Archive for Friday, November 6, 2009

Western union: ‘Only Good Indian’ explores cultural history through revisionist drama

Wes Studi stars in "The Only Good Indian" by Lawrence filmmaker Kevin Willmott.

Wes Studi stars in "The Only Good Indian" by Lawrence filmmaker Kevin Willmott.

November 6, 2009


Past Event
Local premiere of Kevin Willmott's "The Only Good Indian"

  • When: Friday, November 6, 2009, 7:05 p.m.
  • Where: Liberty Hall Cinema, 644 Massachussets Street, Lawrence
  • Cost: $8
  • More on this event....

Lawrence film director Kevin Willmott spent the week in

Alaska, where his latest work, “The Only Good Indian,” opened at theaters as part of Native American Heritage Month.

Despite the subject matter of the feature being firmly rooted in Kansas history, the project resonated with the Anchorage community.

“There will be people after screenings who come up to you, and they’ll give you what I now call ‘the look,’” Willmott says.

“There will be tears in their eyes — a lady in Alaska just ran up and hugged me. It’s because they went to boarding school or their mother went to a boarding school. And this is a piece of history that no one has acknowledged before.”

That forgotten history serves as the crux of “The Only Good Indian,” which was shot in Kansas during the summer of 2007. In the film, newcomer Winter Fox Frank plays a teenager taken from his family during the early 1900s and forcibly sent to Haskell under government orders to integrate into white society. He escapes with the intention of returning to his tribe on the Kickapoo of Kansas reservation. Wes Studi portrays a Cherokee bounty hunter hired to recapture the student, and J. Kenneth Campbell plays a legendary “Indian fighter”-turned-sheriff who ultimately pursues them both.

The independent movie makes its Lawrence premiere tonight at Liberty Hall, 644 Mass.

Willmott considers the project a “revisionist western.”

“It’s revisionist in that it’s told from the point of view of Native Americans,” says Willmott, an associate professor of theater and film at Kansas University. “There’s not a white surrogate in the film to make the story ‘OK.’ I want people to experience the story from the point of view of the people it’s about. That still is a huge challenge in America.”

The film has done well recently in competitions at the Newport Beach International Film Festival, Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and the Tallgrass Film Festival in Wichita, where it set attendance records. While the festival circuit has embraced the project, Willmott really considers Native Americans as his primary target audience.

“You have to narrow it down to a group of folks you can depend on,” he says. “We know we have a film everybody will like — ‘everybody’ means anybody who has a brain. But the challenge of self-distribution is you’ve got to get it to them. So you got to start with the people you can count on and go from there.”

Community outreach

When writer-producer Tom Carmody first came up with the story in 2005, he turned to the Native American community for help with ensuring the tale was culturally and historically truthful.

“Dan Wildcat and Hanay Geiogamah, who are co-executive producers on the film, really looked at it from a Native American perspective — since I’m not Native American — and they were saying, ‘No, that wouldn’t have happened. You might consider this.’ That made a huge difference for us,” Carmody recalls.

Carmody points to certain changes that were introduced, such as a scene that originally depicted Haskell students as being brought there in chains. Wildcat corrected that as being historically inaccurate, and switched the detail to only those who had attempted escape being tied with ropes.

Another scene initially had the school characters visiting a neighboring graveyard at night in honor of the fellow students who had died there.

“Dan said there would be no way they would have gone at night,” Carmody explains.

Additionally, input from members of the Kickapoo tribe of Kansas proved valuable. Tribal elder George Whitewater and tribal member Howard Allen taught the actors the intricacy of the Kickapoo language for scenes set within the culture.

“People in general were very helpful,” Carmody says. “Everybody realizes we were a low-budget film, but we were trying to tell an important story.”

Star power

“The Only Good Indian” got its biggest break in January when it was selected to the prestigious Sundance Film Festival.

Along with the notoriety that accompanies such an exclusive honor, the movie is perhaps best bolstered by the good fortune of landing Wes Studi as one of its central characters. A veteran of films such as “The Last of the Mohicans,” “Dances with Wolves,” “Heat” and the upcoming “Avatar,” Studi is arguably the most recognizable Native American actor on the planet.

Calling from his home in New Mexico, where he is spending the afternoon riding horses, Studi says he is conscientious when first reading a script that it represents native culture accurately.

