James Welch’s 1974 novel Winter in the Blood is set on the very rural Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, located near the Canadian border on Montana’s vast hi-line. The story follows a 32-year-old man (his name is not given in the book), prone to alcohol-fueled nights and seemingly aimless wandering, who embarks on an inadvertent search for a deeper meaning in his life. He’s haunted by the deaths of his brother and father, and he wrestles with the question of what it means to be an Indian.
Welch, a Blackfeet and Gros Ventre who won the 1986 American Book Award for his novel Fool’s Crow, grew up on and around the Fort Belknap Reservation and died at the age of 62 in 2003. Alex and Andrew Smith, twin brothers who co-wrote and directed the award-winning Montana-set 2002 film The Slaughter Rule, are now looking to bring Winter In the Blood to the big screen. They plan to start shooting their version of the book (which was called “a nearly flawless novel about human life” by the New York Times) in July, and anticipate a January 2012 premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. The Smith brothers knew Welch personally during their youth in Montana. Several of today’s leading Native actors have committed to act in the film, including Chaske Spencer (Assiniboine and Sioux, and famous for his appearances in the Twilight films) in the lead role and Julia Jones (Choctaw and Chickasaw, also a Twilight veteran) and Gary Farmer (Cayuga, and recent recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Native American Film + Video Festival). Noted American Indian author Sherman Alexie (Spokane/Coeur d’Alene) is one of the film’s associate producers. We spoke with the Smith brothers about their highly anticipated project.
How was the protagonist familiar to you?
Andrew Smith: We call the main character Virgil, although he’s unnamed in the novel. We have a real link to him through our own difficulties growing up in a very isolated place in the rural west, suffering hardships of loss—including loss of our family members, when we were children—and dealing with alcoholism around us. Those are the very first things that hit me when I first read the novel when I was 13.
Alex Smith: That’s key for us to identify with this character’s journey. Trying to become a good man with all that adversity is the heart of that story. It’s also a book about a guy who loses his brother, who was his best friend, and as twins Andrew and I are best friends and brothers, and the idea of losing him is pretty terrifying. And the book captures that, which is something we can sink our teeth into as directors.
Can you describe your family’s relationship with author James Welch?
Andrew: Alex and I were fortunate to grow up around Jim and his wife Lois. They were good friends of our parents. He saw us grow up and we got to know him in a very close way in the sense that he was constantly over at our house for dinner, and we were at their house for dinner, softball games, and camping. After our own father died, when we were six, he was one of those people we positioned in our community as someone who would be a good father. I wouldn’t go so far as to say he stepped in as an actual father figure, but he was someone who paid attention to what we were doing and talked to us. That continued from when we were little kids through to high school. After college we spent more time with him, including having him read our screenplay for our first film, The Slaughter Rule. We had a Native American central character, and we wanted to make sure we got the characterization right. Jim was willing to read it, and was a great resource to us then. So it was really a “conversation” that continued our whole lifetime.
Alex: There’s a lot of writers we grew up with because our stepfather taught a creative writing program; before that our father was an English professor, and Jim’s wife was head of the [University of Montana] English Department. So there were a lot of writers we were around, but Jim was the one we were always delighted to see. And the feeling felt mutual. He was more like an uncle than anything to us. When we read his book, it was a whole new way of knowing him and where he was coming from. It provided hope and inspiration. It was almost a mirror to us, in weird kind of way.
What was widow Lois Welch’s reaction to you making the movie?
Andrew: We optioned the novel with her blessing. She’s been a collaborator and has given us feedback on the script, and given us great stories and home movies of Jim growing up in Fort Belknap, and some of that footage has really informed our sense of story and the place he grew out of. Lois is on the team.
Alex: Over the almost 30 years of the book’s existence, Jim had been approached several times about films based on it, and he’d always said no. But Lois has been very steadfast in believing that we’re the right team to tell this story, so she’s very supportive and encouraging.
Chaske Spencer is cast as the lead, are you excited that he will generate more buzz for the film coming off the success of the Twilight films?
Andrew: We haven’t worked with Chaske before, but we’re excited as far as his take on the Virgil character. Where Chaske comes from and with his background—he grew up around a lot of Virgil-type characters—he helped form the script via his take on the project.
Alex: We’ve known him about a year know, and got him involved with the project after he read the script and he responded immediately to it. He grew up on the Fort Peck Sioux reservation, in Montana, and the Nez Perce Reservation near Lewiston, Idaho. He’s well-versed in the world we want to create.
How does filming on the actual Fort Belknap Reservation help tell the story?
Andrew: The location of the character is very important, because it’s all he really knows and what he experiences on his day to level. It’s also the area of the history of his tribe, so it’s very important to shoot on location where the book was set, on the Hi-Line of Montana and Fort Belknap Reservation and the towns around it, and possibly on the Blackfeet Reservation. In our approach, we’re considering the scenery as one of the main characters.
Alex: Production people suggested we could save money and go north up to Canada. We considered it, we’re not idiots, but we decided we would really love to shoot it were the story takes place. It was great to get a guided tour and see some of the actual locations mentioned in the book. To be able to make the movie where the story was born is a real honor and obviously it brings a lot of realism to the project we couldn’t get filming anywhere else.
Have the locals been receptive to filming a movie about and on their reservation?
Alex: Yes. We had a formal meeting with their tribal council, and they even gave a couple of their employees the job of driving us around to scout areas for a couple of days. They were amazing, and told us incredible stories. They knew every mile of the countryside, and every mile had a story. There’s a lot of local excitement about us shooting a major film up there.
Andrew: It was also really interesting that Jim used a lot of real people in the book, and we kept having these amazing moments with the novel lining up with the area’s people and history.
Alex: It’s actually impossible for us to film it anywhere else.
What are some of your personal experiences in dealing with American Indian actors?
Andrew: Our experience started while working with Eddie Spears, Noah Watts, and Geraldine Keams on The Slaughter Rule. We had wonderful working relationship with them.
Alex: When we were growing up, our mother did a series for PBS called The Real People about Native American cultural customs, and it was made in the 70’s. We helped with a lot of the shooting, so we went to a lot of powwows, Indian rodeos, and sweat lodges and stuff. As kids we were just kids, but we were still soaking that stuff up and it was very powerful and inspiring. So that’s deep in our background.
Do you hope this film helps bring to the rest of the country some understanding of modern western plains Indian life?
Andrew: For me, I hope to embody that voice, and to look at it with the same kind of unblinking gaze Welch brought to the novel. Someone described the novel as the first one that talked about just the everyday reality of living in a place you’ve never been to, and Jim used to say he began to write the book as a travelogue to describe where he’s from. I hope the film will reach a wide audience and convey that voice and vision to a lot of people. Our goal as storytellers is to get people to walk in the shoes of someone who’s been through that world and life. It’s kind of a love-slash-hate letter to experience.
Alex: Our main job as filmmakers is to tell a good story well-told. James Welch’s novel is someone struggling very hard against a lot of adversity who hasn’t had good guidance in his life and is figuring out his way to a better place. That’s the core story that we feel will have a universal impact.
To learn more about the film and read the filmmakers’ blog, visit WinterintheBloodFilm.com.