I'M ON WHAT MUST be the blandest highway in America, cutting towards Havre on a journey that is nothing but sky and cows resting in their own shadows. Out here every mile is like barreling towards the end of the world without the superfluous hope that it can be reached. Canada is ahead. The Missouri River is just an idea off to the periphery. Behind me, I don’t know.
I’m moving towards Havre to write a fragmented piece that will probably not be printed by a paper that has me out here on spec to cover the filming of Winter in the Blood. So far I haven’t decided what I’m going to write about or if there is anything out here to write about that hasn’t already been written about better.
Somewhere around Great Falls I make a wrong turn and after that a series of wrong turns and then I’m back on the right road somehow. This is how backcountry Montana behaves; you get so lost that eventually you discover yourself once again on the correct route. Mid-afternoon throws weird colors at the horizon.
I drive for what seems like five hours, which is precisely how long I have been driving. That’s another thing about Montana, time flows strangely as it should.
Really, I don’t know what I’m doing here.
I remind myself that I want this story to be true.
Today is my birthday.
And two clouds curl at the edges of the sun like parentheses.
Havre unfurls on a hill — just a dung-colored row of buildings, a Walmart, and more sky.
When I arrive at the hotel, Patrick Cook retrieves me in a ramshackle pickup truck that sounds like a form of exasperation.
“How’s the hotel?” he asks.
“Nice,” I say. “Its charming.”
“Sarcasm?” he asks.
“No. It’s nice and charming,” I say.
Patrick is a film student at the University of Montana and my guide for the next three days. Besides being involved in casting and serving as the directors’ assistant, he is also one of the associate producers of Winter in the Blood.
Downtown Havre is an empty bland street blowing dust and the foreshadowing breeze of tomorrow’s rainfall. We drive through the deserted streets and illegally park outside the Masonic Temple Building, where the production offices of Ranchwater Films are temporarily located. The building is an anachronistic slab seemingly constructed as an optimistic afterthought to the industrial themes of the city. It’s the only building around whose facade has some desire for aesthetic magnitude, Art Nouveau trellises and all.
We spend five minutes flicking light switches in the black archway. None work, so I clasp the oak balustrade as Patrick lights the way up with his cellphone. At the head of the staircase I can feel a carving in the smooth wood that feels like a lion or just a gauge someone crafted with an unwieldy piano.
Patrick points out a half dozen frosted glass doors on the second floor.
“The command center,” he says, gesturing at the printed out signs displaying the whereabouts of casting, production and the rest. This is where the money is raised, where the money is spent, and where the money that has been raised and spent is accounted for.
I am led into a cubicle-sized office filled with cinematic paraphernalia including themed postcards ready to be mailed, first-edition copies of James Welch’s books, and a rack of DVDs recommended by the directors. Most are indie features and foreign flicks, bookended by Smoke Signals and Wild Strawberries.
“That sounds right,” I think, or say.
“Huh?” Patrick asks. He searches drawers and shelves for something he’s misplaced. “Oh,” he says. “That’s right. The script.”
We leave the building and hop back into Patrick’s pickup.
The back roads fringing Havre are unlit, flat, and desolate, veering suddenly to dead end streets made of forests or squat houses.
“I should probably rehearse,” Patrick tells me.
I must be looking at him incredulously, because he goes on, “I’m in this, too. I’m doing so much I don’t know what I’m doing anymore.”
He drops me at the hotel.
“Oh, happy birthday,” he says and careens off.
Behind the hotel the crew is having a barbecue and their subdued voices drift over across the dark parking lot. Out front an awkward drug deal is transpiring between two construction workers. One of them eyes me distrustfully.
“I can get the stuff,” the oblivious one says.
“What stuff?” the other says, gesturing his head at me.
“The stuff, man. What the fuck do you mean ‘what stuff?’ We’re talking about the stuff, aren’t we?”
“Well,” the second man says, watching me. “I don’t know about this stuff.”
When I step out of the obnoxious heat, the air is drenched in the perfume of chlorine.
