“… A Means of Creating a Fulfilling Life, Rather Than Just About Creating a Film”: Morrisa Maltz on Her SXSW-Premiering The Unknown Country
From the plains of the Dakotas to the Mexican-American border, landscape — seen through rain-streaked windshields at night, from overhead drone shots, and from the point-of-view of a single woman moving across a country that’s both reassuring and suddenly alien — is both subject and setting in The Unknown Country, the debut dramatic feature from artist and documentary filmmaker Morrisa Maltz (Ingrid). Lily Gladstone (Certain Women) plays Tana, grieving the loss of her grandmother while driving to the wedding of cousin Lainey (Lainey Bearkille Shangreauxr) in South Dakota’s Oglala Dakota’s community. Shangreauxr is one of the several non-actors featured in The Unknown Country, with her real wedding filmed for the feature — a strategy that informs the entire film, with Tana’s travels connecting her to people like South Dakota motel-owner Scott Stampe, Texas dance hall owner Teresa Boyd, and waitress Pam Richter, who worked a South Dakota diner for 40 years before passing away of COVID-19 in 2020. Along the way, Tana’s journey — to a site that holds the promise of emotional memory — is soundtracked by apt needle drops (Beach House’s “Take Care,” for example) and religious talk radio. Maltz, aided by cinematographer Andrew Hajek, has a fantastic eye, and Gladstone has an entirely natural and empathetic presence that integrates beautifully with the film’s quasi-documentary supporting characters. In an interview conducted over email, I asked Maltz, whose film debuted in SXSW, about her extensive practice accumulating all manner of non-screenplay material, the film’s four year production, and working with Hajek to develop a style that owed more to narrative storytelling than documentary
Filmmaker: I’m struck after reading your director’s statement about how much this film is the result of so much non-screenplay material, i.e., the journal entries, photos, voice memos, audio recordings, etc. you accumulated over several years. Tell me about this practice of yours in general. Is this a broader practice, and The Unknown Country a work carved out of a larger archive, or were you systematically collecting material that you knew would go into a work resembling this one?
Maltz: My background is as a visual artist. I was working in performance art, installation, and video art before I was making films. My creative process has always been exploratory, investigating avenues and interests until larger ideas for a project start to form. This usually takes the form of note-taking combined with gathering materials such as photographs, video, audio, and drawings. Long before The Unknown Country was a film in my head, it was a collection of photographs, radio recordings, and meaningful interactions from my time on the road. Over time, these became more like snapshots of scenes and stories that I’d had or had heard from the people that I had met. This phase of navigation can take years before I start to grasp the direction of what I want to make. So I wasn’t collecting material for a known project, but I discovered the ideas for The Unknown Country through the material I was collecting. It was then through discussions with my early collaborators on the project, my editor Vanara Taing, cinematographer Andrew Hajek and Lainey Bearkiller Shangreaux that the mess of ideas began to reach some direction.
I found the collaboration that followed to be one of the most rewarding ways to bring projects to life. Putting all of our own perspectives into the film has made a much more personal piece of art for our whole team rather than just a solely director-driven piece of work. This is the creative process that I enjoy most. It makes me feel alive and gives value to my personal journey as an artist and human being in the world.
Filmmaker: You’ve described your process as one that’s taken years. And you say that the film was catalyzed when you drove to an artist residency in Marfa in 2014 and then never drove back. It sounds as if, for you, filmmaking and everyday life blend and blur, that filmmaking is not a job or activity you embark on and then return to your everyday life. Would this be a fair description, and how has your life been affected by the way you’ve chosen to make films?
Maltz: Yes, this is an accurate description. The film has meant everything to the small group of us that made it. My life fully changed with this film as the people in the film also became my closest friends and family. That’s why I like working on projects that are so influenced by life itself. They meld into one, and it’s ultimately a means of creating a fulfilling life, rather than just about creating a film.
My creative process has always begun with curiosity and a desire for my life and art to influence each other. I’ve always made a conscious effort to have those two modes of being, blend. My father died suddenly when I was in high school and I’ve, in a way, been in this mode ever since. That experience very quickly taught me so many lessons about life, about taking advantage of the moment, while also knowing how it all is so temporary and fleeting. Blending my art and my life has been a way for me to truly find purpose in every moment of my lived experience.
Filmmaker: You shot your film during eight shoots over four years. Were those all with Lily? What sort of scheduling challenges did you have with this way of working? Was there ever a point where you doubted that you were making a film, and what sorts of significant artistic shifts and realizations took place during that time?
Maltz: We started shooting the film in 2017. We started by filming with the documentary subjects and that’s when I also started to collect audio recordings from them. We then raised some funds from that and continued filming with them in 2018. Lily came on in 2018 and we started filming with her in 2019.
We edited sequentially so we had to shoot the film in this manner — it’s always how we planned it. So, the scheduling challenges were mostly just the idea of getting everyone together again and again and again in between work, life, family, higher paying jobs, etc. Everyone’s lives were consistently changing over the course of a four-year period so it was sheer will and belief in the project that allowed us as a group to return again and again to continue making the film.
There wasn’t so much a significant artistic shift rather than the project just became more easily doable. The better we knew, the easier it was to grow the project and get more help on board. This allowed us to have more resources to define our style. The farther Tana gets in her journey, the more the film knew itself better, the more resources and help we were able to have. You can see this gradual shift in the film.
Filmmaker: Similarly, were there changes in the country and its communities — political or social — that you tracked during this time as well?
