Spearfish man plays role in connecting Hollywood with history

This was taken out of the premier of the movie “Hostiles” Jan. 15 in Billings, Mont. From left are: Bryan Lessly, of Western Sky Media, in Spearfish who helped with the film; his wife Cathy Lessly; Phillip Whiteman Jr., Hostiles cultural consultant; Rory Cochrane, actor; and Scott Cooper, director of the movie. Photo courtesy of Bryan Lessly

SPEARFISH — A Spearfish video production company had a small role in a Hollywood blockbuster. 

Bryan Lessly, who owns Western Sky Media, partnered with Chief Phillip Whiteman Jr. to translate movie lines from English to Cheyenne in the movie “Hostiles.” 

The Hollywood hit opened nationwide on Jan. 26 to rave reviews. The story, set in 1892, follows a legendary Army captain with a notoriously violent record, played by Christian Bale. He must escort an equally notorious Cheyenne war chief, played by Wes Studi, and his family back to their tribal land in Montana. 

The reason for Bale’s character being charged with this task is his familiarity with the Cheyenne culture and language having fought many bloody battles against them. 

Scott Cooper, the director of the film, was insistent on maintaining the authenticity of the movie so he began scouring his Hollywood rolodex to find an expert it Northern Cheyenne culture and linguistics. His search led him to Chris Eyre, most notably known for directing the 1998 movie “Smoke Signals.” Eyre put Cooper in contact with Whiteman a member of the Northern Cheyenne who lives in Lame Deer, Mont., and who organizes many outreach and activity programs on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation. 

Whiteman initially was asked to simply record Bale’s lines into Cheyenne so the actor would sound fluent in the language. To accomplish this task, Whiteman contacted Lessly, as the two had worked together on several productions such as the “Medicine Wheel Model to Natural Horsemanship,” the “Fort Robinson Outbreak Spiritual Run,” and “Healing the Sacred Child,” and Whiteman knew Lessly would have the space and the equipment to properly complete the recordings. 

“We got together one Sunday afternoon. I would read Christian Bale’s lines, then Phillip would read them back twice in Cheyenne,” Lessly said. 

He explained that the two also had producers on speakerphone to help deal with any writing or grammar issues that came up. 

“Just like someone might have a Southern accent, or an Eastern accent, there are different dialects in the Cheyenne language so some lines needed to be changed a bit,” he said. 

One such incident occurred when, in the script, the characters sing a song to celebrate their journey. With the producers on the line, Whiteman explained that the song as it read in the original script might not express the sentiment they were going for. Whiteman proceeded to sing a more apropos traditional Cheyenne song that was then integrated into the final cut of the film. So invaluable was Whiteman’s advice that he was invited onto the set and is credited as the cultural advisor to the movie. 

“It was important to Cooper that the film present an authentic portrait of the native peoples living in 1890s America, so as a culture and language consultant to the film, I worked with the native actors as well as Christian Bale to ensure their performances were rooted in the time and place of the film. I was fortunate that Bale took learning our sacred Cheyenne language very seriously and excelled at speaking it because using the historically accurate dialect of the Cheyenne language guided each character’s shift in perception of each other,” Whiteman said in an article he wrote about his experience. “The set itself also was infused with native culture. We started each day of shooting with a blessing that brought the cast and crew’s energy into alignment, allowing them to be more effective and to complete the scenes in fewer takes. Because of this attention to detail, the movie elevates your consciousness and helps you become more ‘woke.’”

Both Whiteman and Lessly, along with Lessly’s wife, Cathy, were invited to a premier showing of the movie at the Shiloh 14 Theater in Billings, Mont. Other members of the media, Cooper, the director, and Rory Cochrane, one of the actors in the film who played Master Sgt. Thomas Metz, attended as well. Young members of the Cheyenne tribe who had just completed the Fort Robinson Outbreak Spiritual Run were also invited as guests of honor to the premier. 

The spiritual run is an annual event spearheaded by Whiteman in which Cheyenne youth honor the perseverance and sacrifice of their ancestors as they made the harrowing and treacherous journey to escape the federal government’s capture and relocation of the Cheyenne people from Fort Robinson, Neb. through St. Onge, Belle Fourche, and along what is now Highway 212 to Montana, one of the main themes and driving plot points for the movie.

While the film doesn’t follow any particular historical event, it is as, Lessly phrased, “a plausible fiction.”

“It’s something that very well could have happened,” he explained. “The movie is about a journey, not just the journey from New Mexico to Montana, but in true Hollywood fashion, it’s also about the journey of two men with every reason to hate each other coming to terms and finding a mutual respect for one another.”

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