How Susanna White Reinvented the Western for 'Woman Walks Ahead'
Susanna White's Western turns the white male-centric genre on its head with a female and a Native-American lead.
In the 1880s, an artist named Catherine Weldon defied convention. She left a comfortable life in Brooklyn to travel alone to North Dakota, where she would paint a portrait of Chief Sitting Bull and help advocate for his people in one of the most contentious—and, ultimately, bloodiest—treaty disputes in U.S. history.
Michael Greyeyes portrays the leader of the Hunkpapa Lakota tribe in Susanna White's film, Woman Walks Ahead, based on these true events. In the film, Weldon, played by a fierce Jessica Chastain, arrives at Standing Rock to the chagrin of a U.S. Army officer (Sam Rockwell) who is intent on expropriating the Native American territory on behalf of the government. Weldon, in open defiance of the army, kindles a deep friendship with Sitting Bull. She acts as his secretary, interpreter, and advocate as he fights the Dawes Act, which abolished the rights of Native Americans in order to assimilate them into American society and hand over the land to white settlers.
Cinematographer Mike Eley captures the sweeping vistas of the Great Plains with reverence for the land and a mournful quality that foretells of impending tragedy. Near the end of the film, White revives the hundred-year-old tradition of the Ghost Dance, a plea for peace and unity that was performed across the Indian Reservations of the West in 1890 just before the massacre at Wounded Knee.
No Film School caught up with White after her film screened at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival to discuss how she approached portraying Native American culture, her dedication to filming almost exclusively at magic hour, how the Dakota Access Pipeline protests at Standing Rock impacted her production, and more.
No Film School: This is a very important story that I had no idea existed. How did you first find out about it?
Susanna White: I don't think any of us knew about it, really. It was just a footnote in the history books. What happened was that the screenwriter Steven Knight found the story about 17 years ago. He wrote the screenplay originally and didn't get it made. Then, about three years ago, I changed agents and I said to my agent, "I'm looking for an epic film—the kind of- maybe people don't make anymore, like The English Patient." And she said, "Well, I've got this Steven Knight script."
I read it and completely fell in love with it on a lot of levels. I grew up loving Westerns. I grew up in England—in a small country with gray skies and lots of buildings hemming you in. To see those landscapes and big skies was really exciting to me. But there was a level [on which] I didn't connect to Westerns: they are a male, testosterone-fueled world. What made this script remarkable to me was it was such a strong female story. Catherine Wells is our eyes and ears into that world. She set out on her journey 30 years before women had the vote in America. She was incredibly brave.
Also, the script had such a rounded characterization of Sitting Bull that was very different from any Western I've seen before. He's sophisticated. He's funny. He's spiritual. He's very layered. So there were a lot of reasons for me to fall in love with the script. I worked on it more with Steve, we managed to attach Jessica Chastain, and then the rest is history.
"There was a level [on which] I didn't connect to Westerns: they are a male, testosterone-fueled world. What made this script remarkable to me was it was such a strong female story."
NFS: When you worked with Steve on the screenplay, which elements of the story did you focus on?
White: Well, I came to very strongly identify with Catherine Weldon, and I wanted a sense of what it would be like to be a woman at that time. You aren't your own master; you're very completely dictated to by what your father wanted, or what your husband wanted, or what your brother wanted. Women just didn't have freedom to be themselves. And what [Catherine] finds with Sitting Bull is a freedom that comes from being with a person who completely gets you as an individual. It's a meeting of minds. He says to her, "Live more." And she says, "That's all I want to do." He gives her the space to be herself, which is what I think what the real Catherine found living on the reservation. So I wanted Catherine's voice as a character to be strong.
The other big thing that mattered to me was the sense of the land. This is a very ancient side of America—the land was there before any of us, and it'll be there after we die. I wanted to create a very strong sense of place and its ancient culture before modern America. I went down to a Hopi ceremony many years ago through a filmmaker I met at Sundance. I was so struck by this sense of a very ancient, spiritual culture. I wanted to give a very strong sense of nature in the film.
NFS: You were able to manifest these ideas of the vastness of the land and spirituality of nature in the cinematography. How did you talk to your DP about communicating them?
White: Mike Eley is someone I've worked with for over 20 years. We started out making documentaries together. I knew he was absolutely the right person to shoot the movie because of his amazing sense of composition and his use of natural light. We agreed we'd shoot a lot of the film on very wide lenses so that you'd capture these big skies and see human beings as very small in the big scheme of things.
"There are a lot of shots in the film that people think are CGI. They are actually just what happened naturally."
New Mexico gave us this incredible light every morning and every evening. You'd get these amazing sunrises and sunsets. And we'd get thunderstorms... there are a lot of shots in the film that people think are CGI. They are actually just what happened naturally. In the scene where Catherine is standing in the cemetery, and you see rain coming from the clouds in the back of the shot, and we see the streaks of rain—that just happened naturally when we were shooting the film.
Generally, Mike and I tried to get the best light at the end of the day or beginning of the day, and then we'd try and go into interior sets on either side of that so that we could get as much magic hour as we could.
