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Touched the Fire: Morrisa Maltz & Lily Gladstone on The Unknown Country

There's something exhilarating and incredibly vulnerable about a woman driving alone on the open road. It's this feeling that writer/director Morrisa Maltz taps into with her wonderfully impressionistic road-trip drama "The Unknown Country," starring Lily Gladstone as a grieving young woman named Tana as she journeys from Minneapolis to South Dakota and down to the Texas-Mexico border after the death of her grandmother.

Maltz, who has a degree in Fine Art from Columbia University, was inspired by her cross-country trips to capture thousands of 35mm film photographs of the rural landscapes and hardworking spirit of the people who populate the American Midwest. While getting a haircut in Spearfish, South Dakota, Maltz met Lainey Bearkiller Shangreaux, and the two began developing a story, incorporating Shangreaux's family and her Oglala Lakota heritage, as well as the stories of people Maltz met on the road. 

A lot has happened since "The Unknown Country" made its debut at the SXSW Film Festival in March 2022. The film has played festivals around the globe. Star Lily Gladstone has premiered in not one but two films at festivals this year alone: the Sundance charmer "Fancy Dance" and Martin Scorsese's hotly anticipated "Killers of the Flower Moon," which premiered out of competition at this year's Cannes Film Festival. And studio filmmaking has ground to a halt as the WGA and SAG unions fight for fair compensation for all their members, especially those operating in the margins. 

It's in these margins that films like "The Unknown Country" and filmmakers like Maltz and Gladstone—who were supported by waivers from SAG to discuss their independent project—can make magic on a small, intimate scale, and harness their shared passion to craft a movie from raw emotion and poetic vision.

Maltz and Gladstone spoke to over Zoom about their collaborative approach to the film, the magic of being in the moment, how its evocative soundtrack came to be, the importance of independent film, and working through feelings of collective grief.

When we spoke before the film’s screening at the Chicago Critics Film Festival, you mentioned how you had seen Lily in Kelly Reichardt’s “Certain Women” and knew you wanted to work with her. How did you make this collaboration happen?

MORISSA MALTZ: I had this sort of vague idea of making the story about a young woman traveling alone. I didn't really know what that was yet. I was meeting people along the way during my road trips for an extended period of time. And one of the most influential people that I met for the film was Lainey Bearkiller Shangreaux. She and I became close friends over one summer. 

As I was trying to figure out who this main character would be, even though there wasn't really an idea yet, Lainey suggested I think about maybe making the main character native. I was getting closer to her family and thinking about how they could be integrated, and around that exact same time, I saw Lily in “Certain Women,” and was like, “Oh, this is the main character.” That is, if she could be in it, I understood what the film was.

Lily had a small role in “Buster's Mal Heart” by Sarah Adina Smith, who I knew from college. So I wrote to Sarah, and Sarah immediately wrote back to me and said she liked my work and would check with Lily if she could put us in contact. When I was approaching Lily with this idea for a road trip film, there wasn’t any support on the project yet. It was just me. Thankfully, the Austin Film Society had seen my previous films and they took a chance on the idea and gave us a small grant. 

Lily, I'd love to hear your thoughts on the collaborative process with Morrisa and Lainey and editor Vanara Taing in crafting what the story was and who this character is.

LILY GLADSTONE: The character was hatched and grown by another actress initially, but it was kind of a framework that made sense to me. I was born and raised on one of my dad's tribal nations, his reservation in Montana, and we moved out to Seattle when I was in middle school. So I got a foundation in reservation living, a foundation as a reservation Indian I guess. So, there was a real familiarity when I first saw some of the test footage. 

Morrisa wasn't the first filmmaker who approached me after “Certain Women” who had an idea for a project kind of like this, which I tend to be a little bit guarded about because there's a lot of that sort of “real lens” look into reservation life that produces films that are, in my opinion, and in a lot of people's opinions, incredibly exploitive and that come in with an agenda. I was just not wanting to contribute to that because it felt like “Certain Women” was such a great opportunity for representation in film, having a native character just existing. 

