Road movies often provide the perfect setting for journeys of self-discovery and this is no different in THE UNKNOWN COUNTRY, the visually stunning narrative feature debut from dir. Morrisa Maltz.
Led and co-written by Lily Gladstone, who will be starring Martin Scorsese's upcoming marathon of a movie Killers of the Flower Moon, THE UNKNOWN COUNTRY tells an intimate yet epic story of its own incorporating real people and actors, dramatic situations and documentary realism to conjure a warm, authentic snapshot of the American midwest.
We caught up with Maltz to talk about what inspired the film, challenges faced across the four-year shoot and more.
This film was inspired by your own trip through the American Midwest and the photos taken on that journey. What about this experience led to The Unknown Country and why was it a story you wanted to tell?
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. Blending my art and my life has been a way for me to truly find purpose in every moment of my lived experience.
In 2015/16 I was road tripping a lot on my own between Texas and Oklahoma making a documentary and also frequently between Texas and South Dakota while my husband was working on a dinosaur dig in that region. During that time I started thinking a lot about just being a woman traveling alone. I also started photographing on these road trips. I felt the landscape changing me and effecting on a deep level I can't quite explain. But the real shift happened when I started meeting people along the way and building friendships with them over time that led to making The Unknown Country. The friendships I built with the people (the doc vignettes/first time actors) in the film are really what inspired me to make the film and see it through. Each person (Pam, Dale, Lainey and her family etc...) Each person changed my perspective and understanding of what the film should be and collaborating with them to make this was an incredible experience.
Did having the photography that inspired the film be shot on 35mm film act as an inspiration for the film’s natural and lo-fi visual style?
Yes, when my DP, Andrew Hajek, and I were first discussing the film we talked a lot about how to make the film feel like those photographs I'd been taking on my road trips for years. The natural, grainy, nostalgic feeling of those 35mm photos was very particular. A lot of them were also taken while moving in a car-- resulting in soft focus and dreamy feeling. Andrew suggested shooting with vintage Kowa Anamorphic lenses with the Alexa Mini to mimic the feeling of the photos I loved so much. We've worked together for a while and I trust his instincts to know what I will like best, so I listened to him!
The film somewhat blurs the line between fiction and non-fiction. How did your background as a visual artist and filmmaker lend itself to directing a narrative feature?
I come more from a visual artist background but I did make one documentary that taught me a lot before The Unknown Country, Ingrid. Andrew (DP) Vanara (editor/story) on The Unknown Country and I made that doc together so the process was informative in many ways.
The way that we worked with Ingrid informed a lot of how we worked the first time actors on The Unknown Country. We spent a lot of time in Ingrid's world and the friendship and trust,-the feeling we were making something together- developed over that time. It was much the same with TUC. The people guided their stories. It was built on a trust and collaborative process I enjoy very much. It's sort of based on this overarching theory that everyone and anyone should make art- it's just about having the vehicle to do so in our collaborations.
And from a filmmaking standpoint we did shoot and think in a bit of a similar style. Nature as a thread, the cinema verite feeling as well as the voice over/ audio interviews were used in both films.
Were there any challenges faced across the 4-year shoot?
The entirety of shooting the film was a challenge. We had no money at the beginning and our team was Andrew, Lily and myself-- sometimes a sound person-- for much of filming. We shot much of the film in -20 degrees with no crew. Raising money was also a challenge as this was not a traditional movie so it was hard (which was understandable) to really get people behind it. So from a technical standpoint, creating this film in severe weather with no crew was just always a challenge. That being said- it bonded us all together-- and our belief and will in the project as a group got stronger and tighter. And raising money over time for the film ended up helping us understand what we needed and the film we were making on a deeper level. It ended up being a good thing! We shot and edited sequentially, after every shoot, so the farther Tana gets on in her journey, the more the film knew itself better, and the more resources and help we were able to have. You can see this gradual shift in the film.
Everyone’s lives were 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. For example, Lily didn't cut her hair for two years- until we were done. I got married, Andrew had a baby-- but through all of these life changes we returned again and again to make finish this film. Of course if was a challenge to stay focused and continue to return in the same manner- but again this also bonded us and made us stronger as a filmmaking team.
Would you be able to share any words of wisdom for those looking to embark on their first feature narrative?
If you really want to do it, there's always a way. Find the people you want to make a film with- find your filmmaking family. If you have the people you love and trust artistically and that creative synergy of collaboration you will be able to make your first feature.
And for yourself-- you will need to push this out in the world with all the energy you have. The project will need practically all of your love and care for a number of years. Be prepared to stay focused- mostly only with tunnel vision for that one thing-- and you'll be able to see your first feature through:)