Neither Wolf Nor Dog at the Everett Historic Theatre
A world of nature and realization
On Saturday, April 13th, the Everett Historic Theatre hosted a Steven Lewis Simpson film called Neither Wolf Nor Dog, a moving piece based on the award-winning novel written by Kent Nerburn. This film follows a white American author, Kent (played by Christopher Sweeney), who is called on by a 95-year-old Lakota elder, Dan (played by Dave Bald Eagle). Kent is called on to write a book based on a stack of notes Dan gives him and then their journey really begins.
The American Indian College fund said, “This is one of those rare works that once you’ve read it, you can never look at the world, or at people, the same way again.”
The film, compared to the book, has captured the same sort of praise from its audience as it received an almost perfect Rotten Tomatoes score (4.7/5) 95%: ”The film is in the midst of the longest first-run theatrical release of any movie in the US in over a decade, which is incredible for a self-distributed film, and is also the most successful non-Hollywood Native American themed film in years”.
The method of self-distribution used with this film is certainly noteworthy: "The film did the opposite of Hollywood and ignored LA & NYC and opened in small theatres, starting in Minnesota/South Dakota, where it is set. In its first week at the CEC theatre in Bemidji, MN it was the number 1 film beating 9 Hollywood movies and getting over 1,600 admission[s] in a town of 15,000. In Minneapolis it sold out shows and had more admissions on its opening week than the film with the highest screen-average in the entire USA."
What's even more interesting, is how Simpson, Nerburn, and their small crew of actors and helpers managed to achieve this kind of hype with such a low budget. This film has beaten 11 summer blockbusters playing next to it in the same town, even with funds, "less than their [blockbuster's] Porta Potty budgets. In another theatre, it beat the top 3 films in the US to the top spot in a 6 screen multiplex including Thor and Murder on the Orient Express."
Nerburn had been trying to make his novel into a movie for a while before he had met Simpson. Simpson recalled the "chance encounter" they had at a showing of his film Rez Bomb, and how Nerburn was "lingering around". He eventually came in and gave Simpson a copy of his book.
Simpson said,"I think it was the next day we bumped into each other in a gas station/cafe on the reservation and I was with friends and he could just see how well-connected and how much fun I had with friends there and just saw that I wasn't some kind of Hollywood guy, because he had Hollywood people pursue it for years and make these grand promises and never get it done, they were always wanting to do kind of crazy Hollywood things with the story. Whereas, for me it was the exact opposite, I just wanted to get in and get it as true to it all as possible."
Simpson’s attention to detail and truth is exactly what Nerburn was looking for, and, "After promises of finance failed to materialize we decided to go for it with whatever we had."
The type of intimacy and atmosphere created by this low-budget film helped the crew to become somewhat of a family. Everyone became so comfortable with each other and, Simpson said, because of that fact the 95-year-old main character, "Dave Bald Eagle ended up taking it to a far more important place than I ever imagined."
Simpson explained how some of the parts of the film are different from the book because, "There's some things that you just don't film." Certain ceremonies and events, Simpson understood he would not be able to shoot. Then there was also the fact that Dave's character had developed into so much more than just Dan from the book. The climax of the film, done at Wounded Knee, was mostly improvised by Dave Bald Eagle creating a staggering, emotional moment of revelation.
Dave Bald Eagle, "in his own family background was closer to the events of the Wounded Knee massacre than the character he was playing. I mean it was Dave's people... who were there." In that moment Dave revealed something that was buried deep inside, he said, "I've been holding that in for 95 years."
This powerful moment, Simpson believes, is why the audience has fallen in love with this film. He said it's almost like, "they're watching something far deeper than a movie, something historic, really."
The fact that Simpson was able to get such weighted moments on camera is impressive when you consider everything that went into the film. For instance, "We shot in 18 days: Shooting that fast normally means long 16 hour shooting days but we had a 95-year-old star and a very unreliable Buick [that broke down multiple times, luckily Sweeney was a "great amateur mechanic" and was at-the-ready] and so typically we shot around 8 hours a day."
Simpson also managed to create this film with a small crew of two: his sound guy, Rick Van Ness, and one miscellaneous helper. According to Simpson, "we all loved each other and we all trusted each other," which is truly what made everyone so at ease and allowed them to capture that incredible moment on Wounded Knee.
Simpson said, "Kent Nerburn and I would be the first to admit that when talking of the Wounded Knee massacre nothing we could write could match the power of Dave Bald Eagle's words. Dave and Dan were truly one at this point. So it became an improvisation; two takes; one on Dave and one on Chris. Dave said afterwards that he went to a place he'd been suppressing for 95 years when reliving the massacre on screen. “No one else was there other than myself and Rick, our amazing sound guy. Hollywood could never have achieved that: Intimate film-making at its best."
Due to the inability to work long days and the size of his crew, Simpson really had to make sure he was always thinking ahead. He got up early to prep sets for the day, wrote large print script cards for Dave Bald Eagle to read and slow-cooked lunch while everyone ate breakfast. He also altered his usual fast-paced filming, rather than taking a million different shots at various angles, "I picked a technique for each scene, and stuck with it. And a lot of the film is focused and based in nature, because that's what it's like at the Plains."
This film actually ended up being Dave Bald Eagle's last: "Dave Bald Eagle passed away at 97-years-old on the 22nd of July, 2016. The story of his passing and his life was reported widely around the world. It was the most read story in the world online on the BBC News, [and] NPR discussed whether he was 'the most interesting man in the world'."
This story and Dave Bald Eagle's moments on the set is now concrete in history. This film's success is certainly not limited to the powerful moments that Dave created. This films success is shared with it's audience who talks about the film on social media, the other actors and crew members involved, and certainly, by the "non-Hollywood" artists, Steven Lewis Simpson and Kent Nerburn: "We've found a far bigger audience doing it the way we've done it, and we've done it a much harder way than they have, which shows how much people really, deeply connected to this film."