War Pony as seen by Riley Keough and Gina Gammell

Picture of the film WAR PONY by Riley KEOUGH and Gina GAMMELL © Felix Culpa

Riley Keough and Gina Gammell make a formidable directing and producing duo. Together, they present their first film, War Pony, in Un Certain Regard. A plunge into the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, a world marked by Native American militancy and uncertain prospects for the future. The film follows the pursuits of two young men: Matho, a 12-year-old anxious to become a man, and Bill, who at 23 calls upon all his creative talents to lead his life as a young adult.

Please describe your working method and the atmosphere on set.  Anecdotes welcome.

When we started production there were scenes we couldn’t even fit on the schedule, so we knew we wouldn’t have a lot of time to explore while shooting. Our casting process was really long and one of our biggest priorities was making sure our actors felt confident and free, so we spent months on rehearsals and character development before production even started. We held sessions where we would rework scenes, writing with each cast member in real time. The scene in the film where Bill and his friends are talking about his plan to buy a poodle was born out of one of these sessions. In rehearsals they would start with a written scene and we would encourage them to keep riffing and improvising once the scene was over, holding out for as long as we could before calling cut. We recorded the sessions and used a lot of these moments to rewrite the scenes for each character by infusing them with their own words. This felt like the best way to maintain structure and stay on script, but also make each moment feel authentic.

Please share a few words about your actors.

Our actors were all cast locally mostly from the Pine Ridge Reservation. Jojo who plays “Bill” is from the Rosebud Reservation. For all of our actors it was their first time acting professionally. They rehearsed with us, studied with an acting coach and really, really prepared. Something we like sharing is that there’s no improvisation in the film, the actors worked really hard to stick to the page but were able to make it feel loose. This always impressed us.

What did you learn during the course of making this film?

The importance of staying present. There will always be good days and bad days on set. It’s really important to not dwell on the bad ones. You can’t change what’s already happened, so trying to always stay in the now and not carry the pains of a bad day, or a scene that didn’t go quite as planned into the next one.

Can you tell us about your next project?

We’re currently writing a film that is very different to War Pony. It’s an exploration of relationships and love and desire and greed. But it’s hard for us to leave South Dakota so maybe we will shoot it there.