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NEITHER WOLF NOR DOG FILM, Entry Two — “Playing Kent”: The Challenge for Chris Sweeney

Chris Sweeney is the actor who plays me in the film version of Neither Wolf nor Dog.

He had perhaps the most difficult acting task of anyone involved in the project.

First, he had the very real presence of me as the author to respond to and exorcize as he developed his character. Second, he had no cultural identity to fall back on. All the other actors had their Indian identities to draw from; Chris had only the vaguely drawn character of “Nerburn,” whose relative sketchiness as a character had caused a number of directors and screenwriters to reject the project because of the character’s failure to have enough dimension to serve as a legitimate lead.

“He’s too weak” was a common refrain. And they didn’t mean that as a judgment on my personality; they meant it as a judgment on my presence in the book. They wanted “Nerburn” to be the star of the show. They were not willing or able to see that this was precisely what I had attempted to avoid in writing the book. I was the observer, the outsider, the “everyman” from white America, bringing you, the reader, inside contemporary Native reality and handing you off to the Indians, who were the main characters.

As a result, I was the least fleshed out character in the story. You knew nothing about me except that I had done some oral history books at the Red Lake Reservation. I was the vessel into which you could pour your own identity and by which you could measure your own responses to people and situations on the rez.  You thought you were seeing me, but you were really seeing yourself.  Remove my narrative voice, which we did when we turned the story into a film driven by events rather than a narrative recounting, and my character was left with no centrality other than his response to situations. This is what both Steven and Chris had to work with.

Steven addressed this by building a back story for me. Chris, as the actor, had to address it by bringing his own emotional authenticity to the role. He and I talked about this. Dan, in the book, had put it harshly but accurately: I’m a coward. Conflict avoidance is the watchword for my actual personality. I will take strongly moral stands in life and I will be as judgmental and self righteous in private as the next person, but I will never confront anyone or anything if I can avoid it. You can dress that up and make it look like balance and equanimity, but, at heart, it can accurately be called cowardice.

Chris is an ex-Marine. But, Marines, like Catholics, can never really be “ex.” He may look scruffy and covered with “rez dust” in the film, but he is and always will be a Marine at heart. He is a protector and a guardian. When he sees wrong he confronts it. There is not an ounce of moral or physical cowardice in him. He told me there have been times in bars when he has gone over the table at someone who was behaving badly. I, for my part, crawl under the table and take notes.

This gave him a great challenge when crafting his portrayal of my character. He had to find a place in himself where he became a watcher keeping back from the action, which was not his natural stance. He did so wonderfully. What he did was tap into his impulse toward action and then reveal himself reining that impulse in. Rather than making his portrayal one of passivity, this made it one of latency. His frustration and anger were always right below the surface.

In effect, he took the weakness out of the character’s depiction by making his emotional baseline an inner withholding. It allowed him to be equal to other characters while still being subordinate to them. When Grover and Wenonah challenge him, he does not withdraw, he pushes back; He portrays me as a good man, confused by the situation he finds himself in, but secure in his presence in the world. By consciously withholding his anger and frustration, he demonstrates a deep respect for the values of the Native world in which he finds himself, rather than making the character almost self-referential in his melancholic and wistful loneliness and alienation.

But there is something else. Especially in relationship to Dan (Dave Bald Eagle), Chris is respectful almost to a fault. Steven’s camera work makes sure that you always see him observing and listening closely when Dan speaks. He matches Dan’s pacing with his own, and always allows a reflective beat before responding to any of Dan’s queries and challenges. This creates a palpable bond between the two men, one that is undergirded in real life by their common experience as veterans of combat. What I love is how Chris was able to tap into this commonality while using it to give an honest deference to Dave, whose service during WWII included being shot while parachuting behind enemy lines. These are two good men of different generations who use their common pasts to create a bond on screen, despite the fact that the characters they portray live on different sides of a cultural line.

All in all, Chris builds a character that is much stronger than my character as portrayed in the book. He makes him muscular rather then wistful; dynamic rather than passive; more yang than yin. Yet he is always the respectful and intelligent observer, aware that he is a guest in a foreign land.

