Steven Lewis Simpson talks “Neither Wolf Nor Dog”

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"Director Steven Lewis Simpson takes a new approach on his latest film "Neither Wolf Nor Dog" based on the novel by Kent Nerburn". Permission from S. Lewis Simpson

Directed by Scottish film director Steven Lewis Simpson, the film “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” is based off of the novel “Neither Wolf Nor Dog: On Forgotten Roads with an Indian Elder” by Kent Nerburn. It tells the story of how Kent Nerburn was graced with the task of writing the story of a Native American elder’s life. The independent film, which had a crew of only two people, has found great success and is holding its own with Hollywood blockbusters. The film has already hit theatres near campus and is playing at the Savor Theatre in Fort Lauderdale.

What attracted you to this film?

“I could relate a little to the parallel of being asked [to do this], whereas the author takes on this commitment of writing the book of this elder’s thoughts and perspectives. Within my first three hours of being on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, I was asked by Russell Means, who is arguably the most famous American Indian activist in the twentieth century from being an American Indian movement leader. He asked me to film three days of political meetings, and from there it snowballed into other people asking me to film various things, and it ended up on my side as a thirteen year commitment to film the documentary ‘A Thunder Being Nation,’ so that aspect of it to some people on the outside may seem almost improbable, that through such a simple set of events, something becomes such a large commitment as that, but I knew how easy it was to go down a journey like that.”

What makes Dave Bald Eagle’s character so unique?

“I mean there are a lot of elements to it, one of which is that we have this sort of strange thing, particularly in Hollywood storytelling, where we think that people who have lived long, full lives are probably our most interesting people, and yet we kind of exclude them from storytelling. You don’t see old people much on Hollywood screen, so to have a character on screen that is 95 years old and is the lead that in itself is unusual. There’s never been a film before that has revolved around a Native elder in this way. One of the key factors is that these guys are in such an age, Dave is one of the very last, and he passed away last year.

You don’t see old people much on Hollywood screen, so to have a character on screen that is 95 years old and is the lead that in itself is unusual. There’s never been a film before that has revolved around a Native elder in this way.

 

So the film sort of has this cultural weight to it beyond just being a piece of narrative storytelling. It’s not just those elements, but in the climax of the film, he takes the author to Wounded Knee, the site of the Massacre of 1890, and he goes through that, and this is as infamous an event as there was in the whole part of Native history in the United States. The thing about it was that Dave had a closer connection to that through his own family and people than even the character that he was playing. So, we threw away the script of the novel and had him just go deep inside of himself and improvise the entire sequence, which elevated the cultural depth and weight of it. The other thing that is significant as well is just the emotional impact of it, he does go to a very deep place within himself. At the end of the filming for that scene, which was the scene we filmed between him and Christopher Sweeney, Dave turned to Chris and said ‘I’ve been holding that in for 95 years,’ and so it was really a place that he had to go to in his own life and his own journey. He saw the film before he passed, and he said it’s the first film he’s been in about his people that told the truth, and his family I think feel this film is a very deep and important part of his legacy. I think that’s the core of what makes it different, and the audience reaction is so, the audience really falls in love with him on screen, and that does something very powerful. It’s one thing in a documentary to listen to some hard truth, but often it can be from a very academic standpoint or a journalistic standpoint, whereas here, because it’s fiction and almost slips into documentary, the audience’s hearts are already so opened up by Dave that they’re connected emotionally. I constantly hear, almost without exception, from people writing to me that after the lights went up after the credits, everyone was still in their seats. It’s just having that impact on people.”

How did having a two-person crew impact the filming?

“One thing that we knew early on with a 95-year-old star, you can’t get a Hollywood budget because no one would ensure it. We knew that the budget had to be low, so we got money through crowdfunding, and I know that the way of getting important stories told is not through budget but through time and effort. It allowed us an intimacy, that scene for example at Wounded Knee, if we had 30 or 40 people standing around, there’s absolutely no way that Dave would have gone to that place inside of [himself]. He just wouldn’t have been able to do it. The fact that there was only four of us there, one of those being himself, and there was such trust between us, that he managed to let everything else disappear. There was so little apparatus in the production. You have such beautiful locations, so even when you are filming very, very quickly, you can set up a beautiful frame in an instant and so the film has a nice texture to it that way, which is very helpful. It’s been this sort of little miracle, so much of that is because of Dave Bald Eagle.”

The fact that there was only four of us there, one of those being himself, and there was such trust between us, that he managed to let everything else disappear.

 

What impact do you hope that “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” will make on viewers?
“It’s an extraordinary thing coming from the outside, me being Scottish, to see how little awareness there is in the United States about its own history, especially the dark sides of that history. So much of the storytelling is about perpetuating myths. I mean we have the same in the United Kingdom in a different way in the sense that in school we are not taught about how basically every king has been a monster, give or take…

The problem is that a lot of times when history is given in such a singular view, it is harder for people to accept that some of that might not be true, or that the actual real impact of what happened is greater than they imagined, but again, when people are hearing it from a character that they’ve fallen in love with and deeply care for, they let it in in a different way… 

 

In the states, you don’t get taught that at the end of the civil war the cavalry was sent west to commit genocide, Lincoln is the good guy, and it always shows the simplified view. The problem is that a lot of times when history is given in such a singular view, it is harder for people to accept that some of that might not be true, or that the actual real impact of what happened is greater than they imagined, but again, when people are hearing it from a character that they’ve fallen in love with and deeply care for, they let it in in a different way… It’s surprisingly alien to a lot of Americans that when you drive through the plains that you go through reservations, which is in part because they never see that part of the world in their media or in their culture. So, for this film to have this native elder take you into his world, it demystifies it and he creates a multifaceted, multidimensional understanding of it. I think those that see the film will go into those communities and feel a much more open spirit about it. Anything that bridges understanding about it is a wonderful thing.”

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