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Steven Lewis Simpson


Interview

We spoke to the director ahead of a nationwide tour of his film Neither Wolf Nor Dog.

Image of Steven Lewis Simpson

There’s independent film, and there’s the methods employed by Steven Lewis Simpson in getting his film Neither Wolf Nor Dog made and distributed.  A protege of legendary producer Roger Corman, Simpson eschewed the traditional route of funding and production and shot his tale of an American writer accompanying a 95-year-old Lakota elder on a pilgrimage on the hoof and has toured the film extensively in the three years since it was made.  Ahead of a series of Scottish screenings we talked to Simpson about the film and its extraordinary leading man, the late Dave Bald Eagle.

“It’s essentially a road movie adapted from a popular novel [by Kent Nerburn],” says Simpson.  “It follows a journey by a Lakota elder played by 95-year-old Dave Bald Eagle who sucks this white author into his world to open the eyes of the author to the elder’s perspective, experience and worldview. It climaxes at Wounded Knee where the last great massacre of Native people happened in 1890 and Dave Bald Eagle himself had ancestors involved in that.”  Departing from the novel, Bald Eagle improvised a climactic monologue at the site. “It went far beyond what was on the page and added a great deal of cultural weight.”

Not many films are made with a leading man so advanced through their twilight years.  Even more so than Bergman‘s Wild Strawberries or Harry Dean Stanton‘s swansong LuckyNeither Wolf Nor Dog is as much elegy as movie.  “He was an amazing human being,” Simpson states simply when asked what Bald Eagle was like as a person. “An extraordinary number of dramatic things happened in his time. Even after he passed NPR, which is like the BBC radio in the US asked whether he was the World’s most interesting man as [his life] was so rich with experience and tragedy. But he was a lot of fun. He had a mischievous spirit.”  Far from being arduous, shooting the film seemed to be a rejuvenating experience for the actor.  “I didn’t know his physical condition going into it.” says Simpson. “His wife didn’t tell me until a while after filming that he had been struggling health-wise leading up to filming. Struggling to walk and things like that. No one told me these things and I was asking him to walk from here to there and he did. She said it was amazing.”

When asked if he had a sense that he and his crew were making something extraordinary, Simpson draws comparisons with his experiences working with Corman.  ” It was something like 125 combined filming hours over 18 days so it was an incredible pace. I started off in the business working with Corman’s studio. In those days he would shoot movies in 18 days, but they were all 80-85 minutes long and they were shooting 18-hour days, and they had an incredibly well-oiled crew.  We had a crew of two shooting on location on 8-hour days, because we had a 95-year-old lead.” Working at that pace can be both stressful and exhilarating.  “You’ve got no idea if you even have a beginning, a middle and an end. There’s so much manically putting things together. There’s one scene that’s six minutes long and it was shot in 25 minutes start to finish. The Hollywood soap operas that they churn out every day don’t shoot that fast!”

This approach seems to have worked as the film has been hugely successful with audiences wherever it’s been shown.  Simpson credits Bald Eagle for much of this engagement. “There were two scenes that we filmed – one was about five days in which was a very emotional scene and I just thought at the end that I was never going to film a more powerful scene in my career. And then two weeks later we filmed the climax at Wounded Knee and that was the most powerful. The difference is that the first scene was a scripted scene that was delivered very powerfully, but the second was Dave digging deep into his spirit, and at the end of that improvisation he said to actor Christopher Sweeney, ‘I’ve been holding that in for 95 years.'”  It’s the authenticity that strikes a chord with the viewer, “Because that scene at Wounded Knee, you’re watching a man pour his heart out for real.”

Simpson is no stranger to making films about Native American issues.  He has an association stretching back twenty years when he first visited the Lakota.  “There was a Ghost Shirt that had been taken from the massacre at Wounded Knee and had been in the Kelvingrove museum ever since. It was repatriated for the anniversary, and the Kelvingrove were doing an event. I went out and had this remarkable experience there. Within my first three hours at the Indian reservation I was asked by Russell Means, the most famous Indian American national since Sitting Bull, to film three days of political meetings that he was conducting. That got me sucked into this journey of making a documentary over thirteen years about the reservation.”  Simpson then made a film at the reservation (Rez Bomb) and sees his films as one way of presenting a Native voice to a wider Western audience for whom it has long been suppressed.  “I have a skill set of storytelling and what I try to do is use my skill set to document these people’s lives, rather than it being from my perspective. That’s why Dave Bald Eagle had so much control over his performance.”

Simpson’s obviously used to talking about the film, and deftly deals with a question relating to any potential similarities with a recent Oscar winner before it can be asked.  “In some respects thematically it’s parallel to Green Book, but there’s a huge difference.” he says, having no doubt been asked this a thousand times since the release of Peter Farrelly‘s film.  “I inherited a film Hollywood script of [Neither Wolf Nor Dog], but instead of heading down the Green Book scenario where they were having the cliched filling in there, I kind of slashed all those scenes out because you could see the Hollywood 101 screenwriting. Pretty much by-the-numbers. Green Book is so predictable that way, and conventional in its characterisation. It kind of heads in the opposite direction of nuance.”

