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On the Set: It's taken a state to make 'Winter in the Blood'

The film has been a labor of love for Montanans from the governor on down. It was made by local-boys-made-good (the Smith brothers), funded locally and based on a novel by a local Native American author.

September 11, 2011|By Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
  • Actor Chaske Spencer studies his script on the set of "Winter in the Blood" outside of Chinook, Montana.
Actor Chaske Spencer studies his script on the set of "Winter in the… (Patricia Williams / For…)

Reporting from Havre, Mont. — — If, as has been said, Montana is a small town with really long streets, that's never more true than in the remote but stunning area known as the Hi-Line.

Originally created by the tracks of the Great Northern Railway, this region close to the Canadian border features venerable hamlets such as Cut Bank, Shelby and Rudyard ("596 Nice People, One Sorehead") strung out along U.S. 2 like links in a long and stubborn chain. "When you drive Highway 2," says Chaske Spencer, shaking his head, "you really go back in time."

Despite brooding grain elevators dominating the skyline and lonesome freight trains bisecting the endless fields of winter wheat, no one has brought a movie star like Spencer — he plays werewolf Sam Uley, a mainstay of the "Twilight" series — to the Hi-Line in years. Until Alex and Andrew Smith's "Winter in the Blood," based on the landmark novel by James Welch and featuring Spencer, "Twilight" colleague Julia Jones, David Morse and Gary Farmer, filmed here this summer.

Brimming with so much vibrant Montana history and connections that the good wishes of the entire state have lined up behind it, "Winter" is the quintessential little film that has used what one crew member called "smoke and mirrors and miracles" to get made. A genuine passion project for everyone it's touched (including Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who made his plane available to fly in potential financiers and visited the set over the Labor Day weekend), the film got on its feet against considerable odds.

Welch, who died of a heart attack at age 62 in 2003, was a product of the Hi-Line, born in Browning of a Blackfeet father and Gros Ventre mother and raised on the Ft. Belknap Reservation. He put everything he knew about the area and about modern Native American life into "Winter in the Blood," a landmark debut novel published in 1974.

The story of a nameless young Native American man who struggles with his heritage and his life, who feels "as distant from myself as a hawk from the moon," "Winter" is a book where not a lot happens but everything is revealed. As costar Farmer explains, raising his outstretched arm ever so slightly, "the character's arc goes like this, nothing really changes. It's the audience who grows. I've known this author my whole life, and that's what I love about his writing."

The book, which has been translated into eight languages and remains in print, was a foundation stone of the literary Native American renaissance and has inspired countless writers, from Louise Erdrich ("what astounded me was that something so familiar could be made into literature") to Sherman Alexie.

Alexie returned the favor by becoming an associate producer on "Winter in the Blood." When he spoke at a fundraiser in Missoula, remembers co-screenwriter Ken White, he said that reading the book "was the first time I read a story about myself, the first time I saw my story represented in literature. It gave me permission to speak. It's why I became a writer."

White's co-screenwriters, the twin Smith brothers, have deep Montana connections as well. Born and raised in the state, their first film, the Ryan Gosling-starring Sundance hit "The Slaughter Rule," was also shot on the Hi-Line, and their mother, writer Annick Smith, was the co-editor (along with William Kittredge) of a renowned anthology of Montana writing, "The Last Best Place."

More than that, the Smith brothers had been close to Welch for as long as they could remember. "We just grew up knowing him; he was one of the constants in our lives," says Andrew. A friend of the boys' parents, Welch even met his future wife, Lois, at a party at the Smiths' house. Adds Alex, "after our dad, Dave, died [in 1974, when the twins were 6], we looked around at men and wondered, 'Would he have been a good dad?,' and Jim was always high up in that category."

Once the brothers read "Winter in the Blood" in high school, says Alex, "it was, 'Whoa, this guy who's been so sweet at Thanksgiving and Christmas has this sadness, this depth he didn't display all the time.' He became someone we admired."

The novel, which features a narrator who deals with the deaths of his father and his beloved brother, haunted the Smiths. Says Alex, "Obviously, we're not Indians, but we grew up isolated and rural, and we suffered the traumatic loss of a family member." Adds Andrew, "The book is also about losing a brother, and we had such a tremendous fear of losing each other."

Despite all these connections, the brothers never thought of filming "Winter in the Blood," even after the success of "The Slaughter Rule" made them bankable directors. "Maybe," says Andrew, "we were too close to see it." Instead, they pitched other ideas and wrote any number of screenplays without anything coming to fruition.

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