Based on a true story, Susanne White’s Woman Walks Ahead follows the independent-minded woman who set out to paint the portrait of Sitting Bull, one of the most famous and most important Native American tribe leaders. Famously opposed to the government policies of the United States, Sitting Bull was largely despised by the white settlers, and his unusual friendship with the painter was heavily criticised. The film portrays this meeting of two people fighting their own battles, but supportive of each other’s efforts towards freedom.
British screenwriter Steven Knight, most famous for writing/directing Locke and creating the show Peaky Blinders, tells us about his fascination with Sitting Bull, the genesis of the project, and the film’s 15-year journey from page to screen.
Elena Lazic (EL): What was the origin of this project?
Steven Knight (SK): When I was a kid, I became really obsessed with Native American history. At the age of nine or ten, I started to buy books from America about Native Americans. Then at the age of 12, I read in ‘Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee’ that in 1890, a school had been built in a place called Little Eagle. I wrote a letter to that school about how I’d love to write to pen pals there, and I got lots of letters back from kids my age! Two or three of those people were great, great grandchildren of Sitting Bull.
In the same book, there was a brief passage about Caroline Weldon, who went to the reservation just before Sitting Bull was shot. I had the idea for the screenplay around 2002, and I wrote it then. In the fashion of Hollywood, where things disappear then sometimes come back, it got picked up by Jessica Chastain some 15 years after I wrote it. It was always something that was very dear to my heart. I love the response from the Native American community; it won the Red Nation award, which is voted by Native American viewers. This award means more to me than any other award I’ve ever had.
EL: How did you manage to satisfy the demands of Hollywood cinema, all the while keeping an eye to historical accuracy and period detail?
SK: I never try to balance with the expectations of Hollywood, because they change every six or seven weeks! I try as much as possible to take real events and to make them digestible as a 90 minute story but at the same time do justice to the people. The story that I really wanted to tell was the story of Sitting Bull, the end of an incredible civilization, the way that it was destroyed at Wounded Knee. I wanted to do justice to that via the prism of Caroline Weldon.
It just was so thrilling to me that the Native American community responded to it so well that now, subsequent to it, we are now working with various people from the Lakota nation on a TV series about similar issues.
EL: Woman Walks Ahead could be described as a revisionist western. You’ve written films that happen to fall into so many different genres, do you think about such categories when you write your scripts?
SK: I try as much as possible to just sit down and write whatever comes. It really bothers me that, for some reason, the film industry in particular attracts a lot of rules and regulations. One of them is that whatever you do has to be definable, and has to be defined by the genre it’s in. The events of someone’s life are not ever going to fall into a genre. This is a story that happens to take place at the end of the frontier of the West, so you would call it a Western, but it’s sort of not a Western. It’s a lot of other things as well.
EL: You mentioned that it was Jessica Chastain who picked up the screenplay and basically made the film happen. What was the process from having a screenplay written 15 years ago, to making a film of it?
SK: I’ve been working in Hollywood for a long time, but I still don’t fully understand how the system works and how scripts reach people! It’s a bit like fishing, where you cast out and you leave it, then you wait… And then, mysteriously, you’ll get a phone call saying “guess what, this person read the script and they want to do it.” With Jessica and Susanna White, it was thrilling. And I think the fact that it was about a woman who did such a bold thing at a time when it wasn’t acceptable appealed to them both.
EL: The performance from Michael Greyeyes, who plays Sitting Bull, is incredible. It must be an exciting but daunting task to write lines for such an important and iconic figure. But it must also be strange to write about Sitting Bull as a man, when he has reached an almost mythical status. How did you approach that?
SK: As ever, in stories about real-life events and people, you do research into what happened. And what really happened is usually so bizarre and outrageous that you don’t dare actually writing that. You have to tone it down. But Sitting Bull was an incredible human being. He was a warrior, and in order to become the chief of that tribe, he had to be the bravest and most fierce. He killed a lot of people. He was put in prison for a year and a half, and when he came out, he went on the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show. He would recite Plato and Greek poetry. He was obviously an intensely intelligent person. He would get paid and give his money to kids in cities like New York and Chicago who had no money.
There’s also this story about how Buffalo Bill gave him a horse that was trained in the circus to dance when it heard a gunshot. When Sitting Bull was shot and killed, his horse danced, and a lot of people saw that as a sign that the Ghost Dance was true — that’s why they ran away to Wounded Knee, where they were murdered. So many things that you wouldn’t dare invent were true. So what you can do is put it out there.
EL: I guess that when it comes to Sitting Bull, there might not be much difference between myth and reality.
SK: Totally. Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse are martyrs and the equivalent of saints and prophets among Lakota people. Having the responsibility of depicting that is a big one; to then have that depiction approved of is better than anything. It’s the best award you can get.
Woman Walks Ahead will show as part of our Discover Tuesdays screening on Tue 26 Feb.
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