It’s hard to believe that a movie starring Jessica Chastain might be considered one of the “lower profile” movies of the month, but that seems to be the case with her new movie “Woman Walks Ahead,” which will be in select cities this Friday.
Set in the late 19th Century, Chastain plays New York painter Catherine Weldon, a widow who travels to North Dakota to paint a portrait of Chief Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes), the now elderly leader of the Sioux nation, who is in the process of negotiating a new land treaty with the U.S. government. In order to get the full cooperation of the natives, the army has cut their food rations in half, and the starving Indians are eager to resolve this situation, particularly the aging chief. Recent Oscar winner Sam Rockwell plays Colonel Groves, a soldier at the nearby base who disapproves of Catherine’s mission, thinking she might get herself killed or worse.
Written by Steven Knight (“Peaky Blinders”), the film is directed by Susanna White, who had a lot of experience directing television but also directed the sequel “Nanny McPhee Returns” and 2016’s political thriller “Our Kind of Traitor.” “Woman Walks Ahead” is very different from both those movies, being a subtler Western but one that fully uses the New Mexico landscapes to their fullest effect.
Quite a few parallels can be drawn between the film’s protagonist and her fight against the male-dominant American West of the 19thcentury with what’s going on in the country these days. Weldon’s attempt to help the natives helped her create a close bond with the subject of her portrait, with whom many thought she had more than a platonic relationship, although that’s kept vague in White’s film. (Obviously, this is very much a fictionalized account of the relationship between Weldon and Sitting Bull, since so little had been written about them, and they would be the only ones who knew what happened between them.)
“Woman Walks Ahead” premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last year and then played Tribeca a few months back, but this interview is actually from the former, as we sat down with Ms. White the day after the film premiered.
How did this come about? I know that Steven Knight wrote the script but not sure how long ago he wrote it.
Susanna White: He wrote it fourteen years ago. It was originally commissioned by Ed Zwick and Bedford Falls’ Marshall Herskovitz. I moved to CAA nearly three years ago, and I said to my agent there that I was looking for an epic love story. I was looking for an “English Patient” type film, and he said, “Well, there is this thing Steve Knight wrote…” and [he] dusted it off, and I read it and completely fell in love with it. I’d grown up watching Westerns on a Saturday afternoon with my Dad. I grew up in South London in a little Dutch house dimmed by a grey sky, and this epic landscape of these big, wide shots, and…
I imagine you don’t have anything like a desert in England…
No deserts, exactly. Yet, it was such an alternate take on a Western, I think, because once I started connecting with it, I got the sense of such a world where men are men and violence seems to happen without consequences, but just in a big, mythical way. Here, this was shining a beam on two characters who you never normally hear from in a Western – women who tend to very much be on the periphery of the story, and here was a very strong and extraordinary woman in Catherine Weldon and a portrayal of the Native American community that I felt was very different from anything I’d seen with very rounded human characters. I found it very exciting, and also, I had this big connection to this very spiritual idea of the land. I wanted the land to be a character in the movie, to build that sense – which I guess is a John Ford way of framing – that we’re very small in the big scheme of things, and the land was there before any of us, and we’re born, and we pass through it and pass away, and the land will be there after us. I suppose there were influences there like Nick Roeg’s “Walkabout,” a sense of nature being very present in the film, so it worked on multiple levels for me, really.
Did you have any contact with Steven at all after you got on board?
Yes, we met a lot. The main things – we did some more character work. We did quite a lot of work on Catherine’s journey, and we restructured it a bit. Then I did more did on more Susan McLaughlin, who is McLaughlin’s wife. We must have met four or five times, and then as we were shooting, he’d write some new scenes sometimes when I was talking to Jessica and Michael, and even in post, he was very involved as well.
Do you know what kind of reference he had for Catherine’s story? I imagine there wasn’t a lot out there.
There’s very little. If you go on Wikipedia, it’s super-confusing what you [find]. He basically found reference in “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” and in biographies of Sitting Bull where she’s pretty much a footnote. What is known is that there was a woman called Catherine or Caroline Weldon who actually in real life was politicized even before she went to the Dakotas. She was what Groves accuses her of being a member of a society that supported Native American land rights. So she traveled out from Brooklyn to paint the portrait. In fact, in real life she had a son who went out with her, who actually ended up dying. They say that the white press out there really vilified her – she was known as “Sitting Bull’s white squaw.” We know from a letter that was found in Sitting Bull’s cabin that he actually proposed marriage to her. So there are little bits and pieces. There’s an academic called Eileen Pollack who wrote a book, pulling that reference material together, and in fact, stuff was emerging even as we were shooting. We learned more about her. She was divorced, not widowed, but she had been in this rather oppressive marriage, we know that.