It is, in a strangely subtle way, a profoundly understated acting job. The dream always was that this should be an ensemble piece. By deferring to Dan, allowing the reservation reality to overwhelm him, and keeping his internal identity strong, he made himself a worthy equal to Dan and Grover while still remaining a stranger in a strange land.  He made himself an insider outsider, which I consider the respectful sweet spot for any non-Native person involved in dealing with reservation reality.

Consider this:  Chris’s Kent is in the middle of almost every conversation, but he never demands the center of the stage. Without that subtle and nuanced positioning, the film would never have had the authenticity it possesses.

Once, years ago, in a discussion with some Hollywood types, I was asked if I saw Neither Wolf nor Dog as a “buddy movie” or a “fish out of water” movie.

“Both,”I answered.

“That’s incredibly tough to do,” they said.

But because of Chris’s complex combination of dynamism and restraint in playing the role, that’s exactly what we have.  It is a masterful acting job, and one worthy of great praise.

 

 

 


NEITHER WOLF NOR DOG FILM — From book to movie, a long, strange trip. Entry One: the author and the filmmaker

A filmmaker has a difficult job when converting a book to a film.

He or she was drawn to the book for a specific reason.  Perhaps it was the story, perhaps it was the characters; perhaps it was the descriptions of scenes and settings that made it come alive visually in his or her imagination.  Most likely it was a little bit of each.  But, somehow, the decision was made that “I think this would make a really good film.  I’d like to devote a chunk of my creative life to making it happen.”

Then, suddenly, reality hits.  What was about 300+ pages of book of about 300 words per page has to be reduced to 120 pages of script at maybe 30 or 60 words per page.  You are faced with the monumental decision of how to shape that sprawling mass of words, ideas, and images into a tight cinematic presentation.  What to keep?  What to throw away?

Here is where the filmmaker/screenwriter often runs afoul of the author.  The author crafted the book with conscientiousness and skill, and it has been edited down to where, ideally, it cannot be cut up further without losing its character.   When the filmmaker, either alone or in tandem with a screenwriter, begins to chop, the author begins to scream.  “You can’t take that out! You’re losing the whole sense of the book!”

Yet chop the scriptwriter must.  Scenes must be removed, themes must be ignored, dialogue must be turned into shorthand, characters must be adjusted and adapted.  In the author’s mind, the screenwriter and director are manhandling the book.  They are turning a symphony into a jingle.

The best balanced authors very often just hold their noses and throw the book at the filmmaker, then disavow whatever comes out, being satisfied to take the money and run.

But, what if, as in this case, there is no money?  How, then, does the author make peace with the inevitable chopping up of his or her creation?  Surgery is tough enough; butchery is unbearable.  At the end, you’re not even sure that the patient will live.  Once you hand your work over to the screenwriter and filmmaker and, ultimately, the film editor, you have good reason to think that your literary child is going to wind up so mutilated and disfigured that you will not be able to look at it.

But, conversely, consider the filmmaker’s plight.  Imagine being a person about to build a house who has fallen in love with the interior of a rich, beautiful home nearby that is having an estate sale.  You must decorate your new house with only what you purchase from this sale.  But you have come on a bike, and can take home only what you can fit on that bike.  Do you buy the most precious objects?  Do you buy based on what colors you plan to put in your home; what period or style you plan to employ?  There are a million variables to use for your purchase, but only a few purchases to be made.

This is what the filmmaker faces.  Do I keep the plot and jettison or distort, or even add,  characters?  Do I focus on the characters and cut the plot to fit the incredibly short time frame of a film compared to a book?  What do I do with causality?  With description?  With dialogue?  I might have loved a scene in the book where several characters talk meaningfully for five pages.  But when it’s time to put it on the screen, I can only give each about two or three sentences to get that scene across.

Until you have to face this translation from medium to medium, you don’t realize how difficult these choices are.  And, as an author, until you see how little of your actual book can fit into the film, you don’t realize how radical the surgery is that is about to be performed.

