The Many Faces behind War Pony

Eléonore Hendricks is a casting director, actor, and photographer with an assured naturalistic eye. Her street scouting has shaped the cinematic worlds of Josh and Benny Safdie (Good Time and Uncut Gems), Chloé Zhao (Songs My Brothers Taught Me), Andrea Arnold (American Honey), and HBO’s Euphoria. Her newest project is War Pony, the directorial debut of Riley Keough and Gina Gammell, which centers the overlapping stories of two young men living on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. During a thoughtful two-year process with her casting partner Abby Harri, Hendricks made War Pony—her third project set on the reservation—a true collaboration with local Oglala Lakota youth.

Fresh from War Pony’s premiere in the Un Certain Regard section of Cannes, Hendricks shared her own behind-the-scenes photos of the cast, an affectionate tribute to the real-life stories underpinning their performances.

“This is Ta. Ta-Yamni Long Black Cat. Riley and Gina met Ta, along with Woody and a few other boys, on our first casting trip in July of 2017. There is a scene that was written introducing the young boys. It described a group of ragamuffin boys hanging out, sipping on big sodas outside of Big Bats, a gas station in the center of town. I had just left earlier that day to go back to New York for another film. On one of their last errands, Riley and Gina pulled up to the gas station and saw this group of five boys, in almost the exact way it had been written in the script. It was so uncanny it was almost not surprising. So, Ta has been part of this film since the beginning.”

“Jesse during one of her big days acting on set. She plays Echo, one of Bill’s baby mamas, but she doesn’t have a child of her own in real life. She has also been a part of the movie since the beginning, since July 2017. We’ve all been through so much together. She was nervous about acting, but I think she did a tremendous job with her character and her scenes. She has this deep knowing glint in her eye. I always tell her she reminds me of Natalie Wood.”

“This is Taydence standing on his horse (named Horse). Taydence’s scenes were mostly cut out of the final film, but just for a tightening-of-the-story sake. There was a scene written where Taydence comes across Matho in a time of need and scoops him up onto his horse and rides off to safety.

“It was a lot of work getting Taydence and Horse from Kyle, about two hours from where we filmed this scene in Hot Springs. Taydence gets moody, really grumpy, but as soon as he’s with his horse it’s complete freedom. In between takes he would take off galloping as fast as the wind; it’d look like he could disappear into the horizon, he would take off so fast.”

“Gina Gammell and Riley Keough, with a blanket-wrapped Calista Cottier. I took this photo after a long, cold night last November and this was the Martini Shot, the last shot of the last scene we shot during principal photography. Riley and Gina, our fearless leaders. They worked so well together, completing and fortifying one another. Riley is a beacon; she leads with light and love, it makes others glow along with her. Gina has led this project all the way through: she is constantly considering the story; balancing it all, as it involved four writers; and holding everything together. She is the nurturing mother hen, who bears the weight and makes sure everyone is taken care of. This is their first time directing a feature. I don't know how they did it, but they did, unchanged from the beginning kernel idea and as sharp as an arrow with its intent. This film was born out of love. Honestly, I think the film also has forces beyond any of us.

“I could talk endlessly about Cat wrapped up in the blanket. I should, she’s a force of nature. She has this way with words, so she’s either cracking me up with her perfectly landed quips or she’s touched my core with a poignant post on her Facebook. She’s been through a lot since we filmed. She lost her younger sister Whisper, and her mother, Benita Feather Earring. It’s actually unfathomable. But she has a fierce drive to never give up, instead to succeed and persevere; she is doing that for her mother. So she’s in her second year of college, holding down a full-time job at the CAP office, and is also a single mom to her four-year-old boy. She’s a badass, if I ever knew one. And she came to Cannes. Look for her in photos from the red carpet photocall—she’s that devil in the blue dress and the cool shades.”

