If it weren't for Steven Lewis Simpson, Oregon author Kent Nerburn's novel would have never become a movie. Nerburn tried to turn Neither Wolf Nor Dog—his 1994 novel about a white author who's asked to write a book about a Lakota elder—into a movie for over two decades. But it went unmade, mostly because Hollywood's big-budget vision clashed with the source's personal nature.
Along came Steven Lewis Simpson, a Scottish filmmaker who's worked extensively with indigenous organizations on his past films. A master at low-budget projects, Simpson bought all of the equipment for the 18-day shoot himself and handled all of post-production in an attempt to "keep the elements as real as possible," he says. "Hollywood's treatment of Natives in cinema has been atrocious and, in many cases, actually pro-genocide. This was too important a novel for it to be subjected to the Hollywood treatment."
Seeing Neither Wolf Nor Dog is a deeply meaningful experience, thanks in part to a performance from a legendary Lakota man named Dave Bald Eagle. "Casting [Dave] was like the search for Scarlett," he says. "I will never film a more beautiful face." Bald Eagle was 95 during the shoot and passed away soon after. His connection to the reservation and his involvement with Wounded Knee, where 200 followers of the American Indian Movement occupied a town partially in protest of the U.S. government in 1973, makes his performance almost otherworldly, and connects an otherwise fictional film to real events.
Kent (Christopher Sweeney), an author living in Minnesota, receives a call from a woman on a reservation. Her grandfather, Dan (Bald Eagle), is a Lakota elder nearing the end of his life who wants Kent to write a book from his perspective. Eventually, Dan and his friend Grover (Richard Ray Whitman) whisk Kent away on a road trip through Lakota country to help Kent gain an understanding of their history.
Simpson was able to squeeze a remarkable amount of narrative and aesthetic value from his tiny budget. It's a testament to the power of independent filmmaking: By dodging bigger Hollywood offers, Nerburn found an artist with an emotionally resonant vision.
SEE IT: Neither Wolf Nor Dog opens at Cinema 21 on August 11.