My first day on the set of Winter in the Blood is in Chinook, a vintage town midway between Havre and Harlem on the grand epic Highway 2. The sky is the severest blue, glinting off the spray-painted train cars of the Great Northern Line. In the summer, the temperature often reaches 100 degrees and no one likes to discuss the winters here. Resembling a village that could define lonely, quaint, and shady all at once, the town seems to have been erected specifically to influence an Edward Hopper imitator.
Indiana Street — the main thoroughfare of shops and bars and closed bars — is blockaded for filming.
Men wheeling dollies stacked with expensive equipment hustle back and forth across the intersection, and spotless vehicles from the fifties and sixties line the treeless streets. Sections of Chinook have been relocated in time and it says a lot about the town that very little has actually been altered.
Directing unobtrusively, the Smith twins are bowed in thought, wandering around the pale buildings of Chinook. The actors loiter in their ostentatious wardrobes, perspiration ebbing along the collars of their polyester costumes, flinging one-liners at each other or silently mouthing their lines, acting even when they’re not acting. David Morse is ambling around in fresh cowboy boots and Chaske Spencer — starring as Virgil First Raise — is wearing a blood-streaked western shirt and weathered jeans and spins himself in circles to add credibility to his character’s ubiquitous drunkenness. Dana Wheeler-Nicholson chats with a young co-star in the shade, while co-screenwriter and actor Ken White, dressed in a silver suit that looks like the apparel of a postmodern Tin Man, sits beside David Cale on a vast bench beneath a partly lit neon cowgirl sign.
“It is very hot in here,” Cale says of his mint green suit.
“It’s like a humid dream,” White says in his pristine, made-for-audiobook-recording voice. “And,” he says to me, “you can use that line in your piece.”
Nearby, Andrew and Alex Smith are staring at the ground in unison, speaking low, nodding, pacing, nodding. Andrew wipes his tortoiseshell glasses on his shirt. Finally, they raise their heads and the next scene is primed. First, there is the chase scene, then the climax of the chase scene behind the liquor store, and at last the scene out front of the Grand Hotel.
Interns from Longhouse Media are handing out watermelons in enormous plastic bowls while the crew assembles and disassembles screens and cameras, whizzing them from one part of the street to the other.
Andrew says apprehensively, “Things are going a little too smoothly today.”
During the finale of the chase scene Ken White disappears through a trapdoor in the ground.
“Is the suit okay?” someone asks him.
He dusts spots of dirt off his shoulders.
“The suit is fine,” he says.
The few locals who appear in this blanket of heat are either umbrellaed under the bank’s awning or duck timidly out of the brownstone Mint Bar. One guy in a dirty v-neck t-shirt and a two day’s scruff keeps poking his head out of the entrance.
“That’s why you make the big money,” he repeats to anyone in earshot. Maybe because filming has been ongoing since late July, the citizens are curiously uncurious. Every 45 minutes, a train blares by, silencing the moviemaking. Everyone stops what he or she is doing and glares in the direction of the train.
I am reminded again of the fact that this film adaptation of Winter in the Blood is not Hollywood. It is a collection of communities making a film in tandem, an impromptu collective of poets, Broadway actors, Welch enthusiasts, a layering of ideas and eccentric towns, more an applied theory of psycho-geography than simply on-location filmmaking.
Winter in the Blood is a region.
A long friendship.
A story, the story of its telling, and the act of telling a story.
Winter in the Blood is an event.
All day, a creepy antique teddy bear has been passed around for various scenes. Grease-stained and the color of dried mustard, the animal has become a mascot.
“Where’d that fucking bear come from?” a gaffer whispers.
“I don’t know,” Alex Smith replies.
“It’s a hell of a bear,” someone says.
Alex turns the bear over in his hands and says, “It is strangely disturbing.”
I am introduced to Lois Welch, James’s widow. She’s a tall, witty woman drinking a mocha in a sun hat.
“James always said to me,” Lois says, “that he never learned how to spit. When you go over a bridge you’re supposed to spit over the side. But he never could spit right and it bothered him. He used to tell that as though it were a proverb.”
“Maybe it was,” I say.
“Maybe,” she says, “but I really don’t think so.”