“This is Cat again, in a car with the poodle, named Beast in the movie, and Jojo Bapteise Whiting, who plays the main character, Bill. We’re in Oglala at the gas station on this super windy day. Jojo gives such an excellent performance. He’s charming, cheeky, endearing. He’s playing chess all the time with the world and people around him, as a character and as a person. On one of many casting trips I took out to Pine Ridge, I brought my very trusted partner Michele Mansoor. We were at a big county fair and Powwow on the neighboring Rosebud reservation, and we kept seeing this boy, this good-looking, troublemaker-looking kid with hot pink dreadlocks and a marijuana leafed backpack. I wasn’t sure how he could fit in as one of the characters, but Michele had the sense to talk with him. He was high and sweet and a bit shy and mentioned he made trap music. He was intriguing, but I couldn't see a place for him yet.

“Then I returned two years later, just shy of two weeks before filming. We actually hadn’t cast the lead role of Bill yet and were totally anxious. We had one person in mind but it wasn’t working perfectly. Abby Harri and I went to the Rosebud County fair again, and there was Jojo a second time—a bit more mature, a bit more wise, but still wild at the world. We spotted him hanging out a car window hollering along the lyrics to some music. We stopped him and convinced him he should try out for the lead role. He was hesitant but, again, with some force beyond him, just rolled with it. We linked up a couple days later in his town of Rosebud. He brought us to an abandoned trap house—I guess it was a neutral quiet space. He had the sides, Abby read with him, I filmed. He was an utter natural. The words just fell out of his mouth like he was the mind who conjured them. His mom called about 20 times worried sick, she was nervous about why these casting agents wanted to meet him. Tonya has since become a very dear friend to me; she came in place of Jojo to Cannes. It’s an awesome thing to witness a mother’s pride as her son flourishes and thrives. They are a pretty special team.”

“These two: LaShea wearing my sunglasses and Emily in the driver’s seat. They are two of Stanley Good Voice Elk’s grandchildren. Stanley is a medicine man; he opens up the film with a blessing and prayer. I got really close with Stan and all his family. Certainly these girls, his other grandchildren and his adult daughters, have become my family. There was maybe a mutual need for one another, so I’ve spent a lot of time with them in their home, helping with things, having fun, learning, goofing off, family style, arguments and all.”

“This is LaShea again. She’s a little rascal, always up to some mischief, also an excellent helper. She loves to take on tasks and we’ve done a ton of house work together. I think with Stan’s fam, I went well beyond the essential work needed to help bridge the film world with his own. But it’s rewarding for all of us. In this sense, I think all the additional time spent together has been part of it. We all just got deep, couldn’t help it.”

“Here’s Emily holding a puppy on the front steps of Stan’s house. She’s eight years old in this photo. I met her and her brother Joseph in November of 2017. She was raised mostly by her grandma and grandpa Stanley; she and her brother help Stan lead Inipi—a traditional sweat lodge—every Sunday. It’s a spiritual space for prayer, to clean and replenish the spirit. I’ve been to Inipi about four times. There is powerful singing prayer happening throughout, and it’s so hot it’s pretty much unbearable. But you let the prayer guide you. You trust the person who invited you in, and you trust the little children who are sitting beside you because they’re so strong and they’re not afraid.”

"Haley at home. She’s Cat’s older sister. When I met these two girls I was so taken. They were gorgeous, stunning, their hair was long down past their lower back. They were both serious, honor roll students despite life’s distractions. Here’s Haley standing in the living room at her mom’s house, with portraits of her family in the background, drawn by her father when he was in jail. I loved their mom, Benita. She always had food to offer me when I came over. And often she would sit with her friends in the kitchen, always speaking in Lakota. She was fluent. The language didn't carry on to the younger generation, but now more than ever there’s an effort to bring the language back with immersion schools starting at kindergarten. It's wonderful.”

“Here’s a cheeky photo of LaDainian Crazy Thunder and Ta. They flicked me off in the next snap of this moment. I first met LaDainian in Pine Ridge when he came to audition. And he was a natural, he was perfect, he took to the dialogue with such ease, everyone watched the audition tapes and it was unanimous, he had it. He was cast as the lead role of Matho.

