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Rutherford Falls Creators On Finding Humor In America's 'Messy' History


Before she became a writer for TV, Sierra Teller Ornelas worked at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. And she remembers one year, teenagers kept coming in and asking about the Quileute Nation.

SIERRA TELLER ORNELAS: They wanted to know how they could become a wolf. They wanted to know how they could turn into wolves, where the wolf exhibit was.

CORNISH: I'm sorry. I'm going to pause here. What?


MICHAEL SCHUR: (Laughter) That's the right reaction. Yeah.

CORNISH: OK, maybe you're nodding already, but in case you don't get it, this was back when the "Twilight" movie was big, which borrows the name of the real live Quileute Nation. But it's a fantasy. So in "Twilight," some of the Quileute people can turn into wolves. Now, as a writer and a member of the Navajo Nation, Ornelas wanted to do something different - to make a TV show that represents Indigenous people as, you know, people - a show like "Rutherford Falls," her new sitcom on NBC's streaming platform Peacock. I spoke with Ornelas and co-creator Michael Schur about the show and asked how she got involved in the project.

TELLER ORNELAS: I had sort of been working in TV for almost 10 years, and I really wanted to do a show about Native people. You know, when I first kind of showed up, my first pilot was about these two sisters who worked at a trading post on the Navajo Nation. And I remember a lot of people being like, oh, this is a great sample, but it'll never be made. It was just very much, like, said to my face in this very polite way of like, there'll never be a Native sitcom, you know?

CORNISH: Did they ever say why? What were the - some of the reasons you heard?

TELLER ORNELAS: You know, that there wasn't enough infrastructure for it, so there wasn't enough talent. There weren't enough people who could make the show, and then there wasn't enough of an audience. And so I just sort of accepted that and kind of put that away in my pocket but thought, like, you know, someday, this is going to happen.

CORNISH: So, Michael, from your perspective - I've just heard someone say that, you know, they wanted to make a show that touched on, you know, Indigenous communities and were flat-out told, no, thanks. So you come along, and, yes, you have a successful resume. But what was your approach to this? And what, to you, were the odds of getting it made?

SCHUR: So Ed and I had worked on this idea for years, and we started designing a character for him that was a very well-intentioned guy who had a lot of good in him and a lot of admirable qualities but who had sort of swallowed whole this narrative about himself and his family that he was clinging to and was completely non-objective about. And that was a very rich vein, it turns out.

CORNISH: And the Helms character is somebody whose identity is being affected by this, like, changing conversation about history.


ED HELMS: (As Nathan Rutherford) The statue, Big Larry, in Rutherford Falls, it's been in the same spot, in a very significant spot, for centuries. And now people want to tear it out of the ground and toss him aside.

CORNISH: And on the rest of the canvas is this tribe. It's called the Minishonka.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) I'd like to take a moment to acknowledge that we are currently standing on Minishonka land.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Beautiful, OK.

CORNISH: First, can we talk about the sensitivities around making up a tribe?

TELLER ORNELAS: You know, obviously, fictional nations - it's very difficult because we are not a monolith, so there's no way to sort of express all Native nations in one fictional tribe, which I don't think we are trying to do. But I'm very proud of the fact that, you know, there are five Native writers on staff. We had a Native director for four of the episodes, and this is really a reflection of our shared experience as Native people from nations all over the country.

CORNISH: I just want to jump in on something you said about the writers room because there's so many times when people talk about or criticize TV shows where they'll say, well, we just can't find writers to do X, Y and Z, or it's really hard to make your writers room diverse. How did you go about doing this? How did you look for people? And what did that room end up looking like? And I'll start with you, Mike.

SCHUR: The way we went about it was we said, hey, we would like some Native writers, and then agents and managers sent us some Native writers. And we hired them. Like, that - the narrative...

CORNISH: You're saying that simply, but I know for a fact you've worked on shows that didn't look very diverse in their writers rooms.

