Tim Ramos's first feature film, California Indian, won't be seen by audiences until early next year. No matter, one thing is clear. This guy knows how to make a movie.
It doesn't hurt that he is one smart cookie; well-spoken, thoughtful and savvy. But that isn't enough in any business, especially this business, which chews and spits out dewy-eyed auteurs like tobacco cud. Tim has paid his dues, first as an actor, then as a student filmmaker. After landing a minor role in 1992's The Last of the Mohicans, this member of California's Pomo Tribe found Native roles virtually non-existent. Instead, he spent years scraping by accepting the few acting jobs available to a young indigenous male with a Hispanic-sounding name—mainly, being typecast as a Latino thug.
But, like I said, Ramos is a smart cookie and he wanted more than bit parts playing a punk. He decided to take matters into his own hands and learn how to produce a movie himself. He went back to school; not any school, mind you, but UCLA's Film School, to earn a dual Master's in American Indian Studies and Film with an emphasis on directing. Smart cookie.
By 1997, his life was on course, both personally and professionally. While at UCLA, he wrote and directed his first short film, Rancheria; married, became a dad; cognizant he had to earn a steady paycheck. For that reason, he accepted a position with his tribe, the Big Valley Rancheria (a California term for "reservation") where he produced short videos about cultural preservation and revitalization. Within a year, Ramos established Against the Wind Films making PSA's and industrial films.
He had his own company; he was making films. "Producing is producing, regardless of the content," he says. With that in mind, the seed was planted. Tim Ramos was going to write, direct and act in his own movie.
"California Indian has been in development for eight years from the time I started formulating it to getting it on film," he explains, adding that the story stems from his experience growing up on the Rancheria. "I planned on writing the entire script in six weeks while I was home as a house husband with my kids. It instead turned out to be six months, and then some. In 2002, I finished the script and began showing it to people who told me in needed reworking."
Of course, being told that your creation needs "reworking" is a humbling experience for any artist, but Ramos was realistic and remained resolute. He enrolled in a screenwriting workshop where he rewrote, tightened and edited the script and then went about doing what you have to do to get a movie completed. As fortune would have it, he had established a rapport with Chris Eyre while doing research for his Master's thesis; so it was logical he would approach Indian Country's most respected filmmaker for his support. Eyre enthusiastically embraced the production, a break Ramos knew was pivotal.
"Smoke Signals was the movie that put us (Natives) on the map, so having Chris behind me opened a lot of doors." Together, the two started approaching Indian casinos throughout California for financial support. Although the tribal councils were verbally enthusiastic about the project, which depicts the effects a casino operation has on a small native community, their interest failed to translate into funding. "We kept coming up with goose eggs. Nothing…By 2005, I got tired of talking about making this movie. I said 'we just got to do this.'"
So what does a smart cookie do when he's backed into a corner? Tim Ramos went home. Home to his reservation, that is, and pleaded his case to the Big Valley and nearby Robinson Rancherias who came through to underwrite his production as well as provide food and lodging for the crew during filming.
After years of planning and writing and sweating, California Indian finally was going to be made.
In addition to himself, Ramos assembled a cast that includes blue-chip Native actors Gary Farmer and Gil Birmingham.
"We completed 90 pages of script in two weeks, which we shot entirely in digital." A choice, he says, was "the smartest decision I could have made," since it facilitated the post-production process. Indeed, Ramos has learned a lot during his first venture as a writer-actor-director. As much as he enjoyed the process of writing and acting, it is not, he admits now, something he would necessarily want to tackle again anytime soon.
"In retrospect, I wouldn't have worn all the hats. It's too difficult to worry about all the details and then drop everything to get into makeup and prepare your lines." And despite having an undergraduate degree in journalism, writing the script had its own challenges. "Originally, the writing is what I enjoyed the most, but as time went on and I had to rework the script, it became the toughest part. Probably my least favorite. I have to say now that directing is what I enjoy the most. No doubt about it."
Now in the final editing stages, California Indian will be ready for distribution by early 2007. He's pleased with the results, but doesn't want to remain static and certainly wants to grow and improve and continue the journey started long ago as an extra on The Last of the Mohicans. So Ramos, smart cookie, is thinking ahead. Lots of projects, actually, including documentaries, feature films, even episodic television—are under consideration or in process. And as much as he would jump at the opportunity to direct a major motion picture with mass appeal, he remains steadfastly committed to tell the Native experience in contemporary America.
After all, this is the kid who grew up on a reservation in Northern California, the son of a Filipino immigrant father and Pomo mother and is the first member of his family to earn a college education. Never forgetting who he is or where he came from, Tim Ramos has created a film that reflects his perspective, that of many Natives in contemporary America.
"California Indian is Native, in the sense it's been my reality and the reality of urban Indians everywhere," he says. "We are always walking in two worlds."
Two worlds; the world of an Indian. A California Indian.
California Indian Official Site and Trailer: www.californiaindian.com
Images - Courtesy of Steve Gatlin and Laurie Kinzer