I step into the middle of the hot street as shooting begins, listening to the charged quietude of dozens of determined crew remaining frozen while the cameras are focused. It’s in this vigorous half-silence of actors preparing that filmmaking becomes something explosive.
“Martini is up,” someone yells out.
“What’s that mean?” I ask a grip.
“Martini hour. The last, best light of the day.”
“Picture is up!”
The Airplane Man is brought out of the chintzy Grand Hotel by two policeman (the officer who looks less like a cop is actually a cop), and crammed into a waiting patrol car as Virgil looks on. After a brief exchange with Malvina and her son, the car throttles away to the murmurings and finger-pointing of a group of extras. From the backseat, the Airplane Man screams epithets in a choked voice, and the extras disperse in ballet-like synchrony.
Then Alex or Andrew shouts, “Cut.”
This is labeled scene 78 in the daily schedule.
“In terms of spectacle,” Patrick Cook told me, “this is definitely the day to be here.”
Scene 78 is only one of the reasons why I’m here.
For all of its pertinence to readers regardless of ethnicity, James Welch’s Winter in the Blood is intrinsically an Indian tale suffused with the universal motifs of suffering, wandering, drinking, sex, and inevitable homecoming. For Welch, narrative begins with the fallen and the seedy and culminates with the transcendent.
Born in Browning, Montana in 1940, James Welch grew up on the Blackfeet and Fort Belknap Reservation. Like some of his narrators, he was a mix of white and native, balancing on the cultural consciousness of both for his fiction.
After attending the University of Minnesota and Northern Montana College, he arrived at the University of Montana in 1963, where he received his B.A. On Sundays, Lois Welch tells me, Welch and Richard Hugo (his teacher at the time) “watched ballgames on TV after Jim mowed his lawn.” He would receive honorary doctorates from various institutions, but, Lois adds, “the French knighthood was mainly amusing.”
The Welches always had close ties to the Smith twins and to their poet mother, Annick, and father, Dave. “Jim and I got together at an Opening Day Fishing Season party at the Smith’s place in the spring of 1967,” Lois says.
“Jim’s influence on our sensibilities is larger than I originally assumed,” Andrew says. “He really liked movies and thought about them a lot…I know he liked westerns.”
Lois says, “The number of Indians trying out for parts was my first clue to the magnitude of this project. It’s been hugely heartwarming. Of course, my hope is that the twins will have produced the greatest movie ever made.”
Welch wrote the second and final draft of Winter in the Blood while he and Lois were staying in Greece.
Lois: “We lived in a village just south of Athens. He wrote every day from December 1972 to the end of January. His habits: he wrote every evening at a table with a lamp, a borrowed manual typewriter, a pile of paper and the old draft of his novel … Jim wrote the novel, in part, to remember what it was like to live on the Hi-Line … He dipped deep into his memories of living around the Fort Belknap reservation and going into Havre and Malta … Jim was a total believer in the power of storytelling, but most people will tell you what a good listener he was.
“Jim was asked to give one reading in Athens, one in Yugoslavia, and one in Germany on the way back home … Since Greece was a dictatorship at the time, the people at PEN in New York were eager to hear news of writers when we applied for an emergency grant. There were anti-government protests one week, and we had to run to a side street to get away from the tanks headed toward the university.”
“Peanut butter,” she says, “was hard to come by.”
I ask about Welch’s eccentricities.
“His eccentricities?” she replies. “A Blackfeet Indian writing a novel in Greece in November of 1972 is ipso facto eccentric, don’t you think?”
On set, Alex and Andrew Smith are utterly calm and resourceful, always searching for the spontaneous. They confer with the crew on the minutiae of lighting and speak with the actors about cadence and blocking. The brothers are wearing the same style of chic suede shoes and while not identical, they share identical mannerisms, such as wandering far away from the set, heads bowed in thoughtful solitude. Sometimes, lost in contemplation, they stray too far and some assistant is sent to find them.
