Ocean Ridge: A role of a lifetime

12390469479?profile=RESIZE_710xInterior designer Chad Renfro, a member of the Osage Nation, at home in Ocean Ridge with a memento from the film, Killers of the Flower Moon. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star

Ocean Ridge designer’s guidance ensured Best Picture nominee stayed true to Osage people

By Joe Capozzi

If director Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon wins Best Picture at the Oscars on March 10, an interior designer from Ocean Ridge can rightly claim some credit.

Chad Renfro worked as a consulting producer for the film — his name is prominent as the credits roll at the end. The Ocean Ridge Yacht Club resident had no experience in the movie business when he was brought in to work on the film.

But Renfro, 54, had something that producers Scorsese, Imperative Entertainment and Apple Original Films valued — deep roots with the Osage Nation of Oklahoma and connections with its leaders. 

Renfro, a south Palm Beach County resident since 1997, was born and raised in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, a city on the Osage Indian Reservation. These days he commutes between Ocean Ridge and Pawhuska, where he is active in tribal affairs.

Pawhuska is the setting for many of the events depicted in Killers of the Flower Moon, based on David Grann’s 2017 best-seller about a dark chapter of Osage history known as the Reign of Terror. 

The reign was rooted in the discovery of oil below the reservation in 1897, which turned many tribal members into the richest people per capita in the world. It also attracted people who tried to steal the rights to the Osage land and oil royalties through fraud, marriage and a string of more than 60 murders and suspicious deaths from 1920 to 1925.

The Reign of Terror has been chronicled in several books, but none with as much traction as Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI.

Keeping them honest
After Renfro learned in 2016 that the soon-to-be-released book’s movie rights had been sold, he was appointed as the tribe’s ambassador to the film, a role he pursued with two goals: to have the production shot on location in Oklahoma and to make sure the movie portrayed the Osage Nation accurately and respectfully.

The result is a movie that has won critical acclaim, multiple awards and, perhaps most significant, the blessing of the Osage Nation.

And to make it happen, Renfro used his Ocean Ridge connections (more on that later). 

“It was really kind of a divine order,” Renfro said of the sequence of events that led to his role in the production. 

“I was the first Osage person to make a connection with the film people. It’s a world I never pictured myself in. We were blessed with the best of the best in the film industry to help make this monumental picture.” 

As the film’s ambassador, Renfro played multiple roles. He helped convince the producers to shoot the movie in Oklahoma. He helped persuade the state to give millions in rebates to the production, the largest in Oklahoma history. He connected Scorsese’s crew with Osage actors and experts in the nation’s language, clothing, history and tradition. 

“We have a unique culture and history, and Chad knows that unique culture and history. He bridged these two worlds,” Osage Nation Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear told The Coastal Star. “Chad was unpaid by my office to do this. He did this out of love for his people. He’s the perfect person to be this ambassador, and I told him: This time and place is special and he was meant to be right where he is.”

12390470280?profile=RESIZE_710xA memento for Chad Renfro for his work on the film. Photo provided

The backstory
So, just how did an interior designer from Ocean Ridge wind up playing such an important behind-the-scenes role in one of the biggest movies of the year? 

Long before he moved to Delray Beach in 1997, Renfro grew up on the Osage reservation. He graduated from the University of Central Oklahoma with a marketing and public relations degree and started working as an event planner, a gig that evolved into interior designing. 

He moved to South Florida at the suggestion of a friend from Pawhuska who was living in Ocean Ridge. A decade later he launched Chad Renfro Design, a successful business with clients from Palm Beach to Boca Raton.

In 2014, pursuing a desire to spend more time with family in Oklahoma, he started commuting between Pawhuska and Ocean Ridge. In Oklahoma, he worked on design projects around Tulsa and on the Osage reservation, where he renovated the Osage Nation executive offices.

Renfro, who said he has known Standing Bear for most of his adult life, served a term on the Osage Nation Foundation’s board of trustees. He participates each June in tribal ceremonies wearing full regalia made by his Osage family.

“He is culturally grounded here among his people. He’s part of our community,” Standing Bear said.

Acting out of concern 
One day in 2016, Renfro was scrolling headlines on his iPad when he came across an article about a production company purchasing the film rights to Grann’s book for $5 million. 

Renfro, at the time an Osage Nation Foundation board member, said he and tribal leaders knew about Grann from the author’s days in Pawhuska researching the book. They also knew the book focused on the FBI agents investigating the Osage murders. 

Well aware of Hollywood’s dismal record of depicting indigenous stories accurately, tribal leaders worried that the movie version might downplay or even misrepresent the Osage and their culture. 

So, Renfro decided to try to reach out to the two producers mentioned in the article, Dan Friedkin and Bradley Thomas of Imperative Entertainment. If Renfro could open a dialogue, he would invite them to Pawhuska to meet tribal leaders and encourage them to shoot the film in Oklahoma.

Help from Ocean Ridge
Getting any Hollywood big shot on the phone is a daunting task, especially if you’re someone with no connections to the movie business. But Renfro had an advantage: His close friends Gary and Penny Kosinski of Ocean Ridge have a relative who works as a Hollywood agent. 

The Kosinskis connected Renfro with the agent, and in a brief phone call Renfro explained his motives for wanting to talk to Friedkin and Thomas. 

“Moments later, there is an email chain between the two men who own Imperative Entertainment and myself,” he recalled. 

“I said, ‘I work closely with the chief. I’m on the board. I know this community. I grew up there. You guys should talk to us.’ And they were receptive.” 

