A production team is looking for a lead actor to help bring author Debra Magpie Earling's classic Montana novel "Perma Red" to the screen as a seven-part miniseries.
The independent filmmakers, all western Montanans, are holding a casting call at the University of Montana campus on Saturday, and are also accepting submissions via video. (See box for details.)
The team believes it has potential as a breakout role in an industry that rarely writes parts for indigenous women. "It's a female Native American protagonist," said Lynn-Wood Fields, the executive producer. "That is a big deal for film or TV right now. There just isn't anything that I know of."
They're looking for two females, ages 15 to 25. One is the lead: Louise White Elk, a young woman coming of age on the Flathead Indian Reservation. They're also seeking a second to play a fellow boarding-school classmate.
Once they find their lead, they plan to shoot a seven- to 10-minute "proof of concept" film with funding from the Montana Film Office. Once it's complete, they can use it to pitch the series to investors.
The project coincides with pressure, both internal and external, on the film and television industry for wider representation of the gender spectrum and people of color on screen and behind the camera.
The widely praised novel was written by a Bitterroot-Salish woman who used true stories about her aunt as a model for the protagonist; the director, Brooke Swaney, is a member of the Blackfeet Tribe and a Salish descendant; the screenwriter is female; and all the current co-producers are women, including Lily Gladstone, who grew up on the Blackfeet Reservation and starred in the independent film "Certain Women." She won Best Supporting Actress at the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards, among many other national awards for the movie.
Swaney said the production is compelling and timely, particularly because the current "golden age of TV" in the United States still lacks series with Native characters. She said indigenous people deserve to "have our stars, and have those be marketable and bankable."
"All these brilliant women have stepped up to re-vision, re-imagine, and bring to life the characters in 'Perma Red,'" Earling wrote in an email. "I'm especially pleased we have a Native director, Brooke Swaney, and that Lily Gladstone is helping to guide us. The screenwriter Gaaby Patterson understands the depth of the characters, and Lynn-Wood Fields has been a tireless supporter and visionary.
"I've just met Jeri Rafter a few times but she seems to be a powerhouse. My Aunt Louise would have been thrilled. The story belongs to the people of Montana now, and that's humbling. I hope this is only the beginning of new collaborations."
Swaney, who grew up in Polson, Ronan and Helena, got her master's at New York University Film School. She wrote and directed a short, "OK Breathe Auralee," that was accepted into the Sundance Film Festival in 2012 and was awarded a Sundance NativeLabs Fellowship.
After some nonfiction film work, she was assistant director on 2017's "Buster's Mal Heart," a Montana-made independent film starring "Mr. Robot" lead Rami Malek.
She said she read "Perma Red" more than 10 years ago and its characters felt real and alive and rang true. "I really want to honor Debra's work and make it come to life," she said, and adapting a book into a series will offer a challenge "translating it into this cinematic language instead of the written word."
Rafter was producer of the 40th annual International Wildlife Film Festival; and over the summer she produced short films by directors Ken White and Michael Murphy.
They'd like to shoot the entire series in Montana, using the actual reservation locations from Earling's book.
Rafter said that Montana has been home for reality TV series, feature films and documentaries, but not fictional series. Parts of the upcoming Kevin Costner series, "Yellowstone," will be shot here, and she hopes that it proves to outside producers that the state is a viable location.
The novel, praised for its prose and its evocation of the landscape, tells the story of its "wild and beautiful" protagonist on the reservation in the 1940s.
In the filmmakers' description, the viewers will "watch as Louise breaks from Ursuline Boarding School, attempts to come of age and ultimately tries to reconcile her mixed heritage. The three men in her life symbolize this struggle — reservation police officer Charlie Kicking Woman; Harvey Stoner, the quintessential rich, and dangerous, white man; and Baptiste, the man who represents the power and necessity of the old ways."
Fields first read the award-winning book 14 years ago. It was Earling's writing that inspired her to pursue a master's in filmmaking at the University of Montana's School of Media Arts. She shot her thesis in Montana with intentions of bringing it to Earling, who teaches creative writing at UM and is now program director. After viewing it, Earling agreed to option "Perma Red."
With the added screen time of a miniseries with 50-minute episodes, they will able to stay true to Earling's book. She's acted as a consultant with Patterson, an alum of the Montana Repertory Theatre's annual Colony playwrights' gathering.
They said Earling is providing both insight and material that didn't appear in the novel — she cut her original manuscript by hundreds of pages.