Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | March 17th, 2023
Director Erica Tremblay’s Fancy Dance premiered at Sundance 2023 (where I reviewed it), and tells the story of Jax (Lily Gladstone) and her niece, Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson) as they simultaneously look for Roki’s missing mother, Tawi, while evading officials from Child Protective Services on their way to an annual powwow. Tremblay hails from the Seneca-Cayuga nation in which the story takes place, and the film is filled with authentic details about life on the reservation and what it means to be indigenous in a white world. I finally caught up with Tremblay at the 2023 SXSW festival, and here is a transcription of that conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Christopher Llewellyn Reed: How did you come up with, and how long ago did you come up with, the script?
Erica Tremblay: I did a short film called Little Chief, with Lily Gladstone, that premiered at Sundance in 2020 and got a lot of really great response and had a great festival run and people were like, “Are you going to make this a feature? Are you going to try to make this a television series?” and I was just like, “Eh, no.” I’ve explored this world and this character, but I kind of got the feeling that people were really interested in a character like that and so I thought, “Okay, well maybe I’ll write a feature film that’s kind of in that same world, but with new challenges and a new story.” So I called Lily up and I was like, “Lily, I want to write a feature with you,” and so really, I think, March of 2020 is when heavy development started on the project and then …
CLR: Boom. COVID.
ET: Yes. Exactly. I had started outlining and writing the script and was feeling lonely in this really weird time we were all going through. So I called up this other indigenous writer that I had met when I was an indigenous lab fellow at Sundance, and I said, “Hey Miciana [Alise], do you remember me? I really loved your script. I’m writing this project. Would you be interested in co-writing with me?” Then we kind of embarked on trying to get the draft done by July, I believe, which was the deadline to submit to the Screenwriters and Directors Lab at Sundance. So we spent those early COVID days getting a draft together. We submitted it, we got into the labs, we developed the project at the Screenwriters and Directors Labs at Sundance and at the same time I was writing the script, I was doing a full-time language immersion program in Cayuga, which is my native language.
And so for eight hours I would be in this immersion program speaking Cayuga, and then I would write at night. It was really this incredible kind of growth period for me in my art, because I was using this cultural connection that I was finding in my immersion program and kind of coming home at night and spilling that into the script. So it really was an intersection of like, “Oh, hey, I want to do something bigger than a short film and move into the next part of my career, but also I’m doing this thing that’s very culturally valuable for me. How can I bring these two things together?”
CLR: Did you grow up not speaking Cayuga and were now trying to learn the language?
ET: Yeah. The last fluent speaker in my community in Oklahoma died in 1989. I only grew up with the language kind of in rote, memorized speeches at Longhouse, and there are less than 20 first-language speakers of the language left in the world. The language itself is considered extinct, and there’s a really strong movement that’s happening right now in a lot of indigenous languages to revitalize them because they were nearly successfully eradicated by colonization. So we are trying to use resources and energy to bring these languages back because they’re so important.
I had kind of left my life in New York City where I was working in publishing and moved to this small reservation where they had this program and I committed three years to that, and I’m really thrilled that there’s now a film that people can watch and see Cayuga being spoken. We took great care with the language and I brought a woman down that I was in immersion with, and she taught all of the actors and did language classes with them. On the first day, we handed out lanyards to the whole crew, and we had all of the set calls translated in Cayuga. So “action” and “cut” and “sound speeds” and “moving on,” we had all these words translated and by the third day, everyone on the crew was just using the Cayuga and knew the words fluently.
It’s funny, I recently got a text message from our AD who was working on an overnight shoot on another project and had yelled “moving on” but had done so in Cayuga and I was like, “Please keep doing that.” So the language was an important cornerstone of the film.
CLR: How much of what is on screen reflects this kind of research and immersion, and how much comes from personal experiences of yours, if any?
ET: I think it kind of all blends in to make one big blob. As a person who grew up in northeastern Oklahoma and southwest Missouri in my community, these characters are people that I know and they’re people that I recognize. I had a white dad, and I had grown up in the fear of what that means in terms of at any time could my sister and I be removed from my mother and be removed from our community. I wanted to explore those things in the film with Frank and Nancy, Roki’s grandparents, who kind of represent family members that I had, but it’s not biographical in any nature, just pulling from experiences.
