It’s not often you’ll see a sharply dressed man donning a Stetson waiting around in the vast, modern, depersonalized lobby of the L.A. Live Regal Cinemas in Los Angeles, but it was only fitting that he was standing at the front of the line for the premiere of “Winter in the Blood,” a true anomaly amongst this year’s L.A. Film Festival films. Ambitious in its aim and elliptical in its storytelling, Alex and Andrew Smith’s adaptation of Native-American author James Welch’s breakthrough novel of the same name tells of a man (Chaske Spencer) that has clearly lost his way, introduced in the film lying on the ground, complete with a black eye, a flask in hand and a toothbrush in his pocket, and in his search for a wife that has left him, becomes entangled with an unsavory drug smuggler nicknamed Airplane Man (David Morse) and his wife (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson) while trying to find some sense of identity of his own away from life on the reservation in Montana’s Hi-Line.
Ironically, the film has also served as an opportunity for the filmmakers’ home state to forge an identity in the movie industry, becoming a great source of pride for former Governor Brian Schweitzer and the rest of Montana to shine a light on its lush, verdant plains and its underrepresented Native-American population. However, “Winter in the Blood” is distinctive for reasons other than giving an all-too-rare glimpse at the place where the Smith brothers grew up, giving audiences a hallucinatory and, at times, intoxicating character study that shares the spirituality of their last film, the 2002 Ryan Gosling drama “The Slaughter Rule,” but places the audiences more directly into its wild throes. Shortly after the film’s premiere, the fraternal directing duo spoke about their longtime friendship with the late author Welch, how other scripts they worked on in recent years led them to “Winter in the Blood,” and adapting a tough text from the 1970s into a film for contemporary audiences.
Did you always want to make a film of “Winter in the Blood”?
Alex Smith: We knew the author James Welch growing up. He was a friend of our parents, and then became a friend of ours. Then I read the book in high school and was just blown away. It’s just such an incredible novella. Every word is like a facet of a gem. I responded to it in a very deep way. Then, both Andrew and I left Montana to go to college to get careers in screenwriting and making films and teaching. Whenever I miss Montana, I pull that book out and read it again and whenever I missed my father or my brother, that book talks about staying connected to your family, so the book has been in our blood for almost 35 years, but we’re not Native American, so it wasn’t something we thought we should be making for a while. Then James, the author, died of stomach cancer, and Sherman Alexie, the filmmaker and author, basically got a bunch of his filmmaker friends to make shorts based on Jim’s work, mostly his poetry.
We took a scene from Jim’s second novel and made it into a short little film [“We Won It All Once”] and doing that opened the door because [his work is] really cinematic. He writes incredible dialogue. We were busy writing some screenplays, but we work with a lot of screenwriters and it actually took the third writer, Ken White, to be staying at our mom’s ranch on a really, really cold January night [to get “Winter in the Blood” going]. He pulled the book off the shelf, read it in one sitting, called us and said, “Why aren’t you guys making it?”
At the time, we were actually getting really, really frustrated with a screenplay that we were trying to write for hire, and we had had a lot of frustrations getting close on many projects, but not quite getting there. We thought, you know what? How did we make “The Slaughter Rule”? We wrote something from where we were. We made it off the beaten track. Let’s do that again. We optioned the novel [“Winter in the Blood”] at that point. We talked with Sherman Alexie, and he said, “You guys are perfect to do this.” We spent a couple years between jobs adapting it. Once we got the script ready, we took it around Hollywood. Everyone loved it. No one wanted to make it [laughs]. Then we said, “We have to find a different way of financing it.”
I imagine it was difficult to pitch because of how visually distinctive it is. What was most striking to me was how it captured the fleeting nature of Welch’s storytelling with the way you use dissolves and editing that isn’t afraid to take two separate scenes and mash them together as if they were one. Was that a hard thing to achieve?
Andrew Smith: The novel is in the first person. It forces the reader to start to occupy the experience very few writers have, which is what’s it like to be on a reservation in the middle of Montana in this broken state of existence because the narrator is not unreliable — he’s very truthful — but his own consciousness is fractured. He’s constantly sliding between the here and now and the past, and his memory is triggered by geography often. Literally, just in walking home, he will see something and it will cast him back. Luckily, because cinematographers are working in a visual form, you can do that. You can have someone in a space, and then you can use that space to take you back. We did come up with a series of, what we called … not flashbacks, but flash sides where there’s no hard cut to the past, but the camera weaves the present tense and finds the past tense in the same shot. We didn’t invent this technique, but it’s wonderful to allow for that sort of slide. Then we tried to recreate that sense of a cinematic slide with dissolves in other places where we were not able to do it geographically.
Alex Smith: The way memory works is hard to capture cinematically. We grew up on this ranch in Montana. When you’re there, you can look over and see something that happened to you as a kid. You can put yourself there. The land is the same. You’re different. We wanted to try to see if we could map that cinematically by doing these slides as Andrew said. Also, the movie is set in the ’70s and we grew up on movies like “Midnight Cowboy” and “Taxi Driver” and ” Aguirre, the Wrath of God”. We used lenses from the ’70s. We tried to look at some of the cinema ’70s to help you feel like it was the ’70s. We never wanted the movie to feel like period with a capital P. The dissolves were something that we did really find in the edit, but we …
Andrew Smith: We had some of them in mind.
