Sometimes you just know your life’s passion, even at an early age. That was true for Adam Piron, a Kiowa and Mohawk filmmaker who grew up in Phoenix, Arizona. From the early years to college, film was constantly on his mind, so it was easy for him to pick a career path as he set out for the University of Southern California. Piron entered film school and soon landed a prestigious internship with Sundance Institute’s Indigenous Program. From there, he gained an inside look into the independent film world and learned many of the ins and outs of how to get films made outside of Hollywood. He now uses this knowledge to help other Native filmmakers make their projects a reality.

Piron currently juggles many roles, including supporting Native filmmakers as a co-founder and co-manager of COUSIN, a film collective founded to support Indigenous artists. The primary goal of film collectives is to create a network for filmmakers with support and feedback for getting films made.

His work doesn’t stop there. Piron is not only creating his own films, but also serves as the film curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). His past work includes being a member of the short film programming team at the Sundance Film Festival, Los Angeles Film Festival, AFI Fest, and imagineNative Film and Media Arts Festival. Piron was also one of the managers of the Sundance Institute’s Indigenous Program from 2014-2017, which gave him insight on working with artists getting their films made and seen.

The Cherokee Nation Film Office chatted with Piron for his advice on filmmaking and getting into the industry. Read the Q&A below:

What is your vision for Indigenous people in the film industry?

I think it’s important for Indigenous people to build their own reality of what a film industry could or should be to themselves, rather than necessarily relying on “the” film industry itself to deliver what they want. That’s not to discourage anyone looking to work within the larger film industry, because there are people enacting some real changes in it and doing pretty amazing work when it comes to Indigenous people behind and in front of the camera. That said, if you want to work and succeed within that system, you have to play by a certain set of rules and expectations of what your work could or should be, and that goes for whether you’re Indigenous or not. It’s a business, and that’s just the reality. When Indigenous people succeed in it, that’s great for all of us.

I think it’s important for us as Indigenous people to allow us to provide the space for our artists to figure out what an Indigenous cinema experience means to them, no matter how deeply rooted in their own cultural logic and aesthetics that might be or even how radical and provocative that could be, too.

Photo courtesy of High Country News

What advice would you give to those looking to get into the film industry?

I would say hone your craft as much as you can. And also, I think just realizing, too, that not everybody is a writer, director or, necessarily, an actor. I mean, if you want to be an editor, that’s great. Go for it. We need Native people that can do that – or people that are cinematographers or whatever else. My advice is really more along the lines of, figure out what it is that you want to do. Really just spend your time focusing and learning about it as much as you can. And you don’t have to be in L.A. to do that anymore. Realistically, you can learn how to do that by yourself, whether it’s just online or just watching a bunch of films, or just reading up on as many things as you can. Eventually, I think, depending on where you’re located, you can probably pick up work wherever the local film hub is.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned in your career?

I think knowing when to say yes and knowing when to say no. I think this goes without film necessarily, but I think [this applies to] film in some ways. As Indigenous people, there’s this idea that we’re underrepresented or there’s the “break in by any means” kind of situation. I think some people are just apt to take anything that comes their way because they think that they have to, in some ways. But, I’ve found that I’ve said yes to too many things, in some ways. I’ve learned to kind of pull that back and to be like, “What is it that I want to do?” “Does this help me get to where I want to go?” or, “Does this help me out in some ways?” I would say it’s mostly that … and seeing “What is it that you want to do?” (Ask yourself), “What’s an in and what is not?” Just working towards your own vision essentially by figuring out what to say no to. 

I also don’t want to say that it’s as easy as just saying yes or no to some things. Even with people that are doing very specific work, you know, they see themselves as artists and doing stuff. You know, everybody still needs a day job. You’ve got to do stuff to pay the bills. So, there’s nothing wrong with that. I think it’s just more of figuring out what your brand is and what your voice is, so to speak, and to make it happen. 

What’s your career highlight?

That’s a good question. I don’t think I have one yet, to be honest. I’ve been able to do some pretty cool things, but I can’t think of one thing that’s been like, “This is it!” if that makes sense. It’s been sort of the ride, more or less, and I’m enjoying it. I’m going to get where I need to be when I need to be there. 

Piron attending Pre-Party Late Night Lodge- Native at Filmmaker Lodge during the 2010 Sundance Film Festival in Par City, UT on January 28, 2010. (L-R) Rachel Edwardson, Adam Piron, Sydney Freeland, Bird Runningwater and Brian Young. (Photo by Clayton Chase/Getty Images) 

What is your highest career goal?

I think probably to get to a point where I’m essentially self-sustained, in terms of doing the type of work that I want to do full time. I mean, in the sense of me making my own films. That’s essentially what I mean by that. Realistically, I know the type of stuff I want to make. I’m not particularly interested in making sort of a blockbuster Hollywood kind of thing. I think it’s more knowing how to work within my means and getting to a place where I can essentially do that…. Living as a working artist, if that makes sense. I think once I get that point, I’ll be like, “OK, cool. I made it.” I’m getting there, to something that resembles something like that….

Specifically, within the larger entertainment industry, I think there’s a lot of myths out there that are particularly harmful, in terms of how people set themselves up. Where I think that there’s this idea that all of these really great artists all of a sudden just became the person whose work you love and all that stuff. But, I think it’s always a good thing when people are teaching on the side or people are doing commercials or doing whatever else, like driving an Uber, or bartending and stuff. I think that’s fine because that’s a thing that you kind of just know what you want, and you have to figure out a way to make it work by whatever you’ve gotta do. There’s no shame in that…. That’s part of the nature of this industry, or field, or whatever you want to call it. It’s one more story to sell to people in a lot of ways, and I think once people know that “Oh, everybody kind of goes through some version of getting to where they want to be.” That’s the reality of it.