NEITHER WOLF NOR DOG, the film, entry three. The curious metamorphosis of Grover

Ah, yes, Grover. What an interesting transformation he has undergone.

In writing Neither Wolf nor Dog, I changed Grover’s appearance from the actual Grover’s appearance to underscore the fact that not all contemporary Indian men have long braids or pony tails; that many wear their hair short and both look and dress like non-Native men. Especially in ranch country, the cowboy look of pearl-buttoned shirts, jeans, and cowboy boots is every bit as common as any other look for Native as well as non-Native men. I fashioned Grover to look like a hundred Native men I had known or met, though to a non-Native reader unfamiliar with the modern high plains west, he broke the norm and stereotype, which is exactly what I wanted.

Grover’s actual personality in the book, though, was a very fair representation of the man on whom he was based; a man who in many ways was my closest friend in Indian country. There was an edge to our relationship that was omnipresent — he would never stop needling me or pushing me or trying to make me feel uncomfortable. But there was deep love at the heart of that needling. Though many people did not like him, I valued his rough and tumble approach to interpersonal relationships because he deflated me at all turns and made sure I looked at my own behavior inside his culture with a ruthless eye. You could say he was my mentor, though the learning process was not always pleasant. I think this dimension of his character and our relationship is fairly represented in the book.

Now, jump to the screenplay. The early drafts of the script were written under the tutelage of a well-known Hollywood director who was working on a project in South Dakota that included Wes Studi. He had told me that Wes was his choice to play Grover, so I infused Grover’s depiction in the script with the dark, slightly ominous presence that Wes exuded when I met him. He was still the teacher, but there was something other than love at the heart of his character.   He was distant and filled with a harsh rectitude. As a result, the relationship between Kent and Grover in the script became much less comfortable than the relationship in the book.

As the project took its twists and turns, eventually landing in Steven Simpson’s lap, the choice of actors for Grover also changed. Steven loved the idea of John Trudell, whose whip-quick intelligence and tightly wound emotional presence would have given a wild-card dimension to the portrayal. But scheduling conflicts derailed that idea.

Enter Richard Ray Whitman. I had never met Rich until I went out to the set for the beginning of filming. To this day I do not know how he and Steven hooked up or how the decision was made to cast him. All I know was that when I met Rich there was something I instantly liked about the man. He had a thoughtful, resolved, gentleness to his character. He was reflective rather than aggressive, and had a current of kindness and understanding at the core of his being. Something about him said, “Respect” rather than “anger” or “grievance.” What I sensed in Rich tapped into the best part of me and reminded me of why I have such a deep love for the people and experience of Indian country. He was, in every sense of the word, a good man. He felt like someone with whom I could have an honest friendship.

At first blush this ran contrary to every iteration of Grover that I had imagined. But then a strange insight hit me: his personality was more like mine and Chris’s (Kent’s) personality was more like Grover’s. It was a crazy inversion, but it had the real potential to work. Chris possessed the righteous anger and tightly strung emotional presence, as well as the physical energy, that was needed in the relationship, while Rich was more watchful and reflective, and inclined to absorb before responding. It kept the necessary dynamic between Kent and Grover, but turned it on its head.

Rich brought another great benefit to the role. For very different reasons than Chris’s, Rich held Dave, who played Dan, in the highest esteem. He was an Indian man in the presence of an elder, and it was in his cultural DNA to treat this elder with deference and honor.

This might seem like a natural response for anyone in the presence of a 95 year old. But that is not the case. In our “white” world there is an often unrecognized but very real tendency to see an aged person as diminished. But in the Native world, a 95 year old is not someone in eclipse, but someone who “has lived long and seen much.” To do anything other than honor that life is to fall short of your human obligation. You look up to them and make yourself humble before them. Rich felt and embodied this, both in his person and in his character, and I believe he did so more naturally and with more authenticity than any other actor could have achieved.

As a result, when he interacted with Dan, this humble deference was honest in a way that no acting job could have embodied.   He honored Dave, just as Grover honored Dan. He found a humble place between the two ostensible main characters, and became the bridge between them and the glue that held the script together. Had he not been so completely grounded in his tradition he could not have emptied himself of “self” in the presence of Dan, while keeping the intimacy of their abiding friendship.

Think of it this way: Rich’s Grover is a warrior who has laid down his weapons and devoted himself to the caring service of others.  His protection of Dan is a protection born of love, not anger, and the hardness of his stance toward Kent does not come from his core personality so much as from his love for Dan and his desire to keep the old man from harm.

By turning the character toward one of protective compassion, he humanizes the film to a degree that the book never achieved. I defy anyone with any heart to watch Rich’s portrayal and not say, “that is a man I’d like to know.” That’s what I felt when I met him, and I’m thrilled that he managed to keep that dimension of his personality while giving Grover all the toughness and rectitude that the character deserved.

15 comments

  1. Pam says:

    How interesting that your statement about Rich – “that is a man that I’d like to know” – was exactly what I was thinking as I read your description of him. What a neat guy he sounds like. I suspect that I’m not alone in this. More and more as I’ve read your and Steve’s accounts of this process, it’s become so clear that everything happened as it was supposed to in the metamorphosis of book to movie. I’m not always a big believer in things happening as they’re supposed to, but it seems hard to argue against in this case. Right director, right actors, right supporters of all kinds, right attitude even in doing this on a shoestring budget. I have to believe that this all bodes well for the reception the film will receive and the effect it will have on those it’s supposed to reach. Looking forward to the opportunity to view it!

