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By Staff · August 16, 2017
By Shanee Edwards
Wind River is as emotionally frigid and dangerous as the desolate landscape of the snow-covered mountains where the story takes place. Reeling from his own loss, game tracker Cory (Jeremy Renner) teams up with newbie FBI agent Jane (Elizabeth Olsen) to find the killer of a young Native American woman, Natalie (Kelsey Asbile), on a lawless Indian Reservation.
This is the third and final film in Taylor Sheridan’s modern American frontier trilogy that includes Sicario and Hell or High Water, the latter of which earned him an Oscar nomination (for more on Sheridan’s incredible career, check out Ken Miyamoto’s fantastic profile on the filmmaker over on ScreenCraft). We sat down with Sheridan to find out his secrets to writing great scripts with agile dialogue and a clear tone. Here are the seven lessons we learned.
Everyone loves a good murder mystery, but Wind River is so much more. It delves into America’s forgotten culture of North America’s first peoples, the Native Americans, and the consequences of forcing them to live on inhospitable land. Add a culture of addiction, violence and rape and the story becomes harrowing.
The stakes get raised further because the protagonist Cory has his own tragic backstory. We find out he’s lost his own daughter, making Natalie’s murder personal. Cory doesn’t simply want to solve Natalie’s murder, he needs to solve the murder to help him tame his inner demons.
From page one, Sheridan uses his screen directions to present the savage natural world as an antagonist in the film. Every character in the film is fighting the brutal cold, snow-blinding landscape and all are struggling to survive. Many of them don’t. Take a look at how Sheridan does it.
Any writer could say “Clumps of sagebrush are the only evidence of life in this place” but saying they are “huddled together like angry gnomes” gives us a sense that nature itself is not only hostel but watching you. Gnomes can be magical but also mischievous, adding to the feeling that humans are not in control here.
“I’m a big believer in being descriptive to the point of being poetic,” says Sheridan. “When a screenwriter approaches his stage directions as art, it really helps galvanize the tone of the piece – not just what we’re seeing but how we should interpret it. If you read Sicario or Hell or High Water, you’ll realize that two very different directors, using very different styles, captured the tone flawlessly. It’s because the tone is so present on the page.
Sheridan says to dictate emotion, not camera setups. “I don’t need to write ‘wide angle here’ or ‘extreme close up here,’ what’s more important is to tell me why I would do an extreme close up. What in that person’s face warrants the camera so close? Are their eyes welling with tears or are they fighting emotion? Rather than tell me how to see the world, tell me what I’m seeing and how it makes me feel.”
Here’s how Sheridan describes his protagonist, Cory, at the end of his first scene:
“His dark eyes hold no joy. No sorrow either. ” This description suggests not a man who’s tuned-out, but a man who is focused on getting a difficult job done right. We respect him for that.
The cold coffee and broken radio tells us that Cory works hard but doesn’t make a lot of money. These are simple details that make him incredibly relatable and likable, helping us root for him.
Let’s look at some of the dialogue in a scene where Cory visits his ex-wife Wilma (Julia Jones) to pick up his son. (Also note how Wilma’s fading beauty is described, evoking emotion):
You can cut the subtext with a knife. There are no greetings. The first thing Wilma says to Cory isn’t “Nice to see you” or “How are you?” instead, she criticizes him by saying, “You’ve got blood on your shirt,” immediately putting him on the defensive. The line can also be interpreted as a thinly veiled way of implying he also has blood on his hands because she blames Cory for their daughter’s death.
Also, just like in real life, people rarely say what they mean. Cory says yes to the coffee as a way of creating civility between them – a way to pretend that life is normal. He’ll say anything not to talk about the death of their daughter.
Sheridan attributes his ability to write dialogue to his experience as an actor. You may remember him as Deputy Chief David Hale on the show Sons of Anarchy. While that show was incredibly well written, not every show is.
“[Through acting] I gained the ability to know what dialogue is a trap for an actor. People in my screenplays don’t say hello they don’t say goodbye, they don’t say yes or no. There’s always a more interesting way to say those things.”
Let’s look at the scene that ends act two. Rookie FBI agent Jane has arrived on the reservation to investigate the girl’s murder and is completely out of her element. Partly because Cory feels sorry for Jane and partly because he feels guilty about the loss of his own daughter, Cory agrees to guide her through the wilderness.
What Sheridan does very nicely here in the dialogue is clearly state the protagonists’ objective: To hunt down a predator. The central question of the film becomes, “Will Cory find justice for his own daughter’s death by helping to solve another girl’s murder?” It’s a Silence of the Lambs moment, where Sheridan establishes that, like Clarice, Cory is hoping to silence his own “lambs.”
Sheridan also says to never to move plot with dialogue. “I know how thankless and difficult a job that is, and it’s lazy. Film is a visual art. You tell the story with the camera. The dialogue tells us how the characters feel and are reacting to the story. Because, as an actor, I’d suffered so many times from writers violating that truth, I always try to find interesting ways to say how old someone is, or describe somebody. It’s a lot of work, but that’s how you get a screenplay from pretty good to good, and from good to great.”
Wind River is currently in theaters in limited release.
Shanee Edwards graduated from UCLA Film School with an MFA in Screenwriting and is currently the film critic for SheKnows.com. She recently won the Next MacGyver television writing competition to create a TV show about a female engineer. Her pilot, Ada and the Machine, is currently in development with America Ferrera’s Take Fountain Productions. You can follow her on Twitter: @ShaneeEdwards