“This film has been one long devoted vision + quest to translate Welch’s world— the raw, emotionally honest characters, the richly marbled tragicomic plot, and the gorgeous high plains landscape— to the big screen” explains Winter in the Blood directors Alex and Andrew Smith of the film.
Winter in the Blood is the gritty story of Virgil First Raise, a Native alcoholic who embarks on a wild and darkly comic odyssey to retrieve his renegade wife— and the beloved rifle she stole. What he ultimately finds in the end is himself.
The film starts with Virgil waking in a ditch on the hardscrabble plains of Montana, hungover and badly beaten. He sees a shocking vision: his father, ten years dead, lying frozen at his feet. Shaken, Virgil returns home to his ranch on the Reservation, only to find that his wife, Agnes (played by Native actress Julia Jones), has left him. Worse, she’s taken his beloved rifle.
Virgil sets out to town find her— or perhaps just the gun— beginning a hi-line odyssey of inebriated and improbable intrigues with the mysterious Airplane Man, his beautiful accomplice, Malvina, and two dangerous Men in Suits. Virgil’s quest also brings him face-to-face with childhood memories, traumas and visions of his long lost brother Mose.
Virgil, bloodied and broken by his quest, realizes that he must look inward for the strength he needs to survive. In the mountains, he seeks out Yellow Calf— an old blind man, who helps him grasp the truth of his origins. By embracing— and no longer fleeing— his memories, Virgil is finally able to thaw the ice in his veins.
Winter in the Blood was the first of five novels written by James Welch, a Native American poet, author, documentary scriptwriter and historical essayist. WINTER in the Blood has long been acknowledged as a primary voice in the Native American Renaissance. It has remained in print for over thirty-five years and is a cornerstone of the Penguin Classics canon. Welch’s total book sales worldwide number over half a million. Equally impressive, Welch’s loyal, diverse, and multi-generational fan base has driven his novels to be translated into eight languages and ensured that they remain mainstays in Native American, Indigenous Studies, and Western Literature classes in universities across the United States, Canada and abroad.
When did you and Andrew both realize you wanted to become filmmakers?
We grew up in a rural area on a ranch isolated in Montana, and we had a camera we made a lot of short films with as kids and teenagers. We wrote scripts and made these short films. We were also around film production because our mother worked with films so we were always on a lot of different shoots and I think that’s what interested us. We went to different colleges and both started writing about our basketball coach in high school. Unbeknownst to what each other was writing, we decided to collaborate and put our stories together, and that story became our first film together, The Slaughter Rule script. We have been collaborating with each other as screenwriters for the last twenty years.
Your first film together, The Slaughter Rule, presented a compelling storyline that was full of gritty emotion. Did you guys want to portray that same affection with Winter in the Blood?
Yes, it’s our style. It’s sort of the get-in-there, accurately gritty emotion of how people deal with tough situations. When we work with our actors, we want them to realize their characters, so we make sure we cast great actors. We get the details of the whole film and characters right, and make sure they’re as intense. We sometimes write stuff that are genre-fantastic but with a lot of grittiness to it.
James Welch was a family friend of yours’, what inspired you to create a film adaption of his 1974 novel?
There were a lot of factors that inspired us to adapt Winter in the Blood to the big screen. The primary one was that this story haunted us ever since high school. In high school I read the book and have known Jim prior to that and I was very fond to him, I looked up to him. Then I read the book and the book kicked my butt. The story was heartbreaking and unique. Over time I read the book when I missed Montana. Whenever I felt a little lost, it was a way to touch home for a little bit for my brother and me. A friend of ours read the book in one sitting and asked us why we didn’t make the novel into a film yet. We thought about it and agreed. We sat down and talked to Jim’s widow about the idea and story and she was open to adapting the novel. We reached out to other Native American authors such as Sherman Alexie for help and assistance, as they were open to the idea of that, and they helped us get it going. The book has been in print for forty years and is taught around the world, there hasn’t been a screen adaption of any of his five novels and Winter in the Blood is kind of a landmark novel, very cinematic. It was challenging but its visual is powerful. We dove in and adapted it
How did you guys take to Chaske portraying Virgil First Raise?
It was a big plunge of faith and trust to have him be the lead in the film. We didn’t screen test him but heard that he was wonderful to work with. He’s the main character and carries the whole thing. He was more than what we expected. He was amazing. He got into character, and because he grew up in Montana and Idaho he became a part of his character. He figured out the limp for the character and ate cheeseburgers to match his character. We were blown away. We spent a lot of time with him driving to the set. I spent a lot of time with him. When we were shooting, he did the heavy lifting. He’s a really great human being.
