Miranda Bailey on Finding a Way Through Unprecedented Terrain in “Split at the Root” and “The Unknown Country”

“It’s very different this year, I’ve noticed,” Miranda Bailey tells me in the midst of SXSW, not having to think she’d be anywhere but Austin during the first week of March dating back to 2004. Indeed, there was no way that South By 2021, the first in-person edition in three years, was going to ever fully resemble the sensory overload that one could usually expect as hundreds of thousands descended on Texas in the years before COVID-19, though sitting with Bailey brought its own kind of normalcy when the films she helped shepherd were among the best of fest as they’ve been in the past and her influence still seems to touch every corner of the festival, from the film’s opening night of “Everything Everywhere All at Once” directed by the Daniels, whose debut “Swiss Army Man” she co-financed, to “Linoleum,” offering a rare leading role to Jim Gaffigan after Bailey saw that potential in him for him first in her directorial debut “Being Frank,” which premiered there in 2018.

Still, the fact that it’s Bailey’s favorite festival likely has less to do with the success she’s had there than how closely the multimedia gathering reflects her own temperament, coming across as cool, casual and able to do a bit of everything. Besides having the premieres of “Split at the Root” and “The Unknown Country” to celebrate as a producer, Bailey also could be seen serving a number of other roles in Austin as the ambassador for Cherry Picks, the review aggregation site she co-founded with Rebecca Odes to promote the perspectives of female and nonbinary critics, or her distribution company The Film Arcade. This interest in all aspects of the film industry and filmmaking, which has stretched to occupying nearly every role one could have on a film set from acting to directing, has made her a particularly formidable producer, preparing her well to take on challenges that no one had ever encountered before when she had a number of productions at various stages of development during the pandemic.

With a bountiful harvest coming due in this first quarter of 2022, Bailey’s Cold Iron Pictures used what potential down time they had to strengthen an already strong slate of projects, particularly with “Split at the Root,” Linda Goldstein Knowlton’s galvanizing look at the creation of Immigrant Families Together, an organization of American women moved to action by the past administration’s dehumanizing child separation policy at the border and their development of a support system in the U.S. that can reconnect immigrants with their families. Bailey also lent a helpful eye as an executive producer to “The Unknown Country,” Morissa Maltz’s bewitching travelogue about a woman (Lily Gladstone) haunted by loss and gradually reopens herself to the world as she meets people along the way, and kept watch over “God’s Country,” the Thandiwe Newton thriller that made a name for its writer/director Julian Higgins when it premiered at Sundance but was every bit the scrappy survivor story behind the scenes as it told on screen when the production was stopped midway out of an abundance of caution when COVID first reached America.

After navigating such tricky times, you would’ve hoped things had gotten easier for Bailey by the time she reached SXSW, but the festival had booked the premieres of “Split at the Root” and “The Unknown Country” on the same Sunday afternoon on opposite sides of town, and though the multihyphenate is one of the few who you might believe could be in two places at once, I learned there are some limits to the space and time sorcery she’s capable of. Yet she still managed to demonstrate some when finding a moment to talk about all that she’s been up to of late at SXSW, continuing to find the most constructive ways she can help filmmakers achieve their vision and working around a pandemic.

You had a real Sophie’s Choice moment with these premieres at SXSW – what did you end up doing?

It’s so funny. I’ve seen so many cuts of “Split at the Root,” and I’ve only seen two of “Unknown Country,” so I was like, “Oh, I’ll go see ‘The Unknown Country,’ but I’ll go do the photo call for “Split at the Root” [first]. And I get there and [my publicist] Hilda’s like, “You’re not going to have time to make it to the other movie, so you’re going to need to sit through this one.” And it was such a different experience watching it on the big screen, it was really great.

It sounded like you’d been waiting for some time to let the cat out of the bag with “Split at the Root.” Did all of it have to be done under a shroud of secrecy?

Yeah, because these are immigrants, so you don’t want to say [publicly], “Oh, I’m doing an Underground Railroad kind of story and these people could be targeted. And Julie [Schwietert Collazo]’s nonprofit that started through this and we had to keep it quiet because otherwise we would be putting all those people at risk.

I didn’t necessarily know what the full story would be when I came on, but I saw the potential to tell this story about women helping women, which is a big thing for me, particularly mothers helping mothers. Not that I don’t want to help men, too. [laughs] But I am a mom, and I have experienced loss of a child, not my own, but my brother and I lived in a place where there was a loss of a child, so the thought of a policy where you’re trying to escape violence and save your children and instead end up in jail and have your kids taken completely across a country that you don’t speak the language of is the most terrifying thing I can think of. And I didn’t know how it would all work out, but I knew that it was a story that I wanted to be a part of telling and I got on immediately and put money into and found money for it from a deck and two interviews.

There are a couple women in the film helping with the nonprofit who are also from the film industry, which led me to wonder whether there was something to be said for production and coalition-building for this kind of work.

Which is so interesting. No, they all just really care about this cause, but they’re also activists. I don’t consider myself an activist, but I’m active in the things that I’m passionate about, which may happen to [mean] being involved in working with activists, but I don’t label myself as that. And there’s still work to be done. I really want to formulate a way, and it depends on who we work with as a distributor, to be able to host fundraising screenings for this work to continue.