White: When we were shooting the scene where Sitting Bull tells Catherine that he's going to die, when they're on the horses, we started shooting her coverage and there was lightning in the back of the shot. We changed lenses and went to close up, and then again to the mid-shot, and the lightning happened at exactly the same place in the frame. The Natives Americans who were working with us said that there was a much bigger spiritual thing going on. It was quite extraordinary, the things that happened.
Mike and I just had to make ourselves open to that we could see these things. The actors were fantastic; they could've panicked. Often, I would wait to shoot a scene until close to the end of the day, when we didn't have a lot of time.
NFS: How did you work with the Native American community, either in the research process or in the production process, to get inside the world and honor it appropriately?
White: This was very important to me. I felt this huge sense of responsibility in taking on this subject matter. One thing that was important to me was that we enter [the Native American community] through Catherine's eyes and ears—an outsider. I felt enough like an outsider, like Catherine, going in to tell that story.
I worked with someone called Yvonne Russo who is Lakota Indian from the Rosebud Reservation. I camped out on the Rosebud Reservation. I was welcomed into witnessing a Sundance ceremony. That was a great privilege and an amazing experience.
"I employed as many Native Americans as I could—not just in the cast, but also in the crew."
We spent time with the tribal elders. I talked with them a lot about Sitting Bull, and the first thing everybody said to me was what an important spiritual leader he was, above all else. So that became very important to me in casting Michael Greyeyes. I had to find someone who had strength and gentleness and a sense of spirituality about him.
When I was at Rosebud, I encountered a young man called Willy White, who I took on as my assistant. He'd been at the Sundance Lab and he wanted to be a filmmaker. I'd learn things about the community from him. Also, I employed as many Native Americans as I could—not just in the cast, but also in the crew.
Stephanie Collie, the costume designer and I did a lot of research on traditional clothing. She found beautiful beadwork and clothing. We wanted to celebrate how beautiful that beadwork was, and we found people with those traditional skills here, who made Sitting Bull's war shirt.
White: Stephanie recreated the ghost dance shirt which hadn't been made for over a hundred years. We physically recreated the ghost dance. We took a lot of advice from the tribal elders about whether that the right thing to do, because it was a deeply significant spiritual dance for them. There was some debate as to whether it was appropriate for us to do it and then finally they decided it was so important to tell their story, so we should stage it. We got Rulan Tangen and Michael Greyeyes to do the choreography and we treated it with utter respect. It was a very moving night, the night we shot the ghost dance, because for that community it was a protest dance that hadn't been danced for a hundred years. So it was a very humbling experience. I hope it will lead to debate in terms of people thinking about the spiritual lands now and about the Dakota Pipeline.
When we created our Fort Yates Standing Rock [set] in New Mexico, the Dakota Pipeline protests were going on at the real Standing Rock. Members of our crew would set off on days off and drive to Standing Rock and take food and take supplies to the protesters. It seemed very timely in the making of this film.
"It's no accident this film got made at this time. In the past, it was very hard to finance a film on a woman and a Native American character."
It's no accident this film got made at this time. In the past, it was very hard to finance a film on a woman and a Native American character. And thank goodness times have changed and people want to hear these stories. There are financiers like Erika Olde, who put up the money for the movie, who want to tell female stories. I think this is a film that couldn't have been made a few years ago. Now, it's become possible to tell this type of Western story through the female gaze.
I think there's a strong contemporary message in the film. The Lakota people traditionally lived in harmony with nature. They knew just how much to take from it; they didn't exploit or deplete it. I think that with the environmental crisis we find ourselves in today, there's a lot we can learn from that.
NFS: On that note, as an independent film, you probably had to make some concessions in terms of building out the period piece elements. How did you figure out what was important for you to include? How did you make the most of your resources?
White: I think in all the budgetary restraints, the thing I felt I had to protect more than anything was time for rehearsal to achieve performance.
We shot the film very fast—in 31 days. I made some creative choices of necessity. Like I said earlier, I wanted to create this sense of landscape. Often, I'd just go get these empty shots to create a sense of place and tell a story, maybe through the horse's hooves crossing the grass, or a petroglyphic on a rock.
I used a bit of CGI to replicate the cavalry. I couldn't afford as many calvaries as we saw [in the film], so I did replication to build up more soldiers and than we had there in reality.
I put resources into what was very important to me. We knew we could go into the town for one day, so I planned out the scenes as thoroughly as I could that would take place in the town. Originally, there'd been some big New York set pieces, which we had to lose. Somebody else might've done bigger set pieces, but I just tried to tell the story and make it land through symbolism, landscape, and hopefully strong performances.
I know some other people who have been attached to the film in the past have wanted to do the whole staging of Wounded Knee—the shootout of Wounded Knee—after the death of Sitting Bull. It was partly a budgetary thing [that we didn't do it], but was most importantly an emotional thing. I felt the emotional heart of the film was the death of Sitting Bull, and I thought it would be very, very potent to tell the ending of the story with real photographs. You would see the mass graves and the bodies in the snow; the people who'd really died. I wanted it to would sink into people that this was actually something that really happened. So in this instance, economy had emotional impact.
For more, see our complete coverage of the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.