SCHUR: (Laughter) A hundred percent - and the truth is that there's been a massive seat change. It used to be that show runners would say, look; we can't have an all-white staff. We need one person who isn't white, or we need one woman because we can't have all men. Since then, and really aggressively in the last, say, five, six years, we've hit this point where it's like, that's not enough. So we just said, like, this is what we're going to do. And we got five Native writers.

TELLER ORNELAS: Yeah. I mean, we didn't have agents because at that time, no one had agents, so we didn't have any agents, just to clarify.

SCHUR: That's true. I forgot about that (laughter).

TELLER ORNELAS: But I remember asking Mike - he was like, how many writers do you want to have in the room? And I said, I want to have 10. And he said, well, five should be Native. And I was very surprised by that, I will say, initially. That's what was so exciting about this - is whether it was the casting process or the staffing process, what I'd been told 10 years ago was not true.

CORNISH: I want to ask about one or two of the characters. One is Reagan Wells, who's played by Jana Schmieding.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Would you like to know why you're having trouble with the community?

JANA SCHMIEDING: (As Reagan Wells) Oh, I know why. It's because Reagan lives in town and not on the rez (ph). She's not a fluent speaker. She walks her dog on a leash.

CORNISH: Is she your proxy a little bit? I'm only asking because of the museum connection. She's someone who also has - right? - experience with a museum.

TELLER ORNELAS: I think a character like Jana - I remember watching "Northern Exposure" as a kid and seeing Marilyn, who played Joel's assistant. It was one of the few shows that had Native characters on it growing up in the '90s. And the camera would always move away from her. She'd get, like, one line, and she'd say her joke. And then you'd move on to Joel and his problems or whatever. And I always just wanted to stay with Marilyn. I just always - like, to me, that show was about her. And so when we got to make a show, I drew a lot from my experience but also the experience of just the abundance of Native women in my life and really wanting to make a show about them and sort of for them.

CORNISH: Looking at some of the white characters who are very naive or sort of think they have a firm view of the world, No. 1 being the National Public Radio producer who shows up thinking he's going to tell the story of the town. Nothing about that was off-brand.


DUSTIN MILLIGAN: (As Josh Cogan) Casinos have been so divisive amongst Native people. It seems like unfettered capitalism would be at odds with a lot of your cultural beliefs.

MICHAEL GREYEYES: (As Terry Thomas) Well, Josh, it's a challenging situation, but compromises have to be made. I drive a car. I have a microwave, and I'm somehow able to live with myself and my cultural beliefs.

CORNISH: And Ed Helms, your main character, who is in a lot of ways, like, really naive about his past. And since I asked Sierra this question, are any a proxy for a kind of journey you went through, Mike?

SCHUR: No. Honestly, no. I never went through anything like Nathan goes through, personally. I think what we tried to do collectively is to show, like, this is a thing that a lot of people are grappling with. Like, America, especially, you know, white people in America are uniquely terrible at reckoning with their history. Like, it is one of the greatest flaws in terms of how they cling to narratives that are false or at least misleading, or maybe only fragments of those narratives matter to them. And we just wanted to say, like, it's messy, and there are parts of it that are bad. And it's OK to admit that. Like, it's OK to not be the hero all the time.

CORNISH: Well, I want to thank both of you for being willing to dig into so many aspects of this with us.

Thank you so much for speaking with us.

TELLER ORNELAS: Oh, thank you so much.

SCHUR: Thank you. We're huge fans of your show.

CORNISH: Michael Schur and Sierra Teller Ornelas, co-creators, along with Ed Helms, of the Peacock series "Rutherford Falls." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.
Sam Yellowhorse Kesler
Sam Yellowhorse Kesler is an Assistant Producer for Planet Money. Previously, he's held positions at NPR's Ask Me Another & All Things Considered, and was the inaugural Code Switch Fellow. Before NPR, he interned with World Cafe from WXPN. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, and continues to reside in Philadelphia. If you want to reach him, try looking in your phone contacts to see if he's there! You'd be surprised how many people are in there that you forgot about.
Sarah Handel
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