Growing up 8,000 miles apart, these two men emerged with similar tales and memories.
Sterlin Harjo is from small-town Oklahoma, with Seminole and Muscogee roots; Taika Waititi is from New Zealand, with Maori roots. They could easily swap boyhood adventures.
“The stories were never sad or depressing,” Harjo said, in a virtual session with the Television Critics Association. And these fun accounts “are not the stories that ever get told about native people.”
At least, not until now. “Reservation Dogs” (shown here), starting Monday on the FX hub of Hulu, offers a sly wit.
That may be unusual for fictional, indigenous characters, but apparently reflects real life. “My family is a bunch of comedians,” said Paulina Alexis, who plays Willie Jack, one of four teen sorta-gangsters.
“Reservation Dogs” is confined to a streaming network, but it’s produced by FX and has much in common with the best FX shows – “Atlanta,” “Better Things” and “Louie.”
Each of those shows has a low-key, slice-of-life flavor, reflecting the world of its creator.
In this case, that’s rural Oklahoma, which Harjo says is a richly diverse place, with 38 tribes. “You can drive 30 minutes and (find) a whole different world” with a separate culture and language.
Growing up there is an open adventure, he said. “You have to create your own world; you have to create your own fun.”
In “Reservation Dogs,” that involves anything from selling meat pies to stealing a truck. These are free-form stories that Waititi says aren’t far from his own New Zealand youth.
The two men met at a program for indigenous filmmakers and formed a friendship during hard-scrabble years. “We were sleeping on each other’s couches,” Waititi said.
Harjoe made three scripted movies in Oklahoma, plus documentaries. Waititi did several projects with fellow New Zealander Jemaine Clement: He wrote and directed “Flight of the Conchords” episodes, produced “Wellington Paranormal” (now on CW) and made many variations of “What We Do in the Shadows” (starring in some, but not in the current version on FX).
And then, suddenly, Hollywood embraced him. He directed two “Thor” films– one in 2017 and the other arriving next year – and has a “Star Wars” film slated for 2025. He wrote, directed and co-starred in “Jojo Rabbit” (2019), getting an Oscar for his script and a nomination for best-picture. “I really love being busy,” he said.
But shouldn’t he take a break? “I took a break for 35 years,” said Waititi, 45, “until my career started.”
Now he has time for both the big-budget epics and the small, personal style of Harjo.
“Reservation Dogs” centers on Bear (shown here, foreground), 16. He’s a sweet, sensitive kid – close to his mom, who works at the clinic – but tries to grope at the macho expectations of small towns everywhere.
He claims he’s the group’s leader … but Elora is the one who holds onto the money, trying to get enough for them to flee to California. Willie Jack and Cheese (shown here, background) – yes, the names are unusual – provide the rest of the gang … now intimidated by an alternate gang, armed with paint guns.
These are not, Waititi said, the standard Hollywood indigenous characters who “talk to trees, talk to a ghost and learn something from my grandmother.” They are carved from the memories of Harjo, Waititi and anyone else who’s known a small-town world.