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Brothers bring Welch novel to the screen

‘Winter’ takes DIY approach in telling Native American’s story

Chaske Spencer plays a Blackfeet Indian named Virgil First Raise in “Winter in the Blood.”
Chaske Spencer plays a Blackfeet Indian named Virgil First Raise in “Winter in the Blood.”

When it comes to diversity in film and on television, there’s a noticeable dearth of stories about the modern Native American experience. Montana-based film director Andrew Smith, whose newest feature “Winter in the Blood” is based on a 1974 novel by Native American writer James Welch, says mainstream audiences might not even be aware that a major demographic of people don’t have a voice in the media.

“There is a bit of a blinder on for a lot of Americans,” Smith said, “where they’re possibly less interested in stories of the people who were here first.”

Smith is looking to change that with “Winter in the Blood,” which was co-produced by writer Sherman Alexie and co-directed by Smith’s twin brother, Alex. The Smiths haven’t made a feature-length film since their 2002 debut “The Slaughter Rule,” which played at the Sundance Film Festival and starred Ryan Gosling and Amy Adams before they were Oscar-nominated A-listers.

Smith said the delay between features had a lot to do with funding, and after a lengthy pre-production process, he and his brother decided to take the production of “Winter” into their own hands.

“After those frustrations of chasing bigger-budgeted films and being really dependent on agents and casts and other peoples’ schedules,” said Andrew Smith, “we started finding ourselves more interested in returning to how we made our first film, which is much more do-it-yourself filmmaking.”

Filmed in rural Montana in the autumn of 2011 with a budget just shy of $1 million, “Winter in the Blood” follows a Blackfeet Indian named Virgil First Raise (Chaske Spencer, best known for appearing in the “Twilight” franchise), who wakes in a field in a drunken stupor and is stunned by a vision of his long-dead father. He stumbles home to find that his wife has vanished, and she’s taken his treasured rifle with her, and the rest of the film wavers between Virgil’s strange encounters and booze-soaked memories of his childhood as he searches for her.

Welch, who died in 2003, was a family friend of the Smith family, and the Smith brothers (who are not Indian) previously directed a short film based on a chapter from Welch’s novel “The Death of Jim Loney.” Being familiar with Welch’s work still didn’t make the adaptation process easy, though, as the story has a wandering, hallucinatory feel. Some critics have thrown around comparisons to the Coen brothers and David Lynch in their reviews of the film, which Smith considers a great honor.

There was a challenge in adapting Welch’s freeform style, he said, since most of the novel exists entirely within Virgil’s hazy recollections, and there are few things less cinematic than an inner monologue.

“The book has this marvelous first person narration that’s very free associative, and the character moves rapidly from memory to memory and impression to impression, and that’s not easy to do in film,” Smith said. “(Welch) had a great structural sense for a first time novelist, so we found ourselves going back to the book whenever we got lost.”

Beyond the budgetary restraints, Smith said that “Winter in the Blood” differed from your typical Hollywood production because of its northern Montana locations. Because both directors are Montana natives, and the book was written by another, they were met with a certain rural hospitality that you’d likely never receive in Los Angeles.

“People have a genuinely open and interested attitude in working for you,” he said. “There was a ton of excitement, particularly where we were shooting. … People just opened their doors for us. They were very friendly, very curious and open to us.”

Since its completion, “Winter in the Blood” has played at various festivals and has received a limited theatrical run through the distributor Kino Lorber. Smith, who will be attending the Spokane screenings for audience Q&As, says the film has had a strong impact on people who have had a chance to see it.

“The film is an emotional wrecking ball in a lot of ways, and I think that it works on people,” he said. “And that’s the most exciting part: With this film, I’ve had a lot of interaction with audiences. There are some genuinely moved people who have been taken to a place they haven’t ever visited.”

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