The debut narrative feature from director Morrisa Maltz combines fiction and fact in an odyssey across the American West. Soon to be seen in Scorsese’s upcoming Killers of the Flower Moon, Lily Gladstone stars as a woman reeling from a recent loss. An unexpected invitation to her cousin’s wedding pulls Tana (Gladstone) back to her Oglala Lakota family roots in South Dakota. Reconnecting with family inspires her to embark on a quest in search of the spot where an old family photograph was captured decades earlier. Along the way, Tana encounters remarkable everyday people, whose stories and vibrant outlooks on life enrich the pilgrimage. Part documentary, part personal contemplation, The Unknown Country invites audiences on a road trip to explore the visual and cultural landscape of America’s backroads. Prior to the July 28th theatrical release from Music Box Films, Boxoffice Pro spoke with director Morrisa Maltz about her unique road movie and the real-life people who inspired it.
What started the journey into The Unknown Country?
I left California in 2014 and I started on a road trip to Texas, which was for an artist’s residency. Then I started working on a documentary in Oklahoma. I was road tripping a lot through Texas and Oklahoma around 2015-2016. My husband was in South Dakota on dinosaur digs as a paleontologist. Starting around 2016, when he was up in South Dakota on these dinosaur digs, I started road tripping from Texas to South Dakota. I started to think a lot about the idea of a young woman traveling alone. That was the beginning of the thought process for The Unknown Country, but that’s all I had at the time, a young woman traveling alone in those areas. Then as I started to meet people, the people that are in the actual film, that’s when the story started coming together. I wanted to collaborate with these amazing people that I was meeting to make this story. That’s how it became a film.
When did the idea come to you, that you could fuse both elements together, interweaving remarkable real-life stories and subjects into a fictional narrative?
The most influential person I met, of the people that are in the film, is Lainey Bearkiller. I spend half of the year in South Dakota now, and she’s a couple blocks from me. We’re quite close and our friendship started over the summer of 2016. I was talking to her about the idea of making a story about a young woman traveling, ‘Maybe you could be one of the people that the young woman meets along the way?’ As our friendship was blossoming, I was becoming closer with her extended family and we were trying to figure out how to make them a larger part of it. At some point, she suggested, ‘Have you thought about making the main character native? Then we could be a bigger part of the story.’ Around the same time, I watched Certain Women and saw Lily [Gladstone], and thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s actually the main character. It can only be Lily’, because I was still trying to figure out who this main character was. Laniey was definitely the most influential of the people that I started meeting, because once we talked more and more about it, there started to be more of a vision for this main character. I think the other characters were equally as important; the waitress Pam, the gas station owner Dale. Their love for what they were doing. Dale had this strange way of making everybody that walked into his gas station feel good. Even though that’s a tiny thing, that’s actually quite beautiful and important in life. And Pam loved her job so much, that it was just infectious. We started to figure out how who they were as people could also shape the story and where they could be in the story that would influence the shape of Tana’s journey. I worked really closely with my editor Vanara Taing and my cinematographer Andrew Hajek. We were talking really early on about this project. I was telling them about the people that I was meeting and Vanara encouraged me to start getting audio interviews. That’s the first step of what we had for the film. Once Vanara started hearing those interviews, she had the idea to have these vignettes. That was the first footage we shot, the vignettes of the documentary characters.
How did you set about creating this tapestry and telling this story? Did you have the shape of the story or did you find it in the editing room?
We definitely found it in the editing room. We shot sequentially over about two years. Other than the vignettes, we shot Tana’s story over the course of two years, where Vanara would edit, then we would go back and shoot some more. Vanara would edit, we’d go back and shoot some more. We’re doing that on another film right now. Since we were creating it without a technical script, it allowed for us to better understand what we were doing. Vanara is an incredibly talented person and editor. She was able to find a structure that worked for the film after every shoot.
What was your collaboration like, working with Lily Gladstone?
I love Lily. Lily’s amazing. She was an incredible artistic collaborator in every sense. She’s an amazing human being. For the first-time actors, there was a real comfort there, because Lily came off as a real human being, which is what she is. So it allowed for this sort of comfort on set. This was a very small production and from the heart, so we all came in with that passion. Lily also had that, and couldn’t have been a better collaborator for a small project like this. I think we really both saw parts of ourselves in [the character of] Tana–who we named the first day on set with Lily. The collaboration was really a sort of give and take between both of us. Our experiences with grief and our experiences with living in this country as women.
How did you approach your real-life subjects about including their stories in this film?
Yeah, so that was over a number of years. Since my husband was up here working, and now I live here half the year, we got very deep into being here in South Dakota. I also lived half of the time in Texas. I was developing deep friendships with the people that are in the film. By the time I was talking about a possible film idea, I was figuring it out with them, so it wasn’t surprising. They saw the growth of it. It was probably two years into us talking about it that we actually started filming. By the time they were on camera, they were already really familiar with what I was doing, what the story was, and what their point in the story was. I think they are very surprised to see where it got to, as we all are, because it just felt so organic and fun. It didn’t feel like it was a big movie. We were really figuring it all out together as we went. So it’s really just such a joy for everybody that’s been a part of it to see it. Dale the gas station owner is now in a movie with Lily Gladstone. You know? It’s very exciting.
Have they all had an opportunity to see the film?
Yes, they have. They’re very excited. We’re doing a special screening here in South Dakota for them, before we do the official release in New York. So that should also be a very fun event for them.
Why is it important to have stories like this one on the big screen?
Lots of reasons. Firstly, I think having a female character at the center of a story is incredibly important. Not one that’s just about relationships, but just about our journey as human beings. I think seeing women in those central roles is very important. Of course, having an indigenous woman at the center of that story is important. I think having characters that we don’t normally see on screen is important. I think having the characters that we have in The Unknown Country, who are often just the people that we pass by, that we don’t think about twice, having those people at the center of stories is very important. Places in America that we don’t often see, that’s very important. I also think in this day and age, it’s important to have stories that open up our mind and allow us to dream a little bit. Stories that aren’t telling us what they are, but we’re with them [for the journey]. I wish these types of films would get out there a little bit more, because of the audience experience. It’s something that I think they actually might not even know they want.
Did you grow up going to the movies yourself?
I grew up watching TCM with my grandmother and I still do. She’s 103 and we still watch TCM together a lot. I come from an art background. I studied Fine Art in college and I was doing video art and photography–I still do. I think my grandmother’s love for movies combined with that artistic background sort of grew into this. My grandma is a huge movie buff, she saw the first talkie in a theater in 1927. Her movie knowledge is insane. It really affected me growing up.