In Morrisa Maltz’s poetic and elegiac The Unknown Country, a grieving young woman—Tana, played meditatively by Lily Gladstone—drives through the American Midwest towards the Texas-Mexico border to reunite with her Oglala Lakota family. Writer-director Maltz’s film observantly charts Tana’s solitary trip as she meets and interacts with the everyday people of the land, against the backdrop of the recently wrapped 2016 election, across stunning landscapes and shifting climates.
The idea for the project—which was granted a special promotional waiver by SAG-AFTRA during the ongoing strikes—first came to Maltz during a trio of road trips she took through the American Midwest and Southwest starting in 2014. She first drove from California to Marfa, Texas for an artist residency, and then to Oklahoma for a documentary. When her husband, a paleontologist, ended up in South Dakota on dinosaur digs, Maltz added a third leg to her road trip adventures. “Between 2014-16, I was thinking deeply about, ‘I would love to make a film about a young woman traveling alone,’” she says.
But her idea didn’t evolve further until she met some of the real-life characters featured in the film—chiefly, Lainey Bearkiller Shangreaux, who is both at the core of The Unknown Country and has a story credit for it, alongside Maltz, Gladstone and editor Vanara Taing. “All the people in the film are my family at this stage,” Maltz says. “I live half the year in South Dakota now.”
For such an independently-minded family affair not funded or overseen by big corporations, the strikes (which both Maltz and Gladstone heartily support) posed an obstacle in getting the film the promotional support it needed. So it was a relief when they obtained their waiver, and thus a chance to connect with small-town audiences.
“The film is very much about driving through the pockets of the country where people only really know what they’re shown,” explains Gladstone, who’s in Martin Scorsese’s upcoming Killers of the Flower Moon, which she is unable to discuss in accordance with the strike rules. “So if the average moviegoer is told what they should care about is big-budget, formulaic machines, that’s all they’ll know. Nobody’s looking to buy a yacht with whatever we’re making out of this. Having this promotional waiver gave the family that was created while making it a chance to come together and celebrate it. It premiered in Spearfish, South Dakota at this small mom-and-pop theater, which also needs support. They made their own little step-and-repeat for us and had tiny little Oscar statues sitting out on tables. It was very sweet.”
Below, we talked to Maltz and Gladstone about the making of The Unknown Country—which is continuing to expand across the country after opening on 7/28 in NY, CA and SD—their reflections on strike waivers and processing the grief at the heart of the film.
Lily, you’ve been approached with similar ideas in the past. How did this one stand out?
LG: I tend to be guarded about docudrama style going into native communities—a lot of times the result is kind of poverty porn-ish. But when I’d heard the origins of the character that Morrisa was approaching me about, it felt like it was the right way to do it, because it came from one of our co-producers and the bright shining star in the film: Lainey Bearkiller Shangreaux. What Morrisa was trying to [convey] was this feeling of diaspora in one’s own country. Lainey identified with it right away. That’s what it feels like for her being native, living in a small border town near her reservation.
So Lainey’s idea was: why not make the character native? That resonated with Morrisa, who then tied it to me because she had recently seen [Kelly Reichardt’s] Certain Women. It’s rare to find a filmmaker who will shoot through a lens that you’re well suited for. And it was organically grown rather than driven by a filmmaker’s agenda as an outsider, trying to showcase what their idea of Indigeneity in America is. It was somebody who deeply loved and had a strong friendship with a Lakota girl and listened when that girl said, “There’s space for a native story within this story.” It’s done with such care, letting Indigenous people lead.
The film was one of the first productions to get a promotional strike waiver from SAG-AFTRA. These waivers and exceptions seem strategic and essential for independent projects.
LG: I think SAG saw this as a perfect opportunity to show that it’s a time for storytellers. So many of the things that we’re fighting for as a union have to do with this idea that people don’t want to see these small, homegrown stories anymore; that they want the big giant flashy CGI, bordering into AI. The strike is very much about how the humanity is being stripped out of our industry. So it’s great that this quiet exploration of the micro humanity of the American Midwest is greenlit to be shared with people during a time when it’s really important to prove that: no, what people actually want to see is human beings telling stories about what it is to be a human being.
How did you both navigate the challenges of not sticking with a traditional script?
LG: It was nerve-wracking, but I’ve learned that that terror is important for real magic to happen. And it was a form that felt familiar to me: working with a community and acting for self-expression. It’s the foundational work that I’d done for a while. We also had this guiding voice—our editor Vanara Taing. She was seeing what we were getting, and molded something out of it like a sculptor with clay. It’s just getting out the door, taking the first step and trusting it, and then being open to what the world is showing you.
MM: And openness to the change that [might be] coming next. That’s the beauty of making these independent films; we were working on our own terms in a very difficult fashion. And Lily was walking in and helping guide the first time actors.
What’s the biggest difference between working with first-time actors vs. experienced ones?
MM: With all the first-time actors, we had such long friendships before that it seemed like by the time we were filming, they were so familiar with the story. There was never this crazy pressure, it was quite organic.
Grief is at the heart of this movie, which you shot pre-Covid, in a different reality and political climate. How has your view of the film evolved through the years, given all the losses we’ve suffered since then?
LG: The film is grounded in the love for our matriarchs. Morrisa’s 103-year-old grandma is [living] with her now, and I also lived with my grandmother and was one of her caretakers, particularly through Covid. I lost her about this time last year. My family worked so hard to make sure that my grandmother had a full, loving life at home, and because of dementia, she was never really aware that the pandemic was happening. So getting to experience and create this art was experiencing vicarious grief relief. It felt really appropriate to share that with an audience.
Being native, elders and children are the center of our culture. In western society, elders are very marginalized, particularly in post-industrialized capitalism. But the way that we’re supposed to do things is: you only go as fast as your slowest. During a time when it was so frustrating and heartbreaking that people were losing our most vulnerable because of the pandemic, that’s an important note.
MM: There’s a specific perspective that you gain when you’re spending a lot of your time with somebody who’s towards the end of their life. It makes me really sad that not everybody does that anymore, that we don’t live in these multi-generational homes. It’s stressful and it makes me less connected with a lot of my friends, but it does give a value and an understanding of life. The grief in the movie was based on losing my father when I was younger, but it made sense to have it be a multi-generational story, because that has been this really prevalent presence in my own life, as well as Lily’s. And Covid made this collective grief more palpable and understandable.
The Unknown Country is now playing in select theaters.