Neither Wolf Nor Dog: A Conversation With The Filmmaker
“Neither Wolf Nor Dog,” a film based on the interactions between a white author and Lakota elder recorded in a book of the same name, will be showing in Sheridan’s Centennial Theater starting Friday.
The film follows author Kent Nerburn (Christopher Sweeney) as he attempts to write a book at the request of Lakota elder, Dan (Dave Bald Eagle). The two characters take a road-trip through Lakota country, exploring their cultures, their perspectives, and the essence of humanity along the way. The real-life experience opened a bridge for Nerburn to gain an understanding of Dan’s viewpoint and allowed Dan to give a voice to feelings that had been kept hidden for most of his lifetime.
And, despite the scripted nature of film, the production process of “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” was just as personal and meaningful to those involved as the original experience was to the individuals in the book.
“I remember [Dave’s] wife, Josee, reading the script on our first day or two, and she kept chuckling because there were so many lines in it that she said they were things that Dave would say regularly,” Director Steven Lewis Simpson said. “They were one and the same, really. It’s just that Dave and Dan were one except for the fact that Dave was just more. More beautiful. More luminous. More charming. Just a dream that way.”
Even fans of the book recognized the power of Bald Eagle’s performance and the authenticity of his experience.
“This is a character to them that is pristine in their hearts, and would’ve been the point of the greatest downfall of any adaptation of this film, and every single person who’s ever responded, Dave exceeded their wildest dreams, including the author,” Simpson said.
Simpson strived to make the film true to Dan’s individual experience.
“As a storyteller, my obligation is always to the individual,” Simpson said. “Who are my characters as individuals? When I approach things like this, I don’t remotely ever think about the culture—any culture within it—which is something a lot of people would come in and go ‘how am I going to handle it from a cultural standpoint?’ If they do, they’ve immediately failed.”
Movies that focus on cultures tend to portray stereotypes, Simpson said. Movies that focus on individuals are true to life.
“Lakota people… they’ll never ever say to me, ‘Oh, you really nailed what Lakota people are like. You really captured us as a community,’” Simpson said. “You never hear that mentioned, and I’m so grateful, because what I do hear is, ‘Oh, the character Dan reminded me of this wonderful grandpa I knew when I was a child.’”
Simpson spent years on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation before starting this project, which is something that he says gave him a significant edge. Many filmmakers only know Pine Ridge by its surface, viewing it as a place of poverty and harsh conditions. Simpson, during his years of experience on the reservation, had the opportunity to meet people from all walks of life.
“It’s been impossible for me to draw on stereotypes,” Simpson said.
But Simpson’s experience on the reservation—both as a fly on the wall during filming and as a European— also gave him a different perspective than Nerburn.
Nerburn described a barrier between himself and Dan that initially caused tension. As a European, Simpson never encountered that.
On his first day on Pine Ridge, Simpson roamed the reservation with a smile on his face and an openness to interaction.
“It’s about body language,” Simpson said. “A lot of those people there are very sensitive to the attitude that white people have towards them. If white people are very welcoming to them, they get it back multiplied, but when they feel that wariness, they retreat as anyone would.”
Simpson said that Nerburn was somewhat socially closed-off during his initial interactions with Dan, but he didn’t do a good job of including this aspect in the book.
“The author admitted himself in the novel that he had made himself too passive, so one of key things was making him a lot more engaging,” Simpson said. “The other thing is I think the author couldn’t see himself in that space as I could… I don’t think he could truly appreciate his awkwardness, and so that was an important thing for me to build into this which took it beyond the novel.”
But, despite all of the work in the script to make the film true to life, perhaps the most powerful moment was unscripted.
Simpson was never happy with the author’s climax at Wounded Knee and knew that what he had written on the script wouldn’t work either.
“I did something that really is insane, having gone through the whole battle to get it made, which was, I threw away everything which was on the page, and [Bald Eagle] improvised the whole sequence,” Simpson said.
Simpson believed it would work, not only because of the similarity between Dan and Bald Eagle, but also because Bald Eagle had a more personal connection to Wounded Knee than Dan did.
The scene took several attempts as Bald Eagle fumbled for the right words—words not only fitting of Dan’s experience, but also of his own. When he finally found those words, the experience was magical.
“He went to this very emotional place, and at the end of shooting that scene, he turned to Christopher Sweeney, Nerburn’s opposite, the author, and said, ‘I’ve been holding that in for 95 years,’” Simpson said. “And that was shot in an extreme close shot, and the audience really feels like they’re standing there with him.”
This raw, authentic display of emotion creates a powerful experience for the viewer.
“It’s a very kind of naked moment,” Simpson said. “The audience is just there while this man is pouring his heart out.”
Simpson believes that this scene and other moments that give voice to Bald Eagle’s experience are the reason behind the film’s popularity with audience members. Simpson feels good about his own contribution to the movie as a filmmaker, but believes that Bald Eagle’s involvement with the film made it the powerful piece of art it is today.
“I feel separate from the film,” Simpson said. “I feel like this is Dave’s spirit.”
Audience members have given the film a score of 95 percent in Rotten Tomatoes and an 8.0 out of 10 on IMDb.
“They’re voting that highly because of what they feel—what Dave made them feel,” Simpson said. “So I look at this film and I go, ‘the way they’re responding… that was Dave’s magic, and that’s what they’re experiencing, and that’s a beautiful thing.”