Alaska Native actress and producer Irene Bedard plans to bring a film version of "Two Old Women" to theaters. Shooting could start as early as next spring.
Bedard, a Golden Globe winner, has been a featured actress and done voice work in several wide-release movies and television shows, playing the lead female character in "Smoke Signals," voicing the title character in Disney's "Pocahontas" and portraying Pocahontas' mother in "The New World," among other roles.
"Two Old Women: An Alaskan Legend Of Betrayal, Courage And Survival," by Gwich'in author Velma Wallis of Fort Yukon, tells an ancient tale of two elders abandoned by their tribe during a difficult winter. It won the Western States Book Award when it was released in 1993 and is reported by publisher Epicenter Press to have sold 1.5 million copies worldwide.
Bedard, of Inupiat, Yup'ik and Cree heritage, is the president of Sleeping Lady Films, based in Anchorage and Santa Fe, New Mexico.
She initially announced the project before a small crowd attending play readings at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts on Monday night. "I'm jumping the gun on this," she said. "The official announcement won't be until later this week. But I can't tell you how happy I am to be back in Alaska and to be doing this film."
There was an audible gasp from the audience.
"I love the excitement around 'Two Old Women,'" she told Alaska Dispatch News. "I love the ownership of this story. It's an international story and it's so Alaskan."
Though she has often had to travel and relocate for her work, she now lives in Anchorage and is an Alaska resident.
She co-founded the company in 2012 with Canadian businessman Thom Denomme.
In a phone call from British Columbia, Denomme said he met Bedard when he prevailed on her to take part in the pilot episode of a Native American-themed cooking, culture and travel show, "Reservations Not Required."
"We had some time to talk over different things that have to do with Indian country and the film industry and how Native people are portrayed and we agreed that there must be a better way to do this," he said.
"We realized that we worked so well together, we should focus on what I was really hoping to do," Bedard said.
Their meeting led to the creation of Sleeping Lady Films and a second company, Waking Giants Productions, which focuses on television and new media projects "dedicated to bringing stories that are both positive and inspirational from Indian country to the world."
Since then, Bedard and Denomme have been looking for creative ideas that fit that mission.
In addition to her work in show business, Bedard is also active in indigenous causes. She's the delegate of the American Indian Enterprise and Business Council to the United Nations.
"Alaska Natives, Native Americans, indigenous people, we all come from the tribal mind," she said. "We're all, as a collective mind, coming back around to these sorts of realizations that we're not separate from the Earth, even though we've covered it with a lot of pavement.
"I've had a long career portraying Native people, working with amazing people on projects I believed in. But I felt like there was a huge gap in the portrayal of indigenous people and culture. There's so much laughter and joy and beauty and art, all these things that oftentimes get missed in particular content."
"We've put together a fairly strong body of projects that would be shot all over North America," Denomme said. "But 'Two Old Women' is one we're really excited about."
Denomme said he and Bedard were attending a powwow in Montana when he stumbled upon the story. "There was this woman selling books at a table and I saw 'Two Old Women.' I'd never heard of it before. I showed it to Irene and she said, 'That's an Alaska classic.'"
It immediately went to the top of the team's wish list and they acquired the film rights.
The script is now being developed and Denomme hopes filming will start in the late spring or summer of 2016.
"We'd like to shoot two versions, one in English, one in Gwich'in," he said. "Everyone acting in it is going to be Alaskan."
He was less certain, however, that it would be made in Alaska. "It would be a sin not to shoot it in Alaska. We're hoping it will be filmed in Alaska, but we don't know about the situation with tax credits. It changes depending on who you're talking to or what day it is."
The Alaska Legislature is currently considering ending a state incentive to filmmakers as a way to save money.
Bedard is also involved with a second production about the Barrow High School football team titled "Touchdown on the Tundra."
"She's going to have a prominent role," said Honnie Korngold of Cinevantage, the production company that is making the film. "We just met at Sundance a few weeks ago. But she's a phenomenal actress, very well respected."
Bedard will be an executive producer of the film as well as an actor. "I think it's awesome to have women producing a story about football," she said.
Some preliminary shooting was done last fall in Fairbanks, Korngold said. But the main work is planned to be done in Barrow.
"The town has shown it has the people and resources to do this kind of thing," she said. But, she added, "We are hopeful that your governor will maintain the film incentives the way they are."