Steven and I spent a lot of time talking about these issues in regard to Neither Wolf nor Dog.  The conversations were not always pleasant.  But, fortunately, I had been tasked with writing a version of the screenplay before he came along, under the guidance of a well-known Hollywood director.  I had learned, with some difficulty, the incredible difference between a book and a script. I had been faced with the choices of what to keep and what to throw away; I had learned that in films, unlike in books, dialogue does not drive scenes, dialogue augments visuals.  In the end, I had produced what I thought was a very solid screenplay, informed by a crash immersion course in the works of Harold Pinter, who believed in oblique and minimal dialogue.  I was wedded to it and very protective of it.  But when Steven looked at it and started making suggestions, I realized that many of his ideas improved upon what I had created.  So I perked up and became much more pliable.

This is not to say that I agreed with all his decisions.  But that’s no different than working with an editor on a book.  You have to negotiate these things out, and when the working arrangement is good, you find a balance point.  If I, as the author, was insistent on something and Steven wasn’t adamant, my point of view would carry the day.  Conversely, if he was adamant on something and I was only mildly committed to my position, his point of view would carry the day.  When we were diametrically opposed to each other and each believed we were right, the temperature in the room tended to go up a bit.

What I had to do was remind myself constantly that many people who will see the film will never have read or even heard of the book.  I had to learn to see the film as its own artistic entity.  In the last analysis, it was Steven’s genre and Steven’s artistic creation, and I had to give him my trust.  Having seen the final product, I can say that the trust was not misplaced.

Still, it was not an easy birth.

Steven is very driven as a filmmaker, almost maniacally so.  You cannot make a feature film with basically yourself, a group of actors, a sound man, and a few go-fers, and not be perilously close to having a screw loose.

I, as an author, am obstinate to the point of pathology in regard to consistency and quality.  False notes in my books, clumsy sentences, sloppy descriptions, arbitrary plot devices, etc., make me into a madman.  (There is, for example, one speech of Dan’s in The Wolf at Twilight that took me two months to write, working day and night.  I once drove 300 miles to an abandoned house to make sure that I had gotten the description right.)  I do not take kindly to changes to works where I have labored for weeks over single sentences.

Two men with such stubborn streaks had better hope that their respective streaks are complementary, or any collaboration is destined to come to a bad end.  Blessedly, ours did not come to a bad end, as the film will show.

The reason, to my mind, is simple.  If you go back to my blogs of August and September of last year, you will get a feel for how closely tied this film is to our common respect for the lives and culture of Native peoples.  We differ in such things as our belief in the relationship between Indian and non-Indian Americans, with me believing that there will always be a  shadow between us, and Steven believing that our common humanity is greater than any historical shadow.  Such differences impacted the way we saw the shaping of the film and the choices of what to take and what to leave from the book.   But we both were humbled by the power of the Lakota land and filled with respect for the core strength and beauty of the Lakota people.  In our different ways, we each would sacrifice everything before we would sacrifice the authentic depiction of contemporary Native reality as we had come to know and respect it.  And we each saw it through eyes that the other respected.

As a result, the film, in both its choices that reflect the book and its choices that go outside the book, is always and uncompromisingly respectful and accurate in its depiction of Native people and life.  To my mind, there is not one false note in the portrayal of Native reality.  I can say, with pride, that I have never seen any film, created by Natives or non-Natives, that brings the viewer closer to the experience of a journey through reservation life.  We simply refused to compromise on this aspect, and in our refusal to compromise, we found our common ground.

Yes, Steven changed the book.  Yes, he adapted it; yes, he augmented it.  But he nailed it.  The choices he made were exquisite.  His film is at once different from the book and better than the book.  There are reasons for this that I will get into in a future blog.  For now, just know that the story you see on the screen may differ from the book you saw in your mind.  In many ways it differs from what I saw in mine.  But, in an act of astonishing creative transformation, one stubborn, incredibly talented man with a camera did something I did not think was possible:  he made a completely new work of art that honored the original work of art while carrying it to a new level.  He took my literary child and made a man of it.  I am pleased and honored and grateful, and I believe you will be, too.

 

 


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