Lakota Village Standing Rock... Set Decorator Wilhelm Pfau SDSAI describes, “We spent five days in 90+-degree heat building this village. It was so exhilarating to see it completed. We became experts at building tipis. My crew was amazing. On the day we shot the large village, the Cinematographer said to me, ‘I know this is a lot to ask, but can we move those three tipis to the front?’ We had discussed in prep how difficult it would be to move them to camera. I said I would see what we could do. The Dressers moved the three in 20 minutes!
On the day I shot this photo we were near the completion and the crew had left for the day. I took a walk and turned around to see how it was coming along. What more can I say? The New Mexico light says it all.”
“In contemporary settings like this, I would dress many layers of personal objects, files and office dressing. We kept his office sparse. We created period correct paperwork and maps. The etching above his desk is a re-creation of Napoleon’s army marching across wide plains.”
When Colonel Silas Grove [Sam Rockwell] informs McLaughlin [Ciarán Hinds] that the allotments of flour and sugar would be cut in half, “because starvation will help change Sioux minds towards signing the treaty,” the agent introduces him to his wife, Susan [Rulan Tangen], a Lakota Sioux...
“This scene involves a dinner for General Crook who has come to force the Lakota to relinquish a large portion of their lands. Crook was involved in the Indian Wars and holds a grudge against Sitting Bull,” Pfau notes... “Gold was discovered in the Dakota Black Hills in the late 1880s. The US government then wished to give lands to white settlers for mining. We wanted to show the comparison of the living conditions of the white settlers to the Lakota. The elite of the new settlers were able to ship crystal, china, oil paintings and other valuables on military wagons which very few had access to. Even with this advantage, they still lived a very sparse existence.”
“We discovered vintage photos of the actual interior of Sitting Bull’s cabin and the Scenics matched the whitewash used in his cabin. We set out to re-create the very spare environment, again, showing the simple lifestyle on the reservation.”
“This scene was shot on the upper Pecos River. Many have a picture of New Mexico as a very dry desolate desert. What they do not realize is we are above 7000 feet in Northern New Mexico. The mountain rivers give us these beautiful forested locations.”
“This location is also high up on the Pecos River. We discovered a pristine meadow and constructed this 24-foot tipi just a short walk from the river. The difficulty was getting all of the crew to agree to stay on the path and not destroy the natural beauty.”
“In order to create an authentic environment, we discussed this interior in great detail and did extensive research into Native American spirituality. The design on the interior skirt was taken from ancient Lakota drawings. We wanted the simplicity to reflect the noble spirit of Sitting Bull.
Here, Catherine [Jessica Chastain], getting dry after a sudden storm, quietly takes it in.”
“Sitting Bull [Michael Greyeyes] explains how the military had forced them to burn their Native belongings in order to strip them of their natural way of life. However, he didn’t destroy everything. This was his hidden sanctuary.”
According to Director Susanna White, after getting advice from actual tribal elders about whether it would be right to stage The Ghost Dance, actors/dancers Michael Greyeyes and Rulan Tangen, choreographed it. The deeply significant spiritual dance was performed for the first time in over 100 years, on this set...
Standing Rock... Actor/choreographer/dancer Rulan Tangen, who plays McLaughlin’s Lakota wife and interpreter, had this to say about the two key players:
“The way Michael carried himself as a representation of the chief, it made everyone stop and listen and think, ‘Okay, if he’s going to make sure he gets the language right, everybody must.’ It took everybody really taking the time and the focus.
I think it probably began with Jessica Chastain, because she said that she would not accept the role unless a First Nations person was cast as Sitting Bull.”
WOMAN WALKS AHEAD is the story of Catherine Weldon [Jessica Chastain], a Brooklyn debutante/now young widow who, against all odds, leaves New York to travel to the Dakotas in 1890 to paint the portrait of Lakota Chief Sitting Bull [Michael Greyeyes]. Unknowingly, she has arrived right as the US government is attempting to restrict the movement of the tribes by enacting the Allotment Treaty. Catherine is appalled at the living conditions on the reservation and is moved to assist the tribe in opposing the new treaty. –WP
Set Decorator Wilhelm Pfau SDSA takes us through a photo tour of key sets for this beautiful, heartrending film, full of strength and spirit.
About the filmmaking experience, he shares...
Making WOMAN WALKS AHEAD was a wonderful experience. Every production has its hard days, but we all could feel we were creating something special. We had the full support of everyone. The Director, Susanna White, the cinematographer and the production crew understood how important the art department was in making this period piece. They were gracious, respectful and completely behind us.
Geoffrey Kirkland, the Production Designer, is a master. His credits are immense. They include CHILDREN OF MEN, MISSISSIPPI BURNING, and MIDNIGHT EXPRESS. His experience was invaluable. He gave me full rein, but would come in and make a final few changes, bringing the artistry to its pinnacle.
I must make note of our Draper, Carol Napier. Her work stands out especially in the train scenes. Unfortunately, much of her work ended up on the cutting room floor.
Living and working in New Mexico, I have worked on a few Westerns over the years.*
Westerns require a sparing approach with the set dressing to make them believable. It was difficult to ship anything out West in the 19th century; most people of all classes had very few belongings.
Research is one of my favorite aspects of the job. We get to discover so many different elements of daily life.
Each project brings a different perspective.
I have had an interest in Native American spirituality for many years. It was wonderful to delve into the Lakota ways and to bring that culture to life in this film. Hopefully we were true to their world.
We made the best of a low budget and a difficult schedule.
Everyone should be very proud.
Pfau points out that the first film to be produced in New Mexico, was a Western, shot in 1898...
The film WOMAN WALKS AHEAD will also be available on DirectTV...