As for “The Unknown Country,” how did you get involved in that?

This is a great story. Morrisa and I met at the Bend Film Festival in Oregon [where] she had “Ingrid,” which is her first film and I had “Being Frank,” my first narrative feature [as a director] and we were on a panel of female filmmakers with Debra Granik. And the people that were there were there to see Debra, certainly not myself or her, but we chatted afterwards and she really liked my movie, and I really liked hers, so we were like, “Let’s find a way to work together.”

[Morissa was] like, “I don’t really know Hollywood, or any of that stuff, but I really want to work with you. Would you be my mentor?” And I [said], “Sure, here’s my number. Let’s talk, and I will totally guide you through the process of whatever you have coming up next.” Throughout the years, we’ve touched base on this project [“The Unknown Country”] and she goes and finds a producer, and [asked], “What do you think of this?” or “What about this budget?” Essentially, it became just a mentorship and then when the film was finished, I gave some notes and then they asked if my company would come on board and then I would bring on board the sales reps, and publicists, and help them with the film festival strategy. Now, my job is to find her the proper representation.

Creatively, I thought you must’ve made for a strong sounding board when you have experience in both narrative and nonfiction work and this is a bit of a hybrid.

Well, I don’t really think of it as a hybrid so much as a fictional story with real people. it’s really exciting when you can find people that are at ease in the camera and can play themselves properly, but it’s not like the camera was just rolling and stuff was picked up. That’s all so much of the editing and the beauty of the cinematography, which Morrisa is obviously in charge of as the director, and Katherine [Harper], the producer. It takes a whole team of people to find a filmmaker’s specific voice and luckily, Morrisa is one of those people who knows what her voice is, so my job as a EP — and I was never planning on being an EP on this, but they asked me — is to basically help her just be able to show her voice at the loudest, or quietest that she wants it to be heard.

It blows my mind that anyone was able to finish anything during this time, let alone the fact that you’ve had two films premiere here and “God’s Country” earlier this year at Sundance…

Also, there was a TV show that I did nine episodes of that’s an LGBTQ TV show that we literally are taking out and selling right now.

How did you stay productive all this time?

You just keep going. “God’s Country” was its own thing because obviously we didn’t know about a pandemic and we were shooting when two-and-a-half weeks in, all of a sudden it’s like, “Wait, we might not be able to [find] Thandiwe [Newton] a way back to the UK?” And it’s March, and all of our stuff is exterior snow in Montana and if we have to fire this crew, who knows if they’ll get another job? Because what the heck is a pandemic — I’m calling my parents [asking] “What happened when you went through [something like] this?” And they’re like, “We’ve never been through this.” So we shut down and you just have to be able to sustain to keep it alive.

We were lucky to be able to work on the editing while that was happening, or apply for the Sundance Composers Lab and have Julian go through that, and you’re able to continue moving things forward, even though you’re not necessarily shooting because you basically have to wait until the exact time the next year, which we did. We had to wait a whole year and then go back and at this point, there’s COVID protocols and COVID supervisors, and you quarantine for X amount of weeks at the place first. Then you go in and everyone’s wearing masks, you’re not allowed to touch anybody. That happened with “God’s Country,” but then it also happened with the TV show we were doing coming back on that eight months later, it’s different because with documentary, you’re always stopping and starting anyway. With “Unknown Country,” it’s the same. There was a long process anyway. It wasn’t a typical schedule like “God’s Country,” or a TV show.

Have you been able to put anything into production since?

Wait until you see “June Zero.” Oh, my God. That’s so incredible. We just announced it, but I’ve got to go to New York to do the final sound mix in April. It was [actually] shot while we were down from the first part of “God’s Country” and Oren Moverman and I were going to Israel to shoot this movie. And we did have to produce that via Zoom, which I have to say on a day where there was 69 setups, handheld 16MM, I was thrilled to not be there because I would’ve lost my mind. [laughs]

I’m so happy you’re working with Oren again after “Norman” and “Time Out of Mind.”

Oren and I have six projects together and in September, we’re shooting “Raised Eyebrows” that a long time ago Rob Zombie was going to do, and then we got Oren to do it, and switched it around. We have Geoffrey Rush, Sienna Miller and Charlie Plummer. It’s a true story of this intern named Steve, who was in college at UCLA in the late ’60s/early ’70s and went to intern for his idol Groucho Marx, who’s elderly and has this bipolar secretary/girlfriend. Getting the script to where it needed to be right, and then within the budget that we could do it, and then the pandemic, we’re still trying to get over, but we got Geoffrey, which is really good, because that’s who I’ve always wanted, and [it’s difficult] trying to find the right person who’s known, but not over known, that can act and isn’t a comedy person trying to move into drama or a drama person who’s going to make the comedy part funny.

Generally, what’s it like to be back at SXSW? This seems like it has to be your favorite fest.

Oh, by far. We’re all really happy to be back. The very first movie that I ever made “Dead and Breakfast” was here, and I shot my documentary, “The Pathological Optimist,” here [in Austin] because the subjects live here. I love Austin — I don’t like it in August. It’s too hot. Also, I’ve grown close to Janet [Pierson, the festival director] and I’m really impressed with what she’s done with the festival.