June 26, 2024

Fancy Dance (2024) - DIRECTOR Q&A

“Fancy Dance” is the first narrative feature from writer-director Erica Tremblay and her co-writer Michiana Alise, anchored by a strong Lily Gladstone performance in the wake of her historic Academy Award nomination for “Killers of the Flower Moon.” Following her sister's disappearance, a Native American hustler Jax (Gladstone) kidnaps her niece [Roki] from the child's white grandparents and sets out for the state powwow [a celebration of American Indian culture] in hopes of keeping what is left of their family intact.

What was the genesis of this story? How did you and Miciana find the characters?

This story was born from the yearning to see ourselves reflected on the screen. To be Native American women with multidimensional identities means facing harsh realities in spaces that are virtually invisible. For centuries Native families have been fractured by corrupt systems, and yet a vibrant and beautiful community still withstands. FANCY DANCE is ultimately our love letter to that community and the women and queer folks who hold it together.

Your work clearly focuses on crafting authentic, relatable stories that showcase the full spectrum of contemporary Native American culture in a way that is so often not depicted on screen -- bringing universality to characters and experiences that mainstream media has so often shown as “the other.” Are there particular aspects of the film that you made sure to include in order to illustrate this?

I set out to make a film that celebrates Native culture. There is a lot of joy and happiness in Indian Country, which often gets lost in mainstream portrayals of our communities. There are a lot of exploitative depictions of reservation life out there. We wanted to counter-balance that by grounding our locations and set decorations in the humanity of our culture. It was important to us that Jax and Roki’s family home was full of life and of love. We also worked closely with the Cherokee Film Office and shot most of the film in and around Cherokee Nation.

woman sitting in front of a house in scene from Fancy Dance film

In this film you worked with a language advisor to feature a language that is considered critically endangered. Can you tell us about that language and why you included it?

It is estimated that there are less than twenty first-language Cayuga speakers left in the world. My community in Oklahoma lost our last fluent speaker in 1989, so I didn’t grow up surrounded by the language. I’ve always found it so tragic that we don’t have any speakers left, so in 2019, I moved to the Six Nation Reserve in Canada and began attending a three-year-long Cayuga language program. While studying the language, I was inspired to imagine a modern-day reality where young people still speak the language fluently, and the idea of FANCY DANCE was born. During production, I was able to bring a language advisor from my program down from Canada to work with the actors on the language. On the first day of filming, we passed out lanyards to the crew with Cayuga translations for phrases like “action,” “cut,” and “that’s a wrap.” By the second day, the crew knew all of the words, and we made all of our set calls in Cayuga. It was such a wonderful experience to bring the language to life in so many ways. I hope that this film can be used to encourage language revitalization and show the beauty of our words.

As an Indigenous and queer filmmaker, how has your perspective impacted your creative process and approach to filmmaking?

As a Native and queer person, I am constantly grappling with how to deconstruct the colonized world around me. Storytelling is integral to my culture and making this film offered me a way to honor that responsibility. I’m interested in telling impactful stories that create change, specifically within the communities in which I reside. It’s what I know and what I am passionate about exploring.

The film was made with the support of the Sundance Screenwriters Lab, Directors Lab, Creative Producing Lab and Indigenous Intensive. How did this process help your storytelling?

My co-writer Miciana and I met at Sundance when we were both Indigenous Lab fellows. We formed a close relationship that led to us becoming writing partners on FANCY DANCE. Our fellowship experiences have been formidable, inspirational, and critical to our current successes. From the outline, to the script, to the storyboards, to the edit, we received focused attention and support. I was able to connect with the best creators in the business, and they have genuinely invested in the film and my growth as a filmmaker. I didn’t have access to film school, so to have received this level of mentorship and guidance has meant everything.

scene from film Fancy Dance

You previously worked with Lily Gladstone on your short film, LITTLE CHIEF, can you talk about your continued collaboration with Lily and what she brings to the project?

The first time I saw Lily on the screen, I was in awe of her ability to convey the entire history of a character with one glance. She is such a generous and grounded human being. Working with her on my short film, LITTLE CHIEF, gave me such confidence, and as soon as that film wrapped, I started outlining FANCY DANCE with her in mind. Lily Gladstone was the only person who was going to play Jax, and to get this opportunity to reunite with her was a dream. She shows up prepared and exudes positive energy to everyone on the set. I have such a great time collaborating with her.

The film highlights the lack of law enforcement’s concern with Indigenous missing women. What were the challenges in navigating this story as it touches on real lives and communities?

Native Americans go missing and are murdered in the United States at alarming rates. We sought to tell a story that touches on this reality without focusing on the trauma and pain we so often see exploited in the coverage of this topic. We wanted to tell a story of survival that was grounded in love and connection.