Popular indie film comes to the Angela this weekend
Dave Bald Eagle, Christopher Sweeney and Richard Ray Whitman in a scene from “Neither Wolf Nor Dog.” Scan this photo with the Prindeo app to see a trailer from the movie. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO
Making its area debut, “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” opens Friday at the Angela Triplex Theater, 113 E. Phillips St., in Coaldale.
“Neither Wolf Nor Dog,” is an audience-funded independent film adapted from the best-selling novel by Kent Nerburn.
The film starring David Bald Eagle, Christopher Sweeney and Richard Ray Whitman, is adapted from Nerburn’s story that follows a white author (Whitman) who gets sucked into the heart of contemporary Native American life in the sparse lands of the Dakotas by a 95-year-old Lakota elder (Eagle) and his sidekick (Sweeney).
According to promotional materials for the film, Nerburn “receives a mysterious phone call asking him to meet an old man on a distant Indian reservation. Kent travels across the Great Plains to the old man’s clapboard shack on a bleak and poverty-stricken reservation. He is handed a shoe box full of notes and is told to turn them into a book. Kent is stunned by the notes’ profound insights about American culture and the Native perspective. In a desolate motel Kent tries to construct a chapter from the notes.”
According to director Steven Lewis Simpson, the film has been seven years in the making.
“It was just a chance encounter,” he said.
“The author stumbled upon a movie I made that had been showing and said he was intrigued. He was looking to capture the mood of a reservation and was frustrated with Hollywood types. I committed to get the film made by any means necessary,” said the filmmaker.
“So many different things take up time — the writing, raising the money, finding the perfect elder.”
The book was first published in 1994 and is often used for academics.
Simpson credits the film’s longevity and glowing reviews to a connection the audience feels with the film.
“I knew where my audience was and how to meet them. We’ve had this journey of showing it around the country. The audience is doing a lot to spread the word. They feel a deep-rooted connection to the film. It touches them in a particular way. We are up against films with thousands of dollars in marketing and we’ve been beating them. We’re playing a lot of multiplexes, and we are having an emotional connection with the audience.”
A small crew shot the piece in 18 days with 95-year-old Eagle in the lead.
It was important to the director to fully develop and realize the elder played by Eagle.
“If I approached it through a cultural standpoint, it wouldn’t work. That’s what Hollywood does and it creates stereotypes. I wanted to create individuals. That’s what makes this distinct.”
According to Simpson, the climactic scene of the movie that takes place at Wounded Knee was actually filmed on the sacred land.
“Dave (Bald Eagle) took us through a ceremony and prayer before filming there. The last scene we filmed between him and Sweeney was there.”
Simpson said for the emotional scene they tossed the script aside and let Eagle take the creative lead.
“What was on the page felt too narrative. I turned to Dave and had him improvise. The first few takes he was nervous, but then he just got into a deep place. He had relatives at Wounded Knee. After he finished the scene he turned to Sweeney and said, ‘I’ve been holding that in for 95 years.’ It was moving, where Dave was going. It was sacred.”
Simpson was so moved he said, “There will never be another day like that in my career.”
What was important there, was trust.
“Dave trusted me, and it allowed him to go to this place.”
Simpson said viewers are falling in love with Bald Eagle. He credits that with him being on screen who he is in real life.
Simpson said he related to Nerburn, making it easier to put himself in the author’s frame of mind for the adaptation.
“He wrote because he was asked,” said Simpson, who is Scottish. “It was the same with me. I was asked so I understood the commitment of that character.”
That is where the similarities end.
“Kent was American and thought, ‘It doesn’t matter how good the friendships are there is a shadow between white men and Native Americans.’ But I don’t agree. I think that’s what he projects and where his awkwardness comes from. The Native American characters were already developed and grounded. Nerburn was all over the place.”
Simpson said he knew that traditional film distributors would have no idea how to access the core audience for the film. He came up with his own plan and started self-distributing directly to theaters.
“We thought a year ago we’d hit maybe 20 to 30 theaters,” he said.
“But it just kept rolling and rolling,” he said of the 146 theater bookings.
“Neither Wolf Nor Dog” runs Friday through Sunday with show times at 7:10 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 1:10 p.m.