HOT SPRINGS – Local film-maker Wendee Pettis, owner of Uptown Hair and Nails salon, had a hand in a new, full-length feature film, entitled “Lakota Girls,” coming to the Black Hills Film Festival, held in Rapid City, Wednesday, May 4 through Saturday, May 7.
“It’s not my film, it’s Molli Cameron’s,” said Pettis, who has made three films of her own during the last couple years.
Pettis’s films include: “Hikethemovie” (2014), “Walter’s Return” (2014) and a new film, “The Grace of Aspen,” coming out in the fall of 2016.
Pettis said that after she was done with “Hikethemovie,” she had about a month’s time to help with “Lakota Girls.”
Officially, Pettis’s role in the movie was as its line producer – essentially serving as a manager during the daily operations of producing the film, involved in human resources and handling problems that arise during film production. Pettis worked as a location and talent scout. She also was part of the production team on-set in Rapid City and at Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park.
Unofficially, Pettis –because of her own film experience – served as a mentor for Cameron, who was working her way through her first film, her first effort as a film-maker.
Pettis described the process of gently helping Cameron discover her own trail through the film-making process as part of the joy of bringing an idea into the reality of a feature film.
“I helped her ease into her role as a film maker,” Pettis said, describing the good camera, a Canon C-100 with a Ninja blade memory and monitor, the first-time film-maker had, how the crews were just “amazing” helping to haul around cameras, sound equipment and other film gear.
She recalled how during Cameron’s transformation from a neophyte to a film-maker she learned Pettis’s bag technique – to bring everything from period china services, to a stapler (to drape clothing properly), to band aids to the filming, so what was needed could be ready for use.
“By the end of the session, Molli was using bags, too,” Pettis said.
Using a crew of five people, rather than the hundreds involved in making Hollywood movies, presented a challenge; but one that was overcome, because Pettis lauded the crew, too.
Cameron, Pettis said, had the basic story of “Lakota Girls” – a true-life story from her own family -- inside herself for a long time and simply had to make it real.
“Lakota Girls” is a historical drama, Pettis said, a good story about a multi-racial family, a family that broke some taboos.
The basic story begins with Mato Win, an 8-year-old Native American girl who lives on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. When her parents are in an accident, she is sent to live with a white family on a horse ranch in the Black Hills.
There, she meets Clara, an 8-year-old white girl, and her family.
Mato Win worries that she will be permanently separated from her parents, and she doesn’t trust Clara’s older brother, Cavan.
Determined to get back to the reservation, she runs away to the hills, but is found.
When Mato Win questions Clara about an old photo of two Indian men in her home, Clara tells her the story of her great-great grandmother, Emylon, a white woman, who rode the train from Indiana to teach at Pine Ridge, 100 years earlier, and how she met a native man in the trading post there.
Without giving the whole plot away, suddenly, the girls discover they have more in common than they knew….
The screenplay for the movie was written by Cameron, and sparked in part by a decade of historical research she did. This included discovering that her own great-grandmother came to South Dakota from Indiana, and taught school at the turn of the 20th century. An old photograph shows her great grandmother riding her horse to school with a shotgun on her arm for rattlesnakes.
The movie was produced and directed by Cameron and her husband, Russell – an inventor and innovator, according to Pettis, who could see almost any type of gear and fabricate it to reduce costs.
Last April an open casting call, something Pettis also helped with, produced 16 regional native actors for the film, who were joined by several Indiana actresses to complete the cast. This was intentional on Cameron’s part, because she wanted the reality of location in the movie.
Pettis praised the actors involved, and talked about the last scene in the film, how the actress was a real professional and knew her lines so well.
The majority of the film was shot regionally, too, with some filming in Indiana.
Pettis said she helped Cameron to find the Buffalo Gap house used in the filming, the Glen Erin school house in Custer State Park, Sylvan Lake, Prairie Edge and some locations in Pine Ridge as settings for the movie.
“It will be a beautiful film with the locations,” Pettis said
Filming wrapped up last August, and final edits on the film are being completed now.
“The whole family worked very hard on this,” said Pettis. “When it’s shown on the big screen it should be a great movie. I can’t wait to see the edited version. But the story is what is important, it’s amazing .… Molli knew what she wanted, and she got it right, very meaningful.”
Pettis, a Kennebec native, has been involved in the arts, getting people to perform in plays since she was 4 years old. She studied Vocal Music and Piano at Black HIlls State University, and performed on stage in the theatre department there and at the Matthews Opera House in Spearfish.
A professional make-up artist, she has used her skills on QVC, national television commercials, in theatre and for rock bands, including Aerosmith.
Returning to acting, she has been in local and regional commercials, and in 2013, opened Babydoefilms, a film company, where she writes, directs and produces her own independent movies.
“It’s what I always wanted to do,” she said.
Pettis is currently working on a “baby” documentary film about a bridge and how it links things, a dichotomy, as, for example, bicyclists travel over it and cattle move under it – the worlds of past and present joined by a bridge. She also has an interest in a story about two young boys.
For more information about “Lakota Girls,” visit http://lakotagirlsmovie.com