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Director Steven Lewis Simpson on 'Neither Wolf Nor Dog'

11 Sep, 2019    added by : Paul Hansen








Original Network

The expansive beautiful plains of the American Midwest are on display in the new film Neither Wolf Nor Dog.  Based on the novel of the same name by Kent Nerburn,  the film centers on a writer (Christopher Sweeney) who has been summoned to record the thoughts and reminiscences of an elderly Lakota man named Dan (played by 95-year-old Dave Bald Eagle). With the help of Dan’s friend, Grover (Richard Ray Whitman), the three embark on a road trip where the writer gains new insights into the Native American experience. Their odyssey concludes at Wounded Knee, the site of the infamous 1890 Indian massacre.

Neither Wolf Nor Dog was directed by Steven Lewis Simpson who has helmed two other films (Rez Bomb and Thunder-Being Nation) and a television series (The Hub) which also highlighted Native American culture.

ScreenPicks posed some questions to Simpson about the Neither Wolf Nor Dog, which opens in Los Angeles on September 13.

How did you become involved in Neither Wolf Nor Dog and what are the themes in its story that particularly interested you?

Steven Lewis Simpson: The author of Neither Wolf Nor Dog approached me with the novel after he’d had years of Hollywood producers make him grand promises to make the novel into a film, but they always failed to deliver. He was getting fed up with it and approached me. For me, the story provided an interesting opportunity to explore the contemporary echoes of the Wounded Knee Massacre, which is a very important incident to me. I didn’t realize at the time that we’d be able to explore that as far as we did, as I could never in my wildest dreams have anticipated finding someone as perfect as Dave Bald Eagle for the role, who had the authority to take it far further than we could have.

You have directed two other films and a TV series featuring American Indian culture. Are you especially interested in projects related to this subject?

Simpson: In many ways, I derailed my career the best part of 20-years ago when I started creating Native works, as there isn’t a large audience for this type of content, especially compared to the more commercial work I’d been creating. But I had people on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation starting with the legendary activist (and actor) Russell Means ask me to film certain things happening there. That became the 13-years journey making A Thunder-Being Nation, which is probably the most comprehensive documentary detailing both the past and present life of a reservation.

Rez Bomb was more accidental as it was a love story/thriller that I’d developed to shoot in Scotland, but I wasn’t getting finance there and it was cheaper to shoot in the US.  And I wanted to shoot something that was just a movie on a reservation, as there is cultural apartheid when people are only funded to make culturally specific movies in a culture and not just any kind of story. I then created, directed and produced the first show for FNX, which was the first major 24/7 Native channel in the US. It was a 13-part fun culture show called The Hub.

Was there anything particularly memorable or unusual that occurred during the production and filming of Neither Wolf Nor Dog?

Simpson: When you are shooting a film in 125 roughly shooting hours over 18-days with an average crew of two, then it is like working in a whirlwind. The incredible thing is that my 3 leads and my one key crew member, Rick Van Ness, who recorded the sound, took my chaos in their stride and that made the world of difference.

Our 95-year-old lead was the focal point of all of us, and that helped too. But our other star was a 1973 Buick, and it often didn’t play ball. Chris Sweeney and Rick are great amateur mechanics and it was amazing to see the two of them spend hours bringing the car back to life. I also had to re-stage some scenes away from the car because of it. Once, because of a broken key in a seized ignition switch, the car ended up locked at a pump at a gas station with the Red camera on the back seat and no spare key. Chris walked into the gas station and a minute later he emerged with a coat hanger and broke into the car in about 10 seconds. It was remarkable. That skill wasn’t down to a past life as a car thief but as a Marine.

What was it like to work with your three leads – Dave Bald Eagle, Christopher Sweeney and Richard Ray Whitman?  

Simpson: Chris was more than a lead actor during the production. He drove us out to South Dakota together from LA in the truck that his character used in the movie and he was there every step of the way through the chaos. Dave was even more amazing in person than on screen. He was very funny, sweet and always upbeat. His energy levels, of course, varied day-to-day, and we had to imaginatively work out methods to shoot long dialogue scenes and factor in a 95-year-old memory. The two of them developed a strong bond and they were constantly laughing together. Richard Ray Whitman was equally wonderful that way.

Your IMDB page states that at 18 you were the “youngest fully qualified stockbroker and trader in Britain.”   Why and how did you make the transition to becoming a filmmaker?

Simpson: We do crazy things in our youth and being a stockbroker was mine. In reality, I was too ambitious in life to wait three or four years to get some degree I had no interest in; and with stockbroking, I didn’t need to waste any time and got qualified after 5-weeks of study, and once I had crossed the minimum legal age, which was 18. But it was always a stop-gap before moving into film.

But no-one from my home town of Aberdeen, Scotland had ever made a feature film there, and so I needed to get a grounding. So in the meantime, I set up a film group and we made feature-length video films to get a grounding. Almost nothing was being made in Scotland back then. In fact, my first-ever meeting with anyone in the film business in any form, was with the head of development at Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Productions in New York when I was 21, and I got that meeting without an appointment but just by walking in off the street. She was amazing and encouraging.

In my early days, staff at Miramax were the same. So classy and encouraging towards someone starting out. It was much easier then to get in the door. I got my first grounding in the industry by moving to LA for a little while and working for Roger Corman’s studio.

Are there any other directors that you particularly admire?

Simpson: I don’t watch films much these days as there isn’t time. But for me, my main “teachers” early on were Kurosawa, Leone, Eisenstein and Scorsese

Is there anything in general that you would like to tell audiences about Neither Wolf Nor Dog?

Simpson: Dave Bald Eagle puts his spirit on screen in the movie. The climactic scene was at Wounded Knee, the site of the 1890 massacre. Dave’s family were even closer to those events than the character he was playing and what was in the novel and script was just way too contrived for where the filming had gone. So I threw away the script and had Dave improvise the whole scene. At the end, he turned to Chris Sweeney and said, “I’ve been holding that in for 95-years”. The audience feels like they are standing there with him, and it is truly as intimate as anything you can see on screen. I separate myself from the maker of this movie when I say this. I’ve spent 20-years going out to Lakota Country and have spent time with some incredible people. I know what Dave handed to me through this scene is something with a deep power. He entrusted this part of his legacy to me. I’ll soon be reaching about 30,000 hours of work just on this one film. The main reason for that is that I won’t let Dave down.  [Editor’s note:  Dave Bald Eagle passed away in 2016 at the age of 97.]

Would you like to share with us what your future projects are?

Simpson: I’m working on a thriller right now that I plan to shoot in Bulgaria about a former international terrorism expert who has had to return to a mundane life in her home country but her life is suddenly plunged into great jeopardy after there is a major terrorism incident in the world, which is a false flag operation designed to create a major war and she has the information to stop it.

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