Most filmmakers under the age of 50 who might have dreamed of turning the late James Welch’s 1974 novel “Winter in the Blood” into a feature probably never met the man.
The co-directors of the movie version of “Winter” (now playing at Northwest Film Forum), twin brothers Alex and Andrew Smith, 46, were baby-sat by Welch.
There is a certain inevitability about the way “Winter in the Blood,” a landmark work that helped kick off a literary wave of Native American writing, fell into the creative hands of the Smiths (”The Slaughter Rule”) and one of the film’s key producers: Seattle-based author Sherman Alexie.
Welch’s tale of a young Native American man (played by Chaske Spencer in the film) whose identity crisis sets him on a boozy, hallucinatory journey in a small Montana town, had an enormous impact on all concerned.
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“The novel was the first, straight-up dose of Native American realism,” says Alexie, who spent his childhood on the Spokane Indian Reservation. “There were other books before and from the same time period, but they were overtly spiritual. There was nothing like Welch’s combination of realism and surrealism. He placed the Native American search for identity in the context of all literary searches for identity. It gave my life literary meaning.”
Alexie met Welch — at one time a visiting professor at the University of Washington — while in college and “knew him over the years. He was sweet and funny and had a bit of an edge to him.”
Alexie and the Smiths first crossed paths as young children. The twins’ mother, Annick Smith — co-editor of a celebrated anthology of Montana writing, “The Last Best Place,” and co-producer of Robert Redford’s “A River Runs Through It” — made a documentary that featured Alexie’s grandmother.
“I’m in it, briefly,” Alexie says. “There’s a shot at a powwow, and I’m stumbling through with my big government glasses on. I was 6 or 7.
“I knew Alex and Andrew when they were babies.”
The Smith brothers grew up with Welch. He was a friend of their parents. The author, who died at 62 in 2003, met his wife, Lois, at the Smiths’ house.
Though they found success in 2002 with the sports drama “The Slaughter Rule,” starring Ryan Gosling, the Smiths did not initially consider adapting “Winter” as a follow-up.
That possibility, says Alexie, “started with a tribute to Welch at the Richard Hugo House. I put together a little festival of short films based on James’ work. The Smith brothers made a film based on ‘Fools Crow,’ another Welch novel. So it was in the back of their minds [to direct ‘Winter’] after that.”
Alexie had no trepidation about the non-Native Smiths doing justice to the material.
“I don’t think there are any other white boys I would have trusted with the story,” he says. “It’s not just their personal connection to Jim but to western Montana and to Indians and non-Indians. They come from a long artistic tradition of looking at the intersection of Indian and white worlds.”
Tom Keogh: firstname.lastname@example.org