The Smiths seem to be perpetually seeking the poetry in their surroundings and chiseling that lyricism into each tableau. Their visual style is cerebrally visceral, forsaking flashy editing for stark naturalism. Their first feature, The Slaughter Rule, is a quasi-Welchian study of ambiguous male bonding, unanticipated humor, and barely suppressed yearning on a six-man football team, shot on the outskirts of Great Falls. Smith World is a quintessentially Montanan deconstruction of strength and vulnerability, managing to be both mystical and raw in the same frame.
To retain the look of Welch’s Winter in the Blood (the narrative ping-pongs between the seventies and the fifties), the Smiths have invoked indie American cinema of the period. “The lenses we use are the same kind that films would have used in the seventies,” Andrew tells me. “They just keep them in a warehouse for anyone to rent.” In order to coordinate the fashion of the period, hundreds of old photographs of reservation life were scrutinized and emulated.
“That’s a wrap!” someone now shouts.
Filming is done for the day, and within a half hour the equipment is hastily loaded into white trucks and driven off in procession. Chinook is a normal town again for the moment, and slow country music pours out from one of the nearby bars.
I pull a cigarette out of a full pack and smoke as I stroll back to my vehicle. An enormous pile of a man in denim and suspenders stops when he sees me and puts a gingerly hand to his white beard, pausing in my path.
“Good seeing you again,” he says, shaking my hand.
“I’m not sure we’ve met,” I say.
“You’re with the movie people?” he asks.
“Yeah,” I say, then I’m not sure if I can be qualified as such. “I think so.”
“Then we did meet yesterday,” he says. He searches my face for recognition and doesn’t get any. “You asked about the bands that were playing in Havre.”
I don’t know what he’s talking about.
“No, you did,” he says. “You asked me if there were any good bands playing in Havre and I said I didn’t know. But I was wrong. There were bands playing downtown and I’m sorry I didn’t know when you asked me.”
“I didn’t ask about any bands,” I say.
“I told you I didn’t know about any bands playing, but they were really good, even by Havre standards.” The man ponders. “Havre standards are pretty high.”
“You telling me I have a twin somewhere?”
The man puts his hands into his pockets, letting two discolored thumbnails protrude.
“No,” he says, nearly offended or actually offended. “I know you don’t have a twin. That was you I told about those bands.”
He walks away sharply.
I watch for a moment as actors are being loaded into buses rented from the hotel. Somewhere down the street someone is laughing raucously, as though the person is mocking the idea of laughter.
I give Richard Ray Whitman a lift back to Havre. He’s in his fifties, a Yuchi-Muskogee Creek Indian who’s playing the role of First Raise, the narrator’s father, in a slew of flashback sequences on the prairie. We talk about Welch and a Native American guitarist who did studio tracks for the Rolling Stones. Richard is a renowned artist and photographer, and he mentions offhandedly that his work is on exhibit in a couple of museums.
There’s construction all along the route. A derailed train is being stared at by men in orange vests. Richard and I smoke and chat about jazz and again about Welch, whom Richard spent some time with in Marseille while the author was researching his novel, The Heartsong of Charging Elk.
“Anything noteworthy happen in France?” I ask him.
“Oh yes,” Richard replies with a grin. “Just about everything.”
At the computer kiosk in the hotel lobby I pull up Richard’s Wikipedia entry.
“Oh,” he says, genuinely surprised. “There I am.”
Winter in the Blood appeared in 1974 and seemed to catch everyone off-guard. White readers found it mainly depressing, while Native Americans saw it as essentially a comedy of errors. It showed up on the cover of the New York Review of Books, and was optioned out as a film early on, but didn’t reach production stages. Winter was followed by The Death of Jim Loney, a novel bursting with bleakness and little of the humor that hybridized Welch’s debut novel.
The narrator of Winter in the Blood spends 138 pages stumbling quixotically between the Fort Belknap Reservation, Malta and Havre. For most of it he is inebriated, sinking into a series of unpleasant sexual encounters with women who glide in and out of his despaired illusions, and men who belong in a hallucinatory pageant. But saying that Winter in the Blood is about a desperate Indian trying to track down a woman and a shotgun is like saying Moby Dick is about an insane fisherman trying to harpoon a whale.
