When James Welch published his debut novel, “Winter in the Blood,” in 1974, it marked the arrival of a powerful new literary voice that put into words the reality of being a Native American living on the reservation. Born in Browning to a Blackfeet father and Gros Ventre mother, Welch went on to produce five novels and become “our greatest writer,” according to Sherman Alexie, another preeminent Native American author.
Forty years later, Welch’s landmark debut is now a feature film that showcases the distinct landscape of Montana and retells the classic story of Welch’s unnamed protagonist, who embarks on a wild odyssey along the Hi-Line in search of his absconding wife, his beloved rifle and, inevitably, his identity.
Filmmakers Andrew Smith and Alex Smith, two brothers who grew up in Missoula and knew Welch well up until his death in 2003 at age 62, co-wrote and directed “Winter in the Blood,” which premiered last year to critical acclaim.
The film, which stars Chaske Spencer, Julia Jones and David Morse, is coming to the Flathead Valley next week for two screenings that will include a discussion with Andrew Smith, as well as a reception before and after each screening.
The Bigfork Center for the Performing Arts is hosting the first showing at 7:30 p.m., April 18, and the second showing will be at the O’Shaughnessy Center in Whitefish on April 19. Both events will include a reception beforehand at 6 p.m. The screenings are a benefit for the Hockaday Museum of Art, whose vice president of the board, Denny Kellogg, loaned artwork and artifacts from his personal collection to use as props during the filming. The artifacts will be on display for the Bigfork premiere.
“Winter in the Blood” is the Smiths’ first feature film since “The Slaughter Rule,” which was released in 2002 and featured a young Ryan Gosling and Amy Adams.
Even though tax incentives could have lured them to Canada, the Smiths were determined to shoot their new film in the same landscape where Welch’s novel was born. Using a large number of crew and cast members from across the state, the Smiths shot the film during the summer of 2011 in Chinook, Havre and on the Fort Belknap and Rocky Boy reservations. To maintain authenticity and to ensure the story’s genuine roots were kept intact, the Smiths made sure there was strong community and tribal involvement. Alexie was also brought on as an associate producer and “mentor.”
“We want nothing more than for our collaborators – and our audience– to know this world’s stark, giant, particular beauty. To be able to call it ‘true to home’,” the brothers stated afterward.
Last week the Beacon caught up with Andrew Smith, who teaches filmmaking at the University of Montana in between projects. Here is an abridged version of that interview.
Beacon: You and your brother Alex have a pretty intimate relationship with the source material, having grown up knowing Jim. Did that make it harder or easier, and were you nervous when you decided to adapt his novel into a film?
Andrew Smith: The process of being up to the task of making this film that paid the right amount of tribute to the great literary work that we were adapting was a challenge at first and was intimidating at first. And probably one of the reasons why it took us awhile to get it front and center on our plan was because we had so much reverence for the novel and for Jim. But that being said, after a certain point, once people seemed to be happy that we were taking this on, I started to think of this as a gift as opposed to a challenge. We were keepers of the flame, so to speak. We were being handed something valuable to pass on to another audience. (James’ wife) Lois Welch also said, ‘he would’ve been happy that you guys are doing this’ … The other thing that we kept in mind was that the book is always going to be there. It’s been in print for almost 40 years. And there’s no chance that it will ever go out of print, it’s only become more and more popular and more and more classic. So in many ways, we knew we couldn’t hurt the book. Once I realized that this was just an interpretation and it was a tribute, and it would stand on its own, it became much less pressure and more of a gift.
Beacon: There’s a trove of great Montana literature out there, classic books and stories like James’ other novels, that are tied to our state’s culture and ethos but that haven’t been made into feature films. Why haven’t we seen more Montana stories on the big screen?
Smith: There are some great ones untapped, both in terms of novels and of course biographies and real stories. There’s a great Charlie Russell movie out there, if somebody wanted to make a film about him. His life was incredible. Certainly Alex and I have other Montana stories in mind. But as far as why haven’t more of them been made – I think that the books that are well known here don’t always permeate the East Coast or West Coast culture. And that’s probably just a matter of time. There will be other ones. I know people are interested in other Jim Welch novels right now … I’m encouraging young Montana filmmakers to try to tell stories that are meaningful from right here.
Beacon: What was the most surprising thing you discovered while writing and filming “Winter in the Blood?”
Smith: I think the most surprising thing was the combination of how much difficulty there is to making a film like this and at the same time how many rewards came out of it. They were hand in hand. We found a ready and welcome community that embraced this project from the get-go. We were a little bit uncertain at first if we would be permitted to take this treasure forward, and not to speak for another people but from the human experience of the novel, as opposed to trying to address issues of ethnicity and identity. We felt like we had an access point.
Beacon: What are you working on next? I’ve heard you’re working on a TV series looking at a Bakken boom town.
Smith: We have been developing a TV series idea that looks at the changes coming to a small town as a boom reaches it. We’ve gotten some interest in it but we haven’t landed that series on a network yet. We’re very deeply involved in a feature film adaptation of another Montana writer, David Quammen. We’re working on “Walking Out,” an early fiction piece of his … That’s probably our future project. Then we also have some other stuff up our sleeve.
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