Woman Walks Ahead and Finding the Female Gaze in the Old West

Woman Walks Ahead director Susanna White on the necessity of reconfiguring the Western for the female gaze in new Jessica Chastain film.

The first time I meet Susanna White, director of this month’s incredibly timely Western, Woman Walks Ahead, her movie is about to have its American premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. And, fortuitously, it’s a banner year for the Lower Manhattan fest since nearly half of the directors showcasing their movies in 2018 are women. This welcome expansion of the film conversation is also a point of pride for White; the industry is growing from its traditional prism, which is more than fitting for Woman Walks Ahead’s debut.

A remarkably self-aware and poignant look at America’s past, Woman Walks Ahead stars Jessica Chastain as real-life painter and artist Catherine Weldon, a Brooklyn woman of means. In the 1880s, she defied convention by traveling to the Dakota Territory to paint Lakota leader Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes) and, slowly, come to the realization that American policy was deliberately starving and torturing the Lakota people in an attempt to force them to give up more land.

Released now in a time where American policy still can victimize the vulnerable and misrepresent children as the “Other,” White’s film stands as a testament to a line delivered by its own Col. Groves (Sam Rockwell), a cavalryman who cannot forget his own demons from Indian wars gone by. “It’s not the history until it’s over.”

During our discussion with White, we talked about the various elements that make this one of the most thoughtful and socially conscious of modern Westerns, and how it recontextualizes the familiar “Cavalry and Indians” conflict from an often undervalued perspective—such as how Weldon herself was undervalued by society in her lifetime.

“Imagine what it was like to set out on your own from Brooklyn in the 1880s as a woman and to do what she did,” White says while considering the determined and mostly erased historical figure that she, Chastain, and screenwriter Steven Knight attempted to find. It was that unlikely parallel between a woman, even one of relative wealth, and a boxed in Lakota chieftain that made the project so appealing.

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“[It’s] a Western told through a female gaze and that made it very remarkable to me. I knew that was a film I had to make, because it’s a film about two people whose voices weren’t being heard: Catherine Weldon, in a time before women had the vote, and Sitting Bull, struggling to maintain the way of life of the Lakota people.”

It is also a movie about our past and future. During the production of the film, members of the crew who were of Lakota heritage would drive up in their off days to join the protests at Standing Rock against the Dakota Access Pipeline, which poses a potential threat to sacred burial grounds and the quality of water in Native American reservations. And at the same time, there were still rare opportunities looking toward a shared history—such as White being allowed to witness a sacred Sun Dance ceremony (which has a pivotal role in Woman Walks Ahead).

“We had a Native American advisor on the movie, called Yvonne Russo,” White says. “She invited me to a Sun Dance on the Rosebud Reservation where her mother is one of the elders. I spent three nights camping out with them. I was allowed to witness this amazing spiritual ceremony. It was a very profound experience, actually.”

It is also one of the many fascinating aspects of a film that proves the past is never really the past. We discuss as much in the full interview below.

I think a good place to begin is, generally, what have Westerns meant to you in your life, as a filmmaker and just as a connoisseur of film?

I grew up on Westerns. Like a lot of British people, we had a lot of good movies on TV on the weekend… On a Saturday afternoon, I would sit with my Dad and we’d watch John Ford films. Growing up in England, where it was small, and hemmed in, and we had oppressive gray skies, and the houses are small, and things are crowded, to have this epic sense of landscape, and big skies, and horses, there was a lot for me to like about that. At the same time, I thought it was a world I didn’t connect with, in that it was a very male world, where men were men. Women didn’t get to do that much in that world.

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Certainly not John Ford.

Right. When I was sent this script by Steve Knight, it was like a magnet to me. It had a lot of the qualities that I had loved in Westerns, or indeed movies like Nick Roeg’s Walkabout. It had this very strong sense of place, but what it was, was a Western told through a female gaze and that made it very remarkable to me. I knew that was a film I had to make, because it’s a film about two people whose voices weren’t being heard: Catherine Weldon, in a time before women had the vote, and Sitting Bull, struggling to maintain the way of life of the Lakota people.

Were you aware of Sitting Bull or of Catherine Weldon before you saw the screenplay?

I’d certainly never heard of Catherine Weldon before I saw the screenplay. She was really a footnote in the history books. I had read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, which I found an incredibly powerful story of a terrible, terrible piece of history. I think one of the other things that really marks this film out is the sophistication that Steve Knight brought in the writing, to Sitting Bull’s character. He was a very layered character. You see his sophistication, you see his sense of humor, you see his spirituality.

I thought there was a real interest in not just demystifying or deconstructing the popular, mythical image of him. I love he’s introduced as a potato farmer and he wanted to know about Catherine’s train from New York.

Right. The other thing is, if you rethink back to those Westerns I certainly grew up on, you always see the Native Americans in their buckskins and feathers. When we started looking at documentary photographs of the time, they were mostly wearing Western clothing, because it was illegal for them to wear traditional dress. It was a way of controlling people. They were told to destroy their traditional clothing. They weren’t allowed to practice spiritual ceremonies. When we looked at the reference photos, and there was a book which became really our bible in the making of the movie, called Eyewitness at Wounded Knee, the pictures of that community was, a lot of the Native Americans were wearing Western dress. The first time we see Sitting Bull, he’s in Western clothing.

