SXSW 2023 Interview: Erica Tremblay on Capturing Grace in “Fancy Dance”

Recently, Erica Tremblay was about to return to work on the third season of “Reservation Dogs” and if there had been any question about whether the work she and other artists in the Native community have done in recent years has made an impact, she just needed to look at the response to an open casting call.

“Thousands of people showed up and the line was wrapped all around — they had taken buses from different Native communities around North America to come and audition,” said Tremblay. “We were weeping over how beautiful that is and how much talent there is that hasn’t yet been seen, so it’s really, really exciting and I’m just excited that there’s more stuff for like my nieces to get to watch and engage with. I can’t wait to see who else is out there ready to write, and direct, and act, and make something meaningful.”

Even before a new season of “Reservation Dogs” can introduce even more of that talent to the world, Tremblay has made one of the major discoveries of the year, though perhaps fittingly, it’s larger than any one person in her debut feature “Fancy Dance.” Set in Seneca-Cayuga Nation from which the filmmaker originally hails in Oklahoma, the film is arguably the strongest evidence to date of the wealth of stories to tell out of Indian Country made all the more richer when the indigenous community themselves are empowered to tell them when Tremblay and co-writer Michiana Elise use the tried-and-true lure of a mystery surrounding a young woman’s disappearance to show its reverberations throughout the community and beyond, opening the door to a host of fascinating lives. While the teenage Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson) and her aunt Jax (Lily Gladstone) are deeply invested in finding Roki’s mother Tawi, launching an investigation of their own that tribal police are unable to pursue when disinterested state authorities have jurisdiction, “Fancy Dance” refreshingly shifts the focus from a past that can’t be undone to a future where the relatives only have each other to lean on and draw strength from one another to carry on.

Tremblay learned of how women in the Indigenous community built up such a resilience through the stories she heard from her mother, a teacher for over 35 years and beyond being unusually attuned to how pain can be turned into power, “Fancy Dance” has the distinction of bringing the Cayuga language, considered to be on life support when few who speak it are still alive, to the screen in certain sequences to show how it remains as vital as ever. What could be seen as a tragedy is turned into a triumph and apart from the cultural nuances that Tremblay clearly has an eye for, grace appears to come just as naturally to the filmmaker, letting scenes breath and the beautiful relationship between Roki and Jax to flourish.

Following the film’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, “Fancy Dance” has made its way to Austin for SXSW where Tremblay generously sat down to talk about the genesis of the story, building upon “Little Chief,” the short she previously made with Gladstone, to tell a more interesting story than audiences might have come to expect and how she’s not only puts so much thought into what makes it on screen but is able to show her characters being thoughtful.

I’ve heard you say you started out with the image that starts the movie and the one that ends it, and because this ventures into so many different aspects of the community, I wondered if the story developed like a clothesline where you’d hang various elements or if it was a driving force from the beginning?

Yeah, I’d moved up to Canada for a three-year-long full-time language immersion program in my native language, Cayuga and we were learning about family words — a word for mothers, “Knoha” and the word for your mother’s sister, your aunt is [pronounced] “Knoha-ah” – and that “ah” on the end of it is the diminutive, so that means that it means small mother or your other mother. That just broke open for me this whole new understanding of my culture and my community through this language that less than 20 people speak. You see the matrilineal lines and this beautiful feminism and the grammar and the syntax. I’m like, “Whoa, the world doesn’t have to be the way that we’re living in right now,” which is so steeped in this really toxic patriarchy. So I really wanted to write a story about an aunt and a niece and the journey of the two of them finding humanity and love and connection with each other, so I had this image of the two of them dancing at the end. And [the question became], how do we get there? How do we get an audience to care about that dance at the end?

Then I started writing, and I was feeling lonely in the pandemic and called up Michiana Elise, this incredible Indigenous writer and I pulled her into the mix, and we started hanging things on the clothesline together, as you said, and we ended up with “Fancy Dance.”

It’s an approach that I’d never seen before for this type of story, and after hearing about how you issued yourself a series of challenges to make “Little Chief,” was this a similar process where the fact that this doesn’t concentrate too much on potentially retraumatizing elements, even though it’s got the crime storyline, actually lead you to more interesting places as a storyteller?

After we finished “Little Chief,” I immediately knew I wanted to work with Lily again and I wanted to do something bigger and people were asking me, are you gonna make “Little Chief” a feature? Are you gonna make it a series? And I knew that that story was done. The 12 minutes that we spent there was enough time, but I realized that people were interested in a character like the woman in “Little Chief,” and obviously Lily is just a treasure and a wonderfully talented actor. So I [thought], how can I take all of these aspects of this teacher character that people seem to be drawn to and thrust that into a larger vehicle? Then the challenge was laying out a journey between these two characters without [that violent element], and it’s funny because there’s a lot of genre elements piled into one film. There are funny moments. It’s drama, it’s thriller, and [ultimately] I think that’s an exercise in in presenting what it’s like to be a Native American, right? There’s a lot of things happening all at once and you’re moving through an existence that’s being bombarded in all directions.

