Based on the prologue of Gwen Florio’s novel Dakota, Konrad Thọ Fiedler’s debut short Running Eagle, sees the Pulitzer-Prize nominated photojournalist head into the frozen climes of the Blackfeet Nation reservation, Montana, for the unblinking story of a desperate American Indian girl on the run. Flowing seamlessly between the bitter realities of her situation and a lyrical connection to her heritage, Running Eagle firmly lays the ground for Konrad’s feature adaptation of the full novel. DN invited Konrad to share his experience of moving into the director’s chair.
I was on a photo assignment for a German tabloid, BILD, in Missoula, Montana for a week in December of 2014 – covering a high profile murder trial involving a German exchange student who was shot dead while trespassing in a local’s garage, stealing beer and pot. On my day off, I visited the local book shop Fact & Fiction, where I saw a striking cover for the novel Dakota by Gwen Florio, with silhouettes of oil derricks on it. Reading the blurb, I realized I should probably read this considering it seemed to incorporate many of the themes, people, and places that I had wanted to combine in a possible first feature ever since a recent toad trip across the Great Plains prairie. It was on this trip through the epicenter of the North Dakota oil boom as well as introductions to Plains Indian native lands that I began to wonder about creating a story combining these things.
Finishing Gwen’s novel on the plane home, I realized this was it – the story – what I wanted my first feature to be. I started the process of acquiring the right to adapt. It became a pretty long process after a bum contract negotiation involving an incompetent literary agent, but in the end it all worked out. The script adaptation was its own interesting learning process for me as my first time doing one. Revisions are ongoing, but I am happy with where it’s at now and ready to share it with producers and investors. I like adapting and will likely do it again.
These compromises and adjustments can provide their own good opportunities if you remain open to them.
I knew that as a new director, it would be a good idea to do a teaser short to showcase what I and my collaborators could do, to share a proof of world and tone to accompany the feature script. After a modest crowdfunding campaign and a bank loan, my girlfriend Tina and I went to Montana. We were lucky to get in touch with Lily Gladstone, a prominent Blackfeet actress. She helped us get our footing in Browning on the reservation there, where we met more members of the Blackfeet Nation.
It proved so valuable to the project for me to be in Blackfeet country for two months before shooting both for the further development of the story and production logistics. I met her uncle Alex Gladstone, who gave me good background knowledge on the tribe and shared wonderful locations to shoot at along the border of the reservation and breathtaking mountains in Glacier National Park. Through Leona Tracey I was privileged to attend a buffalo harvest where I met other wonderful tribal leaders from the Crazy Dogs Society. They would go on to teach me even more, influencing the story’s buffalo scene. I am indebted to Sheldon Carlson for introducing me to Richard and Larry Ground. Larry would go on to be the lead singer on the Walk Holy song I recorded of the Crazy Dogs after another trip to Montana after the initial January 2016 shoot.
The Glacier Park / Browning Montana area posed there own challenges shooting in winter. It was actually more mild than it appears on camera, and boy did I obsess for a bit too long on trying to acquire a snow machine. I couldn’t afford one in the end, and adjusted the script’s dialogue a bit to reflect the fact that recreating a ground blizzard was beyond our means. In the end, it wasn’t essential to the story and I learned that these compromises and adjustments can provide their own good opportunities if you remain open to them.
My immensely talented and up and coming star Cinematographer Benjamin Kitchens came a few days early and helped put together a killer schedule and helped us solve some story and blocking mechanics for the escape scene. He hooked up a greatly reduced deal from Panavision in Los Angeles and we ended up with an amazing camera package of an Arri Alexa and Primo anamorphic lenses. Big thank you to Mike Carter at Panavision for that. Also, my girlfriend Tina has been so helpful on this project. She helped arrange travel logistics to Montana for our crew and was the film’s costume designer. She was especially instrumental in the wonderful scene of our lead, Devery Jacobs, in the clothing store.
Our first day of shooting proved pivotal emotionally for me and the rest of our cast and crew on our very short four day shoot. We jumped right in with the dynamics of shooting a live buffalo herd and Sheldon and Larry proved able herders. Sheldon’s nephew Red Plume Yellow Owl was the perfect brother for our lead in this scene. Without ruining the film, I did want to mention that he had an epileptic seizure in our isolated snow prairie location. The entire crew huddled around him to keep him warm and block the wind and our set medic and actor Michael Campasano did his thing as we waited a while for an ambulance to show up in this remote snowbound area. I can’t stress how important it is to have a set medic or safety person on set. Always. So grateful we did. I will never forget this day. There were other surprises that I’d rather not get into with risk of spoiling the movie. This vivid day is forever etched in my mind’s eye. The rest of the shoot went smoothly with some difficulty involving logistics of an eighteen wheeler on a snowy mountain pass just before sunrise that ended up working out as well. To the film gods!
I can’t stress how important it is to have a set medic or safety person on set. Always.
I am a new director and it was such a good first experience for me working with such a great cast. Devery Jacobs and Heath McGough are such rising stars and true professionals. A quick rehearsal with the two of them and cultural advisor Craig Falcon in Dev’s motel room just before proved helpful in making the dialogue even more authentic. Devery is so talented and she brings a wonderful, subtle force that hits you emotionally and viscerally. She can really demand and hold a close-up. Live the imagined life on screen. I am learning that the most important thing I can do as a director is listen to my collaborators as well as the real people of real places that I am trying to depict. I think my experience as a photojournalist for many years has given me a documentary we sensibility and approach that I will carry with me into every project going forward.
The post process was yet another very good learning experience for me as I began to find my way as a director. I came up with a cut quite quickly with Editor Julian Ong. After much deliberation and additional feedback, I made the hard decision to keep editing myself as I needed the time and space to try different things with the material, and it would be the many months of this process of editing myself that has made me a better filmmaker. I think going forward I may just try to edit more. Time to actually learn how to do so with much more efficiency and ability.
Cinematographer Ben Kitchens introduced me to Ricky Gausis over at MPC and I think I’ve found my colorist. What a talent. We ended up with another great recommendation in Sound Editor and Mixer Michael McDonald at Private Island Audio, and he along with my Supervising Sound Designer Lester Mendoza and Sound Designer Terah “Bishop” Woodley II made this piece really sing, giving it the aural impact it deserves.
It is so wonderful to shepherd our little movie out into the world now at festivals like Raindance, Hawaii International, Red Nation, and hopefully more. I can’t wait for it to grow into an epic feature that I think many will want to see, provoke thought, ask more questions, and provide an emotional punch in the gut.