Lynn Lukkas couldn't have predicted that the shy, 6-foot-5 student who took film classes from her years ago at the University of Minnesota would compete in this month's Sundance Film Festival. But she knew there was something special about Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr.
"He is very quiet, so he wasn't a student who pushed himself to the forefront, but he had this steadiness and he was really focused," said the U professor. "He had the larger picture of the projects he worked on right away, like a director does."
Corbine is the director, writer and producer of "Wild Indian," one of 10 films competing at this year's rejiggered Sundance, the most prestigious film festival in the country. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the event has been shifted from Utah to online and venues around the country, including a "Wild Indian" screening Jan. 30 at the Riverview Theater in Minneapolis. Corbine, 31, will attend.
His thriller is about two men who reconnect decades after a murder that one committed and the other helped conceal. Maybe sharing it with an audience will help Corbine make sense of the past few years' wild events.
The most surreal day may have been the first on the "Wild" set in Oklahoma in 2019, giving direction to Oscar nominee Jesse Eisenberg, who plays the confidant of the killer (Michael Greyeyes). Or it may have been this past November, waking up to the phone ringing in his family's cabin near Garrison, Minn.
"When the Sundance programmer called, they called kind of late, like 10 p.m., and it was like waking out of a dream," recalled Corbine, a member of the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians. "I had been sleeping, so it took longer for it to sink in. But I immediately called my parents and our team and I don't think I ended up sleeping any more that night."
Otherwise, Corbine kept it secret for a month until the announcement went public. He's been finishing the film and pitching projects to Hollywood execs from Garrison, on the Mille Lacs Indian Reservation, although he may move to Los Angeles when it's safe.
The Mille Lacs reservation is where Corbine's love of movies began. He and dad Mitch watched classics such as "The Godfather" and "Dances With Wolves," renting 10 movies at a time from a Brainerd video store or seeing them at Grand Makwa Cinema ("Makwa," or "bear" in Ojibwe, is the name of a character in "Wild Indian"). But when Corbine saw Sofia Coppola's "Lost in Translation" and identified with the searching hero of Wes Anderson's "Rushmore," he began to think about how movies work. With friends, he started making short films.
"I knew [Paul Thomas]Anderson and Quentin Tarantino went through the Sundance Directors Lab. They accept eight people a year and I thought, 'That's what I want to do,' " said Corbine, who didn't yet know he'd be competing against thousands of others.
Corbine failed to make the cut a couple of times, but the script that finally got him in the Sundance door was an early version of "Wild Indian," which gave him the opportunity to work at the 2017 Sundance Screenwriters Lab with top writers Joan Tewkesbury ("Nashville") and David Lowery ("Pete's Dragon"), as well as the 2018 directing lab.
Along the way, Corbine had a couple of lunches with Mr. Sundance — founder Robert Redford, long a supporter of Indigenous filmmakers. "He was like my mentor there and I've talked to him since then," Corbine said. "I think he's aware the movie was made because I'm friends of friends of his."
Having resisted being pegged as someone who only wrote about Native themes, it was around this time Corbine began to think they were the missing piece in his work.
"It opened up making films not for the sake of making them but something more personal, like the films I love. I was able to speak from a genuine place and explore things I wasn't exploring before," said Corbine.
Ajuawak Kapashesit, a friend who appeared on "Outlander" and played an Anishinaabe man in Corbine's shorts "Shinaab" and "Shinaab, Part 2" — which played at Sundance, Walker Art Center and Toronto International Film Festival — understands the hesitation to share one's culture.
"You do want to tell those stories. But that might also lead to you getting pigeonholed," said the St. Paul actor/filmmaker, who has Ojibwe and Cree heritage.
n 2015, Corbine met Adam Piron, a Sundance programmer and associate director of its Indigenous Program. Sundance execs helped Corbine find funding for the "Shinaab" shorts. He also received early grants from FilmNorth/McKnight Foundation and the Minnesota State Arts Board.
"He was doing something I would argue is just on the edge of experimental and really straight narrative," said Piron. "He had a really strong aesthetic that you could see in a short he submitted as a work sample ['A Doctor and a Security Guard in Love'], but then he knocked it out of the park with 'Shinaab.' "
As exemplified by "Wild Indian," Piron praises Corbine's ability to tell a compelling story whose "real meat is the psychology of the characters, how they process things."
Even with powerful folks on his side, there were fits and starts. It looked like "Wild Indian" might be made in 2016, but things cooled off. They heated up in 2018, when Corbine signed with his agent and dropped the side hustles to support himself with filmmaking.
"Wild Indian" became a "go" when "The Social Network" star Eisenberg signed on in 2019 and the remaining financing fell into place (Corbine can't reveal the budget, but it's modest by Hollywood standards). That fall, they began shooting in Oklahoma, benefiting from state tax credits, although the movie takes place in Wisconsin and California.
"We shot the whole movie in 18½ days," said Corbine, still amazed by that brevity.
After 17 days in Oklahoma, "Wild Indian" was scheduled to shift to California in March, but the pandemic shut down everything. So Corbine had to wait almost a year from the initial shoot to the final scenes in September, masked and as socially distant as possible on some of the hottest days in the history of Thousand Oaks, Calif.
A long road
Since then, Corbine has mostly been holed up in Garrison, editing in a studio he set up there. He received the final version of "Wild Indian" the morning of Jan. 5.
His dad, Mitch, general manager of the Bad River Lodge & Casino in Ashland, Wis., saw an early version and said understatedly, "I'm pretty proud."
Lyle said he can't overestimate how supportive folks Mitch Corbine and Carole Livingston, a psychologist, have been, despite his holiday visits being punctuated by late-night phone calls and computer time as he raced to finalize "Wild."
"It's a tough business, but we recognized he had talent early. He certainly enjoys it and has that passion and commitment," said Mitch, who sees his son's heritage in his work: "It's tough for young people to grow up in an environment where you see a lot of oppression, a lot of things that can make people a little more difficult. He has seen that and recognizes it."
Lukkas, the U professor, also praises Corbine's empathy. She "jumped" when he called, offering to speak to her classes.
"He's wonderful and the students really connect with him," said Lukkas. "He had some hard times after school, trying to figure out on his own how to be a filmmaker, but he has that quiet determination and I'm quite proud of him. And the other thing is his interest in what the students were doing, how his experience could help them. That kind of generosity isn't really common in our world."
Having spent seven years writing at least 20 drafts of "Wild Indian," Corbine is ready to hand it off to an audience he never dreamed of.
"I didn't expect it to be made or to play in Sundance or anything. When I wrote it, I was writing down a bunch of feelings I was having and things I'd seen happen," said Corbine, who drew from real events.
It may be the end of the road for "Wild Indian," which producers plan to sell to a streaming or theatrical distributor. But it's just the start for Corbine, who keeps thinking back to that first day of shooting.
"I'd been trying to make a feature since I was 20 and there I was, 29 — or, no, I had just turned 30 — and I finally got a chance to do it. It was definitely the end of a long road, trying to get my foot in the door, but also a beginning. Because I feel like I'm going to be making films for a while."
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367