Western Union: 'Only Good Indian' explores cultural history through revisionist drama

Wes Studi stars in "The Only Good Indian," by Lawrence filmmaker Kevin Willmott. Photo by Tyler Carmody.

Wes Studi stars in "The Only Good Indian," by Lawrence filmmaker Kevin Willmott. Photo by Tyler Carmody.


Only Good Indian ***


Lawrence filmmaker Kevin Willmott and screenwriter Tom Carmody craft a compelling revisionist western. Set in Kansas during the early 1900s, it follows the journey of a Kickapoo teen who escapes from an Indian "training" school to be pursued by a Cherokee bounty hunter (Wes Studi) and legendary sheriff (J. Kenneth Campbell).

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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 Friday at Liberty Hall.

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.”


Photo by Tyler Carmody

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 (theonlygoodindian.com).

“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.”


Emily Hampton 12 years, 11 months ago

This actually premieres tomorrow night if I'm not mistaken--7:05pm Liberty Hall, Friday Nov. 6th

lawrencerealist 12 years, 11 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.

Shelby 12 years, 11 months ago

Yeah, Kevin Willmott is definitely in it for "the spotlight".

blturner 12 years, 11 months ago

I took several of Willmott's courses while I was a student at KU. His classes were engaging and interesting, and I always looked forward to attending. One of the reasons his classes connect with students is because his passion and dedication for his craft is baked into everything he does. Some of the best teachings I got from the university are because of what he does. I look forward to seeing this film.

lawrencerealist 12 years, 11 months ago

I'm not suggesting that Kevin Willmott is a bad educator in the classroom or that he lacks a passion for his craft. My issue here is that he seems to be carrying on the Lawrence film community as a little club of instructors, professors, family and friends rather than truly opening it up to give Lawrence and KU true ownership of the product being produced. Whether it's really about attention or not, Willmott would be doing more to further the prominence of the city's film community if he wasn't always the only guy doing films. He has had his moment to pack Liberty Hall with people eager to see the latest project to come out of Lawrence. If he put the same effort into helping develop projects with students at the helm, I have no doubt that this community would rally around them just as much. There are a lot of students and others who I'm sure would jump at the opportunity to have greater roles if the door was more open to them. If he's going to achieve greatness as an educator, which I believe is ultimately a far superior legacy than what he would otherwise have as a filmmaker, he should be willing to take on a less visible role. No one would question his passion and dedication.

notjustastudent 12 years, 11 months ago

Kevin Wilmott has done more for students in film then you ever will by preaching on this website, lawrencerealist. How do think students get jobs after they graduate? By walking up to somebody and saying "um hi I'd like a job?" You need a resume, and a resume with real experience is impressive. Not every student has the time, though, to take on extra work outside of school, so that's probably why he ends up working with some of the same people. Not everyone is responsible or creative or hardworking either, another reason he works with some of the same people- do you suggest he ignores those people just so other students get a chance? That's not the way the real world works. Guess what? The Lawrence film community IS made of a small group of instructors, proffessors, family and friends, because that's what a community is. Just because you don't hear about the student projects he has helped with doesn't mean they don't exist. Besides, he's not Superman, he can't make movies and teach and help students who are not that dedicated or talented make crappy movies that no one will enjoy. You want him to be a philanthropist, a therapist, and rich, none of which he is...sorry if that was harsh, but I just don't think you have a point.

Movie was great, and in my opinion, very dynamic.

softersink11 12 years, 11 months ago

What's with dogging an artist for pursuing their craft?

As an educator he is obligated to provide instruction on technique, theory and history. He can and should also inspire. By choosing to showcase his films in Lawrence, Kansas and not New York or L.A., he is providing an example for his students. So he choses the same crew to work on his film? It is widely known that most directors rely on the continued participation of those they trust to get the work done, from those who cure the script to composers. For you to suggest that he use people untested and unknown, would only mean for Willmot a compromise in quality. And whether or not you agree on this particular director's value, I would suggest getting a clue.

Working free of charge is what many students do prior to breaking into their field. They should only expect payment if they can prove extensive experience in their field.

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