Everyone has a story to tell and everyone has access to a camera, whether that’s on your smartphone, an old camcorder or a handycam. The ability to make a film is literally in the palm of your hands. Choctaw Nation citizen Tvli Jacob learned that early on. It’s brought him critical acclaim and success in the film industry, and he’s helping teach others how they can have that too.
Jacob grew up in Broken Bow, Oklahoma, where he filmed everything he could. He borrowed video cameras either through the local Indian Education Program or from his parents. He also watched movies every weekend with his family and realized at a young age that Native Americans were missing from films. There were no Native superheroes, Native leads, or anyone that looked like him on mainstream television. Jacob knew that in order to see those stories and characters on the big screen he had to step up to the plate.
Jacob got his start by taking a TV production class at Haskell Indian Nations University. From there, he started making short films, then features and eventually began working on projects throughout Oklahoma. That gave him a foundation for his success.
Over the years, he has worked on films like the award-winning “American Indian Graffiti,” a TV series titled “American Experience” and the short film “Ronnie Bodean” featuring Cherokee actor Wes Studi. Jacob also created and co-owns a production company with Kiowa and Choctaw filmmaker Steven Paul Judd.
In addition to film, Jacob currently teaches film classes at OSU-Tulsa, mentoring students on their filmmaking efforts. CNFO is proud to have helped provide Native American students the chance to study under him this fall. In partnership with OSU-Tulsa’s fall workshop series, CNFO sponsored five students with scholarships to his four-week workshop, “Motion Picture Storytelling.” Students learned there are many different ways of telling stories, and it doesn’t require expensive equipment.
Jacob continues on his filmmaking journey as a producer, director and writer, working with Native American, Indigenous and First Nations communities from all over.
Jacob has proven that you don’t need to grow up in California or New York to have a
successful career in film. He continues to work hard, educate others and pave the way in the industry for Natives who come after him. He encourages everyone to keep going, even when resources are limited.
We had the opportunity to chat with Jacob for a Q&A as a way to encourage YOU to get your start in the industry.
CNFO: How did you get started in the film industry?
Tvli: I can’t remember exactly; however, I grew up wanting representation of Indigenous peoples in movies. I grew up seeing movies where Natives were rarely protagonists – especially in mainstream movies. We were either bad guys or side characters. I wanted to see movies where Indigenous peoples were leads, and it didn’t have to be that they were Indigenous but just heroes.
I took a TV production class at Haskell (Indian Nations University), wrote a script with my friend and shot a few scenes. I was finally able to get access to a good camera and shot a short film, and then shot a feature. After that, I continued doing creative work.
What is your role in the film industry?
I’ve done various things in the industry. I mostly work as a producer.
What advice would you give to those looking to get into the film industry?
Be a movie maker. Don’t say you “want” to be a movie maker and say you “are” a movie maker – meaning, we live in a time when everyone can make a movie. So, we should take advantage of things available to us and use them. Find free apps to create stuff. Make animation, no matter how good or bad. Keep practicing. Someone’s got a camera on their phone or tablet. Use it and get some friends together, shoot it and edit it on some of the free editing systems out there.
Anybody you know making a film, help out and learn. Then, tell them to help on your movie. Take classes and learn. Be creative. Creative people are the mythmakers. No matter how much money you have, if you’re not creative, you’re bankrupt from the beginning. Get out there and find the work. The work won’t find you. If you can’t go to Hollywood, see who’s doing something local. If there’s no one doing anything local, you do it. Enter film festivals. Distribute online. Play it at your local community centers. You will find a way. Want to be in the industry? Go to where movies are made. Make friends with people in the industry and ask to help out.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned in your career?
- It’s a lot of grueling (work). Make friends with everyone. Don’t be a jerk and try to lift everyone up who is decent or good. If they’re jerks, it’s your choice in how you treat them, but it’s good advice to be decent to everyone. As an Indigenous person, I want to make more Indigenized films, which means that I don’t want there to be an auteur, but everyone who works on a film are all the storytellers and the movie makers.
- By having everyone be the auteur, I try to make everyone be a part of the process and feel like a family. I try to respect the process of the crew and cast on the set. They are your assets on the way to getting the movie completed. So, let them know they’re a part of the process and they are appreciated. Also, feed everyone as best you can.
- When you have a production day set and you start shooting the movie, don’t stop, no matter what. An actor quits on you? Bring in the friend you can trust to be there on all the shooting dates. Can’t get audio? Keep shooting and figure out creative ways to get the audio as you go along – you can also record the sound later. You have to be inventive, and if you just persevere, you’ll make something you’re proud of.
- Listen to opinions. You may not need to agree with them, but give them serious thought.
What’s your career highlight?
Too many. Working for Disney. Meeting Charlie Hill. Taking acting classes with Alan Arkin. Hearing Tantoo Cardinal and Wes Studi say lines you wrote. But most of all, seeing people I love who I met early in their career make some amazing films and TV shows.
What is your highest career goal?
Make an Indigenous film with a good budget.
What is your vision for Native Americans in the film industry?
More control of our stories. Moving away from stereotypes. Have Indigenous peoples be the heroes of their stories. See filmmakers find their own voice, language, structure and storytelling methods, and people seeing these films as mainstream and not say it’s a Native American movie, but just say it’s a good movie.
As Indigenous peoples, movie making is an extension of our storytelling traditions, and simply by being an Indigenous person, our traditions and experiences makes our voices unique, and is a gift in crafting our stories.
If you would like to learn more about Tvli Jacob’s work, you can check out his IMDB Page.
Do you or someone you know want to be featured for your work? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Be the first to know about announcements and news by subscribing to the Cherokee Nation Film Office newsletter, which can be found HERE.