So Morrisa approached me with this pitch and there wasn't anything that was really flipping until I saw the footage and I heard Lainey's voice. So I was like, okay, Lainey, I recognize. I recognized that character ... that character—I recognized that human. Immediately. And I could sense that the parts that were scripted were true. The narrative is a very universal story about loving your grandparents, about not knowing your place in the world, about traveling, and the familiarity of being a woman alone on the road. 

So I thought maybe this is a little bit more like what I was so blessed to get to do with Kelly, as here's a character who's yearning for something that, as a human being, that we have fleshed out with nuance, not with exposition. I trusted the film pretty immediately because of how Lainey presented herself in the early test footage with this other actress in what was essentially just the process of putting together a lookbook. 

That actress, Isabelle LeBlanc, is a lovely and young actress. When she was filling out the role, she was raised in Minneapolis, so I could connect with that, having moved from the reservation to Seattle and experiencing what it was like being an urban native, living away from your ancestral homelands in an urban location, and then finding community in that sense. There's various ways that you connect with your family back in your ancestral lands. 

So I decided to make Tana a little bit more disconnected than I am in my own personal life. Isabelle conveyed that she spent most of her life in Minneapolis, so I wanted to make Tana a Minneapolis-born and raised urban indigenous woman. Isabelle was so lovely, she stayed on as the grandmother in the photo. So she is kind of the spirit driving the whole film, which is appropriate. There was an agreement before I jumped into the role that it was a little bit hard to believe a woman so young was embarking on such a journey. It felt much more like something that would happen in your early 30s. 

MM: Yeah, something this contemplative, in your thirties you have some philosophical perspective, where you're thinking about your past life and the life behind you. 

LG: Yeah, what you are thinking about on a road trip at that age, it’s different. It’s definitely a different journey. And I think the older you get you are afforded that pensiveness a bit more.

MM: I didn't really start reconnecting with my grandmother and my roots in that way until maybe I was 33.

LG: That was another really common theme that everybody who worked on this project had. Our society moves so fast, and I was brought up in circles that have the belief that you only move as fast as your slowest. Meaning you're constantly taking care of and attending to elders and young children first. They're kind of the center of your whole world. 

Lainey identified that it would be a really appropriate thing to have this character be Native American because Morrisa was describing the sense of diaspora in your own country. It feels like the native experience. You know, that's one of many examples of the way that Western American industrialized capitalist society looks at and marginalizes our elderly. 

My grandmother passed away last summer, and I had her the whole time we were making the film. So it was always kind of the adjacent imagination that maybe I didn't have her anymore. But I hadn't experienced that loss yet. Morrisa also still partly takes care of her grandmother. We both have this kind of only child, very strong connection to our grandmothers. And in a way doing the ugly side of caretaking. That's maybe the reason Western society wants to marginalize them, but there's nothing more important than getting to help somebody else and age and be with family, you know?

MM: It changes your perspective. When you're younger and how you look at the world, and from the age when you're consistently engaged with someone towards the end of their life. That's something that Lily really shared, and Vanara also. Everyone who has a story credit on “The Unknown Country.” Vanara and Lainey both are very close in a caretaking manner with their families like that. So we all shared those perspectives of having this really deep connection with our older family members.

LG: And that's something that's definitely worthy of a story. You know, it's the kind of thing that some financiers won't take a bet on. 

It's so universal.

LG: Yeah, and yet it's an incredibly compelling story. We even had early notes from a dude who was like, “Why is she going on this road trip? I lost my grandma, and it didn't make me want to go on a big road trip." [Laughs] It’s like, that says a little bit more about your relationship with your grandma than it does about our film. But there was a risk element, which I always kind of appreciate in the work that I choose to do. I liked that element of it being unknown and being unscripted. 

The thought of it kind of terrified me. I mean, right up until my first flight out to Spearfish, I kept thinking, “I don't know if this is the right choice” because it is such a gamble on such a big leap. But there definitely was that unproduced poem, and then once we started going and started with some descriptive elements that acted as goalposts. We needed to drive towards something. But then having the world as it was revealing itself to us shaped the film. 

