Earlier this year James Kleinmann caught up with filmmaker Susanna White at the Tribeca Film Festival to talk about her stunning new Western which opens in US cinemas this Friday, 29th June.
Based on real events Woman Walks Ahead stars Jessica Chastain as portrait artist and activist Catherine Weldon who journeys to the Dakotas in the 1880s to paint Lakota leader Sitting Bull’s (Michael Greyeyes) portrait and becomes passionately involved in defending Native American land rights.
James Kleinmann: You’ve studied and worked a lot in America, how would you describe your relationship with the US?
Susanna White: “I find myself coming back a lot. I’ve done so much American television. Obviously I shot this film in New Mexico. My next film is an American film too, it’s just turned out that way. I love the States. I love what UCLA gave me which was coming from cynical Britain where everyone said ‘don’t bother to try to be a filmmaker you’ll never manage it’ to UCLA where people said ‘wow, that’s a great idea, let’s go out and make it happen!’ I just love America for that energy and positivity.”
This is a Western, but an unusual one. What were some of the draws of Steven Knight’s screenplay and making the film generally?
“I’d grown up loving Westerns, loving the world, the landscape. From grey, hemmed in England to see these amazing wide open spaces with big skies. I’m thinking of John Ford films probably here. And I love that world, but it always felt like a world that I didn’t entirely connect with because it was a very male world, where men were men. What I loved about this is that it was a Western told through a female gaze. It was a different kind of Western. It was a Western where it’s really two people without a voice struggling to be heard and it showed us the Lakota people as layered, sophisticated individuals.
“I loved what Steve Knight had done with Sitting Bull. When we meet him in the first scene he’s sophisticated, he’s got a sense of humour and he’s a long way from a ‘noble savage’. He’s a living, breathing, complex individual who we meet at a very difficult point in his life when he’s been repeatedly lied to and let down and he’s disillusioned. Catherine Weldon is this extraordinary force of nature who comes into his world. I loved it on so many levels this script.
“I guess nature’s always been a big thing in my work. I’m married to a farmer and landscape and nature are significant for me. I guess one of the things I wanted to do with the film was create this sense of place and how the land was there before any of us it’ll be there after we’ve passed through it. A big early influence on me was Nicolas Roeg’s film Walkabout and in some ways this is a homage in a little way to that with the way that nature’s alive with all its insects and it’s always bubbling with animal life. The Sioux knew how to live in balance with that, so I think there’s a bigger environmental message to the film as well.”
What about the tone of the film, what were you aiming for? I loved the moment where Catherine drops the portrait of her late husband in the river in New York, which contrasts with her sombre voice over.
“I loved that moment, it was the first scene that grabbed me when I read the script. We rebalanced that quite a lot. Actually the voice over came quite late, but I wanted there to be a humour to it and wanted you to see how feisty she was. I loved that image of the portrait disappearing under the water because it’s a little bit like Jane Campion’s The Piano that it takes us into a subconscious world for Catherine where she’s imagining her late husband disappearing down and drowning there under the water so hopefully it works on a lot of levels.
“I loved Steven Knight’s writing. The script was already written, but I did work on it. It’s a very interesting piece of work from Steve. It was actually the second thing he ever wrote. He wrote it originally for Ed Zwick and developed it around fourteen years ago, a long time ago. I guess maybe it found its moment to be made because at that point it was actually frankly hard to finance a film on an actress and a native American and thank God we’re in different times where we have this bright young financier Erika Olde who wanted to tell female stories so it became possible to finance a film on Jessica Chastain and a little known, wonderful Native American actor in Michael Greyeyes.
“In terms of the script, I worked a bit more of Catherine’s point of view and creating moments of stillness in the story where you felt the power of the land. It had been through a lot of iterations over the years, I asked to see previous drafts and this massive box of scripts arrived at my house because it had been through a lot of versions over the years. That massive budget Hollywood version with the entire Battle of Wounded Knee at the end to this much stiller, more reflective maybe slightly more spiritual version but hopefully still with humour, that the movie ended up in. Hopefully what it’s ended up as is a Western told through a female gaze, that’s the film I tried to make.”
