I love road trip films, especially the ones that take place in the United States and showcase places that are not often seen in films. In 2020, when we all were stuck at home, Chloé Zhao’s film “Nomadland” was a breath of fresh air, enabling us to see nature through the eyes Frances McDormand’s traveling character was a cathartic experience for me. One of my favorite films of all time is “Paris, Texas,” directed by Wim Wenders, a beautiful road trip movie showcasing the southwest parts of our country. “The Unknown Country,” directed by Morrisa Maltz had the same effect for me as these two films, and is enhanced by the incredible performance by Lily Gladstone (“Certain Women,” “Killers of the Flower Moon”).
The film is about a woman who travels to see her family in South Dakota after her grandmother passes, and then takes a pilgrimage to a place where her grandmother vacationed when she was young. What was really special about this film for me was the time it took for us to get to know the people that Gladstone met during her travels. We got introduced to the backstories of a waitress at a diner, a man working at a gas station, an owner of a motel, and a woman who runs a dance hall in Austin, along with the Lakota people in South Dakota. Showing the humanity of these people, and traveling with Lily across the country, from Minneapolis to southern Texas, liberates your soul, and shows what life can be like when you open yourself to the people you encounter.
I had the opportunity to speak with Morrisa about her film, and about her work with Lily Gladstone. This is the fourth film (including one documentary) I’ve covered with Lily as the star, and I’m really excited about where her career has been going. I cannot wait to see her in Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon,” this fall. “The Unknown Country,” brought to you by Music Box Films, premieres in select theaters today.
How did you come to this project, and can you talk about how meeting Lainey Bearkiller Shangreaux changed the trajectory of this project?
I was roadtripping a lot on my own when I left California in 2014. I thought I was going to be leaving for a week, and I have never gone back. I left for Texas then to do an artist residency and that led to a documentary project that I worked on in Texas and Oklahoma. Also, during that time, my husband started working in South Dakota. He is a paleontologist, and he was doing dinosaur digs there. So when he was there, I just started roadtripping by myself between South Dakota and Texas.
I directed a short film, called “Odyssea,” in 2013. The story is about a young woman going home. For my next film, I wanted to make something about a woman going out in the world. And I knew I didn’t have enough experience yet to tell that story. So when I was taking those road trips during the Trump election times, I was inspired to tell the story about a woman traveling alone. I didn’t really know what that was yet, but the people I started meeting along the way, such as Lainey Bearkiller Shangreaux, started molding that for me. The people I met influenced how the film’s story took shape. It was really a long process, and the pieces came together over time. We shot the film over a four-year period, and it was a very organic process.
Let’s talk about Lily! I love her and it’s so exciting following her career trajectory. I’d love to hear how you two met and how she became very important to this project.
I met Lainey (Bearkiller Shangreaux) in 2016. As Lainey and I developed this friendship, I was talking with her about this idea of a story about this young woman traveling on her own. It seemed like kind of a wild idea at the time, and it still seems kind of wild that it all happened. When when we were trying figure out how to include Lainey’s family in the film, she asked me if I was thinking about making the main character native. Around that same time, I saw Lily in “Certain Women,” and I knew that this was the person this character needs to be. Then my full attention went to Lily and how she was the only way that this story could work.
I met Lily through a director friend, Sarah Adina Smith. She had a small role in her film “Buster’s Mal Heart.” I asked Sarah if she could make an introduction, and she did. After that, we still didn’t have anything yet, so it took a couple years. At the time, I was just talking to Lily about this concept.
It wasn’t until we got a grant from the Austin Film Society that Lily and her team were ready to dive in. But it was a process. We started shooting the footage of the people I cast for the film to play themselves, the people I had met on the road. I was talking to Lily for a while and keeping her updated on what we were doing. At one point, we shot some footage with another actress just to figure out what we were making. But during the whole process, I was really focused on Lily being the only option for this main character.
I was talking with my editor, Vanara Taing, who I’m very close with, when we screened at Spearfish last night, and she was crying as she said, “When I watch the film, there really is no one else who could have starred in this, there is no one else who could have directed this, there is no one else who could have shot it, and there is no one else who could have edited it.” And this is why this film is so special.
I’m interested in how you had Lily work with the people who were playing themselves, the people you had met on the road. Can you talk about how that all came together?
I had been working with them for two years before we had them doing a scene with Lily. But even before we started shooting, I had been developing relationships with all of these people during my roadtrips. Like the waitress, Pam Richter, I knew her from this diner I had been going to for years. So we set a foundation, and then we built their characters together. By the time we brought Lily into those scenes, she knew where the scene needed to go. Like even though we didn’t have a script, we did have a plan.
Lily was incredible for a million reasons, but really in context to your question, it was incredible how she was able to guide these “first-time actors” to where they needed to get to in each scene. They knew what they were supposed to do, but Lily really helped get them to where they needed to go. Lily took on a multi-faceted role in this film in many ways, not just acting for herself, but really guiding these first-time actors to create the story that we needed to make.
What do you hope people see in your film?
I hope people see the humanity in this film, the parts that are often overlooked. And I hope the film will inspire people to not take for granted who comes in and out of our lives in these moments. And my hope is really to open minds to what the country is and who these people are that exist in it, really seeing beyond this divisive world that we live in.
We showed this film in Spearfish, South Dakota, the other day, and we all were there, Lily, Lainey, Ray (Raymond Lee), and Richard (Richard Ray Whitman). It was a very non-art crowd. It sold out in two theaters, and the people there absolutely loved it. They weren’t used to seeing this type of film, and they didn’t know that these types of films existed.
People watch what’s put in front of them, and we should try to put these types of stories in front of larger audiences, because people watch the content they are shown. It was really beautiful to see a large group of people who wouldn’t normally watch something like this be incredibly moved by a story that is very specifically an art film. The audience showed a deep love for it, and it proves that people who are in charge of what people are watching can do a better job of bringing better content in front of them.