“He had been suggested to us by Alice Big Crow, Jesse’s mom. She was his teacher at Rocky Ford School. He came from his dad’s place to audition with me at his mom’s. His father told me he was driving with his sister from Sharps Corner. ‘Who was?’ I asked. His dad repeated, ‘He is, he is driving.’ ‘Wait, LaDainian is driving the car himself?’ How? It was about a 40-minute drive. I said, ‘How is he driving? He's only twelve years old!’ ‘No, no,’ his dad said. ‘He’s eleven.’”

“Chanel is putting an eagle feather into Taysha’s hair. Taysha had to learn traditional Fancy Dance, a Powwow dance for her scenes. She was taught by this beautiful girl named Dreamie whom Abby met at a small community Powwow in the town of Porcupine. That was a sacred one, where outsiders didn’t really go. Dreamie taught Taysha how to dance, and she had her best friend Chanel on hand to help and give support. She was so nervous about getting it right, but she had an excellent teacher her own age and she danced beautifully. You’ll see Dreamie in the scene along with her.”

“Taysha was wrapped in an embrace by her father. Taysha plays young Matho’s love interest in the movie. Taysha, she stays with her grandma in Pine Ridge. Her father lives in Rapid City, about an hour and 45 minutes away. She doesn’t see him often, and she was so happy to have him visit. She was a bit shy for photos but I loved their embrace. He was so handsome, she admired him so much and was just so excited to see him.”

“This is Valentina von Klencke dressed as a nun while filming the Halloween scene up in Sturgis at the home of the white turkey farmer, played by Sprague Hollander, an old musician friend of mine in his first acting role. Sprague is actually an elk hunting guide and a badass guitarist. Anyway, this is Valentina in her natural state. She came on to the project from Berlin as the casting associate. Everyone loved her, especially the little boys, that’s the 12-13-year-old crew of actors. Somehow Val ended up with a white Dodge Charger rental car. She is also endlessly fun and funny and anyone who is nearby gets enveloped in her jokes. She’s actually a saint and one of the crew’s most valuable assets. She kept spirits light amidst all the hardcore work and labor we carried as a casting team.”

“This is Bill Reddy with his son Mason at the fairgrounds at Og Nash (Oglala Nation), a big Powwow and fair that happens in town every August. Bill is the reason this film exists. The main character of the film—played by Jojo Bapteise Whiting—is named after him.

“I introduced Bill to Riley during a scene together in Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, where he was an extra. I first learned of Bill from Chloé Zhao. She showed me a video she recorded of Bill butchering a deer at Babe Poor Bear’s home, way back in 2013. I recall it was an incredibly beautiful video. I think the video has since been lost; Chloé had her home in Brooklyn broken into and much of her early video recordings on computers and hard drives were stolen.

“Well, I brought Bill and his friend Frank Sioux Bob to the set of American Honey. Bill and Riley took a real shine to one another. They hit it off that eve, and he was around the next day too. I remember Riley telling me about the hours they spent just talking. It was through this friendship that Riley realized there was an important need to tell Bill's story. Things blossomed and grew from there. Gina Gammell, Riley’s best friend and collaborator soon came into the mix. They were all firstly friends, spending time and hanging out, but all the while culling these wild stories of Bill’s and his friends. They began writing together with Bill and Frank. They messed around with making a music video etc., but that soon birthed a whole feature screenplay.

“It's been a long saga; there has been a lot of loss and lives changing and growing. This film stayed a strong current of hope throughout some very tough times. Bill couldn’t come to the Cannes premiere but his mother did, Mama D. Her home was the hearth during those early days together. This photo was just a beautiful moment between father and son. Mason loves his dad, they have a special bond.”

“This is Emily again. A selfie of Emily and me in the bathroom at Pine Ridge High School. We went to accompany her grandpa, Stanley Good Voice Elk, during a memorial service for one of his friends. They actually call her little Eléonore in her family. We have a special connection. She’s not really in the film except as an extra, but she is important to me, and I’m important to her. I’m pretty sure I'm going to be in her life forever, and she in mine.”