Chris Eyre has been involved with nine feature films since his 1998 debut Smoke Signals, yet the indie sensation, which was marketed as the first feature film written, directed and produced by Native Americans and which won a plethora of awards and acclaim, will likely remain his best-known work. In January, Eyre was named chairman of Santa Fe University of Art and Design’s Moving Image Arts Department, a big win for a college that nearly shut its doors for good three years ago. Now, Eyre is on a mission to make the department, in his words, a “world-class film school.” SFR sat down with Eyre to discuss his new position. This interview has been condensed from his comments.
The first time that I saw New Mexico was probably 1989. I was a photography student in college. I took a Greyhound bus from Los Angeles to Boston, and it went through Las Cruces and came up to Albuquerque. And I’ll never forget leaving Albuquerque and being on the highway and seeing the mesas and escarpments and plateaus and the landscape.
Years later, I was involved in the Taos Talking Picture Festival. I had a movie called Smoke Signals, and we entered it. At that time, the grand prize was five acres of land in Taos—and Smoke Signals won. So I was invited by the owner of the land to go up onto a mountaintop. It was undeveloped land, but he said, ‘Which five acres do you want?’ I went to
the top where I could see 360 degrees. There’s something about the land that I said,
‘I’m in love.’
[Film] is not about the aesthetic of the way you can manipulate your camera, your lighting, your music. You can’t lean on any one of those things as a whole unless you have the foundation of a story. For me, it wasn’t ever about something that made me say, ‘Wow, I want to do something with massive special effects.’ I was enamored by stories—stories that may have been Escape [to] Witch Mountain and, embarrassingly, Little House on the Prairie.
Smoke Signals, if it were to be made today, would probably not get the national theatrical release that it did in 1998. And that’s timing. And that’s what’s hard for some young filmmakers to understand, that the marketplace is a moving target. Just because you achieve what someone else achieved earlier, that doesn’t mean you’re going to have the same success. And that’s where the luck part comes into it. Smoke Signals was made in a time and place [in which] there was a height of national consciousness toward, ‘What is this thing called “independent film?”’ My grandmother said to me in 1998, ‘I want to go see an independent film.’ [Laughs] It’s like a novelty.
What it’s really about is making the best work that you can make and making it for the love of the stories that you believe in…You make the work for the love of the work. The work is the reward. If you don’t make work because you love to make work, then there’s something not right. It’s not about the medium, the technology—it’s about the stories and reinventing the stories.