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Saturday, July 6, 2024

FILM: Fancy Dance

Fancy Dance | Director Erica Tremblay on writing, community and learning Cayuga

jax and roki ride bikes in fancy dance by erica tremblay

Ahead of its release, we sat down with Fancy Dance director Erica Tremblay to talk about her narrative debut with Lily Gladstone.

Fancy Dance will mean different things to different people.  For a start, no one seems able to describe what genre of film it is.  Since its Sundance debut last year, it’s been described as a road trip movie, a coming-of-age story and a crime drama.  More than those, though, it feels like a window into life on a modern-day Seneca-Cayuga Nation reservation; a snapshot still rarely put on the big screen, let alone one given a profile like Apple have given this one.

Starring Lily Gladstone as tough-as-nails grifter, Jax, and Isabel Deroy-Olson as her niece, Roki, the film starts days after the disappearance of Jax’s sister (and Roki’s mother), Tawi.  Together, they fight child services and Roki’s white grandparents to track Tawi down – and prepare for a dance at the upcoming powwow while they’re at it.

With a profile boosted by Gladstone’s Killers Of The Flower Moon Oscar nomination, the film arrives on Apple TV+ on Friday.  We sat down with its director, Erica Tremblay, to talk Gladstone, building believable characters and making the jump from documentary filmmaking.

Why don’t we begin with how Fancy Dance got started?

Well, Lily Gladstone and I had done a short called Little Chief together that had premiered at Sundance in 2020. And people were really drawn to that film and kept asking me if I was going to do something bigger with that story. I called [Lily] up and said: “If I create a story in the same world with a similar kind of character, would you be interested?” And she said she would.

And, you know, we started developing the project, she read all the versions of the script, and she really helped inform her character along the way.  I was doing a three-year language immersion programme in my ancestral language, Cayuga, at the time, and I was learning family words. I learned that the word for mother is knó:ha, and the word for auntie is knohá:’ah, which means little mother. And that just excited me to tell a story about an aunty and a niece as a kind of mother-daughter story.

Did learning Cayuga at the same time inform what you were writing?

I think the language was one of the things that inspired me to do this film, because currently there aren’t young people that speak the language fluently, or there aren’t very many. And so it was aspirational, in a sense, to see young people speaking the language.

I was studying eight hours a day and then writing at night. So it was certainly an influence, and all the folks – the other seven in my cohort – we’d be driving around at lunch, and I’d be pitching ideas and we’d be talking about it. So it was a very formative time to be creating, yeah.

isabel Deroy Olson
Isabel Deroy-Olson stars as Jax’s niece, Roki (Credit: Apple TV+)

I’d like to talk about Frank, Jax’s father in the film. He’s a much less black and white, Hollywood-style villain than he first appears.

Yeah, you know… That relationship isn’t exactly my relationship with my white dad, but it’s definitely a place in my own personal life that I was able to draw from.  I think when you have one side of your family that’s native and the other side that’s not, there are going to be these areas of cultural divide, and there are gonna be these things that just aren’t understood on either side.

Michiana, my co-writer and I, when we were writing Frank specifically, we didn’t want him to just be a trope: he’s the antagonist, and he’s gonna be a bad guy.  We wanted there to be grey areas, and we wanted the audience to sometimes wonder, “Where should Roki be?”  Frank very much loves his children in the best way that he knows how.  And sometimes that’s very heartbreaking to a child, when their parent loves them like that.  

One line that particularly stood out to me was from Frank’s wife, Nancy. I’m paraphrasing, but it was something like: “We know how important it is for you to stay connected to your culture.” It’s meant in a really lovely way, but it almost assumes that Roki’s native culture is something she’s going to lose by default, that she’ll have to make an effort to stay connected to these traditions.

Nancy really stood in for a lot of relationships that Michiana and I have with non-native folks.  I think Nancy is fine that her adopted grandchild is native, but she kind of only wants Roki to be native in a way that’s comfortable for her. So, when she says, “We want you to remain connected”, she wants her to remain connected so she can talk about this with her friends at the Rotary Club. But not if it starts to push up against things that she holds valuable.

And Nancy provides that feeling of: “I’m certainly not a bad person. And I’m certainly not a racist. And I’m certainly not all these things. But this is really scary, and I’m only going to engage with this in a way that’s safe for me.” And that safe space ends up being oppressive.

“I learned that the word for mother is knó:ha, and the word for auntie is knohá:’ah, which means little mother…”

The film’s been described as so many things, from a road trip to a coming-of-age movie… You said you started with the idea of that aunty-niece relationship, when did the missing person element come in?

Yeah, the idea of an aunty-niece story, that kind of came first. But women and relatives going missing in our communities, and being murdered in our communities is something that’s very prevalent, and it’s something that all native communities handle. This seemed to be a way we could talk about that, but through a central relationship between two people left behind.

Then them being wanted by the authorities gives us an instant antagonistic force, one that’s making the characters move and make choices. And then we’re dealing with the Indian Child Welfare Act, with the forced removal of native children, as well. So there’s all these things that you think existed in the past, but are actually still really actively existing in communities today.

The crime element does provide this really interesting flashpoint, it puts the characters in such a heightened state. How much do you think about what these characters are like in any other week, before Jax’s sister went missing? Because that could almost completely change their personality, how they react to things.

Yeah, I think my muse for a lot of my characters – and for both of the characters that I’ve written for Lily – it’s been my mom. And my mom is an incredibly talented, kind, strong native woman. And the thing is, is that when you’re traversing a world where you’re constantly having to play defence and offence at the same time, you have these walls built up around you. Because the moment that you allow yourself to laugh or the moment that you allow yourself to be goofy, or the moment that you allow yourself to fall in love, or, you know, put in anything that makes you vulnerable in a way that you know, is perhaps different for native folks than some others.

Jax is very loving, and she’s very giving, and she’s extremely passionate about the things that she cares about.  But she can seem gruff, and she can seem distant, and she can seem like she’s not connected, because she has to operate in that way to protect herself.  And I think what’s great about a character like that is that despite her stoic, exterior, we really get to see her go on a journey.  When you write a character, you want to know, well, what was her relationship with this person last week?  Where’s it gonna go in two weeks, and you really want to be able to live in that world.

So you come from a documentary background, and Fancy Dance is your first narrative feature. Were there any habits you had to stop during filming?

What’s funny is that I kind of only ever made documentary films because they were cheaper and you could do it when you had a camera on your arm. And while I was making documentaries, I started to question my ethics as a documentary filmmaker because as I would make docs all I wanted to do was make it up, like, “This isn’t as entertaining as it could be. If they would have said this or done this, it would have been way better story.”

So I think a couple of things that I’ve brought with me are, number one, probably don’t hire me as a documentary filmmaker.  But two, I really do love people’s real lived experiences, but I have to say, I’m better suited making up what happens in the world, rather than documenting what’s happened.

Fancy Dance arrived on Apple TV+ on 28th June.

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