I think what the movie will show is that for better or worse, the Indian experience is really one of near genocide, and it is not a proud moment in the history of the United States.
How did you get involved with this project?
Well, that's a long history. I had read the book about thirty-five years ago when it came out, and it is one of the landmarks of American history and certainly the definitive work on the American Indian experience. So, the opportunity to become involved was not only gratifying but sort of an honor in and of itself. It's been an enormously long process to bring it to the screen. Many other people have tried before, even thirty years before we got involved. So, we're sort of amazed that we're actually here shooting it.
Can you briefly set up the story Dan Giat has adapted?
It is a vast, historical epic of non-fiction. The biggest job that Dan did is synthesize a book that is about 500 pages long into a coherent movie that traces the history of the Sioux from Little Bighorn - which was Custer's last stand - through the Massacre of Wounded Knee, which is probably one of the low points of American history. But, I think what the movie will show is that for better or worse, the Indian experience is really one of near genocide, and it is not a proud moment in the history of the United States. But, it is a very revealing look, and there is an enormous mirror into the current world because it is really the story of the United States trying to impose their will on what was essentially a foreign country with a population living a life that was totally different than what this country was becoming.
The challenge here is, 'How do you show people things that they haven't seen before? And, how do you give them an insight into the experience that they don't have?'
How hard did Dan have to work to keep the writing accurate?
Dan has certainly had advisors. In a search for historical accuracy, I think we've gone more than the extra mile. The aim here from the very beginning was to do a movie that reflected accurately the Indian experience. It has been vetted, read, advised upon, annotated - almost any word that you can use to show many cooks getting involved with something to make sure that it's as accurate as possible. Then it came down to Dan Giat to do it in a dramatically impactful way. Because when you're dealing with history, you have the responsibility to present it accurately, but it can't be a history lesson.
How closely did the script stick to the book?
Well, as I said, this is a two-hour movie. If you look at the book itself, we probably left out 75 percent of it, which there was no way of telling. The interesting thing about doing anything for HBO is that nobody's in any rush. It's, "Do it when you get it right." And, there have been God knows how many variations of the script because it started out as a six- hour miniseries. Then it went to four hours. Then it went to a two-hour movie, and now it's been decided to do it as an entire night of programming. So, it's been close to three hours, but that represents scripts ranging in length from 250 down to the current 110- page version.
What has Yves Simoneau brought to the table with his directing?
Well, it's a major challenge to get a director who is capable not only of telling the story but telling it visually and impactfully. And, I think he's doing an incredible job because to do this in 38 days is almost impossible. He has really figured out how to shoot this in a way that is efficient but with the scope that the story demands. You either get directors who can do it fast and cheap and not very well, or people can do it really well and say, "Give me twice as much money, and it'll be really good." Yves has really been dedicated to getting the most bang possible onto the screen in the shortest amount of time.
It seems a few Law & Order regulars have turned up in the film ...
Fred Thompson, who plays Ulysses S. Grant, plays the D.A. on Law & Order. And J.K. Simmons, who plays McLoughlin [PH] - who is really Sitting Bull's chief antagonist - has been the intermittent psychiatrist on Law & Order for the last seven or eight years. So, I think that I have been extraordinarily lucky to get both of them into this film in a way that really shows what they're best at. I mean, you can't do much better than Fred as the president of the United States.
Was there a target you kept coming back to as the film evolved?
"Let's not do what people have seen 50 times before." I mean, people have been making cowboy and Indian movies since the 1900s, so there is a body of work that is vast and deep. But the challenge here is, "How do you show people things that they haven't seen before? And, how do you give them an insight into the experience that they don't have?" I think that's our mandate, both from HBO and inside ourselves to do this right because it's the last story that hasn't been told about the American Indian. And, I think it is the most emotionally searing. It's really an incredible responsibility for all of us, and we really do want to do it right.
Do you have a favorite scene?
Oh, I absolutely have a favorite scene, which is a confrontation between Miles, who is the colonel who came to bring the Sioux under control after Little Bighorn, and Sitting Bull. They have a powwow in the middle of the plains, and Sitting Bull takes his position, which is, "Why are you doing this to us? You know we're out here living our lives." And, Miles is the one who turns to him and says, "Wait a minute. You're the most warlike tribe on the North American continent. You came out of Minnesota and killed the Crow. Why are you any better?" And, that is the moment in the film that you can see the historical perspective is one thing, but there is always a rationale for the aggressor to do what he's doing. So, it's a wonderful scene both psychologically and historically because it puts the entire film into perspective. It's the one scene that has not changed in the last three years of writing and rewriting, so it's pretty powerful.
Has anything really leapt out at you while shooting?
Coming over a ridge in the vehicles when they had just started building the camp. This is amazing country out here that is virtually untouched. It's the only place that I really see that still looks like the nineteenth century. There are no roads; there's nothing out here. And when we came over that ridge and saw this encampment, it was as close as you can get to time travel.