Maltz: I’ve been working on The Unknown Country since 2016, filming with local people in South Dakota, Wyoming and Texas. After the 2016 election, I felt compelled to deepen my understanding of the places and people that make up these areas and began using 35mm photography and recording radio over lengthy drives to better acquaint myself with areas in rural America I was less familiar with.
The openness of the landscapes, combined with the people I encountered slowly built the initial concepts behind the film. I also became fascinated with the incredibly blunt discrepancies between local radio in small-town middle America vs NPR as you start to get closer to larger cities. As America became further divided throughout the Trump presidency, the split in the radio became more and more stark. In subtle ways, this is also within the film.
I even fell in love with the static on the radio in the areas furthest out, where you can’t get one radio station. It’s as if no information at all can reach those areas, and it just becomes a blur.
Filmmaker: What’s the secret to blending actors like Lily with non-actors — to making sure the characters all exist in the same space?
Maltz: The short answer to this is the secret is Lily.
Lily is obviously an incredible actor, but she is an equally incredible person and she bonded very quickly with all of the non-actors. She helped them feel comfortable and helped guide them through the scenes, knowing the story points we needed to reach in each moment. I whole-heartedly believe no one else could have created the environment on set in the same honest and caring way that Lily did. This allowed these non-actors to act and be comfortable in exploring their characters.
The non-actors in the film are also all people I had met and became friends with over the course of many years. By the time we were filming with Lily I had known them for years, already filmed tests with them for two years and recorded audio. I stopped at Pam’s diner over and over for years, bought gas from Dale at the gas station over many years, etc. There was a large amount of trust between everyone that allowed a level of comfort for all of us, including myself in directing them.
Filmmaker: With your cinematographer, Andrew Hajek, you blend different styles, from a kind of handheld documentary style to use of overhead drone shots that place Tana and her car almost geometrically within larger landscapes. What discussions did the two of you have about how you were going to capture Tana’s journey cinematically, and what did a typical shooting day look like?
Maltz: Andrew Hajek and I had many conversations about how to shoot this film. I’ve worked with him for years, and he knows what I want something to look like, usually before I can articulate it or even realize it myself. I had shot a series of 35mm photographs of the landscapes in the Midwest while gathering ideas for this project. Andrew suggested shooting the film on Kowa Anamorphic lenses since their look is so similar to film. He also suggested shooting on the ARRI Alexa Mini due to us having to move quickly through a lot of various situations, knowing some of them would be unplanned.
We also wanted to make sure the film looked more like a narrative than a documentary, so our lens choices and many of our decisions were to make sure the film had a really specific visual language that could fit more of a narrative film. We also chose to use a diopter on the lens to be able to really get in close to Lily’s face, among others and to exude emotion from portrait type shots as much as possible.
A typical shooting day was varied. Sometimes it was just Andrew and I driving around and trying to find a leaf with perfectly placed snow on it, or driving out to Big Bend just to gather some beautiful B-roll. Other days were quite chaotic — we would start with a plan of scenes and a general idea of what would happen in them. Although, at all times we had to be prepared to pivot, change what might be happening to a different location, or a different way of approaching the scene. A lot of times we would shoot for a while and then go back in and redo moments we found that we really loved. But there had to be an openness to and agility to his approach, all while trying to shoot the best images he could in -30 degrees, or 110 degrees in Big Bend. It was not easy. He’s incredibly talented, and I’m eternally grateful to him for our trusted collaboration on many projects.
The drone shots were done by Will Graham. We wanted the car in open landscape, to often mirror Tana’s solitude. I scouted for weeks on my own in various areas in South Dakota so I was prepped when Will would come up to know exactly where to go. Will chose the Dallas drone shot locations — he was very familiar with them, and I love the series.
Filmmaker: You attended a number of labs and workshops. What role did those play in the film, both creatively and in terms of the financing and production?
Maltz: We attended the 2019 IFP Narrative Lab [now Gotham Narrative Lab], 2019 US in Progress in Poland and the 2019 Austin Film Society Artist Intensive. Each lab/workshop had a different effect on the project. I would probably say IFP and US in Progress helped us in terms of financing. Having extra attention and eyes on the film helped continue production and post production.
But the AFS Artist Intensive truly grounded us creatively. As close as my team is, a lot of us were working remotely. The intensive gave myself, Vanara (editor, story by, producer) and Lily (cast, story by) a chance to spend three full days together around mentors we incredibly respected. This time gave our creative process finishing the film more courage and grounded some of the final ideas for production that we had. We desperately needed that creative time together, and it immensely helped us.
Filmmaker: Now that the journey of this film is over, what is next for you? Did you intend to continue with this way of working for another film?
Maltz: Right now, as I’m writing this I’m so focused on that fact that we are all in Austin together — the entire team — including Lainey Bearkiller Shangreaux’’s entire extended family, my DP, my composers, Lily, my editor, producers, Richard Ray Whitman. All of us have been in this house together celebrating. I’m watching Lainey’s baby Dali walk around the backyard in the sunshine. Jazzy is inside playing Xbox. My composer, DP and editor are at a movie together while I work on this. I’m over the moon with everyone being able to be here together to celebrate this achievement. It’s hard to think what’s next when the moment is so filled with everything.
That being said, Lainey and I have started filming tests for a potential film surrounding her daughter, Jazzy. I always think it’s important to be working on something, and we jumped right into that. I, of course, have many ideas for future projects, but that one is the most concrete. I do intend on working this way for future films. I wouldn’t trade anyone I’ve worked with, or any of the insanity of working in this more fluid and open manner. I’m so proud of what we’ve accomplished, I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat.