Lily Gladstone stars in Morrisa Maltz’s debut feature about an Oglala Lakota woman reconnecting with her roots.
Lily Gladstone makes a well-nigh irresistible traveling companion in The Unknown Country, an exceptional and insightful road movie that has the remarkable actress perfectly cast as Tana, an Oglala Lakota woman who reconnects with her roots while driving cross-country. But as we follow her on her journey, filmmaker Morrisa Maltz is the one at the wheel who takes Tana, and the audience, off the beaten track.
“I’ve been working on The Unknown Country since 2016,” Maltz says in the film’s press notes, “filming with local people in South Dakota, Wyoming and Texas. While working through ideas for my last documentary, Ingrid, I was scouting a lot of outsider artists that led me to small corners of America I hadn’t previously visited. I spent a lot of hours driving alone through the U.S, during these times and throughout making the documentary. At the same time, I became progressively more and more interested in these feelings of driving alone in this country as a woman, and the ideas for a film began to form on these initial solo journeys. After the 2016 election, I felt drawn to understand these parts of the country better, and first used photography to try to better acquaint myself with the American Midwest.
All of which led Maltz to make The Unknown Country, her first dramatic feature, which currently is rolling out in national theatrical release — the film opens Friday at the Sioux Falls State Theatre and Nashville’s Belcourt Theater, among other venues, before its Sept. 12 digital release.
“The shape of the film really came together after I started to spend time frequenting the same hotels, diners and gas stations over a number of years,” Maltz says. “Over time, I built close friendships with the people I met, who later became key collaborators in the film. Most notably, I met Lainey Bearkiller while getting my haircut in Spearfish, South Dakota. We became friends and built the first ideas of the film together. Lainey is also a producer on the project and helped focus parts of the film’s story on the loving relationships of her family within the Oglala Lakota community.”
The logline: “Reeling from a devastating loss, Tana (Lily Gladstone) is pulled back into the world by an unexpected invitation to her cousin’s wedding. She packs up her late grandmother’s Cadillac and hits the open road, driving from her home in Minnesota to South Dakota. After reconnecting with her Oglala Lakota family, Tana sets off to retrace a surreal journey that her grandmother took decades ago, searching for the spot captured in an old family photograph. As she travels, Tana finds connection in the stories of everyday people who’ve settled down far off the main roads including Isaac (Raymond Lee), who provides a pivotal clue to understanding the lost location that could cultivate closure.”
We recently spoke with Morrisa Maltz and Lainey Bearkiller Shangreaux about The Unknown Country. Here are some highlights from our conversation.
Cowboys & Indians: Well, Lainey, this was a pretty sweet deal, right? I mean, you get married for real in the movie — and you have a documentary filmmaker on hand to shoot wedding movies for free.
Lainey Bearkiller Shangreaux: [Laughs] Yeah, it was pretty crazy.
Morrisa Maltz: I mean, that's kind of how it came up. Right? We were talking about, you wanted to get married. You were like, “Oh, then we could film it.”
Lainey: We were thinking of ideas for the movie and I just kind of threw in, “Well, I want to get married, so maybe we could throw that in there.” It happened, and it was great.
C&I: Actually, the film in many ways reflects Morrisa’s background as a documentarian. Most of the characters in the film aren’t just characters — they’re real-life folks you discovered during your own journeys, and incorporated them into the narrative.
Morrisa: When I was talking to Lainey originally about the idea, I was kind of like, “Yeah, I want to make a movie about a young woman traveling.” I didn’t really know very much more than that. And so Lainey highly influenced how that story sort of developed. Around the same time, she suggested Lily Gladstone. Well, I had seen her in Certain Women, and I absolutely fell in love with her. And I realized that because she had that quiet way of saying so much with so little — she was exactly what I pictured my character being. And so, Lainey kind of was the first part of everything getting figured out for this to actually be the film that it is today. Because after seeing Lily, it sort of snowballed from there into ... [Laughs] Well, actually a very slow snowball, but it kept going from there.
C&I: And you were able to ground her wonderfully expressive performance in the reality of having her sounded by people more or less being themselves.
Morrisa: But there was never anything like, “Oh, I’m going to make this movie, and I need a waitress, and you’re that person.” Those characters that you see in the film inspired me to make the story. There was never a moment of, “Oh, how do I gain their trust?” Because it was already developing. They inspired it. So we were already friends. Like Pam Richter, the waitress you see in the film, who unfortunately passed away later during COVID. I was in that diner for two years beforehand with her serving — with her being the most amazing waitress. So it was quite natural when she asked, “Oh, what do you do?” — I told her I'm an artist, I'm a filmmaker. And then eventually telling her, “Actually, you kind of inspired this role.”
So it was a very slow process. Like with Scott Stampe, who owns the motor lodge in Spearfish, South Daktota. I was photographing Scott’s window at his motel for two years before I walked in and was like, “Hi, I'm Morissa.” It was just a very slow process. So by the time we were filming, they knew me. I mean, Lainey and I were much closer, because we actually hang out all the time. But there were already deep relationships with other people before we were filming, and they were very familiar with the project. They basically created those roles for themselves, so there wasn't any kind of thing like, “How do I get the gas station attendant to do a magic trick?" He had done that magic trick for years before he did it in the film.
C&I: Scattered throughout the film, there are scenes that suggest the road Tana takes may be littered with dangers. Nothing too melodramatic ever occurs, of course. But there are moments…
Morrisa: I wanted to have in there the realistic feeling of what it feels like to be a woman traveling alone. Which is just filled with this slight fear, especially in certain areas. Lily and I also had a lot of conversations about what it would be like for an In indigenous woman traveling in those areas. It doesn’t necessarily mean that anything’s going to happen. But there is a sense of fear that you just have as a woman, and I wanted some scenes to very subtly convey what it feels like.
Morrisa Maltz, Lainey Bearkiller Shangreaux, Lily Gladstone, and writer-editor Vanara Taing discussed their collaboration with Mind the Gap program manager Osinachi during The Unknown Country: An Exploratory Filmmaking Process, a presentation of the Mill Valley Film Festival.