Finding Western Wanderlust in The Unknown Country

The team behind The Unknown Country, including director Morrisa Maltz and star Lily Gladstone, discuss blending fact and fiction with this narrative-doc hybrid set on the open road.

Lily Gladstone in The Unknown Country
Photo: Morrisa Maltz / SXSW

Filmmaker Morissa Maltz has always loved road trips. Whether traveling with company or alone, there is something liberating about getting lost in the country; vanishing into hidden spaces and forgotten pockets. In many ways, it’s a kind of therapy. Yet in recent years, and as the tone and tenor of folks changed, Maltz became more aware of the world around her. She also saw, perhaps in the cracks of the highway, the seeds for a story bigger than any single journey.

I think that for me it was [after 2016] when I really started to be much more conscious of being a young woman alone on my road trips,” Maltz says when she and a tight-knit group of collaborators enter the Den of Geek studio at SXSW. “I started thinking about it differently. I also felt these areas of the country that I didn’t know and that were being overlooked and [written off] as the middle of America, as Trump country—I wanted to understand what these landscapes and what these places were a bit more. And I did that through photography.”

Indeed, the movie that would become The Unknown Country did not begin as it was finished—a narrative feature wherein Lily Gladstone’s Tana uses the expanse of the open road as a balm for her own sorrows, as well as troubles far bigger than herself. Initially, Maltz was simply photographing and then recording the American landscape and the people who inhabited it. Yet in doing so, those earlier seeds began to blossom into something refreshingly authentic: a hybrid of documentary and narrative storytelling.

“I was thinking about this idea of a young woman on a road trip for a while, and the ideas for the story continued to grow as I met people and as I was road tripping for three or four years in these areas,” Maltz says. At the time, she was making another film, the documentary Ingrid, which traced the real-life story of a woman who went from Texan socialite to isolated artist. Yet while speaking with her editor Vanara Taing about these other traveling experiences, the pair came to a realization. Taing recognized there was something extraordinary in the relationships Maltz was making in her sojourns from South Dakota to Texas, and from Wyoming to Oklahoma. And it was something worth preserving, creatively.

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Says Maltz, “She encouraged me to get some audio interviews with the people that I was bonding with and that I was starting to feel very close to. To sort of get these initial ideas of how their stories could be part of the film.”

Taing, who would go on to have a “story by” credit on the The Unknown Country, as well as be a producer and the movie’s editor, initially saw the interviews as a touchstone they could rely on to develop a natural feel for the film. But as the footage came in of Maltz talking with diner proprietors here and bartenders there, it was suddenly obvious they should be incorporated into the film, even before they had Gladstone cast as their lead character or the central conflict.

“I said maybe you interview these people and we’ll use their stories for the woman who’s traveling,”  Taing tells us. “Morrisa had already done these beautiful imagery vignettes of the characters, and the interviews were so good we started experimenting with just having the voiceover put over it [later], which I thought was super powerful, and we could weave that as part of some narrative structure within the solitude and the silence of the drive.”

Among those folks interviewed was Maltz’s new friend and eventual collaborator Lainey Bearkiller Shangreaux, an indigenous woman Maltz met for the first time while getting a haircut in Spearfish, South Dakota. It was while bouncing ideas off Lainey that Unknown Country took clear form, and Morrisa grew to realize she just didn’t want Lainey’s family, who are Oglala Lakota, in the film; she wanted the film itself to be the story of a Lakota woman (at Lainey’s suggestion) who reconnected with her roots.

In the finished movie, that central young woman is played by Lily Gladstone. An actor perhaps best known at the moment for her role in 2016’s Certain Women—although she is about to also star in a new Martin Scorsese movie due out later this year—Gladstone is an accomplished talent of Blackfeet and Nez Perce heritage, and a performer with keen insight into a woman like The Unknown Country’s Tana. For here is a character who, following the death of her grandmother, chooses to lose herself to the road.

“Tana isn’t particularly objective driven,” Gladstone says while considering her character’s internal and external travails. “She felt more alone in the wake of losing her grandmother than being in that car driving toward something, driving toward family to connect to.”

