Morissa Maltz on Making the Road a Little Less Lonely in “The Unknown Country”

Morissa Maltz doesn’t blame anyone who didn’t want to invest initially in “The Unknown Country” when in pitching them, she hardly had an idea herself of what her arresting debut feature would ultimately look like. It would be built around a drive she made across the Midwest, somehow including the fascinating strangers that would become friends along the way, but otherwise it existed as an abstract notion that might only take shape once she actually started filming and besides the experience of her medium-length documentary “Ingrid,” there wasn’t much to reference for what exactly she had in mind for the narrative-nonfiction hybrid.

Perhaps that’s why “The Unknown Country” looks like nothing else out there, even separating itself within the well-worn road movie genre as it follows Tana (Lily Gladstone), who stumbles down the highway heartbroken after losing her grandmother. As she’s gradually pulled out of her funk by the people she encounters at restaurants and rest stops, Maltz extends the same effect to an audience when she gives the screen over to the real-life people that interact with Tana to share stories from their lives, usually not the sort to be asked about them when living in small towns that are seen as scenery on the way to somewhere else. While Maltz finds tales of longing and heartbreak, there are plenty pockets of joy to be uncovered as well, the kind of discoveries that could only happen with the commitment of Gladstone and crew filming periodically over the course of two years and seeing where the journey would take them.

Not only does “The Unknown Country” reflect a personal voyage of healing for Tana, it ends up telling the story of a fragmented nation in being filmed in the lead-up to the 2020 U.S. presidential elections when Tana’s lone accompaniment in the car is local talk radio, but when letting the common humanity of everyone who appears on camera shine through, there’s a rejuvenating sense that people are far less apart in their beliefs and aspirations than those who primarily live in a world connected by technology would think. As a result, the film truly feels like a breath of fresh air as it makes its way to theaters this summer, following a festival run that began at SXSW two years ago and Maltz graciously spoke about what kind of work went into creating such naturalism in front of the camera, how Gladstone took on a greater role in the production than what a role as an actor would typically call for and the moment of solitude that comes with creating a community during the making of a film.

How did this start coalescing into a film? I understand you might’ve been making this road trip from South Dakota to Texas already.

It was like 2016, [but] starting farther back than that, I left California in 2014, and I road tripped to Texas to do an artist residency there. I was road tripping a lot by myself then to make my last documentary, “Ingrid” and because my husband is a paleontologist, he was working up in South Dakota, so for a number of years, I was road tripping through the midwest and that’s where the idea started. I wanted to tell a story about a young woman traveling alone. Then as I started meeting people along the way, that’s really how the film grew into a more functioning idea — they really began to influence the story for me and help me find out what it was.

It probably changed as new collaborators came on, but were there any foundational tenets that could serve as building blocks?

Yeah, I always work with my cinematographer, Andrew Hajek, and my editor Vanara Taing, who also has a story by and producer credit on “The Unknown Country.” I don’t know what you would call it [as far as credit], but we all are talking a lot about ideas and I remember calling Andrew from a parking lot somewhere and just being like, “Do you want to come and just record me walking into diners?” And he was like, “I mean, sure, but do you want to think about this idea more?” [laughs] And I was telling Vanara about the people that I was meeting and she was encouraging me to get audio interviews because I was loving [the people] so much. They know me well enough to encourage and help me continue to go after ideas that I have an instinct for, so that the foundation of the movie was the two of them before I really was bringing in the stories of the people that you see.

The individual portraits of people that are interspersed throughout the film are a really special part of it. Did you know you’d be able to showcase them in that way?

No, because I hadn’t met the people yet, but after Vanara encouraged me to get audio interviews and I developed friendships with them over the course of a couple years, I sent them to her and then Andrew and I started filming the vignettes of people on the first shoot before Lily was on board before we really knew what it was just because we wanted to. Then the combination of the audio with the footage of those people ended up actually helping to shape a story. We sent that footage to Lily, and that’s what really made the movie start. But we never set out [thinking we’d have these] vignettes [in the film]. It was more that we wanted to incorporate them in some capacity, but we didn’t know what that was until we started getting it into an edit.

What was it like to bring Lily Gladstone into this?

