Though it runs less than 20 minutes and its action is largely confined to a single set, the new Disney+ short film “The Roof” succeeds in telling a story that encompasses generations and demonstrates the power of familial history to shape self-understanding.
The film — which was released for streaming Sept. 29 as part of the Disney+ Launchpad series — follows an unnamed two-spirit teenager (Phoenix Wilson) as they arrive at the home of their Northern Cheyenne grandfather (the iconic Wes Studi) in the town of Lame Deer, as the latter hammers away on repairs to his leaky roof. Though the two initially appear to have a fraught relationship, we soon learn of the powerful history that binds them. The film, directed by Alexander Bocchieri, follows Wilson’s character as they learn more about their grandparents’ lives; it culminates in the teen’s embrace of their own identity at a joyous impromptu powwow featuring fellow two-spirit dancers.
For screenwriter W.A.W. Parker — who goes by Adam — the material is deeply personal. The film, he explains, reflects his relationship with his own Northern Cheyenne grandfather, as well as his experience growing up as a two-spirit person in Montana. (The term “two-spirit” can be employed in several ways; Parker uses it as an umbrella term “for Native LGBT queer and trans Indigiqueer people to refer to themselves across Native cultures and languages.”)
Beyond “The Roof,” Parker — who currently lives in Los Angeles — has also published a novel, The Wasteland, with Harper Jameson, and written a TV pilot called “The Baron” that has been lauded by GLAAD and the Indigenous List.
Read on as Parker discusses his family history, highlights his unconventional approach to casting for “The Roof,” and explains how recent advocacy in support of two-spirit people on the Northern Cheyenne reservation has sparked his interest in moving there.
MTFP: What are some films that stick with you from your childhood?
As a kid, I was definitely drawn to the character of Mozart, who is this flamboyant character who was different from everyone else. Growing up, I felt different, too. Even though it’s not a literally queer character, he’s a character that goes against what is expected of him at that time and thrives in it.
MTFP: How did you end up collaborating with Disney on “The Roof?”
Parker: Launchpad basically did an open call for scripts, and mine was chosen for season two. They produced six at the same time with mostly the same crew, shooting around Los Angeles.
I wanted to make it regardless of whether or not they got involved, but I’m so glad that they did. They allowed us to make the film that we wanted to make. And the film is better for their involvement.
I wrote it based on my relationship with my grandfather. A couple of years ago he had a stroke. He was 93 years old. I got the phone call: “Hey, if you hop on a plane right now, you might be able to speak to him one last time, but you also might just be coming home for the funeral.” Very luckily, he had a relatively miraculous recovery, and I actually got to spend a few days with him.
My grandpa was born on the Northern Cheyenne reservation and was sent to boarding school as a kid. It’s the only thing in his entire life that he would never talk about. And growing up, I wish that I had heard about the history and legacy of two-spirit people in my tribe. So I wrote this between conversations with him, thinking back to the times I was sent to stay with him as a kid, and wishing it was the conversation I had with him at a much earlier age.
MTFP: Did you have a hand in the casting process? If so, what was that experience like for you?
Parker: I was very lucky that [director] Alexander Bocchieri said that he wouldn’t take the job if I wasn’t involved in the project. That was just the beginning of a lovely collaboration, from casting all the way through the final sound edit. That was very dangerous for him to say, because generally speaking, writers aren’t involved at all these different levels of the process. He really stuck his neck out.
With casting, it was an intense search, because we wanted to cast as authentically as possible. It was really important for us that the [teenage] character be Native and the character be two-spirit.
It was also really important to me to do outreach with the tribe as well. Facebook is one of the best ways to do outreach on the Northern Cheyenne reservation. But then, Alex, producer Blake Pickens [and I] all went to Lame Deer on the Northern Cheyenne reservation where my parents and family live to do some in-person outreach, at the junior high high school, the elementary school. We played basketball in open gym talking to the bros, basically telling everyone to get the word out as much as possible that we’re making this film and that we’re looking for somebody to play this lead character.
We didn’t have anyone Northern Cheyenne audition while we were casting, but we were extremely lucky to get Phoenix Wilson, who is just a phenomenal actor and a phenomenal person, delivering such a delicate and powerful performance. He’s actually written a book with his mother called “Phoenix Gets Greater” about what it’s like growing up in a loving and supportive Native family.
We lost our grandfathers around the same time, and Phoenix said that the [film’s] relationship with the grandfather was like his relationship with his grandfather. A few friends have said the same as well.