Alex Smith: We had in mind some of them, like in “Taxi Driver,” there’s a great moment when he’s walking down the street, then he appears later further down the street. We have the characters going in and out of reality. He’s only partially present. A dissolve allows you to do that. We actually took that technique one stage further, where we tripled it. There’s three times in the movie where we actually put him in three different places that was past, present and other. It was just a device that started to feed us.
Andrew Smith: That particular technique crystallizes in the moment when [Virgil is] in a bar. In the past, the kids enter the bar, and they have a scene with the father, and we have three edits without ever changing the camera position. We move through the three different periods of time: when they were boys, a period of time when the father was still alive but broken by the trauma, and then return to present tense with our hero. I’m sure we’ve seen it in other films but [it was something we discovered by] really just locking down the camera and changing the backgrounds. Someone at the premiere noticed that that was like a crystallized moment of time folding in on itself. We’re very interested in Wong Kar-Wai films, and those ideas of repetition and of layering of palimpsests. There’s just so much past in the present and present in the past.
Andrew, you’re actually a poet as well, so on a film like this, does that shape your approach to adapting the material?
Andrew Smith: Undoubtedly. Both Alex and I have been bifurcated our whole lives between literature and filmmaking, and I think our sensibility is drawn toward the poetic, lyrical filmmakers such as Tarkovsky, Pasolini, Kurosawa and …
Alex Smith: And Lynch.
Andrew Smith: And David Lynch. I’ve always been engaged in that kind of crystallized visual image as the locus of lots of other material. It’s not a symbol. It’s an actual thing. Like the rifle is a really important thing in the film, but it’s also a symbol for Virgil. It’s got to be, and of course it gets back to the genre. This is a crack western in a lot of ways. It’s a Cowboy and Indians movie in which the Cowboy is the Indian.
Alex Smith: The book was challenging because there’s so much there. Like Andrew said, it’s a western where the Cowboys are Indians, but it’s also like a noir in that he’s on this quest for this lost woman, and he keeps encountering these characters who are drifter types, and you and he are not sure if they’re real or not. Welch, I found out recently, was actually reading a lot of noir when he was writing the book. Also, it was written in ’74, so it had that surreal [influence] of [William] Burroughs or [Carlos] Castaneda’s ability to go into this fantastic world. I worked not only with one poet but two, because the other writer, Ken White, is a published poet as well. I’m a fiction writer, so I’d keep saying, “This is beautiful, but what’s the storyline?” The e-mail chain on the adaptation of this book is fascinating because I learned words like “palimpsest” from these guys. [looking at Andrew]
One of the other challenges I would guess is having to remain faithful to the material and the time it was written in while making it for a contemporary audience because this is certainly a tough movie. Were you concerned about depicting alcoholism and other aspects of Native American life that may have been true to the text and the times but would be considered politically incorrect now?
Alex Smith: That’s a great question because the book doesn’t really have a negative around the drinking. Now, you read it and you realize that the drinking is part of [Virgil’s] problem and it was a big discussion about how much and how to utilize it. For us, it was not so much about alcohol, but that he’s been self-medicating – however you want to look at that — as a way of keeping this trauma repressed and it became a motif for us. Every time some memory came at him, he’d take a drink, and then he’d shift into nonreality. It was a nice device to connect the drinking to the repression, and to understand that that was no longer working, and he had to figure out a new way to be alive.
Andrew Smith: At the time of when the novel was written, both in Native and non-Native culture, drinking was kind of heroic. This was the end of the “Mad Men”-era. Especially among writers, it was this kind of badge of honor. You were a hard-drinking, hard-writing person. Jim was among the generation that lived that way.
Alex Smith: We grew up knowing them, seeing this behavior, and doing it ourselves.
Andrew Smith: Yet the consciousness of the culture has obviously changed since then in many ways. What we did realize was we had to be as brave as the novel to make this film. If we pulled the punches and stepped back from the sets, from the drinking, and the more rough-hewn elements, we were not doing justice to what inspired us. Obviously, it was a conversation that came up with producers and like, “Can you take this out?”
Alex Smith: And it’s not a film about a drunk Indian. It’s basically a film about why an Indian would drink. Because, especially in that time, it’s still really, really tough on a lot of these reservations. There’s a high suicide rate. There’s really high unemployment. They’re trapped by not being able to leave but also being isolated. There’s not a lot of options, and drinking is one way to escape some of that and for a lot of people, in 1973, there was no help – no AA, no guidance counseling. These guys had been stifled. All their Indian-ness had been really, really taken away from them for so long. It was only right when this book was written and moving forward that the Native-American renaissance and the Indian pride movement came out of it. These were really, really trapped warriors, and who blames them? We almost wanted to turn the stereotype on its head because we grew up in Montana and and there still is racism towards Native-Americans, which is crazy.
Andrew Smith: To get past the stereotype, you have to enter it and get in there and try to get other people into that world and understand what would drive someone to drink. To us, it’s more of a universal story. Luckily, we find a lot of people connect to it who have no interest in Native-American issues, but they have had a personal crisis of their own, some falling, some getting lost. It’s basically a really simple story about someone who’s lost and who’s found.