How much time would you sacrifice to make your first feature? In the case of The Unknown Country, how about over four years?

The indie film follows Tana (Lily Gladstone, Siksikaitsitapi and Niimíipuu), who is on a meandering road trip through the Midwest after losing her grandmother. Directed by Morrisa Maltz, the movie took several years to complete, beginning in 2016 with Maltz's own road trip and her interactions with various real-life Midwesterners, who make appearances in the film as characters and in voiceovers.

Maltz is open about not knowing what the film was at first, only finding the story through those relationships, including a friendship with Lainey Bearkiller (who also produced, and whose real wedding is included in the movie). Through those explorations, the film found form, and the team participated in IFP's Narrative Lab, Poland's U.S. in Progress, and the AFS Artist Intensive after receiving two grants from the Austin Film Society.

We spoke with Maltz via Zoom ahead of the film's wide release to learn more about her process on this film, and what advice she has for filmmakers.

THE UNKNOWN COUNTRY | Official Trailer | In Select Theaters July

Editor's note: The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

No Film School: This was not a traditional shoot. It’s so interesting, the way that you did it, taking several years for it to coalesce. Can you talk about how those pieces came together for this character's story and why you decided to make the film that way?

Morris Maltz: You mean like why we shot that way over a number of years?

NFS: I know it's part of your artistic process to explore, and I know that you've said in the past you would do that again, but why? What's the motivation behind doing it that way?

Maltz: Well, specifically for The Unknown Country, there were a few reasons why that made sense. We were getting to know the film as we were shooting it, so we were editing after every shoot. We had a structure of what we wanted to make. We wanted the film to allow itself to grow with us, so we were leaving what happened on those shoots quite open. It made sense to build it in sequence, which is what we did. We started shooting 2018 with the doc vignettes. Yeah, so it was over three years.

But the original reason to shoot that way was also financial ... When you're an artist, a first-time narrative filmmaker without a script, there's not much faith to get people to be giving you a lot of money for your movies, so it also was a way for us to shoot a little bit, raise some more money, shoot a little. It gave us a way to also show people what we were doing, and by the time we got to the last shoot, we were able to get in a lot of funding—or not a lot, but a lot for us at that stage because people were able to see a rough cut. The shooting in parts was able to get us funding for the next thing.

The Bearkillers in 'The Unknown Country'The Bearkillers in 'The Unknown Country'Credit: Music Box Films

NFS: What did a typical day of shooting look like? I know that a lot of it is very organic and doc style, almost, so were you setting up lights, were you blocking, how were you actually shooting?

Maltz: On The Unknown Country, there was no blocking and there were no lights. We used natural daylight as much as possible. My cinematographer, who's incredibly talented, Andrew Hajek, he was able to figure out how to make the situations that we were in still look amazing, so using a lot of natural light. We brought a hazer into the smaller, tighter spots.

Using lenses, we used Kowa anamorphic lenses that also helped these natural spaces. A typical shooting day definitely varied, but they were wild. We would have a structure or a plan, but it was very loose and we'd allow whatever was happening to guide us into the next. We were very open, which is, I think also what makes the movie beautiful is if we wanted to just shoot people talking for 20 minutes, we allowed ourselves to do that.

Lily Gladstone in 'The Unknown Country'Lily Gladstone in 'The Unknown Country'Credit: Music Box Films

NFS: You talked about the tools, too, and even though you were very loosely following your characters, it still looks really cinematic. Can you talk a little bit more about what tools you used to achieve that look?

Maltz: Yeah. When I talk about it, I tend to be like, "It was so wild, it was so crazy." But in actuality, there were so many conversations before we were starting over many years to talk about, "How do we make this idea?" Andrew and I were talking for a long time about how we make something that's going to be more of a doc-style shoot feel like a narrative film. In those conversations we were specifically talking about, we used the Alexa, we use the anamorphic Kowa lenses that really allowed that.

There's a filmic quality to them that matched the type of 35-millimeter photos I was taking of these landscapes around those times, and so that gave it a style that felt deliberate instead of it feeling like you're just walking into a space and shooting some doc footage because the film could feel incredibly different if we didn't have those tools. Those are expensive lenses to rent. Any money we had, it really was going to that equipment to just make sure that at the very least, we were shooting with highly artistic tools and also thinking about the shots that we were creating to feel more narrative than documentary.

'The Unknown Country''The Unknown Country'Credit: Music Box Films

NFS: I also wanted to touch on sound because I feel like the talk radio backdrop ... felt very, very distinct to the locale. So I'm interested in why you chose to use that and how you integrated it.

Maltz: That was in those beginning stages before I knew I was making a film when I was just road-tripping alone, I was bringing a Zoom recorder with me and I was just recording the radio because that felt like something to do. It was also just a very strange time when Trump had just gotten elected and once you start going into those smaller towns, the soundtrack of my road trips was talk radio through all these different places.

I don't know, I just fell in love with it, so I recorded it every road trip for four years. And then I think once we had a rough cut, I said to my editor, we got to figure out doing something with the radio material, and so we organized it and there must have been hundreds of hours of radio. It was a big job for her. But we tried to paint a narrative with the radio of where she was and keep it realistic with what that road trip would be, and then it helped with the loose narrative to give it some shape, if that makes sense.

Lily Gladstone in 'The Unknown Country''The Unknown Country'Credit: Music Box Films

NFS: What would you say was the most challenging scene to film?

Maltz: The opening scene, probably.

NFS: Why so?

Maltz: It was negative 30 outside. I think at that point, the sound guys were, at the very beginning, we had some people that were come in, working for free, and I think there were two people that were like, we're not doing this, and so they left. It was just me, the DP, Lily, and my husband. I remember the screen froze and my husband was putting up lights at negative 20. I distinctly remember that moment just being very hard because only the people that were going to be there till the end stayed. Everybody else left.

Lily Gladstone in 'The Unknown Country'Lily Gladstone in 'The Unknown Country'Credit: Music Box Films

NFS: That's dedication. What advice would you have for aspiring filmmakers?

Maltz: If you really want to do it, there's always a way. There's always a way to fig to figure it out, but it's not going to be easy. I joke with my DP and stuff because I didn't own any furniture the entirety of making The Unknown Country. I just was so focused on this one thing, on getting this done, and then as soon as we were wrapped, I turned around to my husband, I was like, we should buy some chairs. I think we were just so focused on getting this movie done and it just takes that kind of pure, just that is the only thing that's in your brain and other parts of your life probably suffer from that, but it's maybe worth it. I don't know yet.