Interview: Morrisa Maltz shares how personal encounters inspired her new film The Unknown Country [SXSW 2022]

Production still from The Unknown Country
The Unknown Country had its world premiere at the 2022 South by Southwest festival. Pic credit: Morrisa Maltz

Writer and director Morrisa Maltz poured her soul into her latest movie, The Unknown Country, which follows a grieving young woman on her roadtrip journey from the Midwest to the Texas-Mexico border. Transporting viewers back to 2016, the drama resonates feelings of social injustice, grief and loss, and displacement.

It grapples with the concepts of solidarity and community. Along the trip to reunite with her estranged Oglala Lakota family, Tana, the young Native lead, meets a handful of strangers who guide her on her journey. Maltz was inspired by personal events to create the moving story.

She shot the first scenes of the movie in 2017 prior to lead actor Lily Gladstone joining the project in 2018. The Unknown Country then got its world premiere at the 2022 South by Southwest festival on March 13, 2022 – an experience which she described as “emotional” and “amazing.”

Monsters and Critics had the chance to speak with Maltz at the festival, following the premiere. We spoke about her inspiration behind the story, her close relationship with producer and cast member Lainey Bearkiller Shangreaux, and the biggest creative risk she took while creating the movie.

Monsters & Critics: Can you tell me about the inspiration behind The Unknown Country?

Morrisa Maltz: I was doing a lot of solo road trips as a young woman around 2016, maybe 2015. I was also working on a documentary called Ingrid. I was traveling around the country to look for outsider artists for that specific project. Once I met Ingrid, I was traveling back and forth, alone by myself, to parts of America that I hadn’t visited before. My husband’s also a paleontologist, so he had some digs in South Dakota, and I found myself road tripping between Texas and South Dakota often. Those initial road trips got me really curious about this idea of following a woman on a solo road trip by herself because there were so many parts of it that I wanted to explore further. I started meeting people along the way and frequenting the same locations, that’s how I met the waitress in the movie, Dale, and all of the characters in the film.

M&C: Can you talk to me a little bit about how you selected the cast? There’s some amazing representation in the film. What’s your relationship with Lainey Bearkiller Shandreaux?

Morrisa Maltz: Lainey and I met in South Dakota over the summer, my husband was on a dig and I was in Spearfish alone for a lot of the time. I was just thinking of ideas and already tinkering with this concept. I got my hair cut one day and this girl that cut my hair was friends with Laney, and we all ended up going out that evening. Lainey and I had an immediate connection. We started hanging out all the time. She and I became very close very quickly. I started talking about this project and early seeds of this idea. As I was talking about this woman traveling alone, she was like, “Have you thought of [having] the young woman be Native?” because I had all these different concepts that I was trying to figure out. I was also getting much closer with Lainey’s family, so I was trying to figure out how we could incorporate her family in a larger way to this idea, rather than just being one of the smaller vignettes. I was very open to that initial concept.

Around the same time, I instantly knew that Lily was the person to be was the actor to be the the lead because it was going to be very difficult to have someone to just have a movie with long stretches of silence – which is really what I wanted so much of the film to be. That person would really have to carry the movie. With all the non-actors and the first-time actors, I knew it was going to be hard but Lily totally changed the project. Everyone else were people that I had met or were close friends.

M&C: What is the biggest creative risks that you feel you took with the with directing this movie?

Morrisa Maltz: Having this idea to start with felt impossible. It was an impossible idea to even begin to think about, much less execute. And then we started it, it was me and Lainey up in South Dakota with Andrew (cinematographer) flying in to test out ideas. The idea that this film could become a film was sheer will. We needed out group of amazing people to make this film happen. As a director, trying to believe in the concept, in the first place, was probably the hardest thing to overcome.

M&C: What message do you hope audiences take away from The Unknown Country?

Morrisa Maltz: It might sound cliche or cheesy, but for us, what is important about the movie is that it gives a sense of connection to humanity and to the people you meet every day and pass by every day. Everybody has this very complicated, interesting, crazy life. We’ve been through a lot, especially throughout the last few years. It’s been harder and harder to find connection with people due to all of the stuff that’s been going on with the world. I hope that people can watch this film and it brings us slightly closer together, and makes us pay more attention to the humans that you might be encountering.

Check out our SXSW interview with Daresha Kyi from Mama Bears.

The Unknown Country has not shared their distribution plan yet.

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