Long deemed too challenging a story for the screen, a movie version of Minnesota writer Kent Nerburn's novel "Neither Wolf Nor Dog" will open in Minneapolis this weekend, more than two decades after it was published.
It's the tale of a fictional writer named Kent Nerburn who receives a mysterious summons from a Lakota elder called Dan who wants Nerburn to write his life story. Despite knowing plenty about tribal culture and Lakota history, the writer is reluctant. At 95, Dan insists he doesn't have time for Nerburn's excuses.
"The world is not an accident," Dan tells him. "We don't always get to choose our parts. I called you and you came. If you are too small, or too weak, it is too late. The Creator has given you a task. You don't get to turn back just because you want to."
Since its release in 1994, "Neither Wolf Nor Dog" has sold half a million copies worldwide and won a Minnesota Book Award. The real-life Nerburn tried several times to turn it into a movie. It wasn't until Nerburn met Scottish director Steven Lewis Simpson and presented him with a screenplay that the project moved forward.
Even aside from the story, the film faced huge hurdles, Simpson said.
"We could never have conventionally funded the movie because Hollywood would never give us a Hollywood budget because of a 95-year-old star," he said. "It just couldn't be insured, apart from anything else."
So they funded the film with two Kickstarter campaigns. And Simpson personally bought — and then sold for a slight profit — all the equipment and vehicles needed for the shoot. Ultimately, the film was made for next to nothing.
"I got it in the can for under $50,000," Simpson said. "And that was everyone paid, shooting on location."
Simpson shot the film against the dramatic bluffs and grassland of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
"Whether you are shooting for a dollar or $100 million, the landscapes are there, so it's easy to make it visual," he said.
And Simpson says his 95-year-old star, a Lakota elder named Dave Bald Eagle, became his ace in the hole. "He is even closer to the reality of the narrative than the character that he is playing," said Simpson.
Bald Eagle's real life mirrored that of Dan to a remarkable extent. He was taken from his family and sent to a boarding school as a boy. He also married the love of his life, and mourned for years after she died in a car wreck.
Simpson said Bald Eagle's experience enhances the telling of Kent Nerburn's tale, especially for those concerned that a story so steeped in Native American culture was written by a white author.
"They see it on screen they know it is inhabited by those performers and you feel the truth through those performers. And in many cases as I say with Dave it was as much him as the character," he said.
Bald Eagle's performance is at times funny, but devastatingly direct in others. Simpson says his star improvised a climactic scene at the cemetery at Wounded Knee, speaking from the heart.
Keeping with the unconventional approach, Simpson is distributing the film himself, one theater at a time. In several places where it has shown so far, including Bemidji, it has outsold Hollywood movies.
This weekend, "Neither Wolf Nor Dog" opens at the Lagoon Cinema in Minneapolis, part of the Landmark Theater chain. If it does well, it could be screened at other Landmark theaters.