“I had had enough of the people,” the narrator rages, “the bars, the cars, the hotels, but mostly, I had had enough of myself. I wanted to lose myself, to ditch these clothes, to outrun this burning sun, to stand beneath the clouds and have my shadow erased, myself along with it.” Cultural dissolution would be a constant theme in Welch’s work, and with Winter in the Blood the impulse for self-annihilation is almost ritualistic. Antagonist and protagonist are the same self-defeating man, an ahistorical and anonymous oddity on the fringe of society and of himself.
But it’s hilarious, too, due mostly to the people who inhabit it. Ranging from the warmth of Teresa First Raise and her new husband, Lame Bull, to the surreptitious wisdom of Yellow Calf, and the tragic relationship — told in touching flashback — between the narrator and his brother, Mose. Then there are the angelic and/or whorish women the narrator meets on his messy odyssey for the one, Agnes, who has abandoned him. Dialog is curt and abrasive and funny because it is so precise; tuning in to Welch’s chorus of western denizens is like listening to a round of intoxicated pulp-writers reciting Fitzgerald with more panache than Fitzgerald. When it came to people, the places they haunt and the ways they try to relate, Welch got it right, key-changing from pathos to slapstick to affecting in a single line. A sad parable about a sad man, it turns out, can be a comedic metamorphosis.
“Winter has more tones than his other work,” Andrew tells me, explaining why he and Alex chose it over the more popular Fools Crow or Welch’s other works. “But what had the most resonance for us was the story of the brothers.”
Some Native American languages have no past or future tense, Peter Wild remarks in his study of Welch, where “time is a continuum in which one moves”. This is a close reading of the inner dread of Winter in the Blood, where flashbacks and dreams recur more and more frequently as the narrator’s journey continues into absurdist domains. Random episodes and digressive conversations occur with the regularity of an irrational nightmare, just background lyrics pouring out of a scratchy jukebox. Winter in the Blood reads like a concatenation of realism and myth, elevated to a classic by Welch’s incredibly honed need to go beneath the topography of affliction and gather all the comedy that resides in misery there.
Twilight actor Cheske Spencer has the role of the narrator (named Virgil in the script version) and I’m sitting with him at a poolside deck table in the lobby. Cheske is in his thirties, easygoing and tall, wearing modish whitewashed jeans and lace-up boots. His black hair hangs just below his ears, and his attention as he sits is focused on the tape recorder I’ve placed on the table between us. A few people are casually swimming.
“What drew you to this story?” I ask him.
“What drew me to this story is the story,” Cheske says in a basso voice tinged with a local twang. “I’ve never gotten to play a character like this. I saw The Slaughter Rule and knew that this was going to be a stunning movie. Virgil is in transition. He’s is a very broken man. He’s looking for something — whatever it is — to heal himself.”
Cheske breathes in a long pause. Anyone can tell that he feels this character deeply, that he has grown up with Virgil and has known the character for a while. His eyes stray in concentration.
“We’re catching him at that part of his life where he’s at a fork in the road. You see what he has to deal with and how he’s going to overcome these obstacles. I grew up on a reservation near here. What most people don’t understand is that Virgil is a pretty common man there. He’s an alcoholic and — “
A little girl strolls past clutching a bright beach towel.
“Hi, Cheske,” she says.
“Hi, sweetheart,” Cheske says, then turns his attention back to the recorder. “So I was saying that Virgil is an alcoholic. He knows that if he doesn’t change or shift, he could die.”
“Any big differences between an independent shoot and the big studio productions you’ve done in the past?”
“Money,” he says. “It’s one of the best sets I’ve ever worked on. Everybody in the community is supportive and I’m so happy they filmed in Montana. I wish every movie was like this. Alex and Andrew aren’t just directors; they’re artists.”
For Welch and the Smith brothers, geography is a pervasive and unforgiving mood. The monotonous farmland and deranged climate of the Hi-Line is a trope for itself and a model setting for alcoholism and self-annihilation. Virgil First Raise is a Dantean guide through the outer and inner turmoil of the Hi-Line, and on his own journey from hubris to an understanding of an ultimate identity.
