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

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.

Then in 2007, White, an actor-writer friend of the brothers, house-sat at their mother's place near Missoula. "I couldn't sleep that night and opened a copy of 'Winter in the Blood,' which I had never read," White remembers. "At 5 in the morning, I emailed Alex and Andrew and said, 'Why are you not making this movie?'"

Convincing everyone took awhile, but, says Alex, after years of "getting so close on so many projects that were not getting made, we thought we should go back to how we did it on 'Slaughter Rule' and make something close to our hearts." Not surprisingly, agents and managers said, "'What? You want to do a period drama that's 80% Native American?'" Adds Andrew, "They thought it was suicide."

The Smiths felt a similar sense of determination when it came to deciding where to shoot. "We were told we were crazy not to shoot in Canada, the tax incentives were much greater, and we considered it," admits Andrew. The Smiths had to raise all of the film's budget, talking with friends and family and participating in all manner of grass-roots fund-raising, from readings and concerts to T-shirt sales and a campaign at the online fund-raising site Kickstarter.

But finally, said Alex, "we felt that if we made it here, the community would embrace us in terms of donations, and that has happened. And if we shot where the book is set, truth would meld into fiction into truth, and that is happening as well."

That sense of reality and storytelling coming together is especially strong in such "Winter" locations as the remote ranch outside Chinook, a place where the Milk River winds through classic Big Sky countryside. A once-abandoned farmhouse, beautifully restored to midcentury verisimilitude (including a vintage turquoise General Electric fridge) by production designer David Storm, sits among whispering cottonwood trees. It is the place where "Winter's" protagonist grew up and, say the Smiths, it is eerily similar to the homestead where Welch actually was raised not 40 miles away.

Even by the enthusiastic standards of independent movie sets, the camaraderie on the "Winter" location is remarkable, with gray-haired veteran crew members blending easily with Andrew's University of Montana film students and even younger Native American interns, selected by Seattle's Longhouse Media and supplied with digital cameras to document their experience. The project is so bare-bones that everyone seems to have more than one job: co-writer and co-producer White, for instance, also has a small acting part and is in charge of Montana casting.

To watch scenes being filmed is to feel what the story's protagonist, named Virgil in the script, feels as well, which is the way the past and the present act together in the same moment, informing each other in an unbroken feedback loop. "It's uncanny the layers of time that keep surfacing," is how Alex Smith puts it.

So here's Spencer, hip deep in the here and now fishing in the middle of the Milk River, cinematographer Paula Huidobro right behind him. But a glance across the river lets Virgil see his childhood, lets him watch as two young actors play him and his brother Mose as scrapping kids, before the arrival of Lame Bull, his mother's beau (played by Farmer), brings him back to the present.

For the actors in these scenes, being part of translating a classic of Native American literature onto the screen in a serious, thoughtful way that emphasizes both the universality and particularity of its protagonist's plight means an enormous amount.

Spencer, raised on reservations in Montana and Idaho, is pleased to be able to use his "Twilight" fame to "help projects like this get going." Though his management was not initially enthusiastic, he says, "I put my foot down, I stuck with this project, I fought tooth and nail."

"I'm not getting paid that much; the experience of doing this is the reward," Spencer adds. "There are no special effects, no big-time soundtrack, but it's so layered, there are so many rich emotions. A role like this challenges me. It's why you hustle those tables, why you bartend, why I became an actor. There's no other reason to be in the Milk River up to your chest in sludge."

For Farmer, a three-time Independent Spirit Awards nominee for roles in "Powwow Highway," "Dead Man" and "Smoke Signals," a film like this, based on a celebrated Native American novel with a cast and crew that includes representation from close to 30 tribes, "has been a long time coming."

"For years as an actor, they never let us do the writing," he says. "We had to work twice as hard to socialize the writer to Native American realities. This for me as a career actor is the culmination of that. To witness this after a 38-year career is just magic."

Perhaps what makes "Winter in the Blood," which the brothers hope to debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January, most special for the people working on it is what Alex Smith calls "the layers of ghosts not haunting but inspiring and empowering us. There is Jim Welch; this is his world, we're just translating it. There's our father, who we lost very young. He was a lover of literature, a lover of film, and his passion and integrity is resonant. And one of our best friends, Johnnie Johnson, who was going to be our production designer, died of pancreatic cancer days before filming began.

"The book is so much about how you stay connected to those you lose without getting trapped in the trauma of loss," he says. "You use those you lost to make your own life more valid. You use their life force to help you move on. There are ghosts here every day."

"Not ghosts," adds Andrew Smith, taking the thought a step further. "Presiding angels."

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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