Once we cast him, we were able to introduce him to the tribe as well. Phoenix is Anishinaabe, and we wanted to introduce him to the Northern Cheyenne people.
We brought him to the Chief’s Powwow in Lame Deer in July 2022. I gave a speech. We did a community feed. We had an honor song, and we were able to honor a few people in the community who were really helping us as well.
Afterwards, somebody who was Northern Cheyenne two-spirit did audition, but unfortunately they were too old for the part. But I was glad that they did find out about it in the end. I look forward to hopefully working with them at some point in the future.
MTFP: How did you connect with Wes Studi?
Parker: We sent him the script along with a personal letter detailing how we thought he would be good for the project, especially since he has such an ability to deliver layered performances that can infuse humor into a situation. Not a lot of people allow him to show that side of himself. In a way, it was a nice full-circle moment, because his first film, “Powwow Highway,” was shot in Lame Deer, and he remembers the community fondly.
MTFP: You filmed “The Roof” in Los Angeles, right?
Yes, that’s right. Even though we don’t establish that it’s Lame Deer, the implication is there, by saying it’s a Northern Cheyenne teenager and [using] the Morning Star symbol [at several points in the film].
It was really important to me that we used digital extensions of the scenery: the trees in the background of the vista of the grandfather’s house [are taken] from pictures that Alex took of my grandfather’s house in Lame Deer.
It sort of made my year when, after a screening, [actress] Lily Gladstone said it looked like Lame Deer.
MTFP: Why did you title the film “The Roof”?
Parker: The roof is the thing that protects the home and everyone in the home. I wrote them literally repairing a roof to give them something physical to work on together that also represents the larger home that they have together that they also need to repair.
MTFP: Were there significant changes between the original script and the final product?
Parker: Yes. The major thing that changed after it was greenlit was the final sequence. We decided to take this two-person, one-location film and add a whole bunch of people to it: more Native people, more Indigenous people, more two-spirit people, so that as many people that wanted to be involved are on the screen as possible [in the pop-up powwow scene].
I hope this film adds to the efforts that people are already making in my tribe, and that more people see what is possible when you fully love and accept people into your family and community.
This past summer, the local college, Chief Dull Knife Community College, had their second annual two-spirit Pride event. Growing up, I never thought that I would see a two-spirit Pride event on the reservation. I was so happy to attend that. And also this past summer, the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council passed a very sweeping resolution in support of two-spirit tribal members, especially the youth.
It makes me so proud to be a Northern Cheyenne tribal member. I grew up as a kid who’s different, in rural Montana. When I was this character’s age, Matthew Shepard was murdered. Growing up, rightly or wrongly, I had the narrative in my brain that if I wanted to live, I needed to leave. And it’s only in seeing this love and support from the community that I’ve even opened up the idea for myself of what’s possible, of moving back to be even more involved in the community.
MTFP: Do you visit often?
Parker: Absolutely. Usually a couple times a year. My grandpa moved back when I was a kid. All the big family events, holidays, summers would be spent down in Lame Deer. About 12 years ago, my parents moved to Lame Deer. My dad actually came out of retirement to be the superintendent for the Lame Deer school system. Until this past spring, my mom was the elementary music teacher at the school as well.
MTFP: Have you encountered any misconceptions about two-spirit people that you think would be helpful to highlight?
Parker: In Western thought we tend to take a lot of words and literalize them, as in, “Oh, every Native tribe thinks that there are people that have literally two spirits in them.” Some tribes may believe that, but it is an umbrella term for Native LGBT queer and trans Indigiqueer people to refer to themselves across Native cultures and languages.
MTFP: What’s coming up next for you?
Parker: Right now I am rewriting my next screenplay and writing my next novel, and always procrastinating on one with the other one. But more than that, I’m really happy to be mentoring a couple of two-spirit writers. And I would love to mentor even more.
It’s people who live outside of L.A., so it’s Zooms and phone calls.
MTFP: Before we wrap up, what’s been your family’s reaction to watching “The Roof”?
Parker: It’s been wonderful, and I can’t be thankful enough for the family that I have. I’m sure it must have been a weird experience for them, seeing so much of my grandfather in this movie, but it’s also not him.
My reaction from my family has just been that they feel so happy that he’s been honored in that way and that the story is being told, hopefully, with care for both him and the teenage character and the community.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
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