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Friday, May 10, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movies

Sherman Alexie's directorial debut hits close to home

Seattle Times movie critic

Sherman Alexie's directing debut, "The Business of Fancydancing," is that rarity — an entirely made-in-the-Northwest feature film.

"It's a completely homegrown movie," said the Seattle author. "Entirely shot in Washington, 90 percent in the Seattle area. Preproduction and postproduction were all done here; none of the work was sent out. That was important to me, and in being the director I was able to make that happen. I hope that's inspiring to other filmmakers in town."

But he chuckles when talking about the budget for the film, which opens today at the Varsity. "We couldn't have paid for a chandelier on the Titanic," he said. "We couldn't pay for the coffee on a Hollywood movie. But it was the only way to make this movie."

While Alexie cheerfully declined to give a precise dollar figure, he did say that his film would qualify for the Cassavetes category at the Independent Spirit Awards (which specifies a budget of less than $500,000). "A lot of people (on the film) took pay cuts, worked for deferments," he said.

Alexie, 35, who wrote and co-produced the popular 1998 film "Smoke Signals," didn't necessarily have to make his movie this way. "I had all sorts of chances to make and write other movies. I could have made a $5 million movie, but it would have been made the way (Hollywood) makes movies. I got really uncomfortable and angry and distrustful about the whole process in Hollywood. But some distance has made me realize that they're not wrong, they just make movies their way. It's just not how I want to do it."

"The Business of Fancydancing," which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January, is the story of Seymour Polatkin, an acclaimed writer who returns to the Spokane Indian Reservation where he grew up after an absence of many years. He shares much with Alexie, a novelist and poet who's won numerous literary awards for work such as "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven" and "The Toughest Indian in the World."

"Seymour is me, in a lot of ways," said Alexie. "Same story — rez kid makes good. My family still lives there, so that part is exaggerated — I'm not nearly so estranged. But in making the movie, I thought, what if my best friends and I weren't friends any more, how would that affect me in my career? I took autobiography in the sense of being distant from many members of my tribe, and made it much more personal in the movie."

"Fancydancing" shares a title with Alexie's first published work, a 1992 collection of poems. "I just love the title," said Alexie, "and my book career started with 'The Business of Fancydancing,' and I thought it would be a nice parallel to have my movie debut called 'The Business of Fancydancing.'"

Fancydancing is a contemporary style of Indian dance, presented throughout the movie as a metaphor: Different characters dance separately and together; one removes his Indian dance attire, presumably for the last time.

In making his first movie about a writer, Alexie is exploring questions central to his own life. "Most movies about writers are the extremes of an artistic life, like the Jackson Pollock movie where he rampages through life destroying things. In some ways, I wanted to demystify a writer. Not romanticize either their positive traits or their negative traits, just to make them a complicated human being. That's what I wanted to do with Seymour, this combination of sensitivity and arrogance, thief and storyteller. That's what I think about myself — it's a really complicated and often contradictory job."

Alexie's work on "Fancydancing" didn't end when editing was complete — actually, his whole approach to filmmaking is based on writerly revision. After the Sundance premiere, the film still felt not quite right: "I started dreaming other scenes, other images." This eventually became 20 minutes of new scenes, shot earlier this year and added to the movie. Alexie eventually plans to release a DVD with three complete versions of the movie, "the first cut, the Sundance cut and the theatrical cut."

And he's been tirelessly promoting his film, at festivals and here at home, where he'll introduce "Fancydancing" at several of the first-week screenings at the Varsity. "Well, I live here," he says, by way of explanation. "It's a very personal film, and I know that my hard-core book audience is going to be there right away. I want to acknowledge that."

As positive an experience as "Fancydancing" has been, Alexie is relieved to be near the end of the cycle. "Moviemaking is a yearlong process," he said, "and it's so distracting from my other work. I've got books to finish and money to raise so I can make another." Possible film projects include a screen version of Alexie's novel "Indian Killer," or perhaps an original screenplay.

On the book front, he's got a new novel coming out soon ("a murder mystery/political thriller") and a new book of poems, then a book of essays and a biography of a famous Seattleite, whom Alexie can't identify as the deal isn't yet signed. Clearly he thrives on being busy. "If I wasn't writing books," he says with a grin, "I'd be washing my hands all day."

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com.

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