So Green Book is not an accurate comparison, but were there any other road movies that were touchstones for Neither Wolf Nor Dog?  “Not really,”  says Simpson.  “I don’t really make films thinking of other films. I don’t really watch a lot of other films. If I was describing it to somebody I would compare it most to [David Lynch’s] The Straight Story in the sense that it’s a Mid-Western setting, with an older lead, and it’s in tune with his reality rather than the reality around him. It takes us into the elder’s reality and the audience kind of goes with that.”

Simpson then steers the conversation towards the elements that make the film unique, his pride in the achievement of he and his crew evident, particularly in the way they chose to film given the logistical limitations.  “The thing is when you’re filming as quickly as I did, when you’re shooting a scene you need to decide specifically how that scene is going to be shot because you can’t cover it. You don’t have the time to get the traditional coverage of wide, close and all these multiple angles.  And you had the logistics of filming with a 95-year-old leading man, and a 1973 Buick that kept breaking down. My other lead actor [Christopher Sweeney] had been a marine and an amateur mechanic and he brought it back to life on occasion in between takes. It’s kind of funny when you’ve got one of the film’s stars buried underneath a six tonne car.”

A typical Hollywood production this undoubtedly was not, and its leads definitely not the standard screen icons.  “One of the things that has to be put in perspective with the experience of this film is that we have three lead actors. [Dave Bald Eagle] was left for dead in the parachute drop into Normandy on D-Day. I don’t know if you’ve seen The Longest Day, you know the guys how get parachuted in and they’re basically just killed in the sky before they can get to land; you know, guys hanging from the trees. He was one of them in real life. He had five bullets in him before he hit the ground. Chris Sweeney was one of four, five or six people who got the Silver Star from the Gulf War. You read the citation of the action that he got it for and you think that if this was the climax to a Rambo movie it would sound crazy.

“[Richard Ray Whitman] wasn’t a combat veteran but spent more days under fire than the veterans. It was at Wounded Knee where we filmed the climax of the movie. It was in 1973 the Government fired an estimated half a million bullets at the Native American nationalists who were occupying the area, and it was in solidarity with that event that Marlon Brando turned down the Oscar for The Godfather. So it’s fascinating filming and knowing that one of your actors had ancestors caught up in the massacre [at Wounded Knee]; another spent 71 days being shot at by his own government on that land and another of the supporting actors [Tatanka Means], it was their father who instigated that occupation. The film has a lot of weight behind it that transcends a typical movie.”

Simpson believes audiences can sense this greater connection on an elemental level.  Despite the great reviews the film has received from critics, it’s the response from the public that has been most gratifying.  “I think this is one of those films, for those that are touched by it or find it appealing there is something in it that is greater than the sum of all its parts,” he says.  “I think critics watch films in a very cerebral, aesthetic way, where the audience want things that can make them laugh and cry and make them feel like they’ve gone through an experience. I remember Dead Poet’s Society and balling my eyes out afterwards. A film that resonated so much with me when I was a teenager. They don’t really make those films particularly these days, or not very often. A general audience get a lot out of that. That’s what we’re getting in terms of feedback from the audience.”

Neither Wolf Nor Dog has turned out to be such a positive experience that Simpson intends to continue his fiercely independents methods on his future projects.  “I realised many years later, how heavily influenced I was by my experience with Roger Corman’s company. Corman had everything in house in a way that no producer ever had. The international sales, the distribution everything. The studio, editing, cameras; everything was in house.  In this film I made a profit on the equipment. Bought carefully, and I was patient and I sold it. I bought three vehicles and I made a nice net profit on those vehicles. I doubled my money on those vehicles. That was part of the process of finding a new economic reality for these things. Film is a terrible industry for pouring money out the door. The thing is that making this film, we had a 95-year-old star. The only man in the world who could be playing this role and nobody in Hollywood would fund the film because you couldn’t get insurance.”

Another benefit was the sheer freedom offered by being totally independent .  “We gained more than we lost on certain things like on time and resources.  Like an on-set mechanic! We also had things like intimacy and trust, which are far more important things to gain.”

The relentless touring Simpson has carried out while distributing his film should also stand him in good stead for the future.  “For the next film which I’m shooting in Bulgaria I’m shooting with the money I’ve had come back in from this film. I can take it out into theatres in certain countries and know that I can do that quite quickly as I’ve already done most of the groundwork. It’s created a new business model for me totally.”

This feels like quite an old fashioned and romantic method of promoting a film, rolling the film out slowly.  It used to be the norm that a movie would given a chance to pick up word-of-mouth as it went round the country.  Simpson agrees, citing the extra benefits of shooting digitally.

“It is [a little old-fashioned]. For example, Bonnie and Clyde flopped initially, and it took months and months for it to hit the zeitgeist, and then it suddenly became massive. Because Warner Bros didn’t have any faith in it. Where if that was today it would have been gone in two weeks. The thing is it’s easier to do these days, because if you were in some small town in Idaho and it had taken twelve months for this Joel McCrea film to come in, by that point the print is annihilated. You’re probably going, ‘Is there an actor behind all this fuzz?’ The digital age makes it easier to do. And the way we’re going in with Scotland, for example – we have eighteen venues lined up so far. Twelve or thirteen conventional and three theatres.  And we’re doing festivals and building up from there.  And in the digital realm that makes it viable.”

Neither Wolf Nor Dog screens at Glasgow Film Theatre on Sun 26 May 2019 followed by a Q&A with Steven Lewis Simpson.  All other upcoming screenings can be found on the Neither Wolf Nor Dog website.