Back in 2002, Alex and Andrew Smith were riding a wave of good fortune, creative vision and hard work. The Missoula-raised writer-director twin brothers, sons of noted local author and documentarian Annick Smith, had just released their first feature film, The Slaughter Rule, to high critical acclaim.
Over the next five years, they worked on a half-dozen film scripts covering an array of genres and formats, but the initial green lights on every one of those projects eventually turned red. Frustrated, they began thinking about following their hearts back to Montana, to the landscape that had birthed The Slaughter Rule. That quest ultimately led them to Winter in the Blood, the first novel from James Welch.
Welch, who died in 2003, had studied under Richard Hugo at the University of Montana in the early 1970s and was a close family friend of the Smiths. He was a Blackfeet and Gros Ventre Indian born in Browning and raised on the Blackfeet and Fort Belknap reservations. In Winter in the Blood, published in 1973, Welch spun a gorgeously bruising tale of a young American Indian negotiating a fog of alcohol, familial loss, ancestral uncertainty and cultural isolation.
After two years of scriptwriting and revising, another year-plus of chasing funding, a 22-day shoot on the Hi-Line in August and early September of 2011, and 18 months in post-production, Winter in the Blood premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival last month.
Fans of the novel will be pleased to know that the Smiths went to great Backbone of the World heights to stay true to Welch's original work. Outside of the standard condensation of locations, characters and dialogue, the only significant departure comes in the form of Airplane Man, the narrator's ambiguously dream-like companion for the middle section of the novel who assumes a highly definitive role throughout the movie.
This faithful adherence to its source material is the strength of Winter in the Blood. It's a brave move. The Smiths have turned a beautifully uncomfortable story into a beautifully uncomfortable film. It's hard-hitting and tragic, surreal and funny. It's the kind of movie a writer would want made about his own work.
It's also the kind of movie that may not resonate with a general audience. Though its central themes are universal, the combination of an uneasy subject and a densely layered narrative forces you to work to understand it, and at times thwarts those efforts completely. I hope to hell I'm wrong on that. I hope the sublime performances from actors Chaske Spencer and David Morse, the seamless transitions from present to past (and from reverie to reality), and the pitch-perfect score from the Heartless Bastards will be enough to pull viewers through to this film's rich rewards, as they did me.
In collaboration with the Montana Film Office, the Smith brothers are showing three screenings of Winter in the Blood this weekend. In anticipation of the Montana premiere, we talked with Alex Smith about the serendipitous task of creating the film.
Having reread the book after 20 years, I was struck by two things. The first was its rare combination of beauty and power. The second was how un-cinematic it seems—this is a first-person account of a man in a fugue state, bouncing between the physical world and the hazy landscapes of dreams and memory. What possessed you to conceptualize this story into the visual format of film?
Alex Smith: The main reason was our relationship with Jim, having known him all our lives and loving this book on an intimate level. It is a touchstone for both Andrew and I. And it's been 40 years since the book was published—it was time. None of Jim's work has been made into movies. We wanted to start with his first, the one that we identified with most because of its themes—brotherhood, loss of a father, living in isolation, dealing with alcoholism. Those are absolutely stories that we could tap into as writers and directors.
With that said, yeah, we knew the book would be a tough one to adapt. The main character doesn't do that much physically, and the book is obviously very complicated, with a number of narrative strands. It took us a while to unbraid it—the past, the present, the other—and then rebraid it in a filmic way. But we did see that there was a through-line in the narrative, with Virgil [though the book's narrator is unnamed, the Smiths gave him one for the film] finally dealing with the accident that killed his brother when they were young.
Despite your thematic ties to the book and personal ties to its author, the fact remains that you are two white guys telling an intensely Native American story. Were you ever concerned about culture-poaching?
AS: Absolutely. One of the first things we did was reach out to [Native American poet, writer and filmmaker] Sherman Alexie, whom we had gotten to know at the Sundance Labs, and asked him if he thought we were the right guys to do this. He said that he couldn't think of a better fit, and that meant a huge deal to us because Sherman has often said that it was Winter in the Blood that started him down the road to becoming a writer.
Further confirmation came from Lois Welch, Jim's widow, from whom we optioned the novel. She's been super supportive and collaborative of the effort, reviewing script drafts and film cuts. In fact, she even invested in the film. We paid her to option the book and she turned around and put that money right back into the movie, which was a beautiful thing.
You do not shy away from Virgil's drinking in the moviein fact, because of the visual format it seems even more prominent in the film than in the book.
AS: It was a big discussion point, and a bit of a departure from the book. In the book he drinks a lot, he's hungover and disoriented many times. But it was written in the '70s, and back then there was a little bit more of a romantic sense to that kind of thing. Making the film now, we couldn't just have him drinking all the time without showing the consequences of his actions.
And his drinking also became a kind of cinematic device for us. When he drinks, he goes into reverie. We wanted to tie him drinking to not being fully alive. In a sense, ever since he's had this trauma he's been frozen. The winter is literally in his blood.
Chaske Spencer, who plays Virgil, is a revelation. It's a stunning performance, both onscreen and in the voiceover narration. How did you find him?
AS: Oh man, the way things came together is quite remarkable, really. Sherman hooked us up with our casting director, who lives in Burbank, Calif., but as it turns out is actually from Great Falls. She recommended Chaske, who played the alpha-male of the wolfpack in the Twilight films. We agreed that he was the guy we wanted, and when we got in touch with him in New York, we found out that he grew up in Poplar, Mont. So many times when we reached out, we were led back home. We just seemed destined to make this thing.
Winter in the Blood makes its Montana premiere at the Roxy Theater Sat., July 20, with screenings at 5 PM, 7:30 and 9:45. $10 at theroxytheater.org.