“Perma Red,” Debra Magpie Earling’s novel about a young Native American woman growing up in the Mission Valley in the 1940s, is being made into a television series. Filming will be done in the Mission Valley using some local actors.
The novel, which earned the 2003 American Book Award, chronicles Louise White Elk as she comes of age and tries to pursue her hopes and dreams as three dangerous men in her life are pursuing her, threatening to derail all that she wants to achieve.
The director for the series is Maya Ditloff, a Los Angeles-based filmmaker who has deep roots in Montana.
“I was born on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, up in Browning, but for most of my life lived in Missoula,” Ditloff said in a phone interview from her home in Los Angeles.
She became involved with the project when she was cast to play one of the characters, but when the director dropped out, she got a chance to move into that role.
Ditloff said she felt passionate about the project because it was an opportunity to cast a Native American woman as a strong protagonist, a role that is nearly nonexistent in popular culture.
“I want to celebrate native women,” she said.
A big part of her motivation to work on the series also comes from her own life experience. She said she felt she had an identity that was at only partially understood. While there is a level of familiarity with native culture in Montana, when Ditloff moved to California she was surprised at how much ignorance and confusion surrounded the role Native Americans play in modern America.
“Once I moved to California I ran into a lot of ‘wow, I never met a Native American before,’” Ditloff said. “I think ‘Perma Red’ is definitely a story that needs to be told to help that situation.”
A pilot episode will be filmed in the summer of 2019; Ditloff hopes to show it at Sundance Film Festival in the fall and shop it around to networks in the ensuing months. “That’s a bit of a quick turnaround for a 45-minute TV episode,” she said.
Her hope is it will be picked up, and thus financed, by a major streaming service. They are structuring the show as a seven-part series, a model she thinks would make it particularly appealing to those large streaming services.
“It would be apt if something like Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime picked it up,” Ditloff said. “I think there is an audience bigger than just Montana or just the U.S.”
If it is picked up, Ditloff and her associates would hope to begin shooting the other six episodes in the summer of 2020. If it isn’t picked up, they will begin a round of private fundraising to make the series happen. That process could take considerably longer and push filming back a little, she said.
Earling is currently a full-time professor teaching fiction writing and Native American studies at the University of Montana.
She is also working to help create an outline and events for the television series.