What is the ultimate message you want Winter in the Blood to convey to the audience?
That’s a tough question, it’s more of a having a good story told than conveying a good message. We wanted to have a contemporary Native American character dealing with trauma and loss, and picking bad ways to deal with it, but ultimately finding better ways to deal. How we deal with adversity is the ultimate message. Virgil goes to his ancestors and where he’s from to deal with his adversity.
In your opinion, why is Winter in the Blood a great addition to the list of other powerful films that surround Native Americans?
Well, the book like I said is a landmark novel, and taught in literature all over the world and has been translated into eight different languages. It’s sort of marked the start of Native Renaissance, which hasn’t been captured on film very well. It gives an unseen piece of America. This film features Native American crew, a story about a Native American by a Native American author, it’s more authentic.
Q&A with Chaske Spencer
Did you ever read the novel Winter in the Blood? What did you think of it?
I didn’t read the novel until I was signed on to the film. I read it twice; the first time I read it I thought it was very dark and wondered how we would make it into a film. The second time I thought it was funny, actually. I got the humor of it the second time, and then I really wondered how we were going to make this into a film. It was the only book I read of James Welch as well, and I didn’t know until Alex and Andrew told me.
What was your reaction like when you were casted as Virgil First Raise?
It was a character I wanted to tackle and take on. It’s always exciting to work in your craft, for me I was just ready to go. I I was ready to start filming. We’d been in this process of putting it together for two years before we actually started shooting.
How excited were you to work with twin directors Alex and Andrew Smith?
I always get excited when I work with directors and working for Alex and Andrew, I think, is a gift to any actor. They’re artists; they’re about making a film that’s very artful. I saw The Slaughter Rule and after I seen that I was very committed to Winter in the Blood. I knew I was going to be in good hands, they’re also very nice men and easy to work with.
How was playing your character, Virgil, different from your other films?
There’s a huge difference. Of all the films I’ve done, I like Winter in the Blood the most because it brought out the artistic side of film making and I wanted to be a part of that. I loved working with Alex and Andrew and working in Montana, I was really inspired by that. It was different doing an independent film, because the other films I was a part of were huge studio movies. I think you have more artistic freedom and I was excited to work on that.
How did you prepare for your role?
The book helped out a lot. Going through it helped me find the beat of the character. I got to location early and spent time with the crew and the directors. I gained weight to fit character by not working out or eating healthy. I found that sluggish weight and it helped me fit that mood and atmosphere of the character. I thought about people I knew and that’s what also helped pull me into Virgil.
How did you gain that sluggish weight for your character?
I stopped working out. I had a short time to gain all this weight and I just ate whatever I could, from cheesecake to cheeseburgers. I stopped working out completely. I gained it pretty fast and I had a pretty big gut from the beginning of filming to the middle. That’s what I wanted for my character; I just wanted Virgil to be as real as possible so the audience can relate to him and see the caliber of the character. I wanted him to be believable especially to someone on the reservation, for someone to recognize him as a cousin or uncle. Weight gain was one of them.
Did growing up on a reservation help you ease into your character?
It did. It helped a certain aspect of it; I think it helped me with my tools to bring the character to the screen. Again I pulled from people I have met. I pulled from friends and cousins; Virgil is just a variation of all the people I grew up with. I was very pleased that I was able to do that.
Did you enjoy filming in Montana?
I did enjoy filming in Montana. I’m from Montana so going back was nice, and I think it adds a lot to the film. I think Montana itself is a character in the film. I like it there, I have family there and I drove back every now and then sometimes to hang out. I know people wanted the crew to film in Canada but I’m glad we didn’t. Staying in Montana kept us in the frame of mind of where Winter in the Blood was supposed to be.
Did you ever relate to Virgil?
When you’re an actor, you have to find ways to relate to your character. There are a few aspects that I was able to relate to Virgil, but at the end of the day it’s not me but a character I’m playing. I can see points of correlation with him but I’m really nothing like Virgil actually. As an actor you have to find points, that can bring you into character and I found certain things, which helped me find Virgil.
What is the ultimate message Virgil conveys to the audience?
I think it’s about healing and letting go. At the beginning Virgil is a broken man and at the middle of the film you see him start to put the pieces back together and the healing process begins. That’s what I want the audience to come out with, this universal message; anyone can relate to that.
[This story was originally published in Native Max Magazine‘s Anniversary Issue.]