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It was a choice I made with Stephanie Collie, the costume designer, that we’d start out with the Western clothing, and then as Sitting Bull makes a decision that he’s going to stand up at the Commission and defend the land rights, we would see the significance as he puts on his war shirt again for the first time. He presents that image to Catherine, which is the one she’s been expecting to find when she first arrives. We see gradually more of the traditional Native dress being reintroduced. We worked really hard to get really good traditional bead work and detailing, and get the colors right, and bring an authenticity to that.

As Sitting Bull, I think Michael gave a very beautiful performance. I think it’s counterintuitive to what audiences would expect. Could you talk about bringing a different side to Sitting Bull, that at least moviegoers might find unexpected?

When I went out to the Dakotas to do some research and I spent some time, people were very generous, and I was welcomed into witnessing a Sun Dance ceremony. Two things I really discovered about the people, there’s a very deep spirituality to this community. They’re very in tune with the natural world. I think there’s a big environmental message, which we have to learn from the film, about people who lived in harmony with nature.

When I talked to people about Sitting Bull, I felt this tremendous weight of responsibility in depicting him. And what people said time and time again, or the first thing people would say, was that he was above all a spiritual leader. You’d find these gnomic quotes from him, things like, “A white person wants to buy our land. What? Do they think they can buy the sky as well?” This idea of ownership of the land was so antithetical to who they were as a culture. “The land was here before any of us. We move through it in our lifetime. It’ll be there after any of us.” It was very, very important for me to bring this spiritual quality to Sitting Bull.

I also needed someone of immense intelligence, because he was a very, very clever man, Sitting Bull. Michael has all that intelligence. He’s a Professor of Theatre Arts. He teaches at York University. He also has this background as a dancer, so he had a wonderful physicality about him. What I really loved was this gentleness about Michael, which isn’t what we’ve seen in the movies before, but that was very much at the heart of the Sitting Bull that I wanted to bring to the screen—this spiritual leader of enormous wisdom, but who also was playful. The Lakota people, they’re great jokers, and they’re very, very funny. They like to tease. I had to have all those things in an actor, and actually that wasn’t an easy thing to find.

I think the gentleness is exactly what’s so remarkable about the performance. You said you saw a Sun Dance. Could you talk about that a little?

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We had a Native American advisor on the movie, called Yvonne Russo. She invited me to a Sun Dance on the Rosebud Reservation where her mother is one of the elders. I spent three nights camping out with them. I was allowed to witness this amazing spiritual ceremony. It was a very profound experience, actually. Several years before [that], I’d been invited by a filmmaker who I met at the Sundance Film Festival to witness a Hopi ceremony, which again was one of the most moving things I’ve ever encountered in my life. I kind of get goosebumps thinking about it.

I wanted this other sense of America, I think, this ancient America. This ancient land. There’s a shot in the movie where you see the hooves of the horses and the footsteps, and you see a pictogram on a rock, that’s a bit of a nod to Walkabout. When we were filming in New Mexico, there would be these carvings on the rocks all around us, and I think for most people in Europe, we think of modern America, but I wanted a sense of old, old America, that’s as ancient as the Europe I come from.

What did the relationship between Catherine and Sitting Bull mean to you? How do you view their partnership?

I think it was a connection, a kind of meeting of minds, really. They were two people who really understood each other, who didn’t have a voice, didn’t have a public voice. For Catherine… more research is emerging all the time. When the screenplay was written, there were only three letters known where she’d written to Sitting Bull, and a couple of press cuttings where she’d been given negative publicity as “Sitting Bull’s White Squaw.” A lot of it was in Steven Knight’s imagination.

I really appreciated that her first letter in the movie, they burned. They’re already trying to erase her from history before she even gets there.

Exactly, exactly. She was really an extraordinary, brave human being. Imagine what it was like to set out on your own from Brooklyn in the 1880s as a woman and to do what she did. She arrives, and people are trying to turn her back, and she won’t take no for an answer. For her to have done what she did, and live on the reservation as she did, was truly amazing. But also I think it was amazing because what she found was people she felt at home with. People who recognized her as a human being. That scene where Sitting Bull tells her that she should live more and she should live her life and be herself, he’s saying she has value, actually. He endorses her as someone who has value.

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One of the connections between them, for example, is this artist. He recognizes her as an artist, at a time when women weren’t allowed to be artists. She recognizes the artist in him, and they connect through humor. I didn’t want this to be a kind of schlocky romance, that’s the bad version of this movie. We steered clear of that.

How much did you try to steer away from that?

We tried to steer away from it because I think it’s about a meeting of minds. I think there’s a massive freedom in being with someone who really understands you as a human being. I think that’s the freedom they experience together. She was free to be herself. She didn’t have to pretend to be something she wasn’t, and nor did he. She appreciated him for who he was as an individual.

