A challenge is issued in the independent feature film “Neither Wolf Nor Dog.”
A Lakota elder summons a white author from a thousand miles away to help him write a book. When the writer balks, the elder taunts, “I called and you came. If you are too small or too weak, it is too late.”
The moment captures the essence of this drama, which is based on the award-winning novel by Kent Nerburn. In the book, Nerburn uses his own name as the fictional author who is invited to write the elder’s story. In a life-mirrors-art moment, the author appealed to Scottish filmmaker Steven Lewis Simpson to bring his story to the big screen after it stalled in Hollywood for almost a decade.
The feature-length film has earned high praise from audiences and critics alike. “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” opens Friday, June 30 in Missoula.
Simpson said in a telephone interview that Minneapolis theaters have had multi-week screenings, unheard of independent film in the hot summer season of blockbusters.
“We’re opening in multiplex theaters in Arizona and Oklahoma. It’s surreal; it’s this magical thing that is happening.”
Simpson said the film ended up being a six-year journey for him because it was self-funded with help from fans and friends.
“As it turned out, the key thing is I was crazy enough to do it,” said Simpson, who has been making films for more than 20 years.
Simpson's most well-known project is the documentary, “A Thunder Being Nation,” the story of Oglala Lakota living on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. It was that film and “Rez Bomb,” the “rez thriller” as he describes it, that established Simpson's reputation among Native Americans for taking the time to get the story right.
"Neither Wolf Nor Dog" is based on Nerburn's award-winning book. In the film, Sweeney plays an author character with the same name, though it is a work of fiction.
The most important character in “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” is the elder Lakota man. To portray him, Simpson found the perfect actor — who was 95 years old when he worked on the film. Dave Bald Eagle died before the final edits were done, but he was able to see it in a rough-cut screening with family and friends.
“Dave was a well-known character in the Dakotas. He rode in the parade in Deadwood for 70 years and was much loved. With Dave, he was more the character than even the character was.”
Some of Bald Eagle’s ancestors had been killed at the Wounded Knee Massacre, and Simpson made the bold decision to stray from the screenplay, which was written by himself and Nerburn, and let Bald Eagle improvise in a powerful climactic scene at Wounded Knee.
“That moment almost fuses the best of documentary and the best of fiction. The audience, when they listen to him, their hearts are wide open. He’s 100 percent real and we are standing with him. That’s why the film is resonating with so many people.”
Simpson said Bald Eagle’s character reminds audiences of a magical grandpa, a glorious figure that defined an era.
“He’s gone, everyone from that era is gone. It makes the film culturally historic.”
The filming was done over 18 days and the production schedule revolved around Bald Eagle’s energy level. Simpson did not know at the start of filming that Bald Eagle had been using a scooter to get around because it was so difficult for him to walk. Yet he walked on his own in all of his scenes in the film.
Filming was hard on him, but Bald Eagle never complained. In between takes, Bald Eagle would sit with his wife in their car with the heater on.
“Every time we filmed at Wounded Knee, it’s like he drew a power that wasn’t there on other days. Dave had a remarkable life, but this is the most incredible thing he did.”