Well it came out great. It was a very convincing car crash sequence. Riley, you acted in the amazing film American Honey, directed by Andrea Arnold. I know you met Franklin and Bill on that film, however, I was wondering if you took anything from that experience onto this film, or anything you have learned from working with so many great directors?

 RK: I do not think I took anything from American Honey, but the essence of that summer where we shot American Honey and I met Frank and Bill, is very much in the movie. We had this very beautiful and wild summer. I was 25 and they were 23. We were all just having fun, there was not anything too complicated about it. We were just casually having a good time in Pine Ridge, and then I wound up spending years there. The essence of that summer is definitely in the film. This was an experience where Jesse and LaDanian knew the area so well that often they could tell us what to do rather than the other way around.

A still from the set of WAR PONY

Jesse Schmockel: It was crazy because when I first met you guys, my mom thought they were trying to steal me and use me. We met at Taco Johns, and from there we were very close.

HTN: Jesse, your dynamic with Jojo is so real in the film, it often feels like you guys have genuine history. How did you guys prepare together to create this amazing dynamic on screen?

 JS: We actually did not know each other because he is from a different reservation than me.

RK: Jojo is the only one in the film who is from Rosebud, which is the neighboring reservation. They give each other shit in a light hearted way. Everyone is from Pine Ridge or surrounding areas of Pine Ridge. Jojo is our only Rosebud actor.

HTN: So did you guys do any preparation, or was it more a mindset of, “lets just go for it and see what happens?”

 JS: Yes, it was that and we all got so close to each other. We all grew really close to each other. Even when we were not shooting the movie, we would all be together in the trailer. We always had a good time with each other.

HTN: LaDainian your performance when you get kicked out of the house for the second time was beautifully acted. This is when you have been suspended from school but pretend you are sick. Talk about your preparation going into that moment and what you were trying to execute?

LaDanian Crazy Thunder: That moment is just based on what some of my friends went through. It is really based on memories. That was what I went into that moment with.

HTN: This film is pretty dark and serious, however, I am wondering what the energy is like on a set like this? Are you guys having fun or treating this as very serious work?

RK: I do not think it is very serious to the cast. I think the tone of the movie is received differently from people that are born and raised in Pine Ridge versus audience members. I do not think that Jesse, or LaDanian find the film to be all that serious. Do you?

JS: It was actually such a fun time for me. It helped me stay sober. I was really struggling through my addiction at that time. The only time I was sober was when I was with them and doing the film. It was a really good time for me.

RK: There were certain scenes that were very heavy and intense. One of them is the scene where LaDanian’s father chokes him. That was really intense. It was very moment to moment with LaDanian. Sometimes we would cut and he would start laughing. Other times he was more into it and serious. That was one of the heavier moments on set because we had Frank screaming at all of these kids. LaDanian, what do you think was the hardest moment of the movie for you?

LCT: I think it was the moment at the end with Jojo and I. Remember, I had to use the tear stick.

LaDanian Crazy Thunder in WAR PONY

RK: It was hard because he did not like the tear stick hahaha. It was burning his eyes. Do you think it was emotionally hard for you?

LCT: Yeah, a little bit. I had to act out the whole sad part.

HTN: LaDanian another big moment for you is at the funeral where you stare off blankly as everyone shakes your hand. I loved your performance at this moment…

 LCT: I was just trying not to laugh.

RK: These boys were crazy.

HTN: At the Funeral?

RK: You don’t understand, these boys were just giggling the whole time. We struggled to cut the funeral scene because of all the laughter. I do think that there is nothing wrong with laughter on a set because it is a big part of life and working through trauma.

Pte Cante Win Poor Bear: I want to speak to how the audience was receiving some of these scenes. We did a premiere on the reservation. A lot of people from the community came and saw it. One of our community members does a lot of outreach, and she is the resource person to young people. The film was very difficult for her to watch. The reason why it was so difficult was because of the reality she sees and the job she does on the reservation. Some of the scenes were really triggering to her because it is real and it does happen. I love that it did that for her because I think it will drive her in her work! In terms of what I witnessed on set, it all seemed very light. Everyone was well taken care of. The energy that War Pony carries is a familial energy. Everyone was looking out for each other. It is like yes, you are filming, but you are also hanging out with your family.

RK: Something we had to be aware of is that we were working with kids, and people who have traumatic life experiences, so having the set feel lighter and more fun was important.

HTN: The film’s dialogue often feels so natural that it does not even feel scripted. Obviously there was a script but, how much of what we see is improvisation versus word for word what is on the page?

RK: There is virtually no improv in the movie. One thing we were really proud of our actors for is how natural they made their lines sound. What we did was write the scenes with Frank and Bill, then we would bring it to the actors and rehearse it with our acting coach. In that rehearsal process they would let us know if they would say certain things in other ways. We would adjust the scenes to put it in their own words. We would then write it out and send out those pages. They were really learning the dialogue that they wrote.

HTN: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me!


– Jack Schenker (@YUNGOCUPOTIS)

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Jack Schenker is based in Los Angeles, CA. He has worked in the film industry for 5 years at various companies including Mighty Engine, Film Hub, and Grandview. Jack continues to write for Hammer to Nail, conducting interviews with prominent industry members including Steve James, Riley Keough, Christian Petzold, and Ira Sachs. His dream is to one day write and direct a horror film based on the work of Nicolas Winding Refn and Dario Argento. He directed his first short film this year titled Profondo. Jack's favorite filmmakers include Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, Denis Villeneuve, Bong Joon Ho, David Lean, John Carpenter, Ari Aster, Jordan Peele, and Robert Altman to name a few. Look out for Jack on Twitter (aka X). You can see the extent of Jack's film knowledge on Letterboxd, where he has written over 1000 reviews and logged over 1600 films.

  • Paul Norden

    This is the best movie I have seen in years. Amazing.

    August 11, 2023
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