author: mason sliva | a&c editor
A look at one of the most successful independent films of the year
Though it didn’t have the multi-million-dollar budget like many of other 2017 blockbusters, Neither Wolf Nor Dog has gained the world’s attention. The film has received spectacular reviews since its release earlier this year, and it continues to make its name in North America. I had the opportunity to ask the film’s director, Steven Lewis Simpson, some questions about Neither Wolf Nor Dog.
Can you tell me more about your film, Neither Wolf Nor Dog?
SLS: “Neither Wolf Nor Dog is based on the best-selling novel by Kent Nerburn. It follows a writer, based on himself, who gets a call to meet a Lakota elder and help him distill his life’s experiences down into a book. But rather than it being a smooth journey, they draw him into a roadtrip through the heart of the elder’s world, so he experiences it all firsthand and is forced to confront his own nature along the way. The author approached me about eight years ago with the novel, as he’d seen another movie I’d made on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and he thought “here’s a guy who can actually get a film made here.” He was growing weary of endless false promises from Hollywood producers about a movie being made.”
Where has the film been shown?
SLS: “The film premiered in Europe in 2016, and then entered cinemas at the start of 2017. It is currently the film that has been in theaters for the second-longest time in the US this year. It started mostly in the Dakotas and Minnesota, and has been working its way out from there. It has been in a remarkable 20 cinemas in Washington State, and 19 in Oregon. So far it has been in over 110 theaters and has only covered about 15 percent of the US market. In the US, it is the most successful self-distributed film of the year by a film-maker, and the most successful non-Hollywood Native American film in years.”
Are there plans to debut the film anywhere else?
SLS: “We will continue to expand the film through the US and Canada into next year, but the big development is that I am creating a European distribution company now to release my film in Europe next year.”
Was it difficult adapting the book to a movie?
SLS: “What made the novel easy to adapt is that it is episodic, and because it is essentially a road movie structure, it was easy to establish the progression of the story. What made it difficult is that there is a greater discipline to writing a screenplay, as everything has to be so tightly structured and you can’t have characters just endlessly talking.”
Do you feel that anything significant from the book had to be scrapped in order to make the movie flow?
SLS: “The film goes deeper into the emotional dynamics between the characters, and it helps draw the audience in a different way to the book, which relies mostly on conversations to move the story along. Many speeches from the elder were stripped back because they would have slowed the film down, and revealed things about external factors more than the characters own progression, which is the most important part of the movie. I scrapped the scenes written in the climax of the novel and screenplay as by the time we got to filming them, it felt too contrived. Instead, I had Dave Bald Eagle improvise the whole scene at Wounded Knee as he was, through his family, closer to the events of the massacre of 1890 than even the character he played. It subsequently became the most important aspect of the film for me, and also the audience. It is the aspect of it that transcends it being a film as he showed us his soul there, and added great cultural importance to the film.”
How has it been to receive such a warm reception?
SLS: “It is a wonderful feeling to read the reviews of the film written by the audience, and seeing how deeply they have been touched by the film. We constantly hear people report that audiences were rooted to their seats ‘till a while after the lights came up after the end credits. The audience score on rottentomatoes.com is 4.7/5, which is higher than any of the big Hollywood movies out at the moment. The main reason is that even though these films have $200 million budgets, you can’t buy heart, and that is what our film has in abundance. Having spent almost seven years working on it, the audience response has helped re-fuel my spirit at the end of this intense journey. But, it is not down to my creativity in particular, it is because Dave Bald Eagle put his heart and soul into the film and creates a remarkable, unforgettable character.”
What was it like working with Dave Bald Eagle?
SLS: “Dave was a pure joy to work with and to know. He had the most glorious light about him. His smile was breathtaking, especially when he was being mischievous, and the twinkle in his eyes shone so bright. To take on his first leading role in a film at 95 was pretty amazing. But he had so much courage and he knew he was doing something that was important.”
What is the message behind the film?
SLS: “I think everyone in the audience will walk away with their own message from the film. It is my job to present a story, and the audience to react in whichever direction they choose. But I know it breeds new layers of understanding within many in the audience.”
Why is it important to you to honour traditions?
SLS: “For me, I don’t look at work like this from a cultural perspective as I am making it. My responsibility is always to my characters as individuals. Their truth to their world and their culture will then flow through their individual truth rather than being one-dimensional, which is the curse of work where people are perceived through their cultural identity before their individual identity. To me, people’s traditions are personal to them. It is not my business to intrude. But when you have a character like Dan played by an amazing individual like Dave, you place full responsibility in the depiction of culture and traditions in his hands.
What was the rest of the cast like?
SLS: “I was immensely lucky with the cast. Chris Sweeney and Richard Ray Whitman, who starred with Dave, were absolutely the two people meant to be in the film. But in the smaller roles, I had some very experienced actors adding a lot of class to the performance. Alberta’s Roseanne Supernault was so good when I auditioned her for the two sisters that I rewrote them as twins so she could play both.”