Then for Miciana and I as native women, there’s just a constant understanding of the fear of losing someone in your community, losing someone you know, losing family members to this really horrible epidemic of missing women. I had worked in advocacy with the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center for a few years going into just different reservations around North America, helping them in any way that I could to volunteer. I wouldn’t say that I set out on any sort of research project to put it in this film because it’s just how I grew up and it’s how Michiana grew up. If there was any kind of research done, I guess it might’ve just been around, well, how would law enforcement specifically handle these sorts of things? Because the rest of it, I think, just kind of came out naturally from lived experiences.
Then of course, the language aspect of it was just kind of happening simultaneously. But that’s a good question. I like thinking about how all of it comes together and creates a piece of art. It’s a lot of different things that you’re scooping up and pulling into the center to put together.
CLR: You had worked with Lily Gladstone before, and of course she’s a rising star. I’ve seen her in a number of films where she’s been amazing. I first saw her in Certain Women where she stole the movie. It’s obvious why you cast her, but how about Isabel Deroy-Olson or Shea Wigham? How did you cast them?
ET: Well, Lily was kind of attached from the get-go, and we started our search for Roki very early on. I think the moment we got any money at all, I was like, “Get a casting agent”, which I guess is kind of a little too confident thinking about before we even had all of our producers or financing in place, but we were like, “Let’s find this young woman.” We’d done a really exhaustive search, and I’d watched hundreds of tapes of young indigenous girls and young women and seen some really talented folks, but hadn’t quite found her. Because Lily, like you said, her star power is so large and I knew that we needed someone that wouldn’t just kind of fade into the background of Lily. I was a writer on an AMC series, and we were casting a young pregnant indigenous teen, and I was watching through the tapes, and Isabel came across and she looked too young to play the role that we were casting for that, but I was like, “I need a 13-year-old indigenous teen.”
So I reached out to her team and she read, and it was just immediate. I was like … their faces are somewhat similar. They have these big faces and beautiful curious eyes. I knew that they would get along and we had them do four hours of language and four hours of dance for two weeks of prep leading up to shooting and they loved each other. They just absolutely loved each other. It’s funny because Lily’s working on a TV show in Vancouver right now, and Isabel lives in Vancouver, so they get dinner on the weekends and hang out, and they have a genuine love and care for each other, which I think you can feel on the screen between the two of them.
Then Shea read the script and decided that he was willing to come battle the hot Oklahoma summer. And Audrey Wasilewski, who plays Nancy, I had loved in Big Love and Mad Men and some other things, and they came and spent a week with us on the set, and I was just super appreciative for what they all brought to the project.
CLR: Shea Wigham does a really good job in an unsympathetic part, portraying a conflicted, weak man who wants to do the right thing, but can’t quite do it. I think he’s very good.
ET: We didn’t want the two of them just to be straight villains. It needed to be nuanced.
CLR: Right. That’s never so interesting. So, you premiered at Sundance. What kind of reactions have you had? How has that helped your film since then?
ET: I mean, what a dream to have your first feature premiere at Sundance and then also show here at SXSW. It’s truly been a real confidence-building endeavor with this film, and the response from audiences and the critics and press has been really positive. People seem to really love the film and we’re having lots of conversations around finding an audience and distribution. You make something in the hopes that you find that audience and so I’m just feeling really optimistic. I’m a writer and director on Reservation Dogs, as well, and it just feels like we’re finally getting to tell these stories, we’re getting financing, and the audiences are showing up and we see that people are interested in hearing about native stories and watching these incredible native actors do their thing. I just kind of keep pinching myself, like, “Is this real? Is this really happening?” But I mean, it’s just been wonderful.
CLR: Well, congratulations on that. In the 1990s we had Smoke Signals and that’s when I went to film school and everyone was talking about a new wave of indigenous filmmaking. It seems like it’s taken about 20 to 25 more years, but it does seem like we’re seeing a lot more now.
ET: I hope there’s much more to come.
CLR: Indeed. Thank you.
ET: Thank you!