You’ve assembled a fantastic cast led by Jessica Chastain who you mentioned help get the film green-lit. What did she bring to the role of Catherine Weldon?
“When we were talking about who might play her she’s instinctively so right because the real Catherine Weldon was this incredible political activist way ahead of her time. Before women had the vote she was campaigning for the land rights of Native Americans and Jessica of course is so politically vocal and she’s feisty and she takes no prisoners. Not only is she incredibly beautiful, she is a phenomenal screen actress who I knew would bring a lot of layers and I wanted us to see what Catherine had come from.
“There’s not a lot of scenes in the movie now about her past, but she comes from a very abusive marriage. She was living in a time when women weren’t allowed to make decisions for themselves, they had to do what their husbands told them to do or their father told them to do or their brother told them to do. She was so extraordinary, the real Catherine Weldon, in setting out from Brooklyn by train to go to the Dakotas in the 1880s on her own. She was such an extraordinary, brave woman and I wanted to honour her and celebrate her and shine a torch on her and who better to play her than Jessica Chastain. I was so blessed to get her.”
Unlike some period films which can feel a little distant, Woman Walks Ahead felt involving and immediate and I wondered what some of the choices you made were that helped you to achieve this?
“I come from that school of thinking ever since I did Bleak House for the BBC. I just think it’s an accident when your piece of DNA arrives on the planet. We’re the same people whether we happen to be born in the Middle Ages or in 1880 or in 2018 and so I wanted this film to very much be about real people and so how do you arrive at that? Well, you arrive at it by making it real. You have moments of humour and you have moments of emotion.
“I’ve got rules when I do period drama, I hate barrows and barrels and all these markets stalls which seem to appear for the sake of it! I try to thin it out. I didn’t want it to feel like the movie of Oliver! I wanted it to feel like a Terrence Malick film or like a Nick Roeg film that is about thinking, breathing people. So I chose as my DP someone I’ve made documentaries with Mike Eley, who does a lot of handheld work, who’s very reactive who senses emotion, who lets the camera breathe in tune with the actors. Who is like my eyes and ears if you like. He and I are just so in tune with each other that he’d do his own operating, he’d always have the sensitivity to move in when he felt it needed it and so camera-wise we’d move between a breathing reactive camera and then these big wide lenses with moments of stillness where you feel a sense of land and space.
“Also just in terms of technique with the actors, I tried to keep alive and have them as present as I could and sometimes we’d improvise a bit. It was wonderful having Sam Rockwell arrive on set because he’s so anarchic in the best sense of that word. He’d come and he’d just be throwing completely new lines into a scene which sometimes I’d look at poor Ciarán Hinds or Bill camp or other people in the scene and Sam would just be messing with everyone! But what it did was keep it alive and bubbling and oh boy I was so lucky to get Sam for this film! I couldn’t believe my luck.”
Then he got an Oscar this year…
“Yes! And then he got the Oscar! So deserved, it’s so lovely to see him get the recognition. I was so lucky with the cast to get Sam Rockwell and Ciarán Hinds, Michael Greyeyes, Bill Camp and Chaske Spencer. It was a joy.”
Can you tell me a little more about your guiding principles for the overall look of the film, the production design, costumes and cinematography.
“I think one of the really appalling things that happened was not only the physical human genocide against the Lakota people and against the Native America culture in general, which I have to say as Brits we’re equally responsible for; introducing blankets infected with smallpox as a way to wipe people out. It’s appalling this piece of history. But there was a bigger cultural eradication which was that the Sioux people weren’t allowed to wear native dress and they weren’t allowed to practice religious customs. When I started researching it I found these amazing pieces of clothing with beautiful bead work and colours and the picturegram which you see sitting Bull lay out with the story of his life which is based on something he actually painted himself. These things were such beautiful works of art and I worked with costume designer Stephanie Collie from reference photos, so one of the things that makes the film unusual is that you see the Native Americans not in their buckskin and feathers as you normally would in a Western, you see them wearing non-traditional clothes at the start of the movie because that’s what they were forced to do and then as the story moves forward they go back into wearing traditional clothing and there’s a kind of mixture of things which Stephanie got so brilliantly, and did so beautifully. She obviously had a history of working with Steven Knight on Peaky Blinders. She’s a really inspiring woman.