It was a wonderful thing as an actor, because the whole trick of what we do, whether it's working or not, is to stay in the moment and acknowledge everything as it comes up. And the benefit of having a very loose script is you can actually acknowledge the things and not interrupt what you felt. 

MM: Lily was exceptional at knowing in those moments, of knowing what the marker was, what needed to happen, and then slowly guiding it there. Which made my job very easy, because I didn't really need to do anything. She’s just so good at what she does, and there was so much thought and talk before each scene that by the time we were shooting, she knew what needed to happen in each moment. It all was moving organically. Lily was able to push it all in a narrative way where it needed to go. The process was incredibly fun because we would talk and talk and talk and speak about everything for hours or days or weeks before, but then as soon as we were in it, it was magical to see it all coming together.

LG:  These little things that would organically present themselves—every creative knows this, everybody who's dove in on this kind of work—when you have the moment, and everybody is plugged in, that's significant. That's something that's going to be very much part of the story. That’s the take.

For example, we brought on Richard [Ray Whitman] because we were looking for a grandfather character, and Morrisa asked for my input on who that could be. He was my first thought when she described somebody who has this artistic spirit and maybe this alternative sort of a lifestyle that we're not used to seeing represented, particularly like reservation films.

I also thought about Thunder Valley, because Morissa didn't want just show trailer parks or government housing. Thunder Valley is remarkable. It's in South Dakota. It's a self-sustaining community that gives people a chance to own a home that's solar-powered and be part of a little family community. It's amazing. So we chose there. Then I thought, okay, who would be this artistic soul that would be a homeowner in Thunder Valley who we would care about? The only person I can think of is Richard, who I had worked with on “Winter in the Blood.” 

Richard is a poet. He's a visual artist. He's a painter. He's an incredible actor, and the peace that he offered when Morissa described what she was going for, to be in that moment. He had the words for being an elder who mentors youth, and he has gone through so many years of making films. He started making films in the 1980s. So he just had all the right words to say about things being “all in the time.” And that really, that gave me the guidance that Tana would have wanted. 

So then I, as Lily, or me as Lily being Tana, was watching what was happening around me with the lens that Richard had given me as an artist. And just like life works, when you're given a story, it doesn't always make sense until something comes back around to remind you of it or you come to it again. So all of those things that feel very much like writing just arose from the given circumstances of the world and the characters that we were creating.

MM: There's a moment when Raymond [Lee] and Lily are driving, their characters are leaving Dallas.

LG: And he asks, "What time is it?"

MM: Tana responds, "It's all in the time." Lily made up that up on the spot after like, 14 hours of shooting or whatever it was.

LG: Yeah, we were close to sunrise. 

MM: But it was the type of thing where Lily was paying attention, knowing that in the middle of the movie, Richard said, “It's all in the time," and thinking of how to bring it back to that and still find the beauty in those magical moments where it felt truer to life and what would actually happen. That's what made the process really exciting and makes the experience of watching the film feel so special.

Did the soundtrack come after the fact, or was it always built around these songs?

MM: On my personal road trips, I was listening to basically four songs. I really need to expand my intake of songs and music. [laughs]

LG: No, you don't. It's yours. 

MM: It’s embarrassing.

LG: It's not embarrassing; it's yours.

MM: So I was listening to Slowdive and Beach House. And then, naturally, the songs that I was listening to were brought in once it was time to start driving. Slowdive is my favorite band, and so I edited Tana driving to Slowdive, to a specific song that I was listening to on repeat, and I sent it to the band to ask for the song, and then Neil Halstead, who is the main singer and songwriter of Slowdive ended up writing music for the film. They loved watching Tana drive to their songs so much they ended up writing music for it as well. That's like the coolest thing ever.

LG: A lot of what I was driving to is just Morrisa's high school mix.

MM: I did keep my high school CDs in the catalog for a long time. [Laughs]. Then Dyan, the band, who also wrote part of the soundtrack, wrote a song for the film. Then Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld, who I was listening to also contributed songs. It was really a conglomeration of the music that I was listening to. It's all my favorites. It's incredible that the soundtrack is what it is because everything that I was dreaming up is in it, which shows the power of the visuals.

