Taking in the World: Morrisa Maltz’s Journey Through Film

Tana (Lily Gladstone) hits the open road in The Unknown Country.
Tana (Lily Gladstone) hits the open road in The Unknown Country.

Writer-director Morrisa Maltz discusses road movies, Turner Classic Movie marathons with her grandmother and working with Lily Gladstone on The Unknown Country.

Inspired by Morrisa Maltz’s own extensive road trips, The Unknown Country imbues rich textures into a meditative drive across the American midwest. Lily Gladstone (Kainai, Amskapi Piikani, Nimii’puu) stars as Tana, a grieving woman who reunites with her estranged Oglala Lakota family after losing her grandmother. Armed with an old photograph, she then sets off to West Texas to walk in her grandmother’s footsteps. Snow-capped hills and remote vistas keep Tana company on the road, as does the sometimes comforting, sometimes confrontational buzz of the radio.

The Unknown Country first grew from Maltz’s image of a woman alone on the road, but solitude runs antithetical to her working mode. She draws deeply from her own tight-knit bond with her grandmother. Similar familial affection comes across when she talks about her collaborators on the film, like how editor and producer Vanara Taing helped explore how documentary interviews could play a role. In Spearfish, South Dakota, a chance meeting proved life-changing after Maltz met Lainey Bearkiller Shangreaux (Oglala Lakota) while having her hair cut. First a friend, then a producer, Bearkiller Shangreaux further shaped Tana’s arc.

I get so emotional thinking about the film [because] it was like working with people you love and you say crazy things and you come up with insane ideas to do, and then everyone’s like, ‘Let’s try it.’ Nothing was ever shut down.

—⁠Morrisa Maltz

Bearkiller Shangreaux also appears with her family in the film, choosing to immortalize her own wedding to husband Devon on screen with breathtaking intimacy. Her bond with Gladstone feels immediate and precious, as if they really are cousins making up for lost time. Gladstone anchors the film with her performance, connecting with actors and non-actors alike with a measured gaze. “My first Lily Gladstone film and she is not messing around,” writes Kate Rogers.

Filmed over a three-year period, The Unknown Country is Maltz’s first narrative feature, following her documentary, Ingrid. That background lends itself to the film’s cinéma vérité feel. As Zachary Binx writes, “It’s a spiritual journey in the vein of Nomadland that’s less about answers and more about that vague feeling of emptiness you experience after a loss.” “Feels like the merging of Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles and the Ross brothers’ Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets,” shares Justin LaLiberty. “Lots of lingering shots of open roads cut against claustrophobic interiors full of idiosyncratic denizens of wherever the film happens to land at a given moment.”

Following the world premiere of The Unknown Country at SXSW, writer-director Maltz joined Letterboxd to discuss her close bonds with her collaborators, her grandmother’s love for remakes and her everlasting loyalty to Paris, Texas.

Lily Gladstone’s aching sensitivity drew raves in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women (2016).
Lily Gladstone’s aching sensitivity drew raves in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women (2016).

Lily Gladstone is so special in this film. She has such a singular presence. Can you tell me more about your collaborative process?
Morrisa Maltz: This was sort of a different process. It wasn’t that we were out casting people. I had been thinking about this idea of a woman on a road trip for a while, and the ideas of what that could be started to shift when Lainey and I became close. She originally had brought up the idea, “Have you considered it being a Native woman?”, which opened up my mind to various ways that this lead character could take shape.

I watched Certain Women and everything changed. I was like, ‘Oh, this movie could work. This movie could be a movie if Lily was possible.’ Whatever I had felt on screen, watching Lily in Certain Women, I also felt in person. We immediately connected in a way that I knew she would be able to take in the world around her in the same way that I had felt on my road trips, meeting all these people. She wouldn’t even need to work to do it. I don’t know how to talk about Lily enough and how amazing she is.