“I pay attention to that almost automatically,” he says. “I don’t make a huge point of it, but on the other hand, if I see huge discrepancies that I feel are over the line I’ll definitely do something about it. I want to keep things as authentic as possible, especially if we’re describing a particular people.”

Has he turned down roles if depictions were inauthentic?

“Perhaps if they were insensitive, yes,” he says.

As for Hollywood’s portrayal of native cultures, Studi says, “It improves or doesn’t improve according to the American dollar. Or maybe we’re going by euros these days.”

That is just one of many worries when it comes to the current motion picture industry. Studi, whose career is always bouncing between big-budget blockbusters and intimate indies, understands the difficulties in putting together an enterprise such as “The Only Good Indian.”

“Independent film is in one of the worst positions it’s been in for a good long while,” he says. “Before the boom in the last decade with the Weinstein era, it was moving along at a pace where it had a place in Hollywood. But now with the conglomerations of television and film and every kind of entertainment you can imagine due to new technologies, it’s a new ballgame. And independent film is looking for a way to be seen.”

Independent spiral

While “The Only Good Indian” has picked up a foreign distributor — PorchLight Entertainment — it still has yet to secure a stateside deal.

Carmody says his production team is instead preparing to employ a release strategy which will launch by selling the DVD on its Web site (

“Phase two would be to try and get into the bigger box stores like Wal-Mart and Best Buy. Then their third phase would be to approach somebody like a Redbox or Blockbuster who might buy a large quantity on a national basis,” Carmody says.

The filmmakers say they are also near to closing a deal with movie channel Starz.

Willmott says, “The model for the future for independent film is you’re going to have to self-distribute, unless you’re making films that do well within the Hollywood model, like certain horror films. It’s not that other films can’t work, it’s just that you have to convince them of that. And that’s really hard in a time of no money.”


lawrencerealist 8 years, 2 months ago

This is the problem with Lawrence's supposed film scene. It's basically all one guy. Kevin Willmott couldn't hack it in the big leagues, where his biggest gigs were all as a writer and where he was never going to get his shot to be a big time director. Instead he exploits KU resources to try to make a name for himself. Yes he's giving practical experience to a select few, but if you look at all of these projects, it's mostly all the same people working on them. The grunt work is done by students who get paid nothing which hardly creates jobs in the area. So where's the real benefit for the community?

Plus these aren't quality projects. C.S.A. was pedestrian at best and Bunker Hill was absolutely dreadful. It's not the indie film that's dying. Willmott just hasn't come up with a project that brings anything new to the table. They all involve some similar tale of an ethnic or racial minority challenging the majority either explicitly within the film or by its composition in the first place. It's not dynamic.

If Willmott really wants to make a difference, he should take a backseat to students who want to write and direct. He could use his "connections" to help produce films created by KU students instead of trying to take all the glory for himself. A college town should be where kids are getting the experiences that they would never get once they're fully immersed in the industry. Students will have plenty of opportunities to work as assistants once they graduate. It seems as if Willmott simply won't let the spotlight go without leaving his teeth marks all over it.

rbwaa 8 years, 2 months ago

I wish there had been advance notice for this film. Will there be another showing in Lawrence?

jniccum 8 years, 2 months ago

rbwaa: The film starts a regular booking all week at Liberty Hall. If attendance is strong, it may run longer.

sun45kiss 8 years, 2 months ago

They all involve some similar tale of an ethnic or racial minority challenging the majority either explicitly within the film or by its composition in the first place. You are so right I'm tired of films like reminds me of the Bay Area's attitude. It's all about suffering, and how BAD America is. Is there anybody out there that can make a uplifting film about America regarding Native Americans, Black people etc. something that says WE LOVE AMERICA-GOD Bless America despite her wrongs. Good grief I'm sick of the Doom and Gloom stories about America. Despite slavery and all that came with it, as a Black, Irish, Native American I'm proud of my country.

Leslie Swearingen 8 years, 2 months ago

If someone or their family suffers though some act that might have been averted, then others must acknowledge that hurt. You only change something if you know it is wrong. This is not solely a Native problem, this is the problem of all who collaborate in any way with the implementation of these ideas. We are all children of God and we need to start acting that way. God loves all of His children no matter what name they call him, just as within our families, the title of father, grandfather, brother, uncle, cousin, does not alter the fact that all are still family.

jonas_opines 8 years, 2 months ago

"Is there anybody out there that can make a uplifting film about America regarding Native Americans."

