Kent Nerburn’s Native American novel, Neither Wolf Nor Dog, has been adapted into a feature by Scottish filmmaker, Steven Lewis Simpson, which is in the midst of the longest first-run theatrical release of any movie in the US in at least a decade, which is all the more remarkable as he self-distributed it through his Edinburgh production company. Steven spoke with The Fountain about how it came about as well as other projects he is presently working on.
TF: Neither Wolf Nor Dog sounds like an interesting feature, can you tell us how you came to be involved in the production?
The author Kent Nerburn had approached me with a copy of the novel at a showing of another movie I’d filmed on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation called Rez Bomb. He told me of how for almost twenty years Hollywood producers had been giving him grand empty promises about making a movie of the novel and he was getting very frustrated. In me, he saw someone who actually got films made, and more importantly, my work was from the Reservation out and not from Hollywood in, perspective-wise. I read it and then gave him my word that I would get it made by any means necessary. That was eight years ago.
TF: What is the premise or story behind the film, can you tell us more?
The film is about an author, that is based on the real author of the novel, who gets sucked into a road trip through the heart of the Dakotas by a Lakota Native American elder and is best friend, who try to open up the authors eyes to the reality of the elders life and world view. The elder provokes him to look deep inside of himself and to see the world in a totally different way. One of the great benefits the film has over the book is that Dave Bald Eagle played the elder at 95-years-old and he is beyond what anyone could have dreamed the lead character to be like. He puts his spirit on screen and takes the material to a new height. Also, the film allows the landscape to be a character in a way that is hard to achieve on the page.
TF: And what was it like to be the longest first-run theatrical release of any movie in the US in at least a decade?
Having the film in US cinemas for almost two and a half years has been utterly exhausting but immensely gratifying. At the outset, I’d have said the success and longevity the release has had would have been impossible, as I’ve never seen anything like it before. The success of the film is also a celebration of the power of the audience. This is the biggest release of a film distributed by the filmmaker in a long time and it is because the audience is supporting it and spreading the word. It plays next to films sometimes spending fifty million dollars and more on marketing, whereas we are just reaching out to the audience and media directly. It is so refreshing to know that it is possible to get a film out into the world because many kind-hearted people helped spread the word.
But the film has been having a deeply profound impact on many of them. The audience score on Rotten Tomatoes is a near perfect 4.7/5 95%, not because the film is some kind of masterpiece, but because Dave Bald Eagle melts their hearts with his performance and transforms their own thinking. That is far more pleasing to me as this is the central reason I’ve devoted most of the last twenty-years of my career to helping to voice the untold perspectives of the Lakota people. We are excited to see how it does on its Scottish release as I am sure Europeans will respond even more deeply to the story. It was one of the first two or three films to sell out a showing at the Edinburgh Film Festival when it premiered there and more recently it played in a small seven-film festival in Oban, with six better-known films. We sold as many tickets as the other six films combined, which showed how drawn the local audience was to the film.
TF: What inspired you to get involved with this feature?
I really knew the world of the story, and it approached dealing with the contemporary echoes of the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 in a very powerful way, and that is a part of history that had a deep impact on me. Also, I had the benefit of being an outsider and that gave me a great perspective on the awkwardness of the white American author on the reservation as it was so different to most Europeans experience there as we are so much more relaxed and embraced in Indian Country. I travelled with the real author who the author character in the book and film is based and it was when I saw how in his head he was meeting a Lakota elder that I got my view into the movie. I was there cracking jokes back and forth with this amazing 82-year-old and the author is just thinking about protocols with elders and not putting a foot wrong.
TF: And what else are you working on, what can we look forward to from you in the near future?
Right now I’m developing a very real political thriller that will mostly be shot in Bulgaria. It will be very different to Neither Wolf Nor Dog, which is exactly what I need having spent eight years so far bringing it to the big screen. The beauty of having poured so much time into controlling my own distribution is that it allows me to become a self-funding filmmaker, so it is fabulous to know that I can just enter production on this new feature when I’m ready and not have to spend an age trying to persuade investors, which is a struggle with most films.