So the biggest challenge I wanted to hit with this film was just to be honest. No matter what happens in this moment, it’s the most truthful. Jax is not the most stand-up character in the world, but she loves her niece and she’s the best person to be raising her. There are gray areas, but it was how to take the truth and make it entertaining.

Once Lily and Isabel come aboard as this central duo, is there anything you see in their dynamic that may have changed your ideas of what this was?

Yeah, when we found Isabel, I actually went back in the script and changed some things. Roki was written a little younger in certain iterations of the script, and she was a little more subdued and a little bit more in the background. But when Isabel auditioned for the role, there was this spunk and I [thought], “Wow, she’s really gonna stand next to Lily and not blur into the background,” so she really influenced how Roki was written and when we’d be shooting, [I’d ask her] “Well, what would you do [in this situation]?” We would come up with changes on the fly based around this young teenager — she’s closer to being her age than I am, so I knew I could trust her to come up with things that she thought that Roki would really do. Then of course, Lily had read different iterations and was a part of developing the script all along the way. The two of them are so wonderfully and wildly talented and they had fun on set. They were constantly joking with each other, and they brought such a joy to these two characters both on the screen and in production.

This film is so graceful and one of the reasons why that I’ve heard Lily articulate is because of your penchant for showing people thinking things through, which seems like no small feat when I imagine there’s pressure to keep everything moving. Was that difficult to hold onto?

Yeah, I’m notoriously annoying on set because when the scene is over, I let it linger for a really long time before I say “cut.” Everyone’s like, “Okay, okay, okay.” [laughs] But I always want to have a long tail on things and see what’s happening in people’s eyes. I’m really interested in the physicality of a moment in the pauses and the silence, I think it says a lot. And Lily, her face is so expressive and she can tell entire volumes of emotion with just a glance and just a look, so that’s all very interesting to me as a director. Another thing we would always do is for the first three takes, I’d just let the actors just go wherever they’re going to go and then they find something in it. Then I’m like, “Okay, now pull that back by 50 percent,” so it was always three takes and then pull it back, pull it back, and when we would be in the dailies looking for things [in any given scene], I’d say, “Okay, go to take four” because it [was after] we’ve played around and we’d strip it all the way down get rid of any of the excess stuff and usually that’s where the most honest portrayal of these characters comes through. It’s more subdued and pulled back and longer pauses [where you’re] really feeling them feeling things. That’s exciting to me.

Immersing yourself in the Cayuga language obviously made a big impact on you, but from what I understand, it became a really big part of the crew bonding together, working in it. Did you know how powerful it could be in that respect?

I took immersion because I wanted to make films in Cayuga and with “Fancy Dance,” specifically, show modern people speaking the language fluently, which is not something that happens in real life. But on the first day, we handed out lanyards to everyone that had set calls translated into Cayuga — [terms like] “Action” and “Sound speed” and “Cut” and all of that. And by the third day, everyone on the set was using Cayuga and that was important to me because I wanted the film to not just have Cayuga as a gimmick. I wanted the Cayuga to be the roots of the production. Every once in a while [now], I’ll get a text from someone that was on the production, [saying something] like, “3 am last night, I yelled out ‘cut’ in Cayuga and everyone turned to me.” So by the end, it’s still inside of these people who are not even Cayuga. They’re using these calls on other sets because it became so ingrained and that’s what these words meant and what those words do mean and it was incredible to see the language alive and working and growing and moving.

Kisa Parker, who I had gone to immersion with, came down and worked with the actors for two weeks of four hours [where] they would do language in the morning and four hours of dance rehearsals in the afternoon and that gave them a chance to work with the language, but bond and be together and have fun and dance. And I’ve been really excited to share this film with my community. In fact, over the weekend I was sharing some of the Cayuga scenes with some of my cohort and they were like, “The Cayuga’s good!” And I was like, “Yes!” That’s what we wanted and that was the goal.

You had a wealth of experience before making this, but was a feature any different from your previous projects?

It’s just a gift and a blessing to be working and creating and making anything. I spent many, many, many years struggling to get anyone to care about what I had to say or what I wanted to do. Working on “Reservation Dogs” and “Dark Winds” and being in writers rooms with a lot of other really incredibly talented Native people was so inspirational, and I directed an episode of “Reservation Dogs” just a couple of short months before we started pre-production on “Fancy Dance” and working on that big show with lots of resources in Oklahoma gave me a lot of confidence moving into “Fancy Dance.” I just hope that I get to do it more. I love working in television. I love working in film. I love writing and I love directing and what a wonderful place to be that I have my dream job on “Rez Dogs” — I just got my dates to go direct my next episode on that series, so I’ll be going back to Oklahoma soon to do that and I hope that with the recent successes that we’ve seen with film and television about Native Americans, we can finally all agree that people do watch these shows and people do care about this community. Now it’s just up to financiers and distributors to give us the resources to do what we know how to do.

“Fancy Dance” will screen at SXSW on March 11th at 5:30 pm at the AFS Cinema and March 15th at 2:30 pm at the Alamo Lamar B.

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