You mean, someone willing to lie, right?

heyheymama 8 years, 2 months ago

What interesting comments so far. It seems that when any minority person gains notoriety there is so much hostility piled on them from a certain portion of their own community. This is not very uplifting at all for someone in our own community who is actually DOING projects with the help of other uplifting people. Maybe because these negative people weren't asked to participate??? I don't know. I am interested to see how they bring to light the story about HASKELL. And the complaint of these stories not being uplifting or positive, I am happy they are taking such pains to make the accurate. As a native person living in this community and working at HASKELL I find it very uplifting to have some attention brought to these issues. I saw his play "ninth street" at Marymount College of Kansas years ago when we both went to school there and it was one of the best productions I've ever seen of any color.

motherof4 8 years, 2 months ago

Keep up the amazing work Mr. Willmott!! I am very proud of all that you do!!!

I can't wait to see the film! Congrats!

lawrencerealist 8 years, 2 months ago

consumer, I'm not questioning Willmott's drive. Quite simply, if he was doing such extraordinary work then why isn't he landing bigger projects or, better yet, why has he apparently never secured funding for "Wilt of Kansas," the locally-hyped movie about Wilt Chamberlain that was supposed to have been shot more than two years ago?

It's great that you hope the film is successful, but consider what you would consider a success for this film. He's not going to be known for this film any more than he is known for "Bunker Hill." He's still mentioned more for C.S.A.

As for my credentials, this isn't about me any more than it should be about Willmott. Without getting into specifics, I've been working in the entertainment industry on national projects long enough to have a discerning eye for quality. Does it mean I could do better? I don't know. I'm not trying to be Kevin Willmott.

"Maybe because these negative people weren't asked to participate???"

I wouldn't care if Kevin Willmott refused to shake my hand. This is no more about me than it should be about him. Stories like this always point out Willmott's status as an assistant professor. If anything, I challenge him to take a less visible role by focusing on providing opportunities for students to write and direct with him in a producing role. He has often referred to Austin as a model for what Lawrence's film community could be. The city will never make that leap if we continue to have but one person doing nearly every film coming out of Lawrence.

I don't think it's all about being uplifting. Many stories aren't uplifting and can't realistically be made positive. My point is that you can only go with the whole "it's the story no one else has been willing to tell" angle for so long. When that sums up every project you do, something is wrong.

"It seems that when any minority person gains notoriety there is so much hostility piled on them from a certain portion of their own community."

Who ever said that this had anything to do with Willmott being a minority? I'm several minorities, and other posters have identified themselves as being multiple minorities as well. There are people of all shapes, sizes, colors, and creeds who have done good and bad quality work. I have no hostility toward Willmott at all. I don't agree with him seemingly refusing to put all of his energy into promoting student work or work in the community in favor of his own projects, but I don't take issue with him personally.

heyheymama 8 years, 2 months ago

consumer1: not including everybody, thats why i wrote "a certain portion of our community". my personal opinion is that some people do get nervous when the native population is mentioned. i admit i do not understand your point (lawrencerealist) because i am not in the film industry. However this is a real story and i am anxious to see how well its done and so til then i will reserve judgement.

Gerald Kendrick 8 years, 2 months ago

Hey Lawrencerealist, instead of complaining about Kevin Wilmott efforts, motivations and creativity why don't you get off your arse and do something notable yourself!

farmgal 8 years, 2 months ago

sun45kiss, i'd suggest Smoke Signals (written by Sherman Alexie).

i want to see this film (only good indian) even though i've been told by a friend who works in the film industry that it didn't turn out very good. i really like wes studi as an actor, but i'm told he was a real pain the a$$, primadonna during the making of this movie.

legitactor 8 years, 2 months ago

I have to chime in here in defense of Kevin Willmott and especially Tom Carmody. I played Sheriff McCoy in The Only Good Indian. I believed in this picture because my character so mirrored the disillusioned veteran who does all the dirty work and ends up an isolated madman who because of the trauma and hardship he has suffered in the service of his country is no longer fit to participate in the society he fought so long and hard to establish I have worked with more then one Academy award winning director and for the money Kevin had, which wouldn’t cover the extras in most films, I thought he did the best anyone could do. Tom Carmody, when he created Henry McCoy crafted the most accurate three dimensional depiction of PTSD in the history of modern film. I know this because in 1967 and 1968 in Vietnam, I went through a sample of what Henry McCoy experienced from 1861 to 1886. So yeah this story is told from the Indian perspective but it is also a testament to the aggressor’s pain.

