Sundance Filmmaker Interview: Kevin Willmott on The Only Good Indian


Like most of his projects, Kevin Willmott’s latest film, The Only Good Indian, reveals an eye-opening slice of America’s racial history; specifically, this revisionist western examines the life of Nachwihiata, a Native American child who is taken from his family and placed in a white boarding school to be assimilated into Christian society. It’s fiction based on upsetting fact, and the true horrors involved are part of American history typically swept under the rug.

After the jump, Flavorwire interviews Willmott about his experience at Sundance, the blaxpoitation films that inspired his career, and his rather surprising obsession with Woody Allen.

Flavorwire: What was it like returning to Sundance after the success of CSA: Confederate States of America ? Were you at all anxious about how The Only Good Indian would play?

Kevin Willmott: You always believe in your film and are excited about showing it to an audience. I think there are some that think I just make movies like CSA. But actually CSA was a style choice that came from thinking about the best way to tell that story. I want to make a number of different kinds of films with my slant on them. I like using genre itself as commentary. For example in my new film, Bunker Hill, I use the western to comment on our Post 9/11 lives. In The Only Good Indian I use it to reclaim and reconstruct the images of Native Americans.

FW: We’ve read that you loved blaxploitation films as a child. How has that bled into your own filmmaking?

KW: I went to a different black film every week as a kid. It let me know that I could be a filmmaker and it demonstrated the power of speaking to your audience directly. Those films did not compromise and I have tried to hold onto that reality in my films. I think that some dialogue styles have stayed with me. Recently an interviewer said a line in The Only Good Indian sounding like a blaxploitation line. Wes Studi’s character, who is an Indian Uncle Tom in that moment of the film, looks directly at the camera and says, “I’m gonna out white man the goddamn white man.” I have to agree.

FW: We love that idea that by watching this film, people can better understand America. It seems like the timing couldn’t be better to be looking for a distributor. How is that process going?

KW: Good. People have really responded to the film. America is a very complicated place with a complicated history. We can easily accept Nazis in films because that didn’t happen here. But when you reveal the same behavior here in America some call it being preachy. It is difficult for Americans to deal with the other side of history. We simply don’t have to understand or deal with it. That is why film can be so powerful. It can make you feel the pain of others. I think it is a good time to deal with the forgotten parts of American life. I hope we will use this time in our history to open up these chapters. Presently we are talking to some foreign distributors and we feel that something US-based will come along soon.

FW: We read that your next project is about Wilt Chamberlain. He’s not quite the underdog your other subjects have been. What made you chose him?

KW: Wilt played at Kansas University where I teach. He integrated the city of Lawrence, Kansas. Most people don’t know this story. He left in controversy and didn’t return for 40 years. I think the KU part of Wilt’s life explains a lot about his later choices. In that way he is an underdog, and in some ways hero/victim.

FW: You love Woody Allen. What in your opinion is his best film?

KW: Annie Hall is a real breakthrough film and in my opinion is probably his best. It’s a great combination of both the funny and the serious. I like so many others for different reasons. He is a great example of a filmmaker that has made numerous kinds of films. That’s what I am trying to achieve. Zelig was a big influence on CSA. I like Stardust Memories because of the connections with Fellini and Bergman.