“Fancy Dance” Producer Heather Rae on Putting Together Erica Tremblay’s Moving New Film

For Heather Rae, it’s all about heart. The award-winning producer of Frozen River, Wind Walkers, and Tallulah, and the director/producer of the acclaimed documentary Trudell, believes her place is at the heart of a production. And just as important, Rae is driven to make films with heart.

Fancy Dance, Rae’s latest film, now streaming on Apple TV+, typifies this. The feature directing debut of Erica Tremblay, Fancy Dance is a touching drama set in Oklahoma’s Seneca–Cayuga Nation. Jax (Lily Gladstone), an Indigenous grifter, takes her teenage niece Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson) under her wing after Roki’s mother, Jax’s sister, goes missing. Defying a custody order, the duo goes on the run to search for her. Roki hopes to find her mother in time for their annual tradition of dancing together at the upcoming powwow.

In a candid Zoom conversation, Rae discusses shooting Fancy Dance, promoting Indigenous films, and protecting the craft of producing.


How did you learn about Fancy Dance?

Erica Trembly was involved in the Indigenous Program at Sundance. I advised fellows for this program during the years Bird Runningwater ran it. He supported the development of Fancy Dance. Erica also made Little Chief, a short that premiered at Sundance and starred Lily Gladstone.

What struck you about the script?

Erica is the kind of filmmaker I’m really drawn to. Her voice absolutely resonated in the way she tells this story. She co-wrote the script with Miciana Alise, another wonderful Indigenous writer. I feel that authentic is a word almost cliché, but there is something about telling a story from the place you are from that is so visceral.

Isabel Deroy-Olson and Lily Gladstone star in “Fancy Dance,” in select theaters June 21 and streaming on Apple TV+ June 28.

Can you tell me how it all came together?

The Sundance Institute’s Shira Rockowitz, who had been supporting Fancy Dance, brought in Tommy Oliver and Confluential Films. lt became the principal financier. Deidre Backs, who had produced Little Chief, approached Nina Yang Bongiovi about working on Fancy Dance. Significant Productions, which is Nina’s and Forest Whitaker‘s company, also provided financing. Nina brought me in.

How was it to film this on location in Oklahoma?

We developed the film with the idea of shooting it in Oklahoma. The Cherokee Nation Film Office has an incentive program to support films shot on Cherokee land. We were one of the first films supported. The Tulsa Office of Film offered grants during the pandemic. It would have been very hard for us to make this film without both. Those were the pieces that brought it all together.

Isabel Deroy-Olson and Lily Gladstone star in “Fancy Dance,” in select theaters June 21 and streaming on Apple TV+ June 28.

Tell me about about the shoot.

Deidre was the lead producer. It was her first feature, and she did an incredible job. The supporting cast and crew were largely Indigenous. Much of our crew came from the show Reservation Dogs. I helped run the show. So often, I feel my role is kind of like a godmother. I’m there to help think things through. I’m a veteran producer, so I’ve got a few tricks in my bag. There were always challenges—lightning all night long during a night shoot.

Isabel Deroy-Olson and Lily Gladstone star in “Fancy Dance,” in select theaters June 21 and streaming on Apple TV+ June 28.

What were your priorities?

The entire producing team was there to protect the process—to support Erica and, for that matter, Miciana in their vision. Erica chose to indigenize the process in special ways. She used her own Cayuga language for all the directions. She had laminates made up with the directing terms she’d call out.

Do you remember any of the words?

I don’t. I do remember that when the first AD arrived, she was moved to tears by it. She had never experienced anything like that. In Hollywood’s golden era, representation of different cultures — in our case, Indigenous culture — was lacking. There was no respect for language. Half the time, they were speaking Spanish.

Lily and Isabel are so impactful.

Lily is a phenom. I was actually an executive producer on Winter in the Blood, one of Lily’s very first movies, and have always been a big fan. Isabelle is an incredible discovery. Erica came across her while casting another project and remembered this girl. It was so beautiful to bring them together and see how uniquely and authentically they connected with one another. They really became auntie and niece.

Lily Gladstone stars in “Fancy Dance,” now streaming on Apple TV+.

What do you hope audiences will take away from Fancy Dance?

Media plays a big role in representation. It’s important to look at the pervasive nature of erasure. Over the course of 130 years of cinema, there’s been a conscious or unconscious erasure of Indigenous people. The organization IllumiNative reports that in American film and television, native people make up only .10%. Native representation is less than 1%. So I think that’s important anytime there is a story told, particularly a contemporary one, that anchors the reality that Indigenous people exist today.


Can you talk about your involvement with Producers United?

Systemic change has always been an important part of my career. Producers United was founded about a year ago to create change at the studios and streamers. We’re addressing the potential extinction of producers because our role has been so challenged recently. 

In what way?

At a certain point, actors, writers, directors, and managers were trying to figure out how to leverage power. Because the credit is not protected, people began reaching for it. Suddenly, everyone is a producer. There’s a running joke of an agent asking, “Well, who’s the producer, producer?” Producers United is about protecting the actual career producer who is doing the work and, by the way, carrying the responsibility.

What are your goals?

Producers United is an effort to create best practices—fair wages, commencement pay during the development period, and health care. People don’t realize that producing is one of the very few roles that’s not unionized and protected.

Switching gears, rumor has it that you’re returning to directing with your feature Pony.

There’s this story I have to tell. I think it is one of the few stories I actually have to tell. Growing up in Central Idaho with a cowboy dad, I went into the backcountry with a cousin of mine. I was 12. She was 16. A forest fire cut us off from behind. We had to keep going deeper into the wilderness. It took us two weeks to get out. This is a great coming-of-age story. And, in my opinion, there’s just not enough girl/horse movies.

You’re developing it with your daughter Johnny (Sequoyah), who will star.

Johnny has been an actress since she was a kid. One of her first roles was in the television series Believe. She had been begging me and her dad (writer/director Russell Freedenberg) to try acting. We said, “Okay, you can go to one audition.” She got the role and played the little girl in the series.

Whose idea was it to join forces?

Johnny is 21 years old now and came to me and said, “I would like to create content as well as act.” This started a conversation about making Pony. I’ve directed three documentaries, but this would be my first time directing fiction.

What’s the status?

We’re exploring the idea. We have a screenwriter. Johnny and I visited my cousin a couple of weeks ago and started pulling up memories. She recalled crossing an ancient, swinging bridge with the Salmon River a thousand feet below. I remembered waking up to a bear over us. It was such a wild experience.

Knowing how kids can be, do you think your daughter will listen to the director?

We have an incredible foundation of mutual respect…so, yeah.




Featured image: Isabel Deroy-Olson and Lily Gladstone in “Fancy Dance.” Courtesy Apple TV+


Chris Koseluk

Chris Koseluk has written for the entertainment industry for publications such as The Hollywood Reporter, Make-up Artist Magazine, Mental Floss, Video Business Magazine, Variety and Premiere. As a partner in Never Dull Productions (neverdullproductions.com), he has produced and directed the documentary Sled Shots about the U.S. Paralympic Sled Hockey team and written video scripts for numerous organizations and clients that include The United Nations, Beyond Meat, Spotify and Causes.com.