And so it is that we move to the conclusion of our story, which is really just a beginning.
I had forgotten that before Steven and I parted ways that morning on Pine Ridge, we met for coffee (tea, in his case) in Big Bat’s, the convenience store/restaurant that is the main gathering place in the town. We compared notes about our experiences in Indian country, and he told me one thing that stayed with me. If an actor didn’t show up when he was filming Rez Bomb on Pine Ridge, he said, he’d just come down to Big Bat’s and grab someone he knew (or didn’t know) and say, “Would you like to be in a movie?” This may seem strange, but to anyone who has worked in Indian country, this speaks volumes about a person’s chances of getting things done. “Indian time” is not a literary conceit. It is a real thing. As Roger Jourdain, an old friend of mine and the chairman of the Red Lake Ojibwe for almost fifty years, told me, “Indian time means ‘When I’m damn good and ready.'” In filming, where everything has to be operating with clarity and efficiency, “When I’m damn good and ready” just doesn’t cut it. You need to be damn good and ready when the production needs you. If you’re really going to film in Indian country, and you’re not going to do it with Hollywood Indians parachuted in for the event, you’d better have a kit bag of tools and techniques to deal with “When I’m damn good and ready.”
Steven’s comment showed me he had that bag of tools. But little did I know how strange and idiosyncratic his tool bag was. Steven, it turns out, had worked under Roger Corman, one of the most influential and enigmatic characters in Hollywood history. Corman is legendary for his string of low budget cheesy B movies made for almost nothing and with lightning quickness. He once made a film in two days and, having time left over, shot another film with the same actors in the few days remaining.
At the same time, he is cited as a major influence by such directors as Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, Francis Ford Coppola, and Jonathan Demme, all of whom worked for him. Add to this the fascinating fact that he studied English literature at Oxford and you have one of cinema’s most fascinating figures. From him Steven learned the secrets of the trade — most significantly, how to make a film on a shoestring and how to be creative and nimble in filming on the fly — skills that were perfect for filming in Indian country.
At any rate, Steven and I parted ways and he, essentially, disappeared — somewhere into Thailand or Cambodia, I believe. The book continued to draw interest, but nothing of consequence. My son, Nik, who was studying film at Evergreen State College, was so disgusted at the state of the project that he told me I was going to end up dying and he was going to have to make the film himself. After all, he had been a kindergartner when I had written the book, and how he was about to graduate from college. I feared he might be right.
Finally, I, too, had reached my limit. I thrust my finger in the air and said, in honor of George Bush senior, “This shall not stand.” I culled through the various offers I had received over the years, picked out the three most interesting and promising, and sent emails to the folks behind them asking if they wanted to make the film or not. This was no longer about Hollywood hype, dollars, packaging with several promising projects, or anything else. You like the book? You got a camera? You want lacrosse in the sky? I don’t care. Just don’t make it a film about a white guy gaining Indian wisdom and make sure that it is an Indian production at its heart.
I got a few responses. Steven’s was the most intriguing. He said, basically, “If I like the script I’ll make it. And when I say I’ll make something, I make it.” Those were the words I needed to hear. I sent off a copy of the script I had written years before to whatever southeast Asian drop box location I had for him.
Fast forward a few months. I get a communication from Steven saying that there were a few things he didn’t like in the script, but that he was intrigued. He said he’d like to come to my home in Bemidji to discuss his concerns. I took this as a sign of his professionalism until I got a call from him at the Canadian border saying he was being denied entry, and would I call immigration and tell them that I’m an author whose book he is preparing to film. So much for his professional credibility.
I called the border folks and affected my best authorial manner to assure them that this man was not a deranged vagrant (a contention of which I was not entirely certain) and soon he was sitting at our kitchen table wolfing down a plate of eggs while holding forth on the strengths and deficiencies of my screenplay. He had arrived with only a backpack and a computer,
His criticisms were spot on. He was the first person who had seen not only what the book was, but what it could be as a film. Whether he had the chops to make it was unclear, but that he had the insight to understand it and conceptualize it was beyond doubt.
Soon he and I were traveling together across the Dakotas talking films, scouting locations, and dissecting the screenplay. He told me of his vision both for the script and the look. I was astonished by his insights and vision. We committed to making the film together. Everything seemed aligned.
Then things came unraveled. Through a combination of circumstances we had found ourselves within a signature of having tribal funding to the tune of 500k. This would have been magic. It is hard to even imagine the opportunities this amount of money would have provided. But for reasons that are still not entirely clear, the deal fell apart. We were left with the ghost of a dream and what was left of our resolve. I was disgusted and beat. Steven was disgusted and energized.
In the meantime, we had gone through all the possible Dans and had unearthed the gem of Dave Bald Eagle. Now we were really on the clock. We had our ideal Dan who was moving in on 100 years old and no money to make the film.
That’s when Steven went into full Roger Corman mode. He began gathering actors and production people, buying film equipment and even an old Buick to serve as Grover’s car. Cue his voice from several years before: “When I say I’ll make something, I’ll make it.” There was nothing stopping him now.
So he set up the kickstarter and the rest is history.
We have gathered the folks, have the script in solid shape, actors signed on, respected folks from Indian country scouring the Dakotas for locations and talent, and, thanks to all of you, the money to film this on a shoestring budget. We’re shooting in September and early October.
Roger Corman would be proud. We hope you will be, too.