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That family, whose invitation to reconnect is the inciting incident in the film, is represented by Lainey Bearkiller, who plays a version of herself. In keeping with the film’s synthesis of narrative and documentary filmmaking, it was Lainey’s idea for Maltz and her team to bring their production to her wedding in Spearfish, and to ultimately blend the fiction of Gladstone’s character with Lainey’s own reality. Thus in the film (which Lainey is also a producer on), Tana is Lainey’s estranged cousin, newly arrived to attend a wedding after growing up away in Minnesota. Yet the interactions audiences see between the professional actor and the documentary subject, between fact and fiction, remain relatively real.

“I just played myself, and the only part I had to act is [pretending] she’s my cousin I hadn’t seen in a long time,” Lainey says. Even so, Lainey was so good at doing this that they ultimately had to reshoot her introductory scene with Tana because, as Gladstone tells it, they were too instantly synchronized with each other’s personalities.

“Lainey and I understood each other too quickly,” Gladstone laughs. “We felt familial too quickly. We didn’t have it in the footage… so we had to go back several months after the wedding when a snowstorm hit Spearfish in May and pick that up.” But it is the same rawness between the two performers where the magic in The Unknown Country lives.

“There’s this distinction between professional actors and our first-time actors,” says Taing. “Yes, they’re playing a version of themselves, but you can’t fake sincerity and emotion… and that openness and generosity where Lainey and her family are just being open to the camera, I think for an editor that’s a dream of having. That’s what the great actors do. They just let you into that truth.”

And truth is the real destination Tana is searching for throughout The Unknown Country, and visiting Lainey’s wedding is just one stop on the itinerary. The location the film seems most consumed by, however,  is inside Tana’s own head as she sets a course deeper down the center of the country, through Oklahoma and into Texas. In this landscape, the movie also grapples with what it’s like to be traveling alone as a woman.

“People are familiar with missing indigenous women, especially an indigenous woman traveling alone through man camp country,” Gladstone considers while acknowledging the dangers The Unknown Country suggests lurk in the margins and just off the main road. “So it’s something we all need to consider as women as we travel in the world by ourselves. Morrisa and I both talked about how we don’t really have a problem doing that. People who love us and know us, our families, don’t like the idea of a young woman venturing out on her own, but there’s a lot of young women who do that. I think the worst case scenario, the nightmares, the bad stories, are always a possibility, but there’s also the possibility if you stay home and you don’t do that, then you’re not going to find [what you’re looking for].”

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What exactly Tana is looking for remains elusive throughout the movie. Nevertheless, it cannot be lost on any Native viewers what it means when she entertains visiting destinations that are popularly known today as Devils Tower in Wyoming, or Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota. These are, after all, places of cultural significance to Native American tribes who know them by other, far older names like Bear’s Lodge and Six Grandfathers Mountain.

Where Tana ultimately ends up is a slice of paradise deep in the heart of Texas: the Big Bend National Park.

“I love Big Bend,” Maltz says with a laugh. “I first came to Texas in 2014… and those open landscapes are such a great place to connect with yourself and with the larger world. In Big Bend,, you feel that immediately. It’s so far away—it’s hours and hours from the highway.” She also freely admits that it doesn’t hurt this is where a personal favorite film, Paris, Texas (1984), begins.

But it also breaks down the kind of barriers that confine us emotionally, physically, even narratively. Gladstone crystallizes that last part while considering the role of genre and convention in stories set in what we call the American West.

“Going back to Big Bend and that last moment [in the movie],” Gladstone says, “genre is a thing we maybe need to know what we’re about to see. But does genre really explain what story is? There’s so much overlap there. You know the last shot of this film, on this cliff, you’re looking at Mexico. You’re in the United States looking out at Mexico, and it’s like what is boundary? What is border?”

What are lines on a map, or in a script, when standing in natural, earthbound wonder? A group of filmmakers search for that answer by looking outward. And in.

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The Unknown Country premiered at SXSW on March 13.