“Slow and steady wins the race” goes the old adage—a strategy embraced by Neither Wolf Nor Dog, an ultra-low-budget drama that has been running in theaters for more than two years and still has hit only 15 percent of the country. That release pattern is partly a function of the film’s main target audience: Director Steven Lewis Simpson’s labor of love is based on a best-selling, semi-autobiographical novel by Kent Nerburn about a white writer chronicling the life and philosophy of an elderly Lakota leader. The film has thus traveled to many small towns with significant Native American populations, in states like Oregon, Washington, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, and Minnesota.
Simpson, a Scot now based in Bulgaria, has been immersed in Native American culture for two decades. In 1999, he visited Wounded Knee, South Dakota, site of a notorious massacre, when a sacred shirt taken as a trophy from that horrific event was returned to its original home by a Scottish museum.
“Within two, three hours of hitting the reservation and being shown around Wounded Knee by a local,” he recalls, “then brought to a camp on the border [where people were protesting] the failure to investigate a couple of murders, I found myself at the house of Russell Means, arguably the most famous American Indian activist of the 20th century, and he asked me to film three days of political meetings. That was my first three hours on the reservation.
“From then on, it just built and built. It’s interesting, because the film is about a white author who gets this call from an elder and takes on this commitment to write a book about the elder’s experience … But it’s also very similar to the commitments I made to people like Russell Means and others on the reservation, and that commitment spiraled into a documentary I made over 13 years about the reservation [2012’s A Thunder-Being Nation]. And then this film itself is a parallel commitment, because almost eight years ago I promised Kent Nerburn that I would get it made by any means necessary.”
Simpson recalls his first meeting with author Nerburn: “I went out to Pine Ridge with a previous movie I’d made called Rez Bomb—I’d done a little traveling cinema around the reservation so people in the communities could see it. I was showing it in this border town where we’d also shot some of the film, and Kent happened to be visiting the town and came to see it and met me afterward. People in Hollywood had been circling his book since the mid-’90s and he had some pretty established people showing interest. But it was always pie-in-the-sky promises and nobody was moving forward with it. And he thought: Here’s a guy who actually gets things made on the reservation—and tonally it’s right, which is most important.”
Simpson shot the film on location in 18 days with a crew of three: himself, a sound man, and an assistant. He estimates the production budget (largely raised on Kickstarter) at $30,000, which he later partly recouped by selling his Red camera and three vehicles used for the film.
A huge marketing asset for the movie is its leading man: real-life Lakota elder Dave Bald Eagle, 95 during the shooting, who passed away in July 2016 at the age of 97. A World War II paratrooper who barely survived his gunshot wounds during D-Day, this mischievous character later became a ballroom dancer, racecar driver, rodeo rider, rancher, actor, and stuntman. In the 1990s, he was named First Chief of the United Indigenous Nations.
“Kent had lived with this [story] for almost 20 years, and yet Dave is more than he’d ever dreamt of in terms of somebody playing this role,” Simpson notes. “I’d been scouting around a lot, and most of the established Native actors were in their 70s and they weren’t from that era. And that was a key thing: The novel was written in the ’90s and the character’s about 80, but it’s not the age of the character, it’s the era he’s from. The term on the reservation is ‘Those that were brought up by those that were born free.’ And Dave was born in his grandpa’s tipi and his grandfather was a key participant at the battle of Little Big Horn and lived past 100 years. Dave knew him into his 20s. To embody that era, I had to go older than the character in the book … The spirit of the film rests upon Wounded Knee, where the climax takes place. And Dave’s connection to Wounded Knee through his family is closer than that of even the character he was playing.”
Simpson took a big risk during that culminating scene by asking Dave Bald Eagle to improvise his dialogue. “When you’ve got a 95-year-old … I’m half that age and I can’t remember dialogue. He could read you a line at any point and all he gave you was truth. But the problem is, when you go into a scene that’s dealing with an emotional truth, you can’t do that line by line. And so I basically had him improvise the whole sequence and he went to a really deep place. At the end of filming the scene, he turned to [co-star] Christopher Sweeney and said, ‘I’ve been holding that in for 95 years.’ I’d like to take credit for [the film’s high audience ratings], but I absolutely know that it’s because of the depth of what they feel and that’s through Dave’s performance.”
