When Scottish film director Steven Lewis Simpson agreed to turn Kent Nerburn’s best-selling novel “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” into a movie — he needed two things — the right location and the right star.
He found both in Western South Dakota — most notably Chief Dave Bald Eagle, a 95-year-old Lakota elder.
“I very much knew what I was looking for,” Simpson said in a telephone interview.
He needed the right man to play the role of Dan, the Native American elder who seeks out a white teacher to write his oral history before he dies.
“I had met a lot of elders with these qualities (that Dan had), but most had died out. I had been searching up and down and in Canada. Then someone mentioned Dave. He was 93 when we met, and 95 when we filmed,”Simpson said.
“He is simply the only person that could have played it. Dave was all that I ever imagined for it,” Simpson said.
“It was a phenomenal thing. Remarkable. Dave had been in some movies, worked as a stunt man and had some small roles, but this by far was his first major role, and to do it at 95 … He truly was a fearless man. He jumped in and took it on and put his spirit on the screen.
“He jumped into people’s hearts.”
In many ways Dan became Chief Bald Eagle.
Bald Eagle was born in 1919 in a Cherry Creek tipi.
At the age of 10, he participated in Deadwood’s Days of '76 Parade. He would continue that tradition for 77 years — deciding in 2013 to retire.
Lesser known about Bald Eagle was a distinguished heritage and career. He was the grandson of Chief White Bull, who was the cousin of Sitting Bull, and White Feather. Both men fought in the Battle of Little Big Horn.
Bald Eagle served in the horse cavalry at Fort Meade in 1939. And he was severely injured when he parachuted into Normandy with the 82nd Airborne during D-Day.
When he recovered, he returned to South Dakota and joined Casey Tibbs on the rodeo circuit. He also drove race cars, danced with Marilyn Monroe, and appeared in more than 30 movies. He married a Belgian actress and became “the chief of chiefs.”
Bald Eagle died on July 22, 2016. He was 97.
“Neither Wild Nor Dog” was filmed in 18 days by a two person production crew.
Christopher Sweeney, a Marine who received a Silver Star from the Gulf War, played the part of Kent Nerburn and Bald Eagle developed a special bond that is evident in the big screen, Simpson said.
The film hit theaters in early 2017.
“It’s been in theaters longer than any other film this year,” Simpson said. “We are already booking into next year.”
To date it’s played in more than 100 theaters — mostly in the west. In Vancouver, WA, the film grossed more than every Hollywood blockbuster in town, other than “Wonder Woman,” Simpson said, it was one of two best performing films of the year at the theater.
Ironically, Simpson is struggling to get the film in big chain first-run theaters because he is an independent distributor. He said AMC, which owns Rapid City's first-run cinemas, “have an unworkable deal for independent distributors.”
Because of that, he said it is likely Spearfish’s Northern Hills Cinema will be the only theater in the Black Hills which will show the movie. Northern Hills Cinema opened the movie on Nov. 10 and it is scheduled to run through Thursday, Nov. 16.
“ ‘Neither Wolf Nor Dog' is a small film production-wise, but what it does have is heart — you can’t buy that with a budget,” Simpson said. “The audience is coming away being touched and moved, and having a real emotional journey.
“It’s gotten to the point with cinema where not so many films are touching people. Now it’s all about noise, action and tension. We need to be touched by films again,” Simpson said.
“Neither Wolf Nor Dog” does that.
“There is a phenomenal level of emotion, something that creates a shift or feeling that you go out that next day with a new perspective,” Simpson said.
When Simpson sits in the theater, he focuses on the audience. They laugh out loud at wry humor.
“And there are parts where you can hear a pin drop except for the sniffling. I never thought it would be so satisfying to hear a room full of people cry, but it is,” Simpson said.
Bald Eagle was able to see a private preview of the film before he died.
“He said to us afterward that it was the only film that he had seen about his people that told the truth,” Simpson recalled.
“A large part of that was because he was given a lot of control over the key movements of the film.”
At the climax Dan talks about Wounded Knee. But the words and the story are 100 percent Bald Eagle’s.
“I threw away the novel and the script. He had a closer connection than the character he played,” Simpson said.
And when Bald Eagle finished, he told Simpson:
“I’ve been holding that in for 95 years.”