Sunday, March 19, 2023

A Community Helped Design ‘Reservation Dogs’

The small towns of Oklahoma aren’t often seen on-screen. In fact, the new FX on Hulu show “Reservation Dogs,” which debuted Aug. 9, is the first scripted television series to film the entirety of its season in the state.

Authenticity was imperative to Sterlin Harjo, co-creator along with Taika Waititi of the half-hour comedy, which revolves around four teenagers who live on a reservation and dream of moving to California. Harjo, who grew up in Oklahoma, called on production designer Brandon Tonner-Connolly to find the right organic look in towns like Okmulgee, center of the Muscogee reservation. For a “heightened sensibility to make the sets cinematic,” Tonner-Connolly says he enhanced the color palette of the homes and other places he saw in the community, as well as adding story-driven particulars.

For instance, in Episode 4, when the teens visit Auntie B (Kimberly Guerrero), who does beadwork, at her apartment, “we wanted the intimate character details — to be able to look into someone’s life for a moment,” Tonner-Connolly says. Those touches included signaling the college Auntie B attended as well as including the phallic-shaped medallions and candles she is making. “We wanted to imply this subconscious obsession going on, and a visual motif that she might not be aware of,” he says.

RESERVATION DOGS — Ep. 104 “What About Your Dad” Pictured: (l-r) Kimberly Guererro as Auntie B, Lane Factor as Cheese, Devery Jacobs as Elora Danan, Paulina Alexis as Willie Jack, D’Pharoah Woon-A-Tai as Bear. CR: Shane Brown/FX

The teens also visit their uncle Brownie (Gary Farmer), who lives in the wilderness. His home is peppered with touchstones of Native art, including a giant tapestry — along with posters for “The Thing” and “The Fall Guy” actor Heather Thomas —to make a subtle statement that shows how Native culture and pop culture coexist. Keeping Native influences was key. “We used as many artists from the community or related to it as possible,” Tonner-Connolly says. “There are many details that would not been on-screen without their input.”

Harjo was determined to shoot in his native state, which has the second-highest Indigenous population percentage, after Alaska.

The Oklahoma Film and Music Office estimates the series spent $10 million directly in-state with the creation of more than 800 local employment opportunities. The show features an all-Indigenous writers’ room and principal cast, the latter of which includes D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Devery Jacobs, Paulina Alexis and Lane Factor. Shooting everything on location was a boon to several Oklahoma communities, some hard hit by COVID-19, including Tulsa, Okmulgee, Sand Springs, Beggs, Inola and Terlton.

“If you’re in the Indigenous community [in Oklahoma] … you can drive … down the road and you’re in a whole new tribal territory with new languages, new customs, new ceremonial practices,” says Harjo.


RESERVATION DOGS — Ep. 103 “Uncle Brownie” Pictured: (l-r) D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai as Bear, Gary Farmer as Uncle Brownie, Paulina Alexis as Willie Jack. CR: Shane Brown/FX


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