Traveling Highway 2, you feel that you have somehow been entangled in a black and white photograph suddenly saturated with faded hues. Lush plains of variegated golds and yellows sprawl south into the endlessly distant mountains. Lazy heads of cattle eye the road, and elevators crop into view from nowhere, only to recede like mundane ghosts in the rearview mirror.
Clenched in the hills parallel to the bed of the Great Northern, Havre is an indescribable feeling of lingering moments and windowless casinos. Havre is the kind of place you’ll never comprehend because there is nothing to comprehend.
Having only been on the Hi-Line for two days, I nonetheless wonder whether this tale could have taken place anywhere else on earth.
“Winter in the Blood could have taken place wherever there is real isolation,” Andrew Smith tells me. “It could be rural Australia, or on the border of an aboriginal town … The story elements are universal, but on a subtextual level it is very specific to this particular place and this particular family. Of course it is essential that there’s a white culture that surrounds, pervasively influencing everything that happens.
“It had to happen on a reservation in America, I suppose … but the story is approachable in a much more geographical way.”
“Borders are a big part of the story,” Andrew continues. “The Canadian border, the reservation border, the border between white and Indian… The narrator blames his troubles on the land… Welch couldn’t quite escape the reservation until he explored a lot of other options.”
With Andrew’s psychological chart in mind I steer myself around Havre for a couple of hours. The city is really two cities constructed on top of one another. There is the aboveground Havre with its indecorous bars, the university, the omnipresent railroad. But submerged below that is a chronicle of the founding of Havre, a dirtied mirror city where prostitution, gambling and political seediness were the city’s chief imports during the twenties and thirties. Havre still tinkers with its irredeemable past in the form of a museum, “Havre Beneath the Streets”, where one can take a tour of a replicated bordello or opium den.
Whatever else it is Havre was built to inspire Winter in the Blood.
Back at the hotel, I peer over the railing at the stirring pool. Two hunched workmen fiddle with a busted hot tub. Beside me a large maid has her head lowered disconsolately to examine her impassive reflection in the pool’s surface.
“I’m thinking of jumping,” she says without turning to me.
“You’d just land in the pool,” I say.
“That’s why I’m still thinking about it.”
“I don’t really think it’s far enough down to kill yourself anyway.”
Her eyes are unexpectedly giddy when she flashes them at me. “It’s not about dying. Nothing in this town is about dying. It’s about jumping. I just want to jump.”
I leave her at the railing.
The next morning — the last day of an insensibly hot August — they’re filming at a diner in Havre called the Dutch Shoppe. A blast of autumnal wind surprises me outside, and Havre is veiled in the dismal gray of looming rain. Through the plate-glass window of the diner, I can see the familiar labyrinth of cameras and hurrying silhouettes. On a movie set everyone is perpetually and frenetically busy.
The diner is an accidental throw-back to the era when Welch was writing Winter in the Blood; wood-paneled decor and scuffed blue booths and garish oil paintings slanting randomly on the walls. Spotlights create a chimerical summer inside. The art team removes anything vaguely contemporary — signs, menus, a whiteboard printed with the weekly specials, a potted tree — because wherever the Smiths film, authenticity is painstakingly manufactured.
Cheske and David Morse are having a private discussion with the Smiths in a corner. When they’re finished, I’m finally granted an interview with Morse, otherwise known as the Airplane Man.
The Airplane Man is one of the oddest characters in Welch’s book, a nebulous, cocky white man who brags about tearing up a plane ticket and abandoning his wife and daughter. Part paranoid farce, part jocular lunatic, the Airplane Man is inexplicably arrested after a few run-ins with the protagonist, and vanishes from the plot. In Freudian terms, the Airplane Man is the Id of Winter in the Blood.
(“I believe,” Andrew Smith would tell me later, “without any proof to back this up, that the Airplane Man is constructed out of a combination of Jim’s encounters with various writer figures who visited Montana.”)
But who is the Airplane Man?
“But who is the Airplane Man?” I ask David Morse.
Morse and I are seated in one of the booths and he is staring at me intently. He has some of the intensity and ambiguous geniality of his character, and his roles are often defined by a barely contained rampage of desire and violence, concealed behind an extremely calibrated boy-faced stoicism that only rarely melts into brutality. Selecting Morse as the Airplane Man was a masterpiece of casting.
