Well, this is going to be something to see. Filming starts in a week or so in South Dakota.
Let me tell you a little about my last experience with a film production. I was called to meet with a director who was filming a Native-oriented film for HBO out in the beautiful hill country south of Rapid City, South Dakota. As I drove in on the dirt road that led me to the location site, I was stunned to see a small city set up in the otherwise empty hill and pine country. It looked like nothing so much as “the circus comes to town” or the few days’ setup time before the opening of a local carnival and festival. Semi trailers were parked about. People where carrying pieces of equipment hither and thither. There were tents and chairs and signs and groups of people with indeterminate (to me) responsibilities lolling together and smoking, while cameras were wheeled into position and the classic people with little boards that clacked together when someone shouted “Take two. ACTION!” were clacking their little boards and scurrying from place to place. Baseball caps, headphones, extras in civil war-type military costumes and Native folk in breech cloths and leggings, trailers for dressing rooms, and, most unexpectedly, a distant huge mess tent where a crew of caterers was preparing grilled salmon and steaks and chicken and God knows what else for the crew and actors. You would have thought it was the staging of an incredibly costly wedding at a country club. Oh yes, there was an entire recreation of 1880’s Fort Robinson constructed exclusively for the film. I felt like Dorothy arriving in Oz. There must have been a hundred or more people bustling about.
Flash forward to the present time. I get a call from Steven Simpson, the director of Neither Wolf nor Dog. He is off buying a pickup from Craigslist in L.A. in preparation for driving out to South Dakota with lead actor, Chris Sweeney. The pickup will be used in the film, along with the stuff he’s bought off Ebay and scrounged in various places. I’ve got my assignment to bring Dan’s amulet, my old aviator bag, and the Minnesota license plates I removed from my car when I moved here to Oregon. He’s procured cameras, has his actors either in place or ready to go, has Larry Pourier, a respected Native producer in South Dakota, looking for a suitable elderly black dog to play Fatback (will she be able to pee on command?). Metaphorically speaking, this is the Joads tin-pan-clanking their way across America, albeit in the opposite direction, to make a film with the funds you folks have so graciously sent us.
There will be no semis, no constructed sets, no grilled salmon. Just a few white guys and bunch of Indians getting together to make what we hope will be a celebration of Indian country and an honorable rendition of a book that has become well-loved in Indian country and beyond. This will be folks staying in the houses of friends and in sleeping bags in the backs of pickup trucks, driving to locations in beat up cars and probably eating roller dogs and Cheetos from Big Bat’s or Lil Angel’s. It will be calling on friends from the rez to see if they want to be in a film. It will be Native actors and friends getting to hang together on a traveling, seat of the pants, film set.
It will be great.
Will it produce a film? That remains to be seen. I have great confidence in Steven’s incredible energy and dogged determination. I have had a long talk with Chris, the man who will be playing me, and he’s talented, insightful, and better than I deserve. I have seen Dave, who will be playing Dan, and he’s truly a gift to the film who will give it a life and spirit that is more than we could have hoped. I’m mostly happy with the script. I am impressed with the other folks Steven has amassed for on screen and behind the scenes roles. And I know and love the locations he’s chosen, because he and I traveled together to look for them.
What is unclear is whether or not this junkwagon approach to filmmaking can work. Cinematography? Sound? Editing? Musical score, if any? Can the right balance be found between do-it-yourself filmmaking and the need to hand things off to professionals in various fields when their expertise is needed to make the film the best it can be?
I’m betting on this, because it is a labor of love for all involved. Almost no one is getting paid anything at all. This is a project of folks who care about the book, care about Indian country, care about the unique dialogue between Native and non-Native realities that is inherent in the wonderful road journey that will form the core of the film. Money, which is the name of the game in Hollywood, is not the name of the game on this film. This is a rez project as it should be.
In the last analysis, I wouldn’t have it any other way.