Lily was an integral part of the process and an incredibly special collaborator to have on it because she also intuitively understood what we were doing and what we wanted to accomplish, which was this collaborative storytelling where we’re really engaging with the community, allowing them to also shape this story. Lily is just such an incredible human being that bringing her into these situations was very easy. There wasn’t one beat of it being awkward or difficult or hard. She could easily come into these situations with these real people, know what we needed out of the scene and help guide them a little to get there and I can’t accentuate enough how easy she made the process. She was just such an incredible collaborator and truly an artist, somebody who really got to the nitty gritty of what we’re doing and get the project there.

From what I understand, there were five different shoots over two years where you’d edit in between. Did you develop a certain rhythm of processing the material you had and perhaps let the story take shape accordingly?

Yeah, we started shooting in 2018 and we wrapped in 2020. We even actually shot in 2017 some early, early footage that was not in the film, and once Lily was onboard, we basically shot in sequence, other than the vignettes and that first shoot was January 2019, which is at the beginning of the movie and then we would edit it, go back, come back a couple months later, shoot the next part, edit it. We definitely had a structure and a treatment of what was going to happen, but we also allowed ourselves to create the movie along the way, so if something happened in one shoot that would influence the story or the next scene, we were allowing for that to happen and editing and then coming back a few months later and building off of that, so it really helped to feel like you’re on a journey with the main character Tana because we were all on that journey with her. We weren’t a hundred percent [sure] what was going to happen this time.

Did you actually structure the shoot around certain communal events or seasons?

Yeah, this is actually is out of sequence now but our first shoot [was at] Winterfest, which was a specific time in winter in South Dakota that we needed to plan for, but everything else wasn’t shot for the seasons because we knew we wanted the road trip part to be in winter, but [for instance] in South Dakota, we shot in May and there was a snowstorm, so there’s no really planning, and we weren’t necessarily shooting for fall, summer, spring type [progression], but it was definitely for one year.

Did anything happen you didn’t expect that you really like about the film now?

We planned it over so many years that there’s no “Oh, crazy, that works.” Even though it was quite wild, everything was very thought out over a long period of time. My favorite memory is on the first day of filming, we got stopped by a cop in Sundance, Wyoming. We had fake license plates on the car, and we had a lot of equipment, and I think we were speeding — very mildly, but maybe 10 miles over — in a town, and the cop stopped us for four hours because he did not believe that we were making a movie. But then he later plays the cop. We designed a scene for him because that was like our first day together and we had that experience, we wanted to use it in the film. That’s who stops Tana in “The Unknown Country.”

Is it true all those snippets of radio that you hear in the film were actually collected over years?

Yeah, that’s even way before there was an idea for a movie. I must’ve started recording the radio in 2015 because it felt like the soundtrack of my road trips and I started to fall in love with talk radio throughout the different small towns and states, so I was collecting that for a long period of time. Then we later had hundreds of hours, which was a disaster for me and the editor, but at the end, but we ended up building that to [become] a loosely structured narrative in the film. There’s never signs [in the film visually] that are like, “Welcome to Kansas,” so we tried to do that in a more subtle way with the radio and also have the radio match Tana’s emotional state at times.

When this was filmed in sequence, what was it like getting to that last day of filming, knowing that the experience had come to an end?

I actually thought about this recently because I remember that night when we wrapped. Everybody had went to bed and I just sat outside on the porch of our AirBnB in Big Bend and I was just staring at nothing. I couldn’t fall asleep. And I don’t know why that’s so memorable, but maybe it was just this cathartic moment knowing that it was done and also this fear — you really build this family when you make these projects and it was also such a hard movie to make, we all bonded. It’s like when you go to war together. So I just remember sitting there, being quiet with myself. And having that last shot in that last day, like Lily’s standing at the top of that mountain and she closes her eyes, there’s a quietness that comes with, a sense of closure and that’s what I had at the end of that evening and I could only have it alone. That sounds kind of sappy, but that’s true. We celebrated the next day and all that, but these projects are just so hard. You have this like clarifying moment.

“The Unknown Country” opens on July 28th in New York at the Quad Cinema, Northern Hills Cinema in Spearfish, South Dakota and Los Angeles at the Nuart Theatre. A full list of theaters and dates is here.

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