Locally produced film explores hidden history of Haskell
The camera slowly dollies in on the stern face of actor Kevin Geer. About 30 cast and crew members crammed into the third floor of the Watkins Community Museum of History look on.
“This is not a prison. There are no walls. No fences. But there is a clock,” Geer scolds. “You will learn to respect time.”
“Respect” and “time” are key words on the set of “The Only Good Indian,” a film that takes place in the early 1900s when respectful treatment of American Indians was at an all-time low.
Today, the filmmakers are shooting a scene in which the Haskell superintendent (Geer) is addressing the Indian children who have just been pulled off the reservation. The story focuses on one such Kickapoo youth (played by newcomer Winter Fox Frank), who is taken from his family and forcibly sent to Haskell under government orders to integrate into white society.
After being assigned a new name and religion, Frank’s character escapes and attempts to return home, only to be pursued by an American Indian bounty hunter (Wes Studi).
“What we know of the Indian boarding schools all across the country is that they were almost like concentration camps,” says Steve Cadue, the Kickapoo tribal chairman who is on the set at the invitation of the filmmakers.
Cadue’s own parents attended Nebraska-based boarding schools in the 1920s.
“They remind you of concentration camps because they try to strip you of your culture, language, history. They try and totally assimilate you and convert you to a white man. And they’d punish you if they caught you talking with other Indian youths, telling stories or the old songs,” he says.
“The Only Good Indian,” a locally produced movie featuring nationally renowned talent, is seeking to shed some light on this little-known slice of history.
Lawrence residents may have noticed telltale signs of film production blanketing parts of downtown this week – semi-trucks on sidewalks, banks of lights in the daytime, hordes of folks running around wearing headset mics. The production set up shop at Watkins and migrated to the Castle Tea Room. It will head next to Cottonwood Falls.
“I like stories that deal with identity and race and history,” says director Kevin Willmott (“C.S.A. – The Confederate States of America”).
“This is that idea of unspoken history again. One of the big questions that it raises is, ‘Can’t I be an American and not lose myself?'”
Tom Carmody is the man who first began framing these questions in screenplay form.
The writer and producer of “The Only Good Indian” says he’s always been fascinated by American Indian culture.
“Growing up in Lawrence and attending Broken Arrow school and South Junior High, many of the kids in the classes were Native American, as were many of the kids on my football team at Lawrence High. It was just part of growing up,” Carmody says.
Carmody, a former energy commodity trader, came up with the concept for the “Good Indian” script in 2005.
“That’s the one thing about independent films in Kansas: We can move pretty quickly. From inception of the idea to writing the script to working on all the logistics, it’s been about two years,” he says.
In addition to its emphasis on history, Carmody regarded the project as a new riff on a genre movie.
He says, “When you look at westerns per se, you rarely see the Native American point of view. I can’t even think of one.”
Carmody’s view came in handy when it came to casting the lead role.
While attending a Haskell powwow event, he stumbled across 17-year-old Winter Fox Frank.
“He looked very impressive. I went up and talked to him, and I couldn’t believe how composed he was. I told him I had this story and gave him my business card . … In that instant we had our main character, and his life changed.”
Frank, a freshman from Redding, Calif., admits he was as unfamiliar with the brutal early history of Haskell as with the mechanics of making motion pictures.
“When I imagined working on a movie set, I always thought it was going to be like these vicious producers, but I guess because it’s an independent film it’s got a different feel. Everyone is incredibly nice and helpful,” Frank says.
Although he was offered the lead role, Frank had to endure one major sacrifice before he could accept it.
“He had beautiful long hair that we told him he had to have cut for the film,” Carmody recalls.
“He had never had his hair cut before. So his grandmother flew down from South Dakota and performed a ceremony after a few days of shooting. I was involved in that and so was Kevin. There was a ceremony with smoke going around him. There was lightning in the background. It was one of the most moving experiences I have ever been involved in.”
Will Carmody and crew perform a similar ceremony when cutting the film together?
“We could, actually,” he jokes, “but it would take about eight months.”
Aim is high
With the exception of celebrated star Studi (“Dances with Wolves,” “The Last of the Mohicans”), a majority of the “Good Indian” actors are familiar with shooting movies in Lawrence.
Many of the key roles are filled by cast and crew from “Bunker Hill,” Willmott’s soon-to-be-released dramatic thriller that he shot last summer.
“So much of it is the casting,” Willmott says. “So much of it is finding the right people, putting them in the right outfit, and you literally just have to tell them where to stand.”
Willmott says “The Only Good Indian” is about halfway finished filming. Although the project is not currently being financed by a studio, Willmott and Carmody hope to land it a mainstream release.
“Our aim is pretty high,” Carmody says. “We’d like it to one day be in theaters around the world. We think it’s an important story. It’s a fictional story, but at the same time, these things did happen.”
Kickapoo tribal chairman Cadue adds, “It’s already been successful in my mind because of the Native American inclusion. The stars in the film are Native Americans. When you’ve been left out all these years, just being invited is success.”