“The River’s Divide”: Yankton Native Discusses New Documentary

In today’s Press & Dakotan, I wrote a story on 2006 Yankton High School graduate Kyle Nickolite and the release of his film, “The River’s Divide.” The story can be read here. Also of note is that Yankton native Ross Wuestewald and his band Onward, Etc., composed the soundtrack for the film.

Here is the trailer for “The River’s Divide”:

I’ve included my interview with Nickolite below for those who are interested in learning more about his work.

How did you get into adventure film editing and directing? Were you ever interested in/have you done other genres?

I never had a plan of getting into adventure film-making or the outdoor media world – it just sort of happened. I took a job in college editing for a local outdoor hunting & fishing show – “Gary Howey’s Outdoorsmen Adventures” – I took that job because editing is what I love to do and an opening was available for that show at the right time. So I worked in the Hy-Vee meat department in Vermillion in the mornings, went to class, and then commuted to Hartington, Neb., every day to help work on Gary’s show.
In college I was lucky enough to meet the right people and continued working jobs that helped me get where I am today.
My true passion is and will always be the conventional film-making process – actors, lights, scenes – it’s so magical to me. Fortunately, working for Sicmanta I’ve been given the opportunity very recently, to direct some really cool commercial spots and work in that sort of environment. A couple months ago, I was brought on as a director for a commercial campaign down in Louisiana starring the entire cast of Duck Dynasty – so much fun.
I’m completely open to any kind of video projects – I’m hoping to be able to write and direct a short narrative film or two sometime in the future.
What challenges are there in filming adventure movies versus a fiction film or other kinds of documentaries?
It has to be one of the hardest things to film and create stories around. It’s a constant battle of fighting the elements, managing people and gear, worrying about what’s going to happen, and not to mention one of your main subjects – the wildlife – is completely unpredictable. We’ve been working on what we’ve nicknamed “The Donnie Vincent Project” over the last three years and we’ve filmed all over the world: Patagonia, Alaska countless times, Northwest Territories, Newfoundland, to name a few. And every trip requires a grand plan but in all honesty we have no idea what may happen on these trips. “Film it all and the screen will tell” – is the mindset. It’s a constant balance of figuring out how to film certain things while also worrying about your own safety and the safety of everyone involved – and staying creative. Some of these expeditions may last months. We were dropped off by plane in the arctic circle of Alaska working on an upcoming film, and lived (worked) out of an 8-man tipi for almost a month. I saw everything from a black wolf carrying a caribou leg in it’s mouth, had a staring contest with a giant moose at 5 yards – and found myself 30 yards from a grizzly and her two cubs. You never know what’s going to happen – we just have to be sure to document it the best we can and hope people enjoy the outcome. It can be very stressful – tension builds… there was a time we had to get 2 miles up a river to reach our pick up point with 75 mph winds blowing directly in our face, we were literally traveling backwards, bitter cold, as grizzlies walked up and down the shoreline searching for salmon. It’s all part of it and it’s very rewarding. The best part is watching people watch the films and reading the reviews and taking in all of the varying reactions to the film.
The River’s Divide has been touring the country, playing in theaters – and I got to attend some screenings and it’s the best feeling in the world hearing and seeing people’s reaction to The River’s Divide. The film has also been selected to quite a few film festivals – and took home some incredible awards. Really cool to see a film about hunting be selected to be screened at these festivals, let alone be nominated for awards. We’re all very proud of the message the film sends and the story that was told. People seem to be really enjoying it as well. We know hunting can be a sensitive topic for some people – we’ve had people get up and leave the theater – but the majority of people, hunters and non-hunters alike, appreciate the insight into why people hunt. That was the main goal of the film, to show the entire process of what people like Donnie go through when they approach hunting and expose their true feelings as to why. Why kill an animal? – Tough subject for sure, but I think the film does a great job of exploring those feelings and emotions and tells that story and answers that question in a way people can appreciate. Opening eyes to those on the fence about hunting and having them come up to us and say they finally get why people partake in it – means so much. In the end, it’s a story that needed to be told.


Courtesy Photo — Yankton native Kyle Nickolite’s film directing career has taken him to many remote locations. In this photo, he was filming in the Arctic Circle of Alaska.

Do you consider “The River’s Divide” your first major film effort? Tell me about the process of filming it.

