When filmmaker Susanna White was growing up in gray-skied England, the “Woman Walks Ahead” director was obsessed with Westerns, though she always felt there was something missing. “I’d grown up loving Westerns as a genre, whether that’s John Ford movies, or Sergio Leone movies,” White said in a recent interview with IndieWire. However, “there was a level at which I didn’t connect to them,” she added, “because they were such a man’s world.”
For her latest film, the “Nanny McPhee Returns” director was able to do something she’d always wanted to: retrofit a genre she loved, while also staying true to the time period it portrayed. It certainly helped that her lead actress, Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain, is also a Western-loving cinephile who agreed that the genre could use a feminist touch. “Woman Walks Ahead” addresses that, with Chastain cast as Catherine Weldon, a painter who traveled to Dakota Territory in 1890 in the hopes of painting Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes).
“When I was sent this script, it had everything for me,” White said. “Because it had the genre aspect of a Western, but it was a Western with a strong female lead telling the story of another voice we traditionally don’t hear in a Western, which is the Native American voice. Normally, those characters are so marginal in Westerns.”
Steven Knight’s script is built around a traditionally Western framework — following a compelling outsider who goes West, joins up with some unexpected compatriots, and ultimately has to fight for the kind of freedom first promised to the pioneers who dared move beyond the confines of the “civilized” world. However, the narrative is centered around the kind of people often pushed to the margins in most Westerns. Characters like Catherine and Sitting Bull are certainly familiar tropes of the genre, but “Woman Walks Ahead” lets their stories drive the entire film.
“I saw it as a script that was really reinventing a genre that I had grown up watching,” Chastain said. “I loved that it was using under-represented voices. I loved that it also explored the friendship, the love between these two people. … I found it so incredibly inspiring to make a film that examined that relationship.”
Chastain and White shared some tips that helped them assemble the progressive story.
1. Steep Yourself in the Culture
“Woman Walks Ahead” follows Catherine’s journey to meet and paint Sitting Bull, where she forms a strong bond with the beloved chief during a time of tremendous upheaval and pain for his people. White was determined to understand and respect that culture.
“If I was going to make a film about another culture, step one for me was to go to the reservation, get to know people, try and learn about their life,” White said. “I was invited to attend ceremonies. I talked to the tribal council. I got a language advisor.” That led her to the decision to use the Lakota language for Native American scenes (the same language used by the Native American characters on “Westworld”). “I wanted a sense of her being an outsider coming into their world,” she said. “And there was so much that was beautiful to learn from that culture.”
The actors embraced the film, and even gave White her very own Native name, which translates to “Woman Who Makes Things Happen.” “I went and screened it in Rapid City for people from the reservations,” White said. “It was unbelievable. People drove so far, and came and camped out to watch it.”
2. Embrace Diverse and Inclusive Casting
White was also set on making sure that the cast was inclusive. “Why would you not have the Native American characters played by Native Americans?” she said. “That was a sort of no-brainer for me, but it’s surprising to me that other people hadn’t done that.”
Chastain agreed, noting that she had reservations about some of the roles before they were cast. “When we first met, I just said, ‘Let’s talk about Sitting Bull,’ because I loved the script, but I know the industry,” Chastain said. “These kind of movies have difficulty getting made because people won’t finance them without big movie stars. I said, ‘But I’m not comfortable with a big movie star in the role in a wig.'”
Eventually, White settled on Michael Greyeyes, a former member of the National Ballet of Canada who is Plains Cree and from the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan.
Greyeyes turned to acting in the mid-nineties, and has often appeared in films about Native American culture, from “Smoke Signals” to “Jimmy P.” In 2017, he joined the cast of “Fear the Walking Dead,” his most high-profile gig, aside from “Woman Walks Ahead.” If Knight’s script been produced when he first wrote it, 14 years ago, Greyeyes wouldn’t have been in the mix. It was worth the wait.
“It was a long search, and I think one of the reasons the film didn’t get made for a long time was that there hadn’t been the right person necessarily to play Sitting Bull,” White said. “And it needed the right filmmaker to come along, and for Michael to come along, and for a world to be receptive to a movie that has a strong female lead and a strong Native lead.”
It’s also a film that required the right producers, and “Woman Walks Ahead” has plenty of them, including heavy hitters Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, as well as Erika Olde, Richard Solomon, and Andrea Calderwood. The film was made for around $12 million, White said, but that money came from the kind of involved and passionate producers required for such an endeavor.
“I think an audience wants these stories, and they want inclusive casting,” Chastain said. “However, there’s a system and a pattern that’s been set up that I think isn’t healthy, so we need financiers to step forward and say, ‘I’m willing to do the right thing, and let an indigenous person tell the story of Sitting Bull.’ That Sitting Bull would be played by someone who has that connection to him.”
3. That Means Background Performers, Too
White’s dedication to casting Native American performers in Native American roles extended beyond its lead, a choice that led to at least one awkward day during the production.
“There was a day that we were on set, and I looked over in the makeup trailer, and there were some stunt performers that I noticed had bright blue eyes,” Chastain said. “And they were being wigged, and [their skin was being] darkened. And it was happening without anyone telling Susanna, and the second she found out, she pulled them and said, ‘Absolutely not.'”
She had to walk the walk. “We ended up with a much smaller crowd that day than we intended,” White said. “But there was no way I was going to put those people in the movie.”
4. Any Story Can Be a Universal Story
Catherine Weldon’s story is unique, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t relatable. “I think you have to take the universal [when it comes to] an individual’s story,” White said. “Which is a woman who was way ahead of her time, who was incredibly brave and extraordinary, who went on this journey, who was not afraid of otherness, who embraced a community and valued them for the incredible cultural contribution which they had. And that’s a universal story which we wanted to tell, and I think most films that are based on history take some kind of license in order to make it a universal story.”
That helped make the period piece more timely than one might expect. “Even what’s going on right now, with children being ripped from their families, that’s something that Michael’s people experienced, [they] had their culture wiped away,” Chastain said. “The Lakota language is basically a dead language. … When we were making the film, it was the same time that the Dakota access pipeline protests were going on.”
Chastain said she felt the movie illustrated the cyclical nature of history. “I think what’s going on in the United States right now isn’t a one-time event. It’s based on our history of who we are as a country, and I think when we can look at our history, we need to examine and understand that we’re in a circle. It’s like what Groves [Sam Rockwell’s character] says, ‘I want history to move in a straight line,’ and we’re in a circle. I feel like we’re still there, and I want to move forward.”
5. The Work Doesn’t Stop After Production Wraps
More than a year after finishing the film, nearly nine months since premiering it at TIFF, Chastain and White are still playing active roles in the presentation of their work. “It goes even into the media after the film,” Chastain said. “Should I say this? I’m going to say this. In situations of doing press, and [I am] really having to fight for Michael to be with me, [like on] a television show.”
The actress said she “notices that sometimes people only value fame rather than doing the right thing,” which to her means not just using her as the face of the film, but also ensuring her co-star receives the same exposure.
“I think that’s something that is being explored right now, and I’m very happy,” she said. “Michael and I are doing some TV shows together now. … It goes beyond just the filmmaking. Every single person needs to go, ‘What can I do to move the needle forward?'”
“Woman Walks Ahead” will hit limited release on Friday, June 29.