Turning to your relationship with Lainey, I was quite struck by the fact that her wedding is part of the film. I’m sure it could be strange to have an actor present at your real wedding, but that scene was filmed with such sensitivity, you can feel the trust there. How did the two of you approach that intimate moment?
Lainey and I very quickly became best friends. It was that kind of relationship where we met one night and then we immediately clicked and fell in love with each other. Our friendship has just immensely grown over the years. Her family is my family at this point. I get so emotional thinking about the film [because] it was like working with people you love and you say crazy things and you come up with insane ideas to do, and then everyone’s like, “Let’s try it.” Nothing was ever shut down.

I remember one night, we were both separately having glasses of wine, and we were messaging, and we were getting a little tipsy. I remember her just being like, “Oh my god, what if Devon and I get married in the movie? Should we put our wedding in the movie?” And I was like, “Sure, why not?” That [was] the catalyst.

We hadn’t yet decided, other than the photograph, what could help the main character, what could help Lily [have] more reasons for her to have left [home]. We ended up using [the wedding] as a reason, too. Lily’s first day was attending this wedding. I remember Lily just being like, “This is definitely the most emotional, sensitive first day on a shoot of all time.”

I solely watched Paris, Texas on repeat. [It’s] the only film I watched in 2019. I probably watched little parts of other movies, but I basically just watched Paris, Texas every day, which is just embarrassing.

—⁠Morrisa Maltz

Tana’s trip ultimately feels quite healing when she makes it to Big Bend and stands where her grandmother once stood. But even with that catharsis, there’s the feeling that her grief will always linger. How did you work to craft her emotional journey?
Honestly, it all happened organically. Grief is so universal, like we all know. Most of us have had an experience with death that turns your world around. The idea of death is something that humans for all time have been trying to understand, figure out, have a way to heal from. So I think because it’s such a universal feeling and concept, the grief part was just something that was so organic. It was an arc that we knew had to happen, and we knew what the scenes were going to be over the course of those two years.

Maybe a specific example is we knew we had to place Dale in a moment where he could make Lily smile. There were little things like that where we knew that that arc had to keep moving in some way and where to place the people that she saw along the way for that. That was thought out. But other than that, emotionally, Lily and I didn’t have long conversations about grief because we just talked about our lives a lot. We weren’t talking about Tana’s specific journey with grief; we talked about our experiences with grief.

 A Fish Called Wanda (1988) was a tale of murder, lust, greed, revenge and seafood… and, for Morrisa Maltz, a healing one.
 A Fish Called Wanda (1988) was a tale of murder, lust, greed, revenge and seafood… and, for Morrisa Maltz, a healing one.

What are the films that feel healing to you, however you’d like to interpret that?
My grandmother’s going to be 102 next week, and I’m super close with her. Any film we’re watching on TCM is healing to me because I’ve grown up watching TCM and old movies with her, so any movie that was made before 1960 basically feels healing to me because it’s a sense of comfort.

I used to watch A Fish Called Wanda all the time with my dad when I was little. When I need some comfort, I’ll watch A Fish Called Wanda because I lost my dad when I was younger. I don’t know if that’s what you mean by healing?

I wanted to leave it up to you, but I like your interpretation being films that make you think of family and people you love. My mom and I watch TCM together all the time too. What are some favorite TCM films that you’ve seen with your grandmother?
Oh, I have so many. Let me pick a couple. Can I call her?

Yeah!
[Maltz calls her grandmother Barbara, who picks up on the second ring. Maltz asks her to name some movies they’ve watched together on TCM—“happy ones that we love.” The two reminisce over a few that Maltz relays: Pal Joey, Singin’ in the Rain, The King and I, Love Affair and its remake An Affair to Remember.]

Wow, she picked up right away.
She’ll be like, “This is the most recent remake,” and it’s a movie from 1960. So we also love watching the original An Affair to Remember and then you watch the remake of An Affair to Remember. Or, there’s like the original Sabrina, then Sabrina. Or Pygmalion to My Fair Lady. I’m glad she said that because we love doing that and watching all of the versions that have ever been made. Only a 102-year-old person will remember all of the versions of the films that have ever been made.

Road movies don’t get much better than Paris, Texas (1984).
Road movies don’t get much better than Paris, Texas (1984).