“He’s almost as much of a mystery to me as to everyone else,” Morse says contemplatively. “But that’s who he is: an unknown. The Airplane is something else than what he seems.”
The lanky actor is in a blue sweater and white shirt (a clothing choice modeled on Warren Oates in Two-Lane Blacktop), his hair and mustache dyed an insipid red. He is taller than I’d expected and moves with the natural grace of a reticent dignitary. Morse’s hard blue eyes smolder with a kind of combustible intelligence. He seems to be scrutinizing your childhood while remaining essentially warm and even somewhat bashful.
“I have my own reasons for why the Airplane Man is on the run,” Morse nearly whispers elliptically, leaning in close. “But the world will never know those reasons.”
I inquire whether he studied any particular actor for the role, or any films that inspired his portrayal.
Staring through me in consideration, Morse finally says, “Mostly, I researched what the Airplane Man would have been influenced by when he was a child. Teddy Roosevelt was the first person I looked into. In terms of actors, I watched Lee Marvin a lot, and especially Burt Lancaster, because Lancaster’s presence and the Airplane Man’s are bigger than life …
“Elmer Gantry was the film I used most … With Gantry and with the Airplane Man there are stunning moments of salesmanship; but with the Airplane Man you don’t know exactly what’s being sold or why.”
Morse starred as the emotionally unpredictable coach in The Slaughter Rule, and I ask what it’s like to be working alongside Alex and Andrew again.
He studies a fly that has landed on his knuckle and lets the insect wander there.
“They have a great sense of the place and the people and that is perhaps most important.” He seems to want to say more, but he’s seemed that way since we sat down.
A producer comes along, glances warily at me, and tells Morse that they’re ready for him.
Standing, he pauses.
“This has definitely been the experience I’d hoped it would be,” Morse says. Then he gives me a protracted stare, ensuring that I have nothing else to ask, and I don’t.
An old, hunched cowboy enters the diner, a farmer named Colin who resides outside of town. He’s short, in a big white Stetson and dressed in full denim regalia. Colin’s face is rugged and perfectly lined, like some satellite photo of this region.
In the book, the Airplane Man joins the narrator at the counter, notices the old speechless man and becomes uncommonly fidgety. After the Airplane Man departs, the old man drops dead into a bowl of steaming oatmeal.
“Colin,” the bearded assistant director says. “We need you to keep your head in the porridge for as long as you can and stay absolutely still. Think that’s possible?”
Colin nods agreeably, twirls his hat in rough hands. He is cued and ambles into the frame. Morse and Cheske enunciate their frantic lines.
“Now, Colin,” someone hisses.
With the ease of an athlete Colin submerges his face into the oatmeal, remaining as motionless as a statue.
“Hold it, Colin. Hold it. Good.”
Everyone in the diner tenses and a few smile apprehensively.
“Little longer, Colin. Just like that.”
Cheske finally leaves his stool and flees the diner.
“Hold it. Good. Hold it a minute … Cut! Okay, Colin, you can take yourself out of their now.”
Gradually, face sprinkled with lukewarm oatmeal, Colin lifts his head. The crew and actors applaud him.
“Was it warm in there, Colin?” someone asks.
“You stayed really still,” Alex says. “You’re a natural.”
“We need to go again,” the assistant director yells out.
“How long?” Colin asks.
“Just a few more times.”
The directors and cinematographer are huddled in a corner watching the recent footage on a monitor. Andrew glances at me twice as cameras are positioned to another angle. Finally, he wends his way over.
“Do you want to be in this scene?” he asks. He clasps his hands behind his back and blinks.
“Sure,” I say.
Alex approaches and stands beside his brother.
“You want to be in this scene?” he confirms.
“Sure. Might add another layer to the story,” I say.
“More layers are always good,” Alex says.
“Want me to change or something?”
They inspect my wardrobe.
“No, you look pretty ready.”
“Then I guess I’m ready.”
“We’re going to put you at the counter,” Alex says, pointing and leading me to the front of the diner. “We’ll give you a cigarette. Some coffee?” He waves over the prop guy. “Get this gentleman a cigarette, maybe some coffee.”