He continues, “There are a lot of documentaries that can talk about Wounded Knee and they’re powerful, but in a movie people open their hearts and listen in a different way because they’re doing it through a narrative character. And we kind of cross that line here because Dave is so true in it.”
Simpson looks back on the “slow and steady” release of his film, which his reps say has grossed over $500,000 from roughly 75,000 low-price ticket admissions. “We understand that things are going to cluster, so what we need is a foothold cinema in a region. Some of them we target certain areas where we know, OK, there is a big reservation there and we have an angle. In Independence, Oregon, we brought in 325 pupils one day from a local Bureau of Indian Education school, for example. That’s nice numbers, especially in a small community like that. The strategy from the very beginning was a big fish in a small pond, not a minnow in an ocean. So we started in Bemidji, Minnesota, where the novel was written, and we got 1,600 people through the door in a town of 15,000 and we were the number one film. So other theaters in the area started paying attention. Two of the others were in towns where two of our leads were born. Those numbers were solid and allowed us to start building on that.
“Our first commercial cinema in Washington State was for a special event because the locals asked for it. It was just two showings on a Thursday afternoon, but when we sold out both of them they immediately booked us for a three-week run. Suddenly we’ve got numbers that other theaters in the area are paying attention to. And so we got 22 theaters in Washington State, including nine weeks in one in Spokane.”
Among the landmarks for the film was its four-week engagement at the Landmark Lagoon in Minneapolis, where it tallied 3,500 admissions and the best weekend gross in the country, according to Landmark senior publicist Hugh Wronski.
But overall, Simpson observes, “we do phenomenally well in smaller communities compared to big cities, and I think local media is much more responsive to a great story, in a way, than national media. National media is bombarded with everything, so they’re waiting for the publicists they have to pay attention to. Whereas we just go directly to these small-town papers and get immense coverage. Dave Bald Eagle’s obituary was one of the biggest I’d seen in the likes of The Times of London, just because it has all those rich elements.”
Although the film has played in Harkins and Landmark locations, Simpson notes that “for the most part we’re playing in independent commercial cinemas. One-, two-, three-, four-, six-screeners throughout a lot of the northern Plains … I think they really respect the work we’ve put in driving in an audience. They took a gamble on us, and we’ve followed through with sweat and often great numbers. I think they also really appreciate the responses they’ve been getting from their customers, who are having a deeper reaction than just a normal film.”
Simpson observes, “I think a lot of these regional cinemas are starting to recognize that there are certain films, small films, that appeal very specifically to their area and they will do fantastically well. And I think that’s where self-distribution comes in. I think people are fixating on self-distribution [with us] because we were at Sundance and no one bought us, and we’re going to four-wall L.A. and New York [later this year]. But there are certain films [where it works well]. It took the distributors a while to get Free Solo into theaters in places in Wyoming, but it did fantastically well because people there related to it in a way that people in L.A. wouldn’t.”
Simpson notes that “with some of the theaters, we’ve done it on an alternative content basis, just a handful of showings in downtimes for them, because our audience will go see it whenever it is on. That’s been an interesting opportunity. If I were a theater, though, the key thing I would ask any producer is: What’s your local outreach strategy and what resources do you have to put into that? It’s not marketing money. It’s time and sweat. And that’s what really pays off.
“I saw something fascinating a couple of years ago at a friend’s festival in South Dakota: a 600-seat theater packed for a documentary about a rodeo guy. In L.A. it would get 20 people, and here it’s 600 people, mostly young guys with cowboy hats on. I think boutique distributors should be forgetting about art houses for certain films and looking into these parts of the country.”
Still booking theaters after two years, Simpson is gratified by the path he’s taken with Neither Wolf Nor Dog: “Without the theatrical release, the film would have just been seen by handful of people on DVD and gone nowhere.” As for the eventual ancillary release, “I keep pushing it back because we keep making money in theaters!”
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