It’s taken about 20 years for the film adaptation of the award-winning novel Neither Wolf Nor Dog by Kent Nerburn to come to the big screen. It’s the story of a white writer who is called to help a Lakota Elder (played by the late Dave Bald Eagle) write a book, and who ends up on a road trip of a lifetime.
“Neither Wolf Nor Dog” will be opening today (Friday) at Animas City Theatre, and I had the chance to talk with the film’s director, Steven Lewis Simpson, about his relationship with the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, working with a crew of two and why he thinks a movie like “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” is important.
Q: Tell me a little about yourself
A: I am a Scotsman from Aberdeen. I’ve been making feature films since my early 20s. In my late 20s, I found myself on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and started a long journey filming there; this is my third feature-length project there; one was a feature documentary that was shot over about 13 years. It’s become a place that’s very deep-rooted in my spirit, mostly because of deep friendships there. It’s sort of one of those things where often when I do Q&As for the film, people often ask about how my experiences there have changed me – almost like looking for some sort of spiritual kind of almost cliché – but for me, it’s about friendships; there’s nowhere else in the world where I’ve been more welcome. It’s an amazing thing there.
One of the things I find most beautiful about people that I know there is that I’ve never been anywhere where people have kind of more reason to distrust a white, European male coming in randomly, and yet for it to be the opposite way around, I think a lot of it has to do with … the key in the narrative is that it’s a white American going in there, and I’ve always found that typically, white Americans, particularly men, or predominantly men, have a very different experience there than Europeans, and it’s because people in Lakota Country pretty much just take you on who you are. I mean, you’ll hear a lot of ‘the white man this, the white man that,’ but they’re talking about the dominant society; they’re talking about politics.
But Europeans walk in, like most people traveling, with big, goofy smiles on their faces, looking to make friends and looking to have a good time. And they do. Most people I know in Pine Ridge have friends from all around Europe, some Japanese … it’s amazing … that’s why it allowed me to create this dance in the film between the characters in a sense because I could see it all as an outsider.
Q: How did you get involved in the project? It had been something like almost 20 years for the film to happen (from book to film). Why do you think it took so long?
A: … The writer was getting a lot of false promises, and he’d had enough, essentially, and he bumped into me … and gave me the book and thought, ‘well, here’s someone who can actually get it made.’
But also, it was made from the rez out, so to speak, in the sense that it wasn’t filled with clichés, it was real people. The important thing about the novel and the movie is – there’s a strange thing that happens when Hollywood goes into Indian Country, they sort of leave their brains at the door and just typically create stereotype with the very rare exception. And that goes in all directions: They go from the super-negative to the overly romanticized, and it’s never whole characters. And in a sense, the whole point of this narrative is to kind of deconstruct that.
Q: You had a crew of two? What kind of challenges did that present? And you did it pretty quickly, too – 18 days?
A: Yeah, but even then they were 18 short days in a sense, probably averaging about seven hours a day because of a 95-year-old’s energy. There were certain challenges, but it also creates opportunities in the sense that … I’m a great believer (that) large crews get in the way of the art. So this was us in the real location; it couldn’t have been more intimate. And it meant that there was such a trust between everyone. And it gets into such a deep place, particularly where Dave goes in the film. We threw away the script and the novel at the climax, which is at Wounded Knee, and we had him improvise the whole sequence. In a sense, that sequence – it’s sort of this thing where it’s almost obnoxious as a filmmaker to say that a work has any cultural importance, but I have to say that having an elder of his stature going emotionally to the place that he went to in that scene and that being shared with the world about this critical event, to me, is culturally important. It’s a document.
Q: How’s the movie been received?
A: It’s been kind of astonishing… With such a small film, the industry doesn’t really pay much attention to things they don’t feel they can immediately make a quick buck on. So I took it out into theaters quite a few weeks ago and I started in some of the areas I knew it was very well-known. … We understand that there are large pockets of the country where there’s a really deep resonance within our film. For me, the film is a dialogue between two communities, in a sense, and I love it where it’s playing in places where those communities exist, rather than in just big cities. … I think the gift of fiction over documentary is that when it’s done right in this sort of situation, the audience’s hearts have been so widely opened by this character … it’s really amazing that way.