I pull myself onto the stool next to Morse and the prop guy wedges a lit herbal cigarette into the ashtray, simultaneously pouring coffee into a cup.
“Let’s get him a newspaper,” Alex says.
A newspaper materializes in my hand.
“Should I do something?” I ask Alex when he drifts by. “Read the paper? Drink the coffee? Should I move or something?”
“Yeah,” he says. “Whatever you think.”
“Put the gentleman two stools to the right,” the cinematographer, Paula Huidobro, says. She’s a compact woman with a mild Spanish accent who has worked on Bless Me, Ultima and Gardens of the Night.
Realizing that I am the gentleman in question I move two stools to the right.
“Now move the gentleman one stool to the left,” she says.
I slide back to the left.
“And one more stool to the left,” she says, eye pressed into the viewfinder.
I am in the film for only a few moments, perusing the paper and nodding at the waitress as she refills my mug. Morse and Cheske exchange words, Colin reenacts his oatmeal-diving routine.
The directors are satisfied with the scene after four or five takes, and people clap other people on the back.
David Morse is finished for the remainder of filming. Those not hastily returning the diner to its pre-Winter in the Blood condition are shaking his hand in the doorway.
“It was great working with you,” I say.
Morse stares at me.
Exit Airplane Man.
Already at two in the afternoon the light is fading to pale. Rain slaps at the windshield as I make the drive to Chinook for the final scenes of my trip.
Directors and crew are sequestered in an alleyway of glass and dirty gravel that one of the crew is diligently raking. Four Native American kids are being prepped for a rowdy fight scene. Each boy is dressed in fifties style garb: blue jeans, checkered shirts and loud scowls.
Intermittent rain is turning the ground to mud as I watch the directors prepare the tremulous, hand-held close-ups.
“Half-time, boys,” the stunt guy keeps repeating. “Keep it slow.”
Over and over the young actors struggle in the alley beside a parked Malibu, their soaked parents happily snapping photos with tiny cameras.
Ken White, besides co-writing and acting in the film, was also integral to casting, much of which was done through Facebook and ads in the local newspapers. Getting actors and extras from the Fort Belknap Reservation was often done door-to-door, as many of the residents don’t have telephones. In all, some 600 nonprofessional actors were auditioned for a variety of speaking and non-speaking parts.
Getting out of the rain, I step into the rear of the Mint Bar, cohabitated by a man reviewing footage on a huge Mac and a raven-haired female bartender who strides into the storage room for a crate of Budweiser and hauls it into the dimly quiet barroom.
What strikes me first is that the woman doesn’t glance at the man, or at the hard-shell cases of gear, nor the coats that have been piled on the foosball table, nor the plates of cellophaned food lying on the card table. She acts as though the crafting of an independent film and her bartending gig have always co-existed. This is the frequently awe-inspiring success of Winter in the Bloo; everybody is making this movie and retelling its story in a babel of intersecting, local voices. And every intonation is heard in some way.
I return to the rain and the earth is running away into the gutters. Passing the boys, I overhear them giggling and rehearsing the first lines they’ve ever had to learn for a film.
As Ken White would tell me, “We all told this story together.”
Early the next morning I’m driving away from Havre and Winter in the Blood. I drive past touristy signs for the buffalo jump located in the backyard of the Holiday Shopping Center. Before the strip mall was there, prehistoric natives ran buffalo off the impressive cliffs in order to scrape away their hides and meat. Soon I am crossing the chalky Milk River. Moist cottonwoods droop along the banks and the dully beautifully Hi-Line uncoils for a dozen miles in every direction. Fingers of black sky clutch at the west. The drive is a lot more pleasant, even though I’m taking the same route back, returning through the same sagebrush and advancing past the same classic red farmhouses as before. Only it’s different now, because a story is only as true as you want it to be.
Instead of the turgid heat, winter is coming on again.
One of Welch’s odes accompanies me back to Missoula in torrential rain:
Let me join
the other kings, the ones who trade their knives
for sacks of keys. Let me open any door,
stand winter still and drown in a common dream.