Winter in the Blood filmmaker Alex Smith talks about working with David Morse, adapting Winter in the Blood from a classic novel into a script, and more. It will screen today at 345PM during the Florida Film Festival at the Enzian Theater.
By Jason Jack Underwood
First, tell us what Winter in the Blood is all about and explain the concept of a Cowboy Indian Neo-Noir?
Saying what the film is ‘all about’ is kind of tricky– that’s what we tried to do in making it. But I can say it has a deep search for identity at its core– something that is universal– but the search itself is unique. It’s a lot about what trauma– both personal and historical– can do a person’s psyche– how it can fracture us away from reality and from being present in our own lives– and it’s about providing a possible map of healing towards getting oneself back to right.
But it’s also about a good guy who is having a really tough four days out on the Rocky Mountain front of Montana– and about how he looks for help (and love) in all the wrong places, and encounters some pretty outrageous characters, and ultimately learns to connect with his family and homeland in a brand new way.
As to Cowboy Indian Neo-Noir– well, the main character, (our narrator) Virgil is Native American, but he’s also a contemporary cowboy (of sorts) who lives on a cattle ranch– and he gets embroiled in a smuggling operation with a shady character from the east– and is soon ‘on the lam’ with stolen booty, running away from two strange men in suits, while also getting caught up in a steamy intrigue with a ‘moll’ — a classic sexy barmaid with hidden agenda. Like in the best Chandler or Hammet, our main guy, our intrepid investigator, is always the last to find things out, and is constantly getting slipped a mickey or sucker-punched. But it’s 70’s noir as well– so there is a psychedelic component to things as well.
What is it like making a film based on a book? Were their any difficulties or challenges in staying true to the storyline of the book, while at the same time allowing for some creativity and flexibility while writing the script and developing the film?
Adapting a novel– especially a landmark one that has been in print for 40 years, is published by Penguin Classics, is taught around the world, and especially one that focuses deeply on Native American issues and themes– is quite challenging. It took us (the three writers Andrew Smith, Ken White & I) two years and umpteen drafts to get the script right. This book is famously ‘non-linear’ as well, so there were a lot of narrative shards and slices that we had to shuffle and reshuffle, both in the writing and in the editing, in order to arrive at the right structure. In adapting something like this, you need to be true to the essence of the book, not the ink. Meaning– we had to make it cinematic; had to make the protagonist more ‘active’; had to make the story work as a 3-act film structure; had to collapse characters, settings and scope; had to ‘put a clock on it’; had to up the stakes. But we also had to stay true to the tone, the humor, the heart-break, the big shocks, switchbacks, epiphanies, and catharsis’. To paraphrase Lynne Ramsey, in adaptation you need to first replicate, then destroy, then rebuild. The good news is that the book is still perfect– it’s bulletproof. Our adaptation is just our filmic version.
We understand the writer of the book was a close family friend and that Winter in the Blood is somewhat of a state treasure in Montana. Did that put a lot of pressure on you, the cast and crew to deliver top-notch film?
It added to the challenge, yes. And, as we lost the author, James Welch, to cancer awhile back, we weren’t able to talk to him about our process. But he was a close friend and mentor, so we felt his spirit and support through it all. Our goal was not to have fans of the novel enjoy the film as much as it was to introduce readers to Jim’s work– and to the great bank of Native American literature out there– so many amazing, untold, important stories– to a new audience. We did shoot the film where the book was borne– and where the book was set– so we felt like we were capturing the real landscape and people that anchored and populated the novel. That helped us make it as true and top-notch as possible!
Aside from the Florida Film Festival, what kind of reception has Winter in the Blood received on the festival circuit?
We’ve had a tremendous Festival run so far– we’ve won several awards, including three grand prizes, at festivals all across the US and Canada, and even played in London and Sofia, Bulgaria. We made the film as cinematic– as widescreen 70’s and rock-and-roll as possible– so it’s been great to connect with audiences who can see it on the big screen. People laugh, cry, get lost, get found– and we get a lot of firm handshakes, direct eye contact and very heartfelt ‘thank yous’…
David Morse has to be one of my favorite actors – what was it like to work with him?
David is a dream to work with. He was one of the two main actors (along with Ryan Gosling) in our first film, THE SLAUGHTER RULE, and we were overjoyed when he agreed to play the wild, unpredictable and bigger-than-life Airplane Man in our film. We wrote the character (well, adapted it) with only him in mind. He is a true American Master– both on screen and stage– and a gentleman and scholar to boot. Working with him is, for everyone, a bit of a clinic in acting. I hope he’ll allow us to put him in all our films!
Will anyone from the film be attending the Florida Film Festival screening of Winter in the Blood?
Unfortunately not, although two of our amazing producers, Neil Gobioff and Shawn Panoessa, both of Kitefliers Studios, based near Tampa Bay FL, will be at the awards ceremony. They are doing really interesting, Florida-based work, and we love having them ‘represent’!
Jason Jack Underwood is a professionally trained photographer and filmmaker. You can learn more about him by clicking here.