Riley Keough has been in the business for more than a decade. At just 32 years old, the granddaughter of Elvis Presley has made a name for herself as a performer with great range, known for “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Magic Mike,” “Zola” and Steven Soderbergh’s “The Girlfriend Experience,” which earned her a Golden Globe nomination. But before she broke out as an actor, Keough always wanted to be a director.
Keough is now at the Cannes Film Festival, where the first film she has helmed, “War Pony” — the indigenous coming-of-age story she co-directed with her producing partner Gina Gammell — is making its world premiere.
Keough and Gammell joined Variety and Kering at Cannes for a Women in Motion conversation in which Keough says she screamed when she found out “War Pony” had been selected for the Un Certain Regard competition at Cannes.
“Cannes gives it validation,” adds Gammell, who is making her directorial debut alongside Keough. “‘Oh, Cannes thinks it’s okay?’ So we can keep going,” she says.
Keough and Gammell met years ago and became fast friends. They started writing together as a hobby, but in 2017, formed their own production company, Felix Culpa. “War Pony” is the first project they’ve brought to completion, but they never had a grand plan. In fact, the project came through a chance meeting on the set of “American Honey,” where Keough met two day players.
“There were two actors hired locally to do a scene with me, and the scene got pushed to after lunch, so we ended up having like six hours,” says Keough. “It was just one of those friendships where you meet, and instantly, just can’t stop talking.” Those two actors were Sioux Bob and Bill Reddy, who grew up on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation, and co-wrote the script for “War Pony.” Producers include Willi White and Pte Cante Win Poor Bear.
All in their 20s at the time, Keough, Sioux Bob, Reddy and Gammell became close friends and began to bounce around an idea for creating a project about the two indigenous locals growing up on the reservation. “It just started with notes in our phone,” Keough says. “We didn’t really have a goal. … We certainly didn’t think we were coming to Cannes. It was just like a fun thing we all did together. And then it turned into a film.”
Telling the story authentically was paramount to Keough and Gammell. “It was a very personal project to the boys,” Keough says, explaining that the first-time directors collaborated on each and every detail with White and Poor Bear, from the writing to the tone to the feel to the camera angles, “so that our gaze is not really present,” she explains.
“It was constantly evolving,” says Gammell, adding that the joint “mission” was to “responsibly and consciously collaborate.”
Other filmmakers have gone to the reservation in the past, essentially bringing cameras and starting to shoot. For Keough and Gammell, that was the opposite of their experience. “I think that is typical in film,” Keough starts. “Storytelling as filmmakers, going to communities, and going, ‘Where is the story here?’ and making your film.” She continues, “That is not how this started.” Because the group organically came up with the idea as friends; the project unintentionally blossomed over seven years through trusted relationships and a deep understanding of nuances.
“You can’t do something like this without challenges,” Keough states. “We were just trying to lead with our hearts and be as mindful and responsible in every moment as we could be, and we got through. I do feel proud of what everybody was able to do. It was beautiful.” Gammell adds, “We are really like a big family now. We have very, very big, deep friendships — not only the cast and collaborators, but also their families.”
Keough and Gammell are first-time directors, and they are two of the few female filmmakers at Cannes, where the festival’s main competition only has three movies helmed by women.
“I’m curious as to how many women were in a position to submit to Cannes. How many women got the financing that they needed?” Keough says. “From our own experience, that was very difficult, especially when we compare it to our male friends … we know many first-time male filmmakers getting a lot more money than female first-time filmmakers we know. So there is a very profound mistrust in women leading … I think it’s very fundamental … women need the opportunities.”
Even with her Hollywood roots, Keough says getting a project made is tough as a woman. “If I’m having trouble, what does that mean for somebody who is not an actress, who does not have the relationships that I have?” Keough suggests, impressively self-aware.
She notes that her namesake helped her get an agent back in the day and gave her more resources than others trying to break into entertainment, but “at the end of the day, you have to walk in and perform.” While she is “very grateful for the wonderful benefits that I have been able to have,” when she started out, Keough felt as if she had to prove herself.
“I could have been projecting, but I felt a sense of like, ‘Oh, okay, let’s see what you can do,’ like nepotism,” Keough recalls of her early days in auditions. “I’m really sensitive, so that made me really nervous. … ‘Ooh, should I go? Sorry for being here.’ That was my interpretation of what it felt like … I felt like there was a pressure.”
Today, that’s not the case. Keough has a love for acting, which keeps her plenty busy, but she is also looking ahead to continuing to carve her own path as a filmmaker — which was actually always her goal. “What I wanted to do was write and direct. As a young child, I would make little movies with my friends. I would never act in them,” Keough says. “Acting was something that I did want to do, but it came later … that was my original desire, to direct and write.”
Keough and Gammell are currently working on another project, which they won’t reveal, other than Gammell teasing it’s about “consumption, greed, America, lust, sex.”
“I don’t want to oversell it,” Keough adds, “But it’s very Shakespearean.”
Watch Keough and Gammell’s full conversation here: