As public debate raged about the wildly controversial separation of immigrant parents and their children on the US-Mexico border, the cast and crew of action-adventure pilot feature Shadow Wolves gathered in Los Angeles last week for the first official screening.
The feature follows a team of Native American US-government trackers and an NSA agent who has joined them on the Arizona-Mexico border to hunt down a terrorist planning to avenge the deaths of his family, who were killed in a U.S. led airstrike in Iraq.
In real life, the Shadow Wolves are tactical patrol unit that’s part of ICE and which uses a combination of traditional skills and technology to assist in border protection, drug recovery, and search and rescue. With a diverse cast and zeitgeisty touchpoints, Shadow Wolves couldn’t be more timely and is currently making the rounds at studios.
After the screening we caught up on peak TV, politics, and moving beyond the cowboys and Indians cliches with writer director McKay Daines, lead actor Cody Walker (Furious 7), and actor Kiowa Gordon (The Twilight Saga), a first nation descendant of the Hualapai tribe, whose ex-CIA father is part inspiration for the NSA agent played by Walker.
Did you consult with real Native American "Shadow Wolves" trackers to prepare for the film? What did you learn about them?
Daines: Yes, I spent two days with them on the US - Arizona border with my Native American Navajo co-executive producer Ray Tracey. Needless to say it was not only an eye opener but I received from them a wealth of information and stories. Some of the scenes in the film are based on what members of that elite team told me when I was with them. We also had a real former Shadow Wolf, Marvin Eleando, as an advisor on the film.
One of the most gut-wrenching scenes I believe that I wrote and put in the film was told to me by a real Shadow Wolf involving a "Coyote" leading a group across the US border at night. When the Shadow Wolves stopped them, the Coyote ran off with the daughter of a mother who had arranged for the Coyote -- at his price -- to smuggle them inside the US. The Coyote drags the daughter into the darkness of the desert with the mother screaming as she knows she may never see her again.
When Graham Greene, the Academy Award-nominated actor who is the head of the invented Shadow Wolves team in my film, answers Cody Walker, the covert agent who has joined them, what will happen to the girl, Graham says the line that sent chills down my back when I first heard it from the real Shadow Wolves:
"Coyote will probably sell her into sex slavery. Coyote will make his money one way or another."
Horribly this is happening every week on our border. So, yes, I learned countless stories, tracking methods etc...from the Shadow Wolves that are woven throughout the pilot and proposed series.
Kiowa, what was it like to play a Native American in a show fundamentally grounded in a modern Native American context?
Gordon: I grew up on a reservation in Peach Springs, Arizona and it was great to see native people being featured and simply doing their job alongside government agencies and the NSA, and to have the camaraderie represented naturally, with guys just throwing jabs at each other.
I also feel like I knocked away a few stereotypes about natives. It’s not your typical leather and feather narrative. We’re here, we’re people, just part of a great a very diverse cast. And as an actor, it was the first time I ever got to just delve straight into the military headspace.
The antagonist , Khan, isn’t entirely unsympathetic. While he’s on a terror mission, his motivation is grounded in some historical realities.
Daines: I didn’t want to create some Bond villain who wants to blow things up just to blow things up. The background on Khan is that he had his whole family killed, just like a lot of people at the start of the Iraq war. Enemies were tracked down and the US military would call in an air strike and a drone would come in and wipe out an entire villages at the beginning of the war.
We’ve gotten a lot more precise now. But Khan’s whole family was wiped out. So when he goes to seek revenge he is very specific. The Shadow Wolves were actually there at the start of the war, too. They were hired by the hired by the to train soldiers how to track in the desert.
Cody Walker’s NSA agent character is a classic fish out of water, and one of the few white guys in super diverse cast. You have Native Americans, Brits, Iranians, Japanese, African Americans, and more.
Daines: It is a classic story of two cultures meeting and getting Cody to become aware of the deepness of Native American culture and their love of the land. He also learns that they’re the ethnic group with the highest rate of membership in the US military. The irony is that the Native Americans join the very military that moved them off their land.
Walker: Yeah, I’m the one dude who gets to join these Native American trackers I’m used to the urban sprawl. The last thing my character knows about is what’s going on across the border states. And, yeah, I was the token white dude!
Gordon: We’d joke he’s from the biggest tribe of all: The Wannabees.
Walker: A lot of shows don’t make Native Americans very cool historically speaking. This is 21st century Native Americans cool-ass shit; they’ve got the gear and all the technology.
What was the craziest thing that happened on set?
Daines: There was literally something every day -- which isn't that unusual on this kind of production especially with the basis and themes involved. But I would have to say when Cody Walker at 3 a.m. was acting in a scene when a Navajo supernatural figure appears to him in almost dream like scene and Cody's character dramatically recalls all of the bloody covert "deeds" he has done it became an almost surreal moment when were shooting it.
We had haze everywhere, with streaks of light pouring down from a condor and the Navajo figure dancing around Cody as he stares down shaking in quilt seeing all the blood on his hands from his past. Wild night! Cody was terrific.
How did you end up working with Thomas Gibson, whom many of us remember from Dharma and Greg as well Criminal Minds. What did he bring to the project?
Daines: Thomas Gibson is one superb actor. And I really mean that. He was the best thing about Criminal Minds and I don't think there is anyone who watched that series who did not think of how good "Hutch" was -- so I immediately had him in mind from watching him in that role.
I didn't really "call" on his Dhama and Greg days -- although it is a perfect illustration of his range of acting skills. He really became the character Col. Branson in Shadow Wolves. We went through every one of his lines and scenes together several times and months before we started shooting. He brought such a preparedness to the set it was amazing.
I gave him when we started filming a book on Wild Bill Donovan, the head of the OSS that became the CIA, and we discussed how he could portray Donovan and his group of "master" spies, who in many ways, whether you agree with their methods or not, have been unbelievable diligent for years in their defense against attacks on the US.
You’re taking this show to the town at this moment where border politics are making the headlines. Does this make it more sellable?
Daines: The great thing about the series every episode outlined has a political hotpoint, not just border issues versus illegal and legal but taking back native lands, one of my favorite episodes: just trying to stop people who are being brought into sex slavery.
But political issues don’t come into development meetings. Hollywood just wants a cool product. Honestly we’ve got a lot of hot cool actors. We’ve got some cool actors. they’ll want a slight political message. If I can slide subtle political messages you know I will.
The timing couldn’t be better. How long ago did you start developing this idea?
Daines: Strangely enough I’ve been talking to my co producer Ray Tracy since 1998. His father was a Native American Code Talker and got congressional Medal of Honor. Years later I met the Shadow Wolves and have had this idea of getting former Shadow Wolf Marvin as a consultant. I’ve had this dream for a long time. I’ve been talking to Tom Gordon since 1992.
Either I’m an idiot or it’s the golden age of television and a lot cool unique series are . I believe things come about when they should come about. It’s basically theme of our film: all is connected.
When do you expect "Shadow Wolves" be finished, and where can people see it?
Daines: The pilot is now it is in the hands of the "Network Gods" -- so I hope very soon.