Absolutely. In my short career as a filmmaker, The River’s Divide is easily the project that I’m most proud to be involved with.
The bulk of the principal filming process consisted of Cinematographer William Altman (Maine) and Donnie (Wisconsin) spending countless hours hunting for the deer known as “Steve” out in the badlands of North Dakota. With hunting, we obviously can’t have an entire crew of camera operators following Donnie around so that job was given to William who knows a lot about hunting himself. The two are an incredible team. Out of the two years we spent working on The River’s Divide – I personally was only on location there in North Dakota for a couple months total – but every day spent there we wouldn’t take a break from filming – it was an all day every day process. My job was to keep the storyline intact – make sure we were filming all the pieces we needed to tell the story and stay as true to it as possible. This wasn’t hard at all to accomplish, the story seemed to tell itself and everything just fell into place. And with Donnie being a natural on camera – that made the job even more enjoyable. The sheer beauty of the location (badlands of northwest North Dakota) made capturing footage incredibly easy and we had all these cool and interesting natural aspects to tie into the story. Every day Donnie had to travel across this river in an old boat to get to the area of the land where the deer lived, so naturally this becomes a big part of the film and would eventually become the inspiration for it’s title.

How did you start working with Donnie Vincent, and did it end up being a very collaborative process between the two of you?

After college, I worked for a production company in Kansas City that took on a project that would focus on two hunters and their adventures all over the world. One of them was Donnie. The project dissolved for various reasons, but it was in Argentina where the idea for collaboration spawned. We were in Patagonia; one of the most beautiful places in the world and had just spent the last couple weeks hiking ash-covered hillsides from a recent volcano eruption. We were taking a break from hunting red stag, chatting on the top of a hill, when we discussed the possibility of producing these upcoming films (The River’s Divide) included. That idea turned into forming a production company in Hudson, WI (where Donnie lives) and we’ve been filming and producing work ever since.

Reviews of the film often mention not only the breathtaking cinematography but also the story arc that isn’t common in current hunting shows. How did you decide that was an approach you wanted to take, and did you take inspiration from any other films (I saw mention of “Shawshank Redemption” in one interview)?

I’m a movie lover. I’ve studied the philosophy of films, even minored in film studies in college. That enabled me to really dive into the craft. I was really inspired by the classes I took at USD. One of my professors, Timothy Case (assistant art director for Children of the Corn), played a huge role in developing my understanding of what makes a movie great – and why movies make us feel the way they do. We’d study foreign films a lot and all of the American classics of course. However, some of my favorite directors were from France – Jean-Luc Godard’s film “400 Blows” was so inspiring. It was amazing how I didn’t have to understand the language to know exactly what was going on in the film – simply because of the way it was made. More on the technical side of things… I would study the structure of scenes, composition, all the way down to the psychological aspects of film and film editing. Another professor of mine at USD that I give a ton of credit to developing my desire to make films is Todd Mechling. He really helped me hone in my skills and learn the very basics & fundamentals of the film-making process.
The story arc that we followed and the way we went about making “The River’s Divide” wasn’t really pre-decided – I just used the knowledge I’ve gained through my studies, combined with the natural talent of Donnie & William to construct the story in a cinematic way that would feel authentic to the viewer but still entertain. The true art and magic of the film was the real and raw story that played out – it’s truly unbelievable and once in a lifetime story. I still shake my head in disbelief when I think of how it all came together. I think even people that have no interest in hunting whatsoever, will find this movie very insightful and entertaining.
I drew a lot of inspiration from Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” in regards to the overall structure of the film. I get goose bumps just thinking about that film. What an inspiration that movie has been on everything I do. Quentin Tarantino said it best when he said, “I didn’t go to film school – I went to the movies”. The greatest tool for learning about film-making for me is to just watch movies. I wanted the backbone of The River’s Divide to be strung together with Donnie’s narration (just like Martin Sheen’s character.) That’s the feel I was going for anyway. Donnie is the only character in the film so there’s no back and forth dialogue between him and anyone to help move the story along – so the only way to develop Donnie’s “character” was through his thoughts and ideas that he would deliver verbally with a voice over or have him speak directly to he camera as if it were journal entries. Donnie wrote all of the voice-overs and it really became the strongest part of the film, in my opinion, and helped drive home the message we were trying to deliver. Donnie did a fantastic job.

It took two years to make the movie. Did you ever have moments of despair and question whether it would actually ever be finished, or were you ready for the long journey?

Yeah, at one point after the first year of filming we all thought the production would be shut down. You’ll have to see the movie to understand what I mean but there are some things that happen that were really heartbreaking for Donnie and he wasn’t even sure he was going to continue with filming. Luckily, for all of us he changed his mind and fought through the ups and downs – without those moments of despair and him questioning what he was even doing – the film wouldn’t be what it is.

Do you hunt yourself?