I’m always saying, and I’ve done a lot of period drama, and I’m always saying it’s sheer accident of fate when our piece of DNA lands on the planet. Whether Susanna White was born in medieval times, or I landed in Victorian times, or I landed in 1960, or I landed in 2018, that is just an accident of the planet. I’m that same personality, and that’s always what I try to bring to my work. There may be social constructs that affect your development at that time, but basically you’re that piece of DNA, and that’s what I try to bring to the work.

Could you talk about working with Jessica in bringing Catherine to life?

It was amazing working with Jessica. Drawing up a wish list of who should play Catherine Weldon, she was absolutely number one. There was no contest, because she’s so close to her. She’s so feisty and brave and distinctive, and politically outspoken, just as Catherine was. She’s unafraid. She was unafraid as an actress. She wanted, in those scenes when she’s pulling the trunk, she wanted to be sweaty. She wanted to go for it and feel what it would have been like to be a woman in a corset, trying to do that journey at that time.

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For someone so beautiful, she’s not the least bit vain. What she cares about is doing good work as an actress, and she’s truly one of the greatest actresses we have at the moment. It’s been such a privilege working with her. She’s a generous actress with other people. She was very generous around people who were less experienced than she was. Just all about the work really.

I love her introduction where she says in voiceover “my period of grieving is over.” You then see her throw her late husband’s portrait into the river. Was that your idea for the opening?

We played with that for a bit. At one point, we had some scenes with her with her parents, and then we decided to drop those scenes. I just wanted to keep some sense of her backstory. It was really crucial to me that we had the sense of this very oppressive marriage that she’d been in at a time when women were controlled by men. You were controlled by your father or your husband, or your brother. I just wanted the sense of this feisty individual with a sense of humor, essentially. Steven has always written the moment where she throws the painting off the bridge, but I love that line, it’s so Catherine Weldon. I also love that shot where you go into her subconscious really, as she’s imagining her husband disappearing under the water.

In contrast, another aspect I really like about this movie is how it is aware that there are blind spots to privilege. Catherine Weldon is doing a really wonderful thing, trying to help these people, but she is unaware of all the political dynamics at play, and how even her good intentions can be used against the Lakota people. Could you talk about how important that was to you too?

It was very important to both Steven and myself to come into this movie through Catherine’s eyes and ears. She is very naïve, entering into the world. Unlike actually the real Catherine Weldon, who was politically active before she ever went there, she’d met an Iroquois Indians in Brooklyn and became interested in the movement. She was actually, in real life, what Sam Rockwell accuses her of being, on the train [an activist].

Anyway, our Catherine Weldon in the movie, she’s very naïve and essentially powerless. She doesn’t save them, she’s a witness to what happens. There’s no way in which she saves those Lakota people from their fate. I think she’s a witness to the injustice. We see her meet Sitting Bull. She’s an outsider, as I’m an outsider making the movie, basically. It’s very deliberate that we see it through her gaze.

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Related to this, Sam’s character ironically has some insight, despite being a very flawed person, when he says, “It’s not history till it’s over.” When it comes to the West, do you think it’s ever really over?

The sad truth of making this move was how relevant this message is still is—that we built our Fort Yates and we were creating our Standing Rock, at a time when the Dakota Pipeline protests were going on. Some of our Lakota crew members were driving up there on their days off to take food and take tents and supplies to people. It felt so timely. These issues have not begun to go away. They’re as alive as they ever were. Thank God women now do have a voice, unlike Catherine Weldon, we have the vote. Forty-six percent of the directors at Tribeca are women, but very sadly, for the people at Standing Rock, these issues have truly not gone away.

… I really hope that in the coming years, we’re going to see plenty of the films at Tribeca being directed by Native American filmmakers. I’d love to see those stories told by them. I think what hopefully we’ve done is shine a beam on a really important piece of history and a really remarkable woman, whose story had been swept under the carpet.

So many Westerns that deal with this subject, like Hostiles just last year, always focus on the violence or the brutality of it. I think that there’s something more true about focusing on the people, or the effect of it, as opposed to scalping.

That was very, very important to me in making the film, that it didn’t major on the violence. It majors on the consequences of violence. It’s something I discovered when I was making Generation Kill, that actually even for the marines, you have long periods of boredom interspersed with tiny pieces of extreme violence, which then affect you for the rest of your life. What we see in the movie is Sam Rockwell as a character with PTSD, who’s been really affected by what he’s witnessed. He and I worked very hard on that.

It was very, very important to me that I showed Sitting Bull as someone essentially gentle and spiritual, who’s been forced into defending his people and their rights. It isn’t about violence. We do see one piece of violence, well two moments… Even in cutting the trailer, there was a version of the trailer which had a moment of Jessica being beaten up, and it was important to me that that was taken out, because I didn’t want that to be seen as the main thing in the movie. I didn’t want it to be seen.

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It’s not the point.

It’s what sets it apart from other Westerns. It has the female gaze; it is about the land; about real people who think and breathe, and that violence has consequences. That’s what I wanted to see. I wanted to make something that had an important political message, that doesn’t show violence necessarily, but reflects on the consequences of it.

Woman Walks Ahead is on DIRECTV now and opens in theaters on Friday, June 29.