“Similarly with our Production designer Geoffrey Kirkland we drew on a lot of reference photos in the set design, it was so moving. At Sitting Bull’s cabin we had real heavy logs and it was built to the dimensions of the real cabin and we had very moving moments when there were Native Americans who I brought from the Dakotas to come and play the elders in some of the scenes. There was one guy Bob Morina who stepped into Sitting Bull’s cabin and tears ran down his face because it was taking him back to this place where his grandparents had lived that he grew up in so it was a very moving experience making the film in a lot of ways. Restaging the Ghost Dance for instance, which hadn’t been danced for a hundred years it was a very significant spiritual moment for a lot of the people involved and I felt a great sense of responsibility doing that and knew we had to get that right.
“In terms of the cinematography I think one of the choices of going to New Mexico was the incredible skies that you get there and magic would happen. The scene where Catherine’s walking through the graveyard. In the story it says that Catherine is the woman who brings the rain to Fort Yates and as we shot that scene this rain just happened in the sky in the distance behind. People think that’s CGI that shot, but it’s actually just natural light and similarly the final shot where Sitting Bull tells her that he knows he’s going to die, we had this amazing lightning that just happened in the back of Jessica’s shot! Because we were losing light at the end of the day unusually I shot the close-ups first and got this lightening in the back of Jessica’s close-up at the moment he tells her he’s going to die and then we changed lens and we went on to the mid-shot and the lightning happened exactly at the same moment in the scene! It was like goose bumps and Lakota friends were saying that’s the Great Spirit. There was some kind of extraordinary sense of us something bigger than us when we were making the movie.”
George Fenton composed a beautiful score for the film, tell me about your collaboration with him.
“Oh my goodness, I was so lucky to get George Fenton. He was the person I wanted and I showed him an early cut of the film and he just completely got it and loved the sense of the land and had the idea of doing something quite simple. He’s come out of doing a lot of natural history stuff and he really responded to that and the spiritual qualities of the film and it was just a lovely creative process, I’d go round to his house and he’d play me themes. Every time he played me something it was so right. I haven’t got very good musical vocabulary and all I can do is talk about emotion and what I’m trying to achieve in emotional terms. But whenever George played me anything it was always so right. It was like the idea I had but a much better version of it, so it was magic working with George.”
I know when you made Nanny McPhee 2 you had some problems on set with a diva cow that wouldn’t cooperate! Did you have any trouble with any of the horses on Woman Walks Ahead?
“Yes lots and lots of trouble with the horses actually! So Rico is one of the real things in this story. Sitting Bull did have this horse that was given to him by Buffalo Bill that danced when it heard gunshots. We had these two beautiful grey Andalusian horses playing Rico, we had one that was good at dancing and one that was calm around actors. It was amazing because Rico just had to be free and we had to shoot scenes of him just grazing and he was really well-behaved most of the time, but one day he just thought ‘I’m going to take off now” and he just went and galloped, disappeared and you couldn’t see him for dust! They had to go and round him up.
“There’s a very beautiful scene after Jessica’s been beaten up, there’s a moment when she has to decide that she’s going to get back on the horse and she’s going to ride to the McLaughlin dinner and if you look very closely at that scene you’ll see that as Michael Greyeyes as Sitting Bull is stroking Rico and telling him to look after Catherine and actually Rico bites Michael Greyeyes in that moment. Michael just stayed completely in character and lifted Jessica on to the horse and you’d never know he was just bitten.”
You mentioned Jane Campion’s The Piano earlier and I know you like to watch that film before starting on new work yourself, why do you like to revisit it?
“I think it’s a very female film. It was one of the first films I went to see with the man who became my husband and he didn’t get it at all. I said I thought it was one of the best films I’d ever seen and he just did not understand the movie. Jane Campion has a very female sensibility with that film. It’s such a beautiful film visually. It works symbolically on so many levels and it just stays with you in a very deep way and the performances are absolutely outstanding. It’s my touchstone for the best kind of film I’d aspire to make.”
Woman Walks Ahead is released in the US on the 29th of June. Main image photo by Liam Daniel. – © Copyright:2010 Universal Studios.