Book report

The brains and brawn behind 'L&O' discusses his approach to the job

Although he's carved out his niche in broadcast primetime by crafting perfectly calibrated hours that stick to a strict dramatic formula, Dick Wolf has taken a detour with his latest project.

In his first conventional telepic with the pay-cable networks' master of the genre, HBO, Wolf is one of two executive producers on "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee," an original HBO Films adaptation of the seminal 1971 book by Dee Brown. The book chronicles the tumultuous and bloody story of how American Indians were displaced during the latter half of the 19th century. The film, premiering May 26, takes aim at a mere portion of that history (from 1876-90).

"It was a great opportunity for me to work on something with a completely different mentality than you have on projects where you're churning out 22 hours a year," Wolf says. "To have a chance to do a piece shot from the Indian point of view instead of the white man's -- that's something you don't pass up. If you're lucky, you get one of these per career."

Wolf's involvement actually extends back some six and a half years, when he got a phone call from Tom Thayer -- formerly president of Universal Television and Wolf's onetime boss -- who had optioned the book. And while the rights had previously been purchased numerous times, it had never amounted to anything. "There are a couple of reasons for that," Thayer says. "One, the book is so vast, it's nearly impossible to capture it all in a single project. It's essentially an editorialized textbook charting every tribe, every treaty, every skirmish from all coasts from 1860-1890. And since it's all told from the Native American (point of view), there was the whole problem with casting."

Undaunted, Thayer (credited as an executive producer along with Wolf) moved forward, enlisting Wolf's involvement before approaching HBO.

"And that was in 2001," Wolf notes, "and it was fast-tracked from there."

Yes, HBO has its own concept of time, which is considerably different than that of most television. Wolf is accustomed to having to get things done yesterday, but in this instance, he had the luxury of taking as much time as he needed to make it right. "They do things at a level that others won't or can't," he observes. "All that matters there is the quality you turn out. It's not the kind of mentality I'm used to."

"Wounded Knee" would go through many incarnations and permutations before assuming its final shape as a two-hour, 20-minute movie. The original idea was to have it play as a six-hour miniseries over two or three nights. That was reduced to four hours over two nights. Then the thought was to make it three and a half hours on a single night, then three hours.

"It was a challenge working to honor the material in the proper format," HBO Films vp Sam Martin says. "This is such an epic story based on such a classic text that you want to make sure you do it right. I mean, the scope is so sweeping. But it was pulled off amazingly well. And I have to say that a lot of the credit goes to Dick Wolf, who was enormously active in the process throughout. There is nothing ceremonial about his role."

Thayer heaps praise on "Wounded Knee" screenwriter Daniel Giat for his ability to condense the encyclopedic saga down to three interwoven stories: those of Massachusetts
Sen. Henry Dawes, a chief architect of government policy on American Indian affairs under President Ulysses S. Grant; Sitting Bull, the legendary Lakota chief who refused to sell out his people; and Charles Eastman, whose story isn't central to the "Wounded Knee" book but who supplied a necessary white voice which to weave the action.

"Daniel brilliantly captured the spirit and style of the book," Thayer says. "But a lot of things had to go right for this film to see the light of day. And I have to say that having Dick on board also was a huge bullet in the gun."

HBO Films president Colin Callender marvels at the amount of time and energy that Wolf poured into the film despite his being simultaneously involved in several other active productions.

"You can definitely say this is not a typical Dick Wolf project," Callender notes. "But I have to say I'm enormously impressed with what he's done with us. He is the definition of a great producer. You see him move seamlessly between a script meeting, a casting session, an editing session and a marketing session. The man is great on detail and the big picture. We're talking real involvement, not just turning up at the premiere and taking credit.

"I mean, I would never know which city Dick was in when he called, but he gives his full attention and lets you know that this is the most important thing he's working on," Callender adds.

Wolf makes it clear that he believes he was the lucky one to have had a chance to be involved in the project at all. And from speaking to him, one gets the impression that "Wounded Knee" supplied Wolf with a rare feeling: genuine anxiety. This was his shot at working in a genre he had yet to master -- on-the-job training for a network with the resources and commitment to making longform art. And he admits it has all been a bit daunting.

"Very few things that I work on exceed my initial expectations," he says. "When we were about to have a test audience look at the first 'Wounded Knee' rough cut that was over three hours, my first instinct was to try to find someplace to throw up. But we sat down, watched it, and nobody's ass twitched. It was stunning. No one even went to the bathroom. It would have been hideously embarrassing if we'd blown it, doing this for a network where the expectation is you'll be nominated for Emmys. Thank God we didn't screw this up."

It didn't hurt that the film boasts a particularly talented cast that includes Oscar winner Anna Paquin, Aidan Quinn, Adam Beach and August Schellenberg, the latter pair being real-life American Indians. Quinn portrays Sen. Dawes, while Beach plays Eastman and Paquin his wife, Elaine Goodale Eastman. Schellenberg is Sitting Bull.

Beach has high hopes for the film's potential to positively affect ignorance of and stereotypes about American Indians, which he stresses are "still there. You still see the slurs and the racism. What I want people to come and understand is that there is a lot that needs to be told about the Native American people, and it starts from here. People don't realize this country was trying to get rid of this whole culture of people. These stories we're telling help people understand what it was really like."

Yet, at the same time, it's acknowledged that "Wounded Knee" takes a measure of artistic and dramatic license with the facts, though Wolf reasons that it is "as historically accurate as we can rationally make it as a narrative movie. We had to synthesize such a huge piece of source material, and making sure the story worked as a linear project required a few liberties."

But again, Hollywood had long viewed the book as an impossible adaptation undertaking. Many had tried and failed, among them no less than Marlon Brando years before. HBO is naturally proud to have been the entity to give the story life onscreen some 36 years after the book's release.

"I really don't think that anyone could have done this except HBO," Wolf says. "They're the only ones with the patience and the resources to commit to it. I'd love to send some network people over to intern there for a while. And while I admit that you always get into trouble when you start talking about things being important -- well, this movie is important. I think it will affect people's way of thinking about that part of our history. If that happens, it's a tremendous upside."