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Turning an epic movie into a community project: How Scorsese made 'Killers of the Flower Moon'

 Lily Gladstone (center) in a still from the film <i>Killers of the Flower Moon.</i>
Lily Gladstone (center) in a still from the film Killers of the Flower Moon.

Until recently, Native representation in cinema and television has been abysmal. That's slowly changing. The new Martin Scorsese film Killers of the Flower Moon doesn't shy away from the harsh realities of the Osage murders it depicts. But it also does something else: celebrates Osage culture.

There's a scene in the movie where Osage men and women are lined up outside the train station getting their photo taken. You can see it in the film’s trailer.

They're on their way to Washington D.C. to demand the federal government solve the murders taking place on their land. Osage citizen and lead wardrobe consultant Julie O'Keefe said the Osage delegation wore what she considered a power suit.

“It was, you know, a group for 40 of them, and they come walking in with these blankets,” O’Keefe said.

These were broadcloth blankets with bright hand-sewn ribbon work. The clothing has a specific message.

“We're coming as equals and we're coming in here to let you know that we're here to talk business with you,” O’Keefe said.

She herself has a blanket that’s been to the White House three times. Blankets are a way to honor someone but they’re also meant to make a statement.

When the film premiered at Cannes earlier this year, she and numerous other citizens of the Osage Nation wore that same power suit on the red carpet.

 Julie O’Keefe (left) stands next to Moira Red Corn in Cannes.
Allison Herrera
Julie O’Keefe (left) stands next to Moira Red Corn in Cannes.

Hiring O'Keefe was just one of the ways director Martin Scorsese made sure there was authenticity in the film.

But, Osage News editor Shannon Shaw Duty said it didn't start out that way. She’s a lover of Scorsese’s movies and said when she was growing up, her family had Age of Innocence on repeat in their home. That’s why she didn’t know why this director she admired, would make something that would put Osages in a bad light.

“I started hearing leaks about ‘this script is this is crazy.' It's totally Hollywood, we're going to look like fools,” Shaw Duty said.

Gray Horse community members within the Osage Nation asked for a meeting with Scorsese and his crew. That's when things changed.

Scorsese made sure to shake everyone's hand and listen to everyone’s concerns about the script.

“He intently listened to everyone stand up and speak their truth, their concerns. And then at the end, he gave some remarks to us and was just so down to earth. I just knew then that we were in good hands,” said Shaw Duty, who attended the meeting with her two sons.

Working with Osages

Chad Renfro, was the consulting producer and ambassador for the Osage nation on the film. He knew the project was going to be made-the book had been written and people were already talking about it.

He and Osage Nation Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear put together a list of people for Apple Original Films to work with language and cultural consultants like Johnny Williams. Williams spent every day on the set making sure the production crew got things right.

“The movie was going to be made with or without us. And instead of making a movie about us, they made it with us in such a huge, huge way,” Renfro said. 

He was relieved after a meeting took place in Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear’s office with Martin Scorsese and Leonardo Di Caprio who said they wanted to film primarily in Oklahoma.

“We're here and we want to talk to you and we want you to come and see what we're about. We want you to figure out how to do this and make this film here,” Renfro said.

Hundreds of Osages worked as extras and behind the scenes-including Anita Fields who made one of the blankets that can be seen during a parade scene in the movie.

Fields’ grandmother Nettie White Luttrell had trunks of Osage women’s prized collections. These include blankets, jewelry, ribbon shirts, moccasins.

“During my grandmother's lifetime, according to the stories that she would tell me, these were also gifts from very dear friends,” she said.

O'Keefe tapped into a vast network of Osage aunties and grandmas for the film.

 Osage Nation Director of the Language Department Vann Bighorse (left) and Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear.
Osage Nation Director of the Language Department Vann Bighorse (left) and Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear.

She put an ad in the local paper asking Osage women to show off their heirlooms to the wardrobe crew. She said people showed up in 2021, when the country was still in peak COVID. The vaccine still wasn’t widely available and the crew and extras were masked up.

They're bringing out items from that 1920s period or earlier, like some of the fabrics and everything and the textiles that were used and, you know, ribbon, the colors, those colors don't exist anymore,” O’Keefe recalled.

“This is what took an epic movie like this and brought it down into a feeling of a community project.”

Language was another important component. That's why one of the film's producers worked with Van Big Horse in the Osage language and culture department. Big Horse said he was impressed with how the actors spoke Osage. He paired them up with language teachers from the department.

“After our teachers worked with these actors, they proved to me that our language is alive and well,” Big Horse said.

Trust is not always upheld when Hollywood tells stories about Indigenous communities, but Osages who worked on this film say their experience can be a model moving forward.

"Of course, we were suspicious and anxious about having this being told in such a large platform," Renfro said about the initial hesitation.

"But every step of the way, these people upheld our trust."

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Allison Herrera