On a bitter cold January night in 2007, screenwriter-actor Ken White was having trouble sleeping.
White was a guest at the Montana ranch home of Annick Smith, mother of his filmmaker friends, twins Andrew and Alex Smith. He pulled a book off a shelf to read hoping only that it would lure his eyelids toward half-mast.
Several hours later White put down “Winter in the Blood” by James Welch. He’d stayed up all night to finish the book, and was still wide awake.
“He called us that morning,” Alex says, “and said, ‘Why aren’t you making this book into a movie?’ It was a good question. Why aren’t we?”
The twins had known Welch for as long as they could remember. He was a long-time family friend from before they’d even been born.
He’d even met his wife Lois at a dinner party at their house.
“Winter in the Blood,” the story of a troubled and aimless young man on Montana’s Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, was Welch’s first novel and started his transition from poet to author. Consumed with grief and guilt, not to mention the loss of both a beloved brother and alcoholic father, the man stumbles through his dark days on the lonely Hi-Line aided largely by a mixture of liquor and meaningless sex.
Andrew and Alex had both read it as teenagers while attending Hellgate High School.
“It’s the first book of his we fell in love with,” Alex says. “It’s been in our blood a long time.”
A fresh set of eyes helped them re-see it as more than the heralded piece of contemporary Native American literature it had become.
At White’s urging, they began to think of it as a motion picture.
That was five years ago.
Now they’re in the editing room, and in the final stages of taking it to the screen.
White took the initial run at a screenplay, and he and the Smiths spent three years rotating the script among themselves, tweaking it into one they were all happy with.
“Andrew and I have full-time teaching jobs,” Alex says. “I teach at Texas and he’s at University of Montana, so it wasn’t full-on involvement. But we kept moving it around until we got it right.”
Principal filming was done on the Hi-Line last summer, with Chaske Spencer – who has found his big acting break with “The Twilight Saga” films, where he plays werewolf Sam Uley – in the starring role.
As luck would have it, a past Big Sky Documentary Film Festival played a pivotal part in a film about the making of “Winter in the Blood” that will screen Saturday at the Wilma in this year’s Big Sky Festival.
“Visionary Insight” is a behind-the-scenes look at “Winter.”
Tracy Rector, who co-directed “Visionary Insight” with Lou Karsen, says she was introduced to White while speaking on a panel in Missoula at the documentary festival a couple of years ago.
Rector is executive director and co-founder of Longhouse Media, a Native American-run nonprofit in Seattle that teaches Indians “how to tell their stories using film and digital methods.”
White thought Longhouse Media should be involved in the making of “Winter in the Blood,” and after reading Welch’s novel, Rector wanted it too.
“I developed an understanding of how important the work is,” she says. “It’s about identity and transformation, themes that are very important to us.”
Longhouse supplied several interns for the film, and Rector and Karsen spent all four weeks filming the filming of the movie. One of those interns, Rose Stiffarm, was born on the Fort Belknap Reservation, Rector says, but moved to Seattle at the age of 6.
“Her father’s family is from there,” Rector says, “and it was so neat – they were shooting in Chinook and one of the extras on the film turned out to have been her school bus driver when she was in kindergarten.”
Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan, who visited Montana last summer to write a feature about the production, tells Rector and Karsen that the Smith brothers could have saved lots of money by filming “Winter in the Blood” someplace other than the Hi-Line where the novel is set.
Canada, just 40 miles away, was one.
“That’s true,” Alex says. “Other places offered higher incentives, but we felt in our marrow that if we embraced Montana, we’d get a different type of rebate. We’re from Montana, Jim was from Montana, and the Hi-Line is where the book was created.”
More than once in “Visionary,” a filmmaker or actor will note that they are filming just a mile or three from where James Welch grew up.
The Smiths made their first film, “The Slaughter Rule,” in north-central Montana as well.
Andrew Smith says that once White suggested “Winter” as a film project, he and his brother were sold, “Primarily because it’s deeply a story about brothers, and family, and that resonated with us,” he says.
They approached Lois Welch – Jim died in 2003 – about optioning the novel. The novel had been optioned once before, back in the 1970s, but nothing ever came of it.
“Lois was very generous, and gave us exclusive rights while we were in development and raising money,” Andrew says.
Now, the race is on to finish editing in time for film festivals where they hope to obtain a distributor for their labor of love, based on a 38-year-old novel by an old friend that still resonates with readers today.
They’ll try to enter it in the Cannes Film Festival in May, which Andrew calls “a long shot, but one worth taking.“
“Winter in the Blood” is still a ways from landing in your local theater, but Saturday in Missoula, you can follow its journey up to now, talk with the people who made that possible, and with the two brothers who have been in on every step since Ken White called them with the question they had no good answer for back in 2007: Why weren’t they making a movie out of this?
Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or at email@example.com.