What do you hope people feel after they've sort of left the film? What do you want to evoke in people?

LG: You know, the night before last was the first time I'd seen the film front to back since my grandmother died. I’d had opportunities. We had a couple of festivals last year after she had passed, but I couldn't watch it. I went into the Q&As, but I just couldn't watch it. So seeing it for the first time since I lost her, I understand it differently.

My boyfriend, he lost both of his parents. My really good friend Tafv [Sampson], her father was an actor, Tim Sampson, who passed away, and Tafv saw it at the Brooklyn BAM. Some audience members at the Q&A's had gone through a loss like significant very close parental loss, which is what her grandmother was to Tana. She was her life. 

And with my grandma, we became a multi-generational household when I was 11 years old. She was the one who was home when I got home from school. My parents both worked. She was the one who gave me my love for film. Her hobby was recording movies when she got cable TV. She’d go over the schedule every week with every film she wanted to record. Each VHS had like four titles, and she had a perfect little book that cataloged them alphabetically with her typewriter, and then she’d fill in the margins with her boarding school handwriting. She had like 4,000 titles in her collection. 

Well, my good friends who have experienced this monumental loss before I did, they watched the film, and they just were so moved by it. My boyfriend said it was a catharsis that he hadn't really gotten. To go on this vicarious road trip was an experience he was never able to have after losing both of his parents. But he was able to kind of go through the feeling of that. Another good friend, when she lost her father, she hit the road and lived out of her van and couchsurfing for a year. Afterwards, she just couldn't be in one place and didn't know what to do. So she felt like she was always looking for her dad out on the road. 

So there were these elements and even more so, going back to Morrisa’s experience knowing that feeling, which is so real and authentic, that it's taken four years after launching this journey for me to kind of feel that too. Watching it was like carrying Grandma with me. Before we lost her, my dad had asked her, “So, what's it feel like having a granddaughter who's a movie star?” and she said “Oh, it's fantastic. I love movies.” 

So it feels like such a gift to be able, in this time, particularly being a solid, committed union actor, to be committed and love independent film. And that there's a space that our union is making so that we can take this out on the road as it's premiering. It's not getting swept away because the studios are gatekeeping. Studios that never would have greenlit this kind of story because, you know, who goes on a road trip after losing their grandma?

I feel all of the people that we've lost are part of this unknown collective now that can shape and guide and direct the tide in our favor a little bit. It was also a really profound thing that we started and ended making this film in between the pandemic and COVID happening. So suddenly, there's societal collective grief that people can understand a little bit more. 

That's one thing that I actually really love about the film too. That it doesn't surprise me, it just delights me, that it moves people who have touched the fire of that kind of loss. That it’s moving and meaningful to them, without manipulating or prying into their trauma too much. It's rare when a film doesn't sensationalize anything. It just allows the space to kind of collectively breathe and feel uplifted.

MM: We were fortunate enough to share the film earlier this week in Spearfish, South Dakota, where we met first, which was a great place to start this film. It sold out in multiple theaters that night to all these people in South Dakota. All these people who aren't used to watching an art film because they're mostly watching what's in the multiplex or streaming. It was so great to see people really relate deeply to this film. 

These are universal stories that people do relate to, no matter where you're from, or who you are. People actually do want to see these stories. It's just that they don't even know they want to see them because they are not accessible. They're not shown to them.

LG: In small-town America, you have to know somebody who loves film or recommends things to you, or you have to be really driven to it. You don't see it on the marquee of your local art house theater while you're walking to get your coffee in the morning.

MM: So I hope seeing this type of story inspires them.

"The Unknown Country" is now playing in theaters. 

Marya E. Gates

Marya E. Gates is a freelance film and culture writer based in Los Angeles and Chicago. She studied Comparative Literature at U.C. Berkeley, and also has an overpriced and underused MFA in Film Production. Other bylines include Moviefone, The Playlist, Crooked Marquee, Nerdist, and Vulture. 

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