I was curious about that, because obviously we know the painting exists, so there must be a story behind it, and I wondered how Steven knew about it.
In fact, there were four paintings – she did four paintings of him.
I want to talk about working with Jessica and getting her to play Catherine. Watching “Molly’s Game” a couple nights ago, it feels like she was able to fit right into that male-dominated world of poker, but then this one, she actually softens up what might normally be a male-driven film. It’s really interesting what she does, so what was it like working with her?
Right, that’s very interesting. Well, it was fabulous. She is one of the most talented actresses out there, and it was like the best day of my life to hear that Jessica wanted to do the film and wanted to do it with me, because she’s extraordinary. I think she’s very precise as an actress, she’s very intelligent, she’s very intuitive, and she’s very generous as an actress. I think she’s very generous around other actors, so if there are people with less experience than her, she’d be very supportive of them. Always, she’s wanting it to be real and truthful emotionally. Yeah, she was very collaborative. I think, also, there was a rightness that there’s Catherine Weldon, this political campaigner, and I think that’s in Jessica’s DNA in some ways. (Laughs)
What about getting Michael Greyeyes as Sitting Bull? I know he’s an actor who has been working for some time but never in such a great role like this.
I saw a lot of people for the role, but what I loved about Michael was there was a stillness about him and a gentleness that I wanted to bring to Sitting Bull. When you read all the accounts of him, first thing they look at and people say about him was that he was a spiritual leader, and there was a wisdom and a serenity about him. We tend to see a lot of depictions of the warrior side of him, which was one side of him, but one of his sayings is: “The greatest strength is in gentleness.” Michael certainly has that quality. I think the camera absolutely loves him. Since I started screen testing him, I knew I had something very special, and he had great chemistry with Jessica. We did a chemistry read, and they really connected. I think it’s interesting that he worked as a dancer, because I thought there were lots of physical ways into working with him as an actor. He really understands his body and muscle memory, so that was an interesting place to go. I think he very much connected with the material. His own grandparents had been sent to boarding school to have the Indian educated out of them, so on a personal level, it was a story that really spoke to him.
On the one hand, this movie is a very simple story about two characters, their connection and relationship…
It’s very small, actually. I think it’s a very intimate movie, isn’t it?
But then you have this vast scale that comes from where you filmed the movie that you can’t get with money.
Right, well, that’s what I wanted to do. I knew that I didn’t have a lot of money to make the movie. I had been budgeted at double what we shot it for. I really wanted the movie to happen, so I made some choices, and I think one of them was to make the land a character and get this epic sense of the land, and I knew that was the way that I can give it scale without needing to people that with huge crowds and so on. I think at the heart of the film is this very intimate story about two disenfranchised people giving each other hope, and that’s the heart of the film, the emotional connection between these characters, and the series of political events that unfolds.
It’s really interesting that you can do a movie with just two people in such a vast space, so how did you find the location?
We found it in New Mexico, which offered this extraordinary light. Every day we’d go, and there would be an amazing sunrise, amazing sunset. Even when we were shooting scenes like Jessica in the cemetery, we got those amazing clouds. People think that’s a CG shot, but it’s not. That was really the weather, and similarly, the scene where they’re on the horses and Sitting Bull tells her he knows this is the winter he’s going to die, I shot Jessica’s close-up and there was lightning behind her, and then shot the mid-shot and exactly the same lightning happened at the same moment. It was really extraordinary what happened with the weather. Then we were battling dust storms and all kinds of things, but I think it brought an authenticity and a truth to it. There were some challenges, because I had to make it look like the Dakotas. We had to chop a lot of cacti out of the shots, because there wouldn’t be that there, but it did give us these amazing skies.
I want to talk more about the Native American aspect of the film, just to see the way that they were being treated to get them to sign the land treaty, and Sitting Bull clearly is exhausted from all the fighting. They’ve been through so much that it’s heart-breaking, and it’s interesting to see them through the eyes of two British filmmakers.