Being from South Dakota hunting has always been a part of my life. I always looked forward to pheasant opener, dove opener, and goose hunting is an absolute blast – some of the more fun times I’ve had with friends and family. But I wouldn’t consider myself a hunter by any means. I’ve never even shot a bow. I think the fact that I’m not a hunter really adds an interesting element to these productions, I know very little about hunting – so I’m focused on the story and the film making process more than anything.

Have you done adventure films outside of hunting?

Yes, we’ve spent some time in Argentina filming short films about fly-fishing and have plans in the future to do more of that. I’m very grateful for the opportunities that I’ve had to travel and work with such great people. It’s also amazing to be able to be able to do what I love and take the skills I’ve learned and apply them. It’s been an incredible journey so far and there’s much more to come that I’m very excited about.

Tell me about Ross Wuestewald’s involvement in “The River’s Divide.” How did that come about and what did he bring to the project?

I moved to Yankton from Columbus, Nebraska when I was six years old and my first day attending Webster Elementary my teacher assigned one of my classmates to be the one to show me around and make sure I had at least one person to talk to. I had no idea that person would become one of my best friends in life – Ross ‘Rosco’ Wuestewald. Ross is the lead singer of the greatest and best band in the world called Onward, ETC and he is one of the most talented people I know. (The band just recently got signed to a major label: DC-Jam Records). We’ve been collaborating on video work since we first got a hold of a camcorder when we were like ten years old. So it was only natural that Ross and his band would create the music for our film The River’s Divide. The music they came up with for the film is absolutely incredible and adds so much. Makes it even more personal. All of us that worked on the movie have become even closer and KC Olson, the violinist for Onward, etc has become one of my best friends as well. Donnie, myself, everyone involved in the film, and the band have become a family – those guys mean so much to this project and we’re so excited to work with them for this and films in the future.

When was “The River’s Divide” finished and first screened? When was it released on DVD? Can you announce when/where it will be aired on television?

The River’s Divide first screened in May 2013 at a theater in Reno, NV. Since then it’s played in theaters in Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Montana, Idaho, Colorado, Utah, Maine, South Dakota (Aberdeen), Minnesota, Kentucky, and Maryland.  It was released on DVD on December 19th, 2013. It was named the Judge’s Choice for “Best in Festival” at the 2013 Maine Outdoor Film Festival, selected to The River’s Edge Film Festival in Kentucky, is currently nominated for “Best Cinematography” at the Fargo International Film Festival and won best Dakota documentary at The South Dakota Film Festival. Unfortunately right now I can’t announce when it will be aired on national television but it will be aired most likely by next month – very excited to see the response. The film will also be available for purchase as a digital download in the near future, as well as blu-ray (no dates set yet for either).

What have you thought of the response to the film, and did it exceed your expectations?

The response has completely exceeded my expectations. I had no idea film festivals would select it to be featured let alone win any awards. It’s also pretty incredible that we’ve shipped DVD’s all over the world: Belgium, Spain, Sweden, Australia, UK, Italy, Austria, Canada, and just today sent out an order to Croatia. It’s so cool reading reviews in big publications like Field & Stream as well as just seeing the public’s response and hearing and reading comments about the film. The best part is definitely sitting in a theater and hearing people’s reactions first hand as well as meeting tons of people that enjoy it. At the screening in Aberdeen, Donnie had an older lady approach him and shared that all the years her husband spent getting out of bed at 5am to go hunting she never understood why – until she saw The River’s Divide. How cool is that?

Do you have any plans to screen the film in Yankton?

As of right now, there have been no plans to bring the film to Yankton – but I would love to make it happen if there is interest by one of the theaters or someone that could help with organizing the event.

You mentioned that this is one of a series of adventure films you will release in 2014. Can you tell us about what lies ahead? Are more Donnie Vincent/Ross Wuestewald collaborations in the works?

Over the last three years we’ve been filming all over the world producing the films that will follow the River’s Divide. Adventures that include hunting grizzlies with a bow in Alaska to trying to catch up with Woodland Caribou in Newfoundland. We’ll be releasing a 4-minute teaser trailer that will have highlights for the upcoming films. These films will most likely make their rounds on a film tour with an organization called “Full Draw Film Tour”, will then be available on DVD, and then will also air on television. That’s the plan for now anyway.
Ross will hopefully be collaborating on all of our film work – with his band just getting signed to a major label and the crazy amount of touring they do that might be difficult for them to pull off but I’m confident we’ll make it work.

What are your long-term professional goals? Is the film business a full-time job for you?

Our production company, Sicmanta, has become my full-time job. We have a lot of fun producing video work for different companies, anything from web videos to full blown commercial work.
It’s a great balance between the creative and personal work approach with films like “The River’s Divide” and the client work that comes in. We feel like we’re just getting our feet wet and are very excited for the future of this company and the upcoming adventure films.

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