Within weeks, Renfro was helping arrange visits to Pawhuska for the Imperative team, and later Scorsese, to meet with tribal leaders, elders and citizens. 

“Chad opened that door for Imperative and later joined me in opening the doors for Marty and the team,” Standing Bear said. 

But it wasn’t easy. 

12390470657?profile=RESIZE_710xInside the commemorative book, director Martin Scorsese wrote a tribute to Renfro for his contribution to the movie, ‘For Chad R., in great thanks for all you’ve done.’ Photo provided

Making the movie
From the start, the tribe had major concerns that the movie would be filmed out of state, would not accurately portray the Osage and their culture, and would not use Osage actors.

“That’s what intimidated me, the business side of this,” Standing Bear said, explaining why he named Renfro ambassador. “Chad kept coming to my mind. I said, I’m not gonna be able to pay him. I might as well ask. He took it on himself.” 

There were several tense meetings with the production company and with the Oklahoma Film + Music Office, recalled Standing Bear, who said he and Renfro often teamed up with a good cop/bad cop approach “that was not planned.”  

“There were several meetings where I came off as a little aggressive to some people, but I had Chad there to explain things,” he said. 

“Chad was like a translator in a way. He would say, ‘What the chief means is. …’ I gave him total permission to do this. I told him, ‘Chad, you’ve got to be with me. You know this world. I need your help.’”

Standing Bear said he makes no apologies for “coming off a little strong” with the tribe’s demands in those meetings.

“I tried to make it clear: I’m not trying to be threatening. I’m just trying to express how concerned we are about being stereotyped as just some Indians out there,” he said.

“I think what Chad and I were saying was a bit new to people. Normally the indigenous population did not have any control of the movie. We understand that someone else bought the movie rights to David’s book, which we all endorsed. But we’re going to have a say-so in this one way or another or else. And the ‘or else’ was, if you go to another state, I can assure you Osages will be there” to protest.

With Scorsese, a legendary filmmaker known for classics like Raging Bull and Goodfellas, directing two megastars, Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro, tribal leaders were well aware of the rare opportunity for Killers of the Flower Moon to accomplish what previous movies about Native Americans have not — properly showcasing the Osage and their culture.  

“It’s not that I’m trying to blame everybody for the past,” Standing Bear said, recalling what he told the film crews, “but when you have an opportunity to make it right, all your people need to be working with Chad and whoever he directs you to, starting with me, to make this story of Osage being told through the best that Hollywood can offer. We’re not trying to direct the movie, but we’re trying to have a voice.”

The consulting producer
Renfro’s involvement as unpaid ambassador quickly turned into a full-time job. It wasn’t long before he was hired as a consulting producer, a paid position.  

“Marty made a film about trust and betrayal on all different levels. And we have obviously trust issues. We were betrayed so many times that it was only natural there would be trepidation and questions,” Renfro said.

Meanwhile, Scorsese and DiCaprio worked with Eric Roth to rewrite the screenplay and tell the story from the perspective of the Osage instead of the FBI.

“My main goal was achieved — to get them to film in Oklahoma, on our reservation, and to make sure that our people were comfortable with the way it came together,” Renfro said.

Not long after the film premiered Oct. 20 in theaters nationwide, Renfro’s phone started lighting up with texts from friends who’d seen the movie and his name in the 10th frame of the credits. 

“They’d say, ‘Oh, my gosh, I knew you had something to do with the film but I didn’t know you were going to have a credit that size,’” he said with a laugh. 

Those credits could never be big enough, as far as Penny Kosinski is concerned.

“Chad’s journey from a successful interior designer in Palm Beach to a consultant on a major film is a testament to his multifaceted skills and deep passion for his Native American heritage,” she said in an email.

“As a friend, Chad has always been a source of inspiration. His work on our homes, and The Learning Center at Gulf Stream School, was not just about creating beautiful spaces; it was about infusing each project with a sense of history, culture, and personal story,” she said. “This approach to design, deeply rooted in understanding and respect, is what makes Chad’s work stand out. It’s this same approach that he brought to Killers of the Flower Moon, ensuring the film’s authenticity and respect for the Osage culture.”

One and done
Renfro’s role in Killers of the Flower Moon has been spotlighted by several media outlets, including Time magazine, National Public Radio and The Hollywood Reporter. He has attended premieres, news conferences and ceremonies around the world, including the prestigious Cannes Film Festival in France and a special premiere in Pawhuska. 

And he plans to attend the Oscar ceremonies with Standing Bear. After that, he said, he’s done with the movie business. He wants to focus full time on his interior design business. 

He said his biggest hope for Killers of the Flower Moon, made with help from more than 100 Osage, is that it opens doors for more Native Americans to participate in the film industry. 

“This was the most important piece of film involving Native Americans in letting them use their own voices as much as possible,” he said. “It is setting a precedent for going forward.” 

In his Ocean Ridge home, Renfro has one keepsake from his work on the film, a Christmas gift Scorsese gave to each member of the production crew: a special hardcover “Making of the Movie” book. 

On a page inside the cover, Scorsese scrawled a note: “For Chad R., in great thanks for all you’ve done.”

Renfro said: “I am most proud of the fact that it came together in such a way that our people are presented accurately and that our voices are heard.”

And it might not have happened if he had not moved to Ocean Ridge and built a successful interior decorating business that attracted a client with a relative in the movie business.  

“It was really kind of a divine thing,” he said. “I had to leave home, come here and create a life for myself in order to have that one connection that I could use to make that happen.”

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