You filmed The Unknown Country from 2017 to 2020, and the ideas for the story were bubbling even earlier. Three years is a lot of ground to cover, but were there any films that you watched during that time that grounded you? Guided you?
I solely watched Paris, Texas on repeat. [It’s] the only film I watched in 2019. I probably watched little parts of other movies, but I basically just watched Paris, Texas every day, which is just embarrassing. Part of the reason we shot in Big Bend is because the opening of Paris, Texas is in Big Bend, in similar locations. I loved the opening of Paris, Texas so much. I was like, ‘Oh, what if that’s the goal? What if that’s the end of the film?’ I was using it as a teacher as to how to make a road movie, and also [Wim Wenders’] trilogy of road movies.

[Vanara Taing, my editor,] and I watched Agnès Varda’s Vagabond to get editing ideas. We watched a lot of [Abbas] Kiarostami and Agnès Varda for sort of how to shape the movie. Not necessarily to learn how to do it from them, but to just keep taking in things.

What are some of your favorite documentaries?
I would probably still say Agnès Varda’s documentaries are the ones I love the most. I love The Gleaners and I. The Beaches of Agnès. Also all of Errol Morris’ work, I love. I was watching a lot of [his work] when I was making Ingrid. Vernon, Florida and Gates of Heaven, I love. These studies of people are movies that I tend to really respond to.

Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry (1997) opened the door for Morrisa Maltz to realize her passion for filmmaking.
Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry (1997) opened the door for Morrisa Maltz to realize her passion for filmmaking.

What was the film that first made you want to be a filmmaker?
For the switch between doing video art to film, it’s probably Taste of Cherry. I started to understand that filmmaking didn’t have to be movies like mainstream movies. There were movies that you could make that were more avant-garde! I took an avant-garde filmmaking class in college and was like, ‘Wait, I love these. These are movies?’ That allowed me to think that maybe I wanted to do film and not just be a [visual] artist.

After Tana leaves her extended family, she travels solo on the road until she reaches Dallas, and her solitude gets punctuated with an unexpected night of dancing. What’s your favorite “one crazy night” movie?
I mean, I love Before Sunrise. That’s one crazy night!

There’s a clear reverence for nature throughout The Unknown Country, such as those gorgeous shots of snow beside the interstate. We talked about Paris, Texas, but is there any other filmmaker whose perspective on nature stands out to you?
Let’s use the personal answer. My dad was from South Africa, and I grew up watching the Discovery Channel with him. He would just watch lions and tigers on TV to remind him of South Africa when I was growing up.

He would go outside, and I have VHSes from him that are just him exploring the world that are like, “Morrisa, here I am in Alaska. Here’s my foot on some snow. Here’s what the snow looks like here.” I have a lot of narration from my dad exploring the natural world. Sorry, that’s not a movie or a filmmaker! I think that sort of philosophizing in these natural landscapes comes a lot from him and how he interacted with the world.

Writer and director Morrisa Maltz.
Writer and director Morrisa Maltz.

That’s really special. Finally, what’s a film that you made an unexpected connection with? Maybe something that you had no expectations for and you just put on one day but it left its mark on you?
I have had many of those. It’s just hard because the ones that have impacted me the most clearly are the ones I’ve already talked about. I remember the moment when Paris, Texas was on TV and I didn’t know what it was, and then I watched it from there on out. [She gets out her phone.] Sorry, I’m not calling my grandma, I’m calling my husband really quick, because he’s going to be like, “You talk about this one all the time.”

[Maltz calls her husband Tommy and asks him to name a film that they watched together and she brings up all the time. “Not ‘Paris, Texas’,” she instructs.]

It’s called the Koker trilogy. So, Kiarostami’s Where Is My Friend’s House? was probably the one I discovered by mistake, but then the trilogy of those three, I became obsessed with, so Tommy was just reminding me of the names. Sorry, I had to call him. It’s just they’re all related to people I love.


The Unknown Country’ had its world premiere at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival. A release date is forthcoming, and stay tuned for Leo Koziol’s conversation with Lily Gladstone and Lainey Bearkiller Shangreaux.

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