  2. Tim says:

    This is great news. There seems to be some good energy operating in our world these days despite all the bad news. Your books shed light on a much forgotten intercultural dynamic, and the movie will offer this rich dynamic to posterity who do not read so many books, as well as a great experience of the reality in technicolor. I came off a 16 year stint on a reservation with a lot of feelings that it have taken nearly two years to sort out and more come up nearly every day about this rift that still needs mending. I hope you can get a movie out of the Wolf at Twilight as well. Thank you Kent!

  3. Krystyn (Rose) Knights says:

    I believe Grover should have the “traditional” LONG HAIR. I just got an email saying the producers want Grover to have short hair. You know, that makes me sick. Even all the new movies about ages ago, the traditional modern day SHORT hair seems to be the thing. I won’t watch them, they seem unreal! I like FACTUAL movies, not do overs for producers.
    keep Grover’s hair LONG!!!!!!!!!!

  4. knerburn says:

    It is. Just look at the trailer on Steven’s facebook page, Neither Wolf nor Dog Movie. I think you will like what you see.

  5. Edward Rosen says:

    And still … enjoying these posts, and your commentaries and reflections very much. Thank you Kent. This remarkable project continues to enlighten and inspire. I think, perhaps, this movie, when released, will make something of a “big splash”. I hope it was not made “too saccharin-sweet” so as to be more palatable to White audiences. Let us reflect on what’s been done, and where we stand within our hearts and minds. That is the power of your trilogy, and hopefully, also, the power of the film.

  6. Jane. Campbell says:

    I just finished The Girl who Sang to the Buffalo and I am still in another world, humbled and so grateful for your writings.
    It was nice to read in this book Grover’s revelation of his past and why he didn’t trust Nerburn in Neither Wolf nor Dog. Grover’s personality is evolving as I read more.
    Just gets better and better. Thank you, thank you!

  7. and without a truly wonderful, magical spiritual book, none of this would happen.

  8. knerburn says:

    No need to worry about saccharine. Dave will tear your heart out.

  9. Zan Jarvis says:

    Your descriptions of the film process make me more and more interested to see the movie…if I wasn’t chomping at the bit from the start. Anything alive always changes. I am glad to see that your story is still alive and growing. Could you post the director’s full name. I would like to look at the trailer you allude to on facebook. While I would love to see a movie of The Wolf at Twilight, I am even more looking forward to watching “The Girl who Sang to the Buffalo” on the silver screen. I cried at the scene where she goes into the herd. Tearing up now thinking of it. Powerful stuff with big healing potential, I think. Spirit uses you, I believe.

  10. knerburn says:

    Steven Lewis Simpson is the director; Neither Wolf nor Dog Movie is the facebook site with the trailer.

  11. Gary Freedman says:

    The trilogy, as I call them, has been the finest work on Natives I have had the privilege of reading. I was introduced to Neither Wolf nor Dog and thought a lot about every page. Then Wolf at Twilight. helped me understand the pain I saw in the eyes of the Natives I have met. The Girl Who Sang is over the moon. I hope the movie Neither Wolf nor Dog does your writing justice. Peace to all the relations!

  12. Reggie Boyd says:

    I sincerely hope this movie makes it into theatres, or at least into distribution so we will all get to see it. The “Dan” trilogy has become over the last few years, my favorite books. The stories in each help keep me grounded when I’m unable to get to spend time with my native friends and family. I see the faces of so many that I’ve come to know, right there in the characters in these stories. I’ve had a few harsh teachers like Grover, and at least one or two that Dan reminds me of every time I open the pages. I’ve been blessed to get to learn from them all. Thank you Mr. Nerburn for answering that call and bringing these truths out for all to read and (hopefully) learn from.

  13. Glenn says:

    It makes me proud to see a Mvskoke (Muscogee) actor. They are my people,distant perhaps but never the less. I have an open spirit with regards to the movie.i know there will be differences from the book. That is expected. I too have thought and absorbed every page of all three books. Anticipating highly. Mvto (thank you) Glenn

  14. Dona Strong says:

    Kent,
    I am writing to see if you would consider reading your books as an CD audio book set. The cadence in which you read lends so much to your work. I have seen some small video clips online of you reading your work in interviews, and with children in their classroom. My Lakota friend doesn’t read much, but…I know she will revere your work and find herself captivated listening to the stories being read by you over and over.
    It is a way for you to have additional revenue and for us to have the treasure of your voice reading the very words you researched so deeply and so honestly wrote. I did see Native American Wisdom and Small Graces on Audio Cassette with Amazon. Are you considering having these placed on CD format? I would so dearly love to hear you reading your works that are now only available in books format.
    Thank you for this consideration.
    Sincerely,
    Dona

  15. knerburn says:

    Everything is in the hands of New World Library. I don’t think they do much in terms of CDs any more. It is mostly audio downloads, about which I know nothing. There will be an audio of Letters to My Son, read by my son, Nik, for whom the book was written twenty years ago. And we have just finished an audio version of Neither Wolf nor Dog, done in a way that may or may not work, with me reading the part of Dan and Nik reading everything else. It will either be very captivating or cringeworthy. I’m too close to it to tell. Others who were involved have praised it. I would suggest that you get the CD of Small Graces. I read that myself in the way I wanted it read. A downloadable version will be available soon, if it is not already. But you can buy the CD format from wolfnordog.com. If you like my cadences and reading style, you will like this. Thanks for asking.

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