“I will never film a more beautiful face,” director Steven Lewis Simpson said. “He is pure magic to look at.”
Simpson was describing the weathered star of his groundbreaking movie about contemporary Lakota people, “Neither Wolf Nor Dog.” Dave Bald Eagle was 95 years old when he and Simpson shot the film in 18 speedy days; he died two years later, at age 97, just as the film was nearing official release.
“Neither Wolf Nor Dog” opens at the Magic Lantern Theatre on Friday. The unlikely plot of the movie – about a white novelist who’s drawn into the heart of Lakota Country so he can see past guilty cliches and write a fresh, honest book – is mirrored by the unlikely tale behind its making.
That tale begins with the celebrated road-trip story of the same name by Kent Nerburn, which sold well and won the Minnesota Book Award after it was published in 1994. High school English teachers love it; Hollywood also got interested, but then spent well over a decade only flirting with Nerburn.
Meanwhile, Scottish filmmaker Simpson found himself drawn to Lakota Country; whenever he went there, he said, he was welcomed with open arms and the kind of trust that reservation Indians don’t usually extend to white Americans. Within three hours of arriving on the Pine Ridge Reservation of South Dakota, he’d met legendary actor and activist Russell Means, who “asked me to film three days of political meetings. It changed my life,” Simpson said. “At some point you look deeply at something, and you can’t ignore it.”
Simpson made a romantic adventure film on Pine Ridge called “Rez Bomb”; when he screened it in a nearby theater, author Nerburn showed up.
“This gentleman walked up to me with a book in his hand,” Simpson said. “He said, ‘It’s been 17 years of false promises. I’ve had enough. Can you get it made?’ ”
Nerburn was impressed by the fact that “Rez Bomb” “got it right tonally,” Simpson added. “It wasn’t the usual Hollywood Indian portrayal. It was grasping the real tone of the reservation. It had the ‘rez dust.’ ”
Simpson got hooked on Nerburn’s book and the never-begun movie project. Six years ago, he said, he committed to getting it made. Instead of looking to Hollywood for financing, he did it himself, mostly through the book’s fan base, which contributed to Kickstarter and GoFundMe campaigns.
To find Native American talent, Simpson visited the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles, home to an ongoing “Native Voices” theater project – which is where he recruited the central non-Native American actor in his film, Christopher Sweeney.
“It was pretty hilarious,” Sweeney said. “I’m the sole white guy on a stage full of Natives, and he approaches me.”
The irony goes deeper: Sweeney was born on the Yakama Reservation in Central Washington; his family’s doctor worked out of the Indian Health Service in Toppenish. But his youth in the city of Yakima felt worlds apart from the nearby Native American population.
“I had very little knowledge of Native culture, which was pretty segregated,” Sweeney said. “It was usually viewed negatively, which is unfortunate. This film addresses that, and it’s created a dialogue between a lot of Natives and whites. I’m overjoyed about that.”
Overjoyed is how Sweeney felt out at Pine Ridge, working on a low-budget but high-quality film with Dave Bald Eagle. “What a life’s miracle that was,” Sweeney said. “He had the most illustrious history of anyone I ever met in my life. It was a great honor.”
Dave Bald Eagle’s life story was like a Hollywood film. He was born in a tepee in 1919 and grew up speaking Lakota. A paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne during World War II, he was wounded before reaching the ground on D-Day and could easily have died, but British commandos saved him.
He did all kinds of colorful work throughout the rest of his life, from race car driving to drumming in a big band to competitive ballroom dancing; he also appeared alongside Marilyn Monroe in “River of No Return” and did movie stunts with action stars like Errol Flynn and John Wayne. Bald Eagle was an extra in “Dances with Wolves” and had larger roles in “Into the West” and “Imprint.”
When he died in July 2016, National Public Radio’s tribute labeled him “the most interesting man in the world.”
He was fascinating but not superhuman, Simpson said; working with a 95-year-old actor means keeping your shooting days short – 6 or 7 hours, not 16 or 18. Still, “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” got made in 18 days.
That’s partially because it’s so intimate and focused, Simpson said. The cast and crew were minimal, the sets were real locations, the camera work was straightforward. While the characters are unforgettable, the real star of this film is the sweeping Great Plains landscape, Simpson said (just as the real star of “Lawrence of Arabia” is the Arabian Desert).
“It’s classic cinema style,” he said. “It places you there in a real way.”
The film features a visit to Wounded Knee, where Bald Eagle’s own ancestors were massacred in 1890. “Having him, we pretty much managed to take it all the way back to the source,” Simpson said. “We abandoned the script, and he and Chris improvised the whole thing. It was beyond moving, and I could never imagine filming anything more important in my career.
“At the end of that scene, the last scene I shot – Dave turned to Chris and said, ‘I’ve been holding that in for 95 years.’ ”
Simpson said independent theaters and their audiences have been loving “Neither Wolf Nor Dog,” which he’s been rolling out since last year.
“Distributors can’t seem to figure it out. What they want is an easy buck,” Simpson said. “But audiences are taking ownership of it and that’s having a profound impact.”