bizymama 8 years, 2 months ago

Look, to all of you who try to analyze this or that......The truth be told American Indians have all been given the shaft some way some how in history. My dad grew up in these all indian boarding institutions. He went to Wahpeton Indian School and Haskell. Nobody cared about him but he survived. Because of these government institutions I have lost all the traditonal values that he could have passed down to me. Yeah I'm alittle bitter, but I prevail. Please do not tear each other apart because of the different ways you have been raised.

lawdog 8 years, 2 months ago

Wes Studi played in Dances with Wolves, Last of The Mohicans, Heat (Robert De Niro, Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore) and the leading role in the movie 'Geronimo'. Very accomplished actor and such a good person to know. I don't care about the things said in regards to Kevin Willmott, I just know he has my support as well as a lot of Natives here in Lawrence.

Paul R Getto 8 years, 2 months ago

Good job, Wes. Tell the truth, even when it hurts.

Darrell Lea 8 years, 2 months ago

The comments of lawrencerealist are particulary disheartening because they are so typical of certain aspects of Lawrence culture over the years.

Specifically, when someone from Lawrence, KS actually gets their work outside of the community to a wider audience, there always seems to be some local taking potshots at them from the sidelines. The most blatant example of this kind of backstabbing I remember was when the band PAW were signed to A&M Records. A good portion of the local music community spent a good portion of their energy trying to tear the boys down, rather than congratulate them for their success.

It seems to me that if one really wants to succeed in the world, one of the first things they would want to do is get the heck out of Posertown. Think what you will of Kevin's work. The fact that he chooses to work in Lawrence and create jobs when he's doing so is commendable.

lawrencerealist - have you done any work that the rest of us should be aware of, or do you just like to bag on others?

BigBlack 8 years, 2 months ago

'lawrencerealist' has all the signs of bitterness - talk about someone who couldn't "hack it in L.A."

First of all, whatever your opinions of Wilmott's work - which you're entitled to, of course - he has managed to accomplish making 4 feature films, and did have a decent living writing scripts for the likes of Oliver Stone... now just what have YOU done, lately?

The fact is, rather than make a living writing scripts that don't get made into movies, he decided to pursue a path where he COULD get his films made. It's not an easy path; and I dare say that there's lots more money writing empty projects for idiots.

Kevin is not the only game in town -- there's the musical AIR by the ThroughAGlass production company, and the film about Stan Herd, EARTHWORKS, that just screened at the Austin Film Festival recently, plus smaller projects and things currently in the pipe that you'll hear about over the next year or so... but Kevin has been at this awhile and is finally getting some notice. So of course, everyone wants to take their shot.

Regarding student help - when I was in film school in the 80's, I'd have given a testicle to be able to work on something "real" -- "real" in this case, being defined as working with professional actors and having a shot to be seen by a wide audience. As good as film school was, in terms of practical experience, nothing beats actually jumping in and doing it. That's where the REAL learning process begins -- when there's actual money on the line and harsh judgments are dispatched.

Next is the whole "he can't do a REAL film" argument that pops up from time to time - usually from the mouths of frustrated commercial hacks, mouthy students who have either nothing or backyard gore movies to their names, or bitter, jealous nobodies.

Please rent "Ninth Street", "C.S.A.", and go to TOGI and "BUNKER HILL" when the opportunity presents itself. Like any director, there's a learning curve... with every project, the bar is raised a bit, and previous skills are sharpened and new ones are acquired.

If you expect Willmott's work to have the technical proficiency of someone like, say, James Cameron, you're gonna be disappointed... that's not his interest and there are plenty of people who can do all sorts of technical wizardry to dazzle the eye. If, on the other hand, you like stories about realistic, human characters in interesting situations... he does that very well, and maybe there'll be a little technical dazzle.

Last point: any of these people could go running off out of state to make their fame and fortune and forget about any sort of 'community' here. These guys DIDN'T. They, and others like them, for whatever reason are determined to make their stories HERE, in KS... and that ain't easy, especially in the current climate.

If you want to hate on Willmott, go on ahead - but I'd stop the hatin', and put my money where my mouth is and DO something...

You think you can do better? Good - DO IT!

stoecker 8 years, 2 months ago

I worked on The Only Good Indian for 50 days as the Key Grip. I'm a professional in the film industry now and have been working lighting for 5 years. I got my start under Kevin and his DP, Matt Jacobson. I owe them a great deal. I have worked everything from the smallest of the small indie films to films produced by Paramount Pictures and I'm proud to have worked on The Only Good Indian. And please let me assure you that Wes Studi was a wonderful professional actor to work with every day and not difficult as some commenter asserted above. There is way too much muck and mire on this thread to delve in, but let me please contribute the very real fact that students and young professionals are given an opportunity when they work on these locally produced films that hardly no other film school grants, which is full feature length work experience.

Michael Stoecker

lawrencerealist 8 years, 2 months ago

Not that anyone is still reading this so many days after the story ran, but I'll put this out there just in case.

I don't make a big deal of the experience I have because I don't think it's relevant to this specific discussion and it's simply not in my personality to get into a measuring contest based on experience.

My criticism of Kevin Willmott lies in the fact that I think you can't have it both ways. I am not trying to tear anyone down for staying locally rooted or for branching out nationally. If I felt that way and did harp on my professional experiences, I'd be quickly revealed as a hypocrite. At some point, though, it comes off as a bit disingenuous, at least to me. Is he local because he doesn't have the in to do something at a higher level? Is he local because he can't raise the money to produce something where free labor isn't an option? Or is it both?

These guys work around paying union rates, which is a sketchy practice at best, and rely on unpaid labor. So, how many paying jobs are realistically being created by making these films? How is it stimulating growth or some other long-term benefit in the area?

I am well aware of projects like "Earthwork," and I attended a screening of "Bunker Hill." I know what the end product looks like, I know how it feels, I've seen first-hand the processes involved. It's not that the effort isn't there, but let's not applaud anyone for churning out quantity in a sea of mediocrity.

Instead of raising enough money one project at a time, why not try to raise money to sustain a better long-term operation for a steady stream of projects? I just think that it's too much of the same people doing what they always do, and it needs to be infused with some newer ideas.

BigBlack 8 years, 2 months ago

Now I KNOW you're an amateur... otherwise you'd know the answer to some of the questions you pose. Your experience - or LACK of it is precisely the point, when you come onto boards and insinuate that some people are untalented because they're exploiting college students, instead of running off to Hollywood to be exploited themselves.

It all comes down to MONEY, in the end... since you made the comment regarding WILT earlier, let's briefly look at that. The ideal situation would be to have some studio decide that, after reading the script, they'd invest several million into production, giving the director creative control.


Ugly little fact in filmmaking - there's hardly any big money being made 'below the line' (that's crew personnel) unless they're Union. The cost of an average Hollywood film is around $70 million dollars... if you remember last year's SOUTHLAND TALES, which some considered to be a huge bomb and the work of the DEVIL -- that was under $20 million. That's LOW BUDGET in Hollywood terms...

Most indie films are much less than that... MOON, one of the best films this year, cost about $5 million, practically a shoestring. The REAL lo-budget films cost even less than that - several thousand dollars, if you were shooting on actual film - now you can do stuff for almost nothing shooting digital.

So, it's not like anyone is swimming around in cash in doing these films.

Then, once it's done, you gotta sell the thing... and there lies your biggest problem. There's a lot of stuff out there to compete with, and the best stuff doesn't necessarily get out there immediately... and it doesn't necessarily bring in blockbuster amounts of cash.

You appear to have a plan - why don't you try providing some of those 'newer ideas', and experience for yourself first hand how easy the process is?

stoecker 8 years, 2 months ago

Hey lawrencerealist, I have to stop you from repeating this erroneous notion that the movies are made with free student labor. Everyone on the crew for both of Kevin's movies got paid. If a student came out on the weekends as a PA (production assistant), then they prob. worked for free, but that is the standard across the industry from Hollywood to NYC. When you're requested to be on set 80 hours a week, you get paid. When you're dropping by on Sundays only, you don't. Thats perfectly fair. And even though PA's are invaluable, its not the PA's that make the movie. Its the camera, grip, electric, make-up, art dept, wardrobe, script supervision, etc that make the film. The crew on TOGI was paid professionally. I know. I worked it. It was 10 weeks of professional pay for 40+ regional crew members. True, it wasn't a union picture. I'm a union member, are you? And as a union member I can tell you that the pay wasn't too much lower than a Tier 1 Union picture which is what TOGI would have been if it signed an IATSE contract. So please stop insisting that the films are made on the backs of free student labor.

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