Right, well, he grew up… do you know this story? He had a penpal in North Dakota when he was at school, so he wrote to the kids at Little Eagle School, and they would correspond and send letters when they were 8, 9 years old. It’s a story he’s been interested in for a very long time. You know, I think sometimes there’s something good to come in as an outsider onto a story. I think it took an outsider to make “Paris, Texas” – sometimes you see things from the outside, which is different. I think it’s a terrible, terrible piece of history that these people weren’t allowed to wear the traditional clothing or practice their spiritual practices. The treaties were made and repeatedly broken. They signed a treaty promising them land, and then the Black Hills were taken away from them. Then the settlers came along, and the next thing is, “Well, actually, we want another 9 million acres. You don’t really need them, but you can vote it.” Yet, that wasn’t respected. I think the British are just as culpable. We gave people blanketsinfected with smallpox, which was a terrible kind of genocide we committed. I think it’s a terrible piece of history that hopefully we can reflect and learn from.
As far as getting other Native Americans for the other roles, were there a lot in that area that you could find?
We had some from New Mexico. We brought people in. I spent time in the Dakotas – I tried to get to know as many people. My background is in documentary, so it was very natural for me to try to get to know people in the community. I went to a Sundance ceremony there. I spent quite a lot of time trying to get to know people. I brought in some of the elders from the Dakotas. That scene with the elders, that was a lot of non-actors in that scene.
Did they have specific lines that were translated for them?
Actually, they were proper Lakota speakers, which is a virtually a dead language, so we were reviving it for the movie, which was a big thing. We had this language advisor, Ben Blackbear, who was teaching people to speak Lakota. They’re trying to keep it alive, and they’re asked now to teach kids Lakota, because hardly anybody is speaking it. One of the great things was that when Ben Blackbear saw the film, he was weeping at the end of it. He said that he really was seeing things that they just weren’t taught in schools, and he said, “I hope, as a result of this film, will be taught this piece of history, because it’s just something we don’t learn.” I’m sure we haven’t got it all right, but I hope what it will do is open up debate.
I think the film gets people interested in thinking about stuff that maybe we don’t think about every day but should be, even though it was 120 years ago.
Exactly. I think what Steve did was that he did draw very rounded characters, so Jessica, who has the idea of enlisting Catherine to help or that mixed-race marriage between McLaughlin and Susan, I think some of the minor characters are important to the story, too.
Did you end up building the town or the fort? I feel that some of it has to be built, but I know there are Western towns for rent that can be dressed up.
Well, you know who our [production] designer was? Our designer was this incredible man, Geoffrey Kirkland, who did “Bugsy Malone,” “The Right Stuff,” “Angela’s Ashes”… he goes back a long way, and he’s done some amazing films. He and I used this reference book “Eyewitness at Wounded Knee,” which we used with the costume designer, so we built Sitting Bull’s cabin and that village, and we built Fort Yates, but the town of Cannonball was an existing set that I think that even “Hostiles” might have shot partially there. We did build [the fort] but we couldn’t build on the scale of Cannonball. Again, that was a very moving thing, that we built Sitting Bull’s cabin from that reference photo, and one of the elders who came, he walked in there, and he teared up, because it reminded him so strongly of the cabin that he’d grown up in where he witnessed… all these people have such terrible stories about alcoholism in their families and violence. He remembered his alcohol parents in that place in his childhood. It was very moving at times, making the film, just the stories. I felt so privileged, so lucky to be doing what I was doing, because the stories in that community, there are some appalling ones about how their people suffered… and continue to suffer.
You went from John Le Carré to this. You said you wanted to do a sweeping love story and you did it, so what’s next?
I got an adaptation of George Orwell’s book “Burmese Days” set in Myanmar that a writer I’ve worked with before, Rick Kaufmann, has written. We’re looking for financing for that. I’m not sure. [I think] I’m going to take time and find the right thing next.
How did the premiere go last night?
Oh, it was absolutely wonderful. The film played so well. People were just with it all the way. We got a lot of laughter. Tom Stoppard, who I’d worked with, said to me that he thought getting laughs was the purest form of communication, that people didn’t fake a laugh. People were laughing in all the right places. I really felt we were carrying people with us, and there were a lot of people in tears at the end of the film. It was lovely to have that play in that audience, because we hadn’t tested it anywhere. We just had a few people see it in London, real friends and family, very small.
“Woman Walks Ahead” will open in select cities on Friday June 29th